NEW ORLEANS (AP) – The Pelicans have officially begun the Zion Williamson era — just days after agreeing to trade away their last No. 1 overall draft choice.
Based on the celebrating crowd jammed into a downtown promenade on Thursday night, it appeared Pelicans fans couldn’t have been happier to move on from Anthony Davis — who requested a trade last January — and welcome their newest hope to transform New Orleans from a languishing small market franchise into an NBA contender.
Williamson smiled broadly and shook his head as he watched video footage of fans in New Orleans leaping and hollering in approval of his drafting by the Pelicans.
“I’m excited,” Williamson said. “Let’s dance, man. Let’s dance.”
Williamson, who starred one season at Duke, was widely seen as the top pro prospect to enter any NBA draft since the Pelicans took Davis first overall in 2012. And because of an unlikely NBA draft lottery victory last month, the Pelicans had the right to select Williamson first overall.
David Griffin, the Pelicans new executive vice president of basketball operations, said he understood why fans would be energized by Williamson.
“He’s got this magnetic personality and he makes everybody see such star quality that you immediately say, ‘He’s the one,'” Griffin said. “Obviously, physically, he’s been touched by the hand of God to play this game. He’s a population of one. Nobody’s ever been exactly quite like him.”
Griffin, who was a team headquarters, paused to compose himself while describing his reaction to seeing video of Williamson in New York, crying just after being drafted, when in a TV interview the 6-foot-7, 285-pound 19-year-old credited his mother’s sacrifices for his success as an athlete.
“When you see that kid on that stage — who lives for that stage — be incapable of formulating thoughts other than how grateful he is, that impacts you in a really powerful way,” Griffin said. “That’s why we love him.”
But Griffin also sought to temper immediate expectations, asserting that Williamson “is not somebody who is supposed to be the savior of this franchise. This is a 19-year-old kid who is going to spend this year learning how to play winning basketball.”
“This is Jrue Holiday’s team,” Griffin added, referring to the Pelicans’ accomplished combo guard. “Zion is going to be part of learning how to win at a really high level, and at some point if there’s a time that the baton gets passed in terms of who’s expected to carry us to win games, it will. That’s not now.”
New Orleans added to its rookie class with Texas center Jaxson Hayes. The Pelicans had made a deal with Atlanta for the rights to the eighth overall pick right before the draft. The Hawks made the selection, though Hayes is heading to New Orleans. That same trade also landed Virginia Tech wing player Nickeil Alexander-Walker at No. 17, a pick technically made by Brooklyn for the Pelicans.
Williamson was just the second freshman to be a consensus national player of the year, along with Kevin Durant with Texas in 2007.
While Williamson has yet to exhibit consistent outside shooting, he has displayed a dominant mix of power, quickness and skill that has convinced scouts of his extraordinary promise as a pro.
He averaged 22.6 points per game at Duke and also was voted to the ACC’s All-Defensive Team after averaging 8.9 rebounds, 2.12 steals and 1.8 blocked shots per game.
The Pelicans moved on from the Davis era last weekend when they agreed to a trade sending “the Unibrow” to the Los Angeles Lakers in exchange for point guard Lonzo Ball, forward Brandon Ingram, shooting guard Josh Hart and three first round picks, including this year’s fourth overall choice.
However, a person familiar with situation said shortly before the draft that Atlanta acquired the No. 4 pick from the Pelicans in exchange for the No. 8, No. 17 and No. 35 overall picks, along with a protected first-round pick from Cleveland in 2020 that Atlanta had.
The person spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because the deal — like the Davis deal days before it — can’t be finalized until at least until July 6 when the new NBA league year begins.
So Atlanta drafted Hayes for New Orleans and the Nets took Alexander-Walker for the Pelicans via the Hawks.
The 6-11, 220-pound Hayes played one season at Texas, averaging 10 points, five rebounds and 2.2 blocks.
Alexander-Walker played two seasons for the Hokies and averaged 16.2 points per game last season.
New Orleans also sent Atlanta the No. 57 pick, a future second-round pick and forward Solomon Hill. The Pelicans created more salary cap space by unloading the nearly $12.8 million owed to Hill next season. New Orleans also saved about $2.2 million by moving their second first-round pick down from fourth to eighth.
The second-round pick New Orleans got from Atlanta yielded Brazilian Macros Louzada Silva at 35th overall. The Pelicans traded their own 39th pick to Golden State for 2021 and 2023 second rounders, as well as cash considerations.
By Associated Press sports writer Brett Martel