NEW YORK -- Welcome to the NBA, Zion Williamson.
The superstar forward out of Duke was selected No. 1 overall by the Pelicans in Thursday night's NBA draft at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, confirming what had been inevitable once New Orleans won the draft lottery last month.
Williamson, a generational talent because of his combination of size, strength, speed and skill, was the dominant force in college basketball last season. As a freshman, he averaged 22.6 points, 8.9 rebounds, 2.1 steals and 1.8 blocks, all while shooting 68% from the field as he wowed with one spectacular highlight play after another en route to being named the Wooden Award winner as the nation's top player.
"I don't think it's feelings I can really describe," Williamson said. "You know, as a little kid you say you want to go to the NBA. People basically say, you've got to have a Plan B because the chances of doing it is just little to none. For me to be selected No. 1, I mean, I can't dream it no better than that."
Williamson immediately steps in as the centerpiece for a new-look Pelicans team that agreed to trade star big man Anthony Davis to the Los Angeles Lakers last week. Williamson said he was excited about the challenge of turning things around in the Big Easy, and of partnering with Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram, two of the players who will come in the Davis trade.
"What excites me the most is the fact that they're young and they're close to my age so they can help me a lot more, like how to deal with this transition," Williamson said. "I think we can build something over there."
Like Williamson, the second and third picks also went according to plan. Murray State point guard Ja Morant went second to the Memphis Grizzlies, and Williamson's teammate at Duke, swingman RJ Barrett, went third to the New York Knicks.
Morant, an explosive athlete with a solid 3-point shooting stroke, led the Racers to the second round of the NCAA tournament, averaging 24.5 points and 10.0 assists while going from a mid-first-round pick before the season began to the clear No. 2 prospect entering draft night, according to ESPN's Jonathan Givony and Mike Schmitz.
Morant steps in to a Grizzlies team that on Tuesday agreed to trade point guard stalwart Mike Conley to the Utah Jazz for forwards Jae Crowder and Kyle Korver, the No. 23 pick Thursday night and a protected future first-round pick. Memphis later used that No. 23 pick to trade up to No. 21 and select Gonzaga's Brandon Clarke.
"It's been crazy," Morant said. "Obviously a wild moment for me, coming from my story, what I've been through to get to this point. I'm just very excited to be able to accomplish my dream."
Barrett, meanwhile, had been hoping to join the Knicks all along. Barrett's mother, who is from Brooklyn, met his father, Rowan, while she was a track star and he was a basketball star at St. John's in Queens.
"It would mean a lot," Barrett, who was born in Canada, said Wednesday of getting the chance to play for the Knicks. "My late grandfather, rest in peace, he was the biggest Knicks fan. He'd always tell me I'd play for the Knicks. It would mean a lot to me."
When he got his wish, the crowd at Barclays Center exploded in cheers, and Barrett -- resplendent in a pink suit and black shirt -- walked onto the stage as the crowd chanted his name. Barrett cried into his father's shoulder after his selection.
"That was crazy. That was one of the reasons why I was crying, because [my grandfather and I] used to watch the Knicks growing up and he would always tell me I was going to be a Knick," Barrett said. "I'm sad he can't be here to see it. But I'm just very happy, man."
The presumptive No. 1 pick entering the college basketball season, Barrett's star was surpassed by the comet that is Williamson. Still, the 6-foot-7 forward was seen as a part of the three-player tier considered a cut above the rest of the draft prospects after averaging 22.6 points, 7.6 rebounds and 4.3 assists at Duke last season.
Now he'll get a chance to prove he's up to the challenge he wanted to take on: reviving the Knicks, who had the league's worst record in 2018-19.
The real excitement at the draft began with the No. 4 pick, which still technically belonged to the Los Angeles Lakers but has been traded twice in the past week. First, it was sent to the Pelicans on Saturday as part of the Lakers' package for Davis. Then, a couple of hours before the draft began, it changed hands again, going to the Atlanta Hawks in exchange for the Nos. 8 (Texas center Jaxson Hayes), 17 (Virginia Tech guard Nickeil Alexander-Walker) and 35 (Brazilian guard Didi) picks in this year's draft, plus a protected first-rounder from Cleveland next year.
Atlanta made that move to take Virginia forward De'Andre Hunter -- and that's precisely what the Hawks did (via the Lakers) adding the rangy forward to an intriguing young core that includes Trae Young, Kevin Huerter and John Collins.
Zion: Going No. 1 in the draft 'didn't feel real'
Zion Williamson expresses his thoughts on being selected No. 1 overall by the Pelicans.
Hunter, who was named the ACC Defensive Player of the Year last season, will shore up an Atlanta team that struggled on defense last season, posting the fourth-worst defensive efficiency in the league. No player under contract with the Hawks for next season ranked in the top 150 in ESPN's defensive plus-minus this past season.
The move marks the second year in a row that Atlanta general manager Travis Schlenk has made a big move in the lottery. Last year, it was to trade down two spots to select Young, while also acquiring the No. 10 pick in this year's draft -- which turned out to be forward Cam Reddish from Duke.
"I didn't know they were going to trade up to the fourth pick," Hunter said. "I know they were trying to do something to get earlier in the draft. I mean, it was just a decision between me and my agents. Atlanta was the one place I did work out for."
With Hunter off the board, that left the Cleveland Cavaliers with the chance to take Vanderbilt point guard Darius Garland with the fifth pick. Despite being in the middle of lots of trade discussions leading up to the selection, the Cavaliers wound up hanging onto it and taking Garland, an intriguing prospect who played only five games for the Commodores last season before suffering a season-ending knee injury. Those five games are the second fewest by a college player drafted in the top 10 since the one-and-done era began in 2006.
That put the Minnesota Timberwolves on the clock, after they had traded forward Dario Saric and the No. 11 pick (North Carolina guard Cam Johnson) to Phoenix to move up five slots to No. 6. With the pick, Minnesota (via Phoenix) took Texas Tech forward Jarrett Culver, who entered the draft fresh off leading the Red Raiders to within a few bounces of winning this year's national championship.
Culver's selection cleared the way for the Chicago Bulls, picking seventh, to fill a need at point guard by taking North Carolina's Coby White, who could immediately step into the team's starting spot as a rookie next season.
From there, New Orleans took Hayes (via Atlanta) -- giving the Pelicans another athletic, young big to pair with Williamson -- before the Washington Wizards selected Japanese forward Rui Hachimura from Gonzaga ninth and the Hawks, with their second pick in the top 10, took Reddish, the third player of the night from Duke.
The only other time since 1966, the common draft era, that one school has had three players selected in the top 10 was in 2007, when Al Horford (third), Corey Brewer (seventh) and Joakim Noah (ninth) all were selected out of Florida.
Johnson's surprise selection at No. 11 gave the ACC a record with six lottery picks from a single conference. Johnson, 23, is older than his future teammate Devin Booker, who is set to enter his fifth NBA season and is still just 22.
Rounding out the lottery, the Charlotte Hornets and Miami Heat took back-to-back Kentucky Wildcats at Nos. 12 and 13 -- forward PJ Washington and guard Tyler Herro -- and the Boston Celtics grabbed Indiana swingman Romeo Langford at No. 14.