NEW YORK — Zion Williamson plays with force and ferocity, a Hulk in hightops who looks as though he’d never show a soft side.
Draft night proved otherwise.
Williamson was the No. 1 pick of the New Orleans Pelicans in the 2019 NBA Draft — a surprise to nobody who watched basketball this past season. But afterward he couldn’t hide his emotions, even though he along with everyone else knew what would happen Thursday night.
“Because I love the game of basketball,” he said. “You can hear people say things like, ‘Oh, that it was likely I was going to go No. 1.’ But I guess you don’t know until you actually go through it. Hearing my name called and I was able to make it on stage without a tear, shake the commissioner’s hand, but in the interview my mom was standing beside me, and my emotions just took over.”
There might be tears of joy in New Orleans, too, after the Pelicans were able to get the Duke powerhouse who is considered one of the most exciting prospects in years.
The 6-foot-7, 285-pounder compiled a college career worth of highlights into just one season, becoming the third freshman to be voted player of the year by The Associated Press.
His assault on the rims made him a favorite of college basketball fans, but his game is more than just dunks. Williamson averaged 22.6 points and 8.9 rebounds while shooting 68% from the field.
Wearing a white suit, he hugged members of his family and NBA Commissioner Adam Silver after his name was called first at Barclays Center.
Williamson will step into an open position in New Orleans, which recently agreed to trade All-Star Anthony Davis, the last freshman to win the AP award, to the Los Angeles Lakers.
“I’m going to do anything to win. I’m just going to do anything to win,” Williamson said.
The Memphis Grizzlies also quickly addressed a positional need by taking Murray State’s Ja Morant with the No. 2 pick. The Grizzlies agreed to trade Mike Conley, their longtime point guard, to Utah a day earlier.
They got a good replacement in Morant, who led Division I with 10 assists per game as a sophomore while averaging 24.5 points.
“I have some big shoes to fill in Mike Conley,” Morant said. “He’s a great player. I wish him the best. Like I said before, it just means the Grizzlies see a lot in me.”
RJ Barrett then made it two Duke freshmen within the top-three picks when the New York Knicks took the guard who actually edged out Williamson to lead the Atlantic Coast Conference in scoring. Knicks fans hoped they would get Williamson after finishing with the worst record in the league but seemed happy to end up with Barrett, loudly cheering and chanting “RJ! RJ!” when the pick was announced.
“That was great,” Barrett said. “I’m glad that the city wants me here as much as I want to be here.”
De’Andre Hunter of national champion Virginia was taken fourth but won’t be teaming up with Williamson. The Pelicans acquired the rights to the pick in the Davis deal but agreed to trade it shortly before the draft to Atlanta. The original trade can’t be official until July 6, so Hunter was outfitted with a Lakers hit and the draft board behind the stage listed the pick as belonging to the Lakers.
The Cleveland Cavaliers then took Vanderbilt guard Darius Garland, who played in just five games because of a knee injury.
Then it was another pick who won’t be playing for the team that made it, with Jarrett Culver taken at No. 6 by Phoenix with a pick that the Suns agreed to trade to Minnesota for the No. 11 pick.
That turned out to be Cameron Johnson, the second North Carolina player to be drafted after Chicago took Coby White at No. 7.
Kentucky then had two straight picks, with PJ Washington going 12th to Charlotte and Tyler Herro 13th to Miami.
Duke did even better by placing three in the top 10. Cam Reddish went 10th to the Hawks, making the Blue Devils the only team to pull off that feat since Florida placed Al Horford third, Corey Brewer seventh and Joakim Noah ninth after winning the 2007 national championship.
The trades caused some confusion in Barclays Center beyond just players wearing hats of teams whose uniforms they won’t wear. A brief “Brooklyn! Brooklyn!” chant broke out when the Nets were on the clock at No. 17, but the Nets had already agreed to deal that pick to Atlanta in yet another trade that won’t become official until July 6.
Nickeil Alexander-Walker, Brandon Clarke and Mfiondu Kabengele followed Barrett into the NBA, giving Canada its best showing with four first-round picks. The overall record for draft picks from outside the U.S. was set when France had five players selected in 2016.