CHICAGO — Ahead of this year’s NBA draft lottery, the New Orleans Pelicans held a contest for a season-ticket holder to submit a lucky charm to wish the team success.
The winner, Connie Halphen, gave Pelicans executive vice president of basketball operations David Griffin a 56-year-old wooden angel.
It turned out to be exactly what the Pelicans needed.
New Orleans leapt up from the seventh spot to the top of this year’s draft Tuesday night, earning the right to take Zion Williamson in next month’s NBA Draft. The Pelicans had just a 6 percent chance to win the lottery.
“Connie had a good luck charm and it happened to be an angel,” Griffin said. “It was fitting.”
New Orleans winning the lottery capped a wild night that saw three teams — the Pelicans, Memphis Grizzlies and Los Angeles Lakers — leap far up the order, throwing chaos into one of the most anticipated drafts in recent memory.
The first shock was when the Lakers were revealed to have jumped up from the 11th spot — a moment that drew gasps from the crowd inside the Chicago Hilton ballroom. A similar reaction occurred when the Washington Wizards were revealed to have the ninth pick — meaning the Grizzlies and Pelicans had jumped up.
“I wasn’t good enough at math to realize when the Washington Wizards came up ninth,” Griffin said with a smile. “It’s an incredible blessing for our organization.”
The next piece of drama came when the fifth selection was waiting to be unveiled. After a moment, NBA deputy commissioner Mark Tatum revealed that the Cleveland Cavaliers would have the fifth pick — meaning the New York Knicks, who had the worst record last season, had jumped up into the top four.
“I just sat back and hoped it was going to be No. 1,” said Patrick Ewing, the team’s last No. 1 pick, 34 years ago, and who was representing the Knicks on the dais here.
It wasn’t to be, though, as the Lakers would get the fourth pick and the Knicks the third. The winner wound then come down to either the Grizzlies or Pelicans — two teams that had tied, along with the Dallas Mavericks, for the seventh-best odds.
The Pelicans got the benefit of the pingpong balls bouncing their way last month to receive the seventh lottery spot. They then got them to bounce the right way again Tuesday in winning the chance to select Williamson.
“I don’t want to focus on individual players,” Griffin said with a smile, shortly after being mobbed by New Orleans coach Alvin Gentry, “but I think it’s really good at the top.”
Williamson told ESPN’s Maria Taylor he has never been to New Orleans, but he said he will bring his “will to win” to whichever team ends up drafting him.
“I don’t know why, I’m just still nervous,” Williamson said. “Maybe because … all eyes were on me. And I think it’s a lot to take in, ’cause I don’t know where I’m gonna be.”
This year marked the first time since 2005 that the NBA’s lottery system underwent any changes. Under the prior system, having the worst record in the NBA meant having a 25 percent chance of winning the top pick, with each subsequent pick down to the final spot in the lottery — the 14th selection — having a lesser chance of winning. The league would draw for each of the top three spots in the lottery.
Starting this year, however, the teams with the three worst records had the exact same chance — 14 percent — of winning the lottery, followed by a much more gradual change in the percentages of jumping up. In addition, the NBA boosted the number of lottery spots available for the drawing from three to four.
The changes came in response to the league seeing an issue with teams tanking for top selections in the draft — and after the team with the worst record had won the lottery in each of the past four seasons.
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