Remember how this was supposed to go?
1. Jabari Smith Jr.
2. Chet Holmgren
3. Paolo Banchero
4. Jaden Ivey
That’s what most mocks were telling you as of early Thursday evening, mere minutes before the 2022 NBA Draft got underway. Despite the fact that — as we previously laid out— the debate over who should go No. 1 was as compelling as we’d seen in years. That concept wound up proving true. Somehow.
Orlando, what have you done?
Made claim to one of the boldest 11th hour, 59th minute gambits in NBA Draft history, that’s what.
Ever since the night of the lottery, May 17, it seemed all the momentum was behind the idea that the Magic were going to go with convention and take Smith at No. 1. Oklahoma City was correspondingly rumored from the jump to be enamored with Holmgren. That, naturally, would leave Houston with the obvious choice of taking who was left of the big three — selecting Banchero third.
The Kings, who are undergoing the worst playoff drought of any pro sports franchise, surely would have to take the best player available at No. 4, right? Ivey. It would have to be him.
Then the betting markets went wild earlier in the week. Banchero moved from +1400 all the way to +175 (still behind Smith) to go No. 1. Subsequent reporting tried to extinguish that rumor.
Then, shortly before 8 p.m. ET on Thursday night, it all got blown to shreds. Chaos. The forecast was not reality. This is reality.
Smith — somehow! — goes third to the Rockets.
Keegan Murray — hello! —.
And then Ivey, who may well prove to be the best player in this draft 10 years from now, Ivey fell into the lap of the Detroit Pistons.
In what could prove to be one of the most talented drafts in recent history, Orlando and Sacramento — two franchises that have been bad seemingly for generations — subverted expectations and gave us mayhem. Because of the high profiles of each of the top three picks, and the abnormal three-way-race feel this year’s draft had, this was always destined to be a draft that would have us looking back and comparing which teams made the right call and which didn’t.
But now? The stakes seem raised.
Think about it this way: Smith was the favorite for months, including for the majority of the day of the draft, to go No. 1. He wound up falling to No. 3. Has this ever happened in the history of the draft? A player projected by experts and in betting markets to be the first pick not only doesn’t go first, but gets passed for second?
Thursday night felt historic in immediate ways but also in intangible ones, which is to say the fallout from these decisions seem destined to ripple among these five teams for the remainder of the 2020s.
Consider the franchises that flipped this draft on its head. Orlando won a series in the playoffs in 2010; Sacramento hasn’t been there since 2006. Go look at every NBA Draft in history. Never once have the top five picks, or even the top three picks, turned out to be the best players in their class. Will the Banchero and Murray picks prove to be savvy, or will those decisions backfire on the two notoriously underperforming franchises that made them?
I have no issue with what the Magic did. I find it entertaining and kind of incredible how that front office successfully duped the entire league into thinking it was taking Smith. But I’ve been on record for weeks that Banchero. He can be the player to change the fortunes and future of a franchise desperately in need of it. He has star power and palpable All-Star potential.
The beautiful commotion of all of this is: we don’t know. Will it be Banchero who’s best? Did Orlando just change the trajectory of its franchise for the better for the next 10 years, or is it doomed to have passed on two other genre-shifting big men who could prove them to look foolish? And don’t think Oklahoma City is off the hook for having gone second. Are the Thunder going to wind up looking bad five years from now? When Banchero was off the board, Smith was sitting there for the taking. Many draftniks and NBA scouts comfortably ranked Smith ahead of Holmgren. But as most expected, OKC general manager Sam Presti stuck to his heart and took the Player Unlike Any Other.
That leaves Houston in the best spot of any team in the top five. There’s a reasonable chance the best player in this draft fell to them at No. 3.
If Smith hits huge and becomes the best player, it’s not unreasonable we could look up in 2027 and see the Rockets competing for NBA Finals appearances while the Thunder and Magic are still picking in the lottery. This was one of the more intriguing lead-ups into a draft in some time. It managed to exceed expectations.
That in mind, it’s been a long time since the top of an NBA Draft felt this consequential. And that’s before we even get to the Kings’ decision to not take the prospect that was near-universally labeled as the fourth-best (at worst) on the board, Ivey. The Purdue dynamo had no desire to go there, and that ploy wound up working out perfectly for Ivey and Detroit. You can make the argument, easily, that with De’Aaron Fox and Davion Mitchell, the fit would have been tough with those two and Ivey in Sacramento. But this is the Kings. And it’s not hard to envision the Pistons downright thriving with Cade Cunningham and Ivey, while the Kings continue to … be the Kings.
You need a player who can be a superstar — who can pull you out of NBA purgatory. The Kings, in picking Keegan Murray, are telling the league they think he is more likely to do that than Ivey. Few others would agree.
And now the Pistons, in combination with bringing in 13th overall pick Jalen Duren, seem to be assembling one of the most exciting young rosters in the league.
Expectations and presumptions were thwarted on Thursday night in the most dramatic manner possible. There’s virtually no chance Banchero, Holmgren, Smith, Murray and Ivey will wind up as the five best players in this draft. The top five picks going on to be the five best guys, well that has never happened. Ever. At least one team — probably two and maybe even three — miscalculated and made mistakes tonight.
The Magic have seldom been relevant over the past decade. But in their biggest moment in a generation on Thursday night, they twisted the future of the entire NBA — and fooled the rest of the league in doing so. Now all that Banchero has to do is live up to the expectations of Shaquille O’Neal and Dwight Howard, the two former No. 1 overall picks as big men who guided the Magic to NBA Finals appearances.
In a draft as stacked and debated as this one, anything less will be a failure.