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2019 NBA Draft

High on Zion: Alvin Gentry, Pelicans go from ‘tough year’ to ‘our moment’

The Big Easy is smiling easy after New Orleans won the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft


CHICAGO — New Orleans Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry walked into the NBA draft lottery room with only a 6% chance of winning the No. 1 pick. Still, he was the first to arrive in the room. He had a paper in his hands. Written on it were the words “THIS IS OUR MOMENT!” And, boy, was it ever for the Pelicans, who on Tuesday night won the lottery and the right to select Duke sensation Zion Williamson.

“Me and ‘Griff’ [executive vice president of basketball operations David Griffin] talked about this a lot, and I started feeling good about it,” Gentry said. “So when they started calling out the numbers, we obviously got this seed sheet and I am trying to look through it and find out our numbers. I find the first number, then the second number and then the third, and I’m like, ‘Oh, s—.’

“The fourth one comes up, I try to look at all our combinations, and then they said, ‘The winner is the New Orleans Pelicans.’ And I said, ‘F— yeah!’ And then I said, ‘Excuse me, I’m sorry.’ ”

He had nothing to apologize for, of course. Gentry and the Pelicans deserved great news after their roller-coaster season, in which:

  • They lost DeMarcus Cousins in free agency after the All-Star center signed with the Golden State Warriors.
  • Anthony Davis requested a trade in January and wore a T-shirt that read “That’s All Folks!” at the regular-season finale.
  • They went from being a second-round playoff team a year ago to having a 33-49 record.
  • Longtime Pelicans general manager Dell Demps was fired.
  • Gentry endured questions about his job security despite the ever-changing roster, poor personnel moves and drama.
  • Pelicans owner Gayle Benson called Davis’ trade request “disappointing” and the team’s play “frustrating” during a 20-minute address at Loyola University’s graduation ceremony at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on May 11 while offering very few words of wisdom to the graduates themselves.

Tuesday night changed everything.

“I’ve had a tough year,” Gentry said. “But this is my 32nd year in the league. I just thought, Hey, I’m really happy for the fans in New Orleans. I really am. They need something like this. This is like the Drew Brees moment. It’s like when A.D. came.”

Griffin, the new Pelicans executive vice president of basketball operations, sat on the draft lottery stage with a good luck angel charm from a Pels fan named Connie. Griffin was the general manager of the Cleveland Cavaliers when LeBron James led the franchise to their first title in 2016 and does not seem eager to trade Davis, who averaged 25.9 points, 12 rebounds and 3.9 assists per game last season. Griffin is also very familiar with Davis’ agent, Rich Paul, who represents James.

David Griffin of the New Orleans Pelicans holds the card for the No. 1 overall pick at the 2019 NBA draft lottery Tuesday at the Chicago Hilton in Illinois. “I hope we build something that attracts elite players,” Griffin said.

Jeff Haynes/NBAE via Getty Images

Since being hired on April 15, Griffin has added one of sports’ most respected athletic trainers in Aaron Nelson as vice president of player care and performance and is renovating the practice facility. Griffin is hoping he can convince Davis that he can succeed in New Orleans.

What Davis feels remains unknown. But with Griffin and Williamson now on board, and former All-Star guard Jrue Holiday still around, the Pelicans are moving in the right direction.

But while the Pelicans would love to have Davis around and extend his contract, they also don’t appear willing to beg him to stay either. Still, the new Pelicans regime would need a truly elite offer from a team to pry him away.

“Guys, the one thing you got to understand is [Davis] is still on our roster,” Gentry said. “He is on our roster. All of that will take care of itself. I’m not worried about it. I know Griff has some plans to talk to him and it will be fine.”

Said Griffin, who hugged Gentry after the lottery: “I hope we build something that attracts elite players. I want it to be something that people want to be part of. Maybe this jump-starts the process. Elite talent likes to play with elite talent.”

The final four in the draft lottery were the Pelicans, Los Angeles Lakers, New York Knicks and Memphis Grizzlies. A source told The Undefeated that Williamson, the consensus 2019 Naismith College Player of the Year, was hoping to land with the Knicks. He was whisked out of the draft lottery conference room after the Pelicans were announced the winner.

NBA draft prospect Zion Williamson poses for a portrait during the 2019 draft lottery on May 14 at the Chicago Hilton.

David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images

The 2019 NBA draft lottery was a big win for small-market teams, as the Pelicans and Grizzlies left as the biggest winners while the Knicks and Lakers were left wondering about what could have been.

After the lottery, Gentry also hugged Grizzlies director of player support Elliot Perry, who told The Undefeated he got more than 50 text messages after Memphis landed the No. 2 pick. Perhaps the rebuilding Grizzlies can now trade veteran point guard Mike Conley with the expected addition of Ja Morant, who averaged 24.5 points, 10 assists and 5.7 rebounds for Murray State last season.

“I love the way he plays,” Perry said of Morant. “I will leave the selecting up to the guys that make the pick. But if you look at the way he played, with a lot of excitement, passion and toughness, that is what we need. You pair him with J.J. [Jaren Jackson] and you got two young guys with our franchise that we can build around.”

Morant told The Undefeated he didn’t really have any emotions as far as potentially landing with Memphis at No. 2.

“I really was just excited to see it all play out with how it went,” Morant said. “I’m not disappointed. They still got the same player that is still going to go in and work like I’ve been doing.”

On this night, of course, the real excitement belonged to the Pelicans. Before a still-smiling Gentry departed, he took one final picture with Griffin. Gentry held up a card with the No. 1 on it, while Griffin held the card featuring the Pelicans logo.

Regardless of whether Davis stays or goes, there is finally reason to smile easy in The Big Easy. Zion is coming to Bourbon Street.

Marc J. Spears is the senior NBA writer for Andscape. He used to be able to dunk on you, but he hasn’t been able to in years and his knees still hurt.