The most memorable image of the 2019 NBA Draft actually came a month before, the night the New Orleans Pelicans won the lottery for the right to the first overall selection.
When that bit of fortune was revealed (New Orleans only had a 6% chance of winning), a camera was pointed at the team’s ticket office, which then erupted into a level of delirium similar to winning the actual NBA championship.
You couldn’t blame them. Zion Williamson was becoming a Pelican, and if nothing else, selling tickets was becoming a pretty easy job. Championships were expected to follow.
The Memphis Grizzlies technically lost the last spin of the lottery balls — they ended up with the No. 2 pick. However, there was no disappointment expressed. Second, it meant the chance to grab Ja Morant, a high-flying sensation fresh off an electric NCAA Tournament run with Murray State.
“I’ve always told people you have to be both lucky and smart,” Grizzlies president Jason Wexler said at the time. “… We have a bit of luck tonight.”
Zion and Yes. Yes and Zion.
Two South Carolina kids and former AAU teammates came to the NBA with their own unique blend of power, athleticism and flair. The league was excited about the addition of young talent, the kind that could fill highlights and social media feeds with breathtaking plays.
Four years on, there have been those flashes of brilliance and jump-out-of-your-seat moments, but there have also been injuries and suspensions, controversies and questions.
Four years later – just as the NBA is about to hold another draft with perhaps another new wave of generational talent that will fuel anticipation and celebration – Zion and Ja are at a crossroads, and absolutely no one knows where or how it will end .
One is the subject of health concerns and trade rumors. The other is suspended. Again.
So quickly it can be undone.
Thursday in New York will focus on Victor Wembanyama, the 7-foot-4 Frenchman who plays the game as perhaps no other human ever has. He goes to San Antonio. Then comes Scoot Henderson, a slashing guard, or maybe Brandon Miller, a smooth and lanky outside shooter. They will likely go to Charlotte and Portland in some order.
Four years ago, it was New Orleans that shut down Fulton Street Square in the Warehouse District for a fanfest — brass bands, drumlines, dance teams — to welcome their new savior, Zion.
On Thursday, San Antonio will host a party at the AT&T Center and another at an outdoor venue in Austin. Wembanyama mania is so big in Texas that it cannot be limited to just one city.
However, there are no guarantees. None at all, because obstacles and difficulties can come in unexpected ways.
Williamson has never managed to stay healthy. A meniscus tear delayed the start of his rookie season by a few months. A whole year was lost due to a broken foot. Along the way, hamstrings, knees, ankles, stress management…it’s one thing after another for a man who may prove to be too big and too powerful for the sport.
Zion has played just 114 games in four seasons and none in the playoffs. And he’s currently embroiled in a social media soap opera that’s caused all the wrong kind of public chatter and helped fuel trade opportunities.
When he’s healthy, focused and fit, the two-time All-Star is still a sight to behold. Whether he can become one again, and for how long, is completely unknown.
That excitement in the draw seems like a distant memory.
Morant, meanwhile, has mostly delivered on the field. He has been one of the NBA’s biggest attractions, a two-time All-Star who plays the game above the rim. The cans. The blocks. It’s all there. And the Grizzlies have slowly turned into a winner with three consecutive playoff appearances, albeit with just one series win.
It’s off the field that Morant is a mess. The NBA suspended him for eight games last season after he was seen on an Instagram Live video brandishing a gun inside a Denver strip club, a violation of the league’s conduct policy. It played a role in the idea of a promising season.
Morant vowed to get better, but earlier this spring he was again seen on social media with a firearm, leading the NBA to suspend him for the first 25 games of the 2023-24 season.
“I realize how much hurt I have caused,” Morant said in a statement.
That includes the damage done to his own career. What exactly leads Morant to self-destructive decisions – and easily avoidable incidents – is not clear. It’s also not clear that he can figure out how to get better in the future so that he can have a future.
Zion and Ja may still be on their way to greatness. Or maybe not.
There are no parallels between them and Wembanyama, Henderson or Miller. What happened to the former can never affect the latter. Different people. Different circumstances. Even past mistakes (by Miller, especially) are washed away with a fresh start. All are well for now.
It’s just that four years ago—the last time the league held a draft with this much anticipation for this kind of wave of potentially sport-changing talent—absolutely no one could have predicted what would come or how it would turn out for Zion and Ja .
Let alone what may still come for both.