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A decade of No. 1 picks: The good, bad and ugly

Leo Willingham, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on

Published in Basketball

ATLANTA — With the first pick in the 2024 NBA draft, the Atlanta Hawks select …

If the Hawks make the selection that will kick off the draft June 26 in Brooklyn (GM Landry Fields said it’s likely, but the team will continue to look “at the whole picture”), will commissioner Adam Silver announce a player who:

— Will make an immediate impact on the franchise — on and off the court?

— Could develop into the face of the franchise in a few years?

— Fails to live up to the hype but has a solid NBA career.

— Fits like a square peg in a round hole and eventually gets traded.

Over the past 10 drafts, the selectees have fallen into one of the categories. And if you go back to the 11th draft (in 2013), the first pick — Anthony Bennett of UNLV — was out of the league after four seasons.

Deciding the right player for your franchise can be a daunting task, and it’s almost as difficult to forecast as it was for the Hawks and their 3% chance to win the lottery ending up with the top pick.

Clearly not as easy as last year, when Victor Wembanyama of France was the clear-cut top prospect — and was welcomed to San Antonio on a billboard before Silver announced his name as the Spurs’ official pick. He had an immediate impact on the team as the leading scorer and rebounder and his visibility increased as the season progressed — the next time on a horizontal Louis Vuitton billboard benefitting a player who’s 7-feet-5 inches and has an 8-foot wingspan.

Will Zach Risacher or Alexandre Sarr — a pair of big men from France who the Hawks are considering drafting No. 1 — have an immediate impact like their countryman Wembanyama? Or could their Atlanta journey develop along the lines of Atlanta native Anthony Edwards, the top pick in the COVID-delayed 2020 draft?

When Silver announced Minnesota’s selection of the No. 1 pick, he congratulated the former Georgia star virtually as he was surrounded by family and friends in Atlanta — and the commissioner conducting the draft from the studios of ESPN in Connecticut. In four seasons, Edwards has become one of the league’s best players — and his personality has helped him gain national notoriety.

He’s a two-time All-Star whose explosive dunks have become must-see content on the internet. The Ant Man won’t turn 23 until Aug. 5, but he already signed a contract extension that will pay him $42.3 million next season.

In Minnesota, Edwards provided a boost to the state’s tourism agency thanks to a three-word response during a nationally televised interview with Charles Barkley of TNT. Minutes after eliminating Denver in the conference semifinals, Edwards went live with the NBA on TNT crew and Barkley mentioned it had been 20 years since he had been to Minnesota — which hosted Game 1 of the Western Conference finals.

 

Edwards response, “Bring ya a--.”

Explore Minnesota quickly capitalized by making it the agency’s new slogan (there’s a section on the website with 10 reasons to bring ya a-- to Minnesota) and the phrase immediately began appearing on vehicles and billboards.

Edwards’ emergence combined with the solid play of Karl-Anthony Towns, the top pick in the 2015 draft, helped the Timberwolves reach the aforementioned Western Conference finals for the first time in 20 years (or Barkley’s last appearance in the North Star State). Towns averaged a team-high 24.7 points in Edwards’ first two seasons and 21.4 in the last two with Edwards taking the leading role.

Towns’ salary for next season — $49.245 million. Guaranteed.

Zion Williamson was the top pick by the New Orleans Pelicans in the 2019 draft (announced by Silver in New York) and has fallen short of the overwhelming expectations attached to his arrival after one season at Duke. He has missed an entire season with an injury and played in only 29 games in another.

But when he’s on the court, he’s lived up to the hype — averaging 22.9 points with six rebounds and five assists last season. And he’s slated to earn more than $160 million over the next four years.

Cade Cunningham has averaged 20 points per game in three seasons with Detroit, which selected him No. 1 in 2021, and Paolo Banchero has averaged 21.3 points in two seasons after Orlando picked him first overall in 2022. Four of the last 10 overall No. 1s are no longer with team announced by Silver on draft night:

— Andrew Wiggins, Cleveland, 2014: Rookie of the year for the 2014-15 season, won a championship with the Golden State Warriors in 2022.

— Ben Simmons, Philadelphia, 2016: Missed entire rookie season with injury, didn’t play in 2021-22 because of holdout/back injury. Played 57 games with Brooklyn the past two seasons.

— Markelle Fultz, Philadelphia, 2017: Played 33 games in two seasons with Sixers before being traded to Orlando.

— Deandre Ayton, Phoenix, 2018: Traded after five seasons, played the 2023-24 season with Portland.


©2024 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Visit at ajc.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

 

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