Magic Expect to Land Difference Maker With Sixth Pick

by John Denton

CHICAGO - In today’s NBA, analytics-driven thinking rules many of the machinations of the league much the way the dynastic Golden State Warriors have for four seasons. Rarely is a decision made – be it offensive shot selections or defensive schemes, lineup combinations or offseason additions – without them being precisely planned, dissected and/or analyzed from every imaginable angle.

Then, there’s the NBA Draft Lottery, this whimsical, fickle and downright zany process that can dictate the fate of a basketball franchise for generations. In a sport that is becoming increasingly controlled by analytics and process-driven thinking, the lottery flies in the face of all conventional wisdom with its odd randomness, using ping-pong balls instead of basketballs to shape the future of franchises. Despite all that, the impact and importance of the Lottery can’t be denied to teams looking to get good in a hurry with the top-tier talent that usually comes out of the early portion of the NBA Draft.

``Maybe we need to take a look at the analytics of the ping-pong balls,’’ Orlando Magic President of Basketball Operations Jeff Weltman said jokingly.

Weltman’s Magic suffered through the cruel nature that the NBA Lottery can sometimes produce on Tuesday night when Orlando emerged with the sixth pick – one spot lower than it came into the night with after posting the NBA’s fifth-worst record (25-57). Frustratingly, it’s the fourth time in the past six lotteries that the Magic have fallen back from their statistical positioning entering the process.

ESPN.com reported on Wednesday that in the actual NBA-supervised drawing for the top overall spot, Orlando – along with Cleveland and Sacramento – nailed the first three numbers of the four-digit combination (6, 9 and 12) only to lose out to the Phoenix Suns when a `1’ was the final numbered ping-pong ball to pop up in the hopper.

Such is luck in the lotto when it’s ping-pong balls instead of bouncing basketballs deciding the outcome.

``The great thing about the lottery is it makes all of us into fans,’’ said Weltman, who along with several other Magic staffers started interviewing potential draft-pick targets on Wednesday in Chicago. ``There’s no strategy, no coaching, no expertise. We’re all just holding hands with Magic fans everywhere hoping for the best. You’re obviously wishing for those balls to bounce your way, but as I’ve said, this is a very good draft and we’ll come away with a good player.’’

Other teams, such as the Memphis Grizzlies and the Dallas Mavericks, suffered similar fates as the Magic, falling two spots from their statistical projections and will draft fourth and fifth, respectively, just ahead of Orlando.

Then, there’s the cases of the Kings and the Atlanta Hawks. Sacramento, which won 27 games this past season, lost a tiebreaker with Chicago for the sixth-best odds, but ultimately rose up from seventh to second. It’s the second straight year that the Kings won more regular-season games than the Magic, but still jumped them in the draft.

Similarly, the Hawks lost a pre-lottery tiebreaker with the Mavericks and came into Tuesday with the night’s fourth-best odds. As it turns out, losing the tiebreaker was stroke of luck as Atlanta climbed to the No. 3 draft position.

Orlando could have potentially been in that tiebreaker with Dallas and Atlanta had it not won its regular-season finale against the Washington Wizards. Conversely, if the Magic had simply won more – say, just twice more in the 82-game season – they would have been in the tiebreaker with the Bulls and Kings and might have been the team zipping up to the second overall pick.

Weltman, GM John Hammond and other front-office staffers with the Magic interviewed roughly a dozen college standouts on Wednesday in an attempt to learn more about the athletes who could be available to the franchise with the No. 6 pick. Top talents such as Arizona center DeAndre Ayton, Michigan State center Jaren Jackson Jr., Duke power forward Marvin Bagley III, Texas shot-blocker Mohamed Bamba, Duke center Wendell Carter, Oklahoma point guard Trae Young, Alabama point guard Collin Sexton and Michigan State forward Miles Bridges attended the lottery on Tuesday and were still in Chicago on Wednesday to begin interviewing with teams possessing picks in the top half of the June 21 NBA Draft.

Soon, Weltman said, the Magic will begin the process of scheduling Orlando visits for many of those players so that the team can put them through individual workouts and learn more about their personalities. Weltman, who guided the Magic in landing promising forward Jonathan Isaac with the No. 6 pick last year, lent some insight into his philosophy in drafting just outside the top five for a second straight season.

``The draft is the time when you always want to have the best available player because you just don’t get a crack at this level of player this often where you are picking this high,’’ Weltman said. ``Obviously, we’ll put all of that in because there are a lot of different things to factor in and maybe (best player available) is a tiebreaker factor. But the general rule of thumb for most NBA teams is you pick the guy you think will be the best player.’’

Weltman said there should still be plenty of difference-making players available when the Magic pick at No. 6 because of the depth and variety in the upcoming draft class. It is a player grouping that Weltman has watched grow and develop from afar for years and he is confident that despite the bit of bad lottery luck on Tuesday, the Magic can still find a stellar young building block from the No. 6 draft position.

``I wouldn’t say disappointment; the odds coming in were that we’d likely go from five to six – that was the greatest likelihood,’’ Weltman said. ``Obviously, we hoped for the best and wanted to come out with a top-three pick, but you just take the results and now it’s time to go to work.

``I think this is a draft and a class that the league has been eye-balling for a while now,’’ Weltman added. ``To be picking in the top six in this draft, I think that bodes well for us.’’

Note: The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Orlando Magic. All opinions expressed by John Denton are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Orlando Magic or their Basketball Operations staff, partners or sponsors.