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Inside the Moves that Defined the 2022 NBA Draft

How the Magic pulled off a surprise at No. 1. Plus, a closer look at the draft decisions by the Thunder, Kings and Blazers.

I don’t know if it’s fair to say that the dust has actually settled—the NBA is already heading full-bore into free agency—but the 2022 draft has come to an end after an extremely memorable night, which began with one of the biggest twists at No. 1 in recent memory, as the Magic took Paolo Banchero. I’m running on fumes and have no patience for writing long introductions anymore, but everyone’s favorite draft postmortem column is back again. Let’s just get into it and unpack this thing.

Behind the Magic’s big surprise

Let’s start with the biggest story of the night: the Magic successfully pulled off a nearly impossible information-era feat picking at the top of the draft, concealing their intention to select Paolo Banchero at No. 1 until essentially an hour before the draft. In all my years covering the draft, I’ve never seen a team with the top pick preserve the mystery the way Orlando did: most of the various figures I trust around the NBA acknowledged the uncertainty surrounding who the Magic would take, but from connecting the various dots (insignificant ones, as it turned out), the signs had been pointing to Jabari Smith Jr. at No. 1. That’s what I thought was happening, but there was no way to be totally certain, as Orlando had been radio silent ever since the lottery, as is their way of doing business.

The Magic ran a long, thoughtful predraft process, eventually landing on Banchero, but had concealed their plan so well that not even Banchero had any idea they were taking him. As I understand it, Orlando essentially avoided making him even seem like a real candidate, expressing far more outward interest in Smith and Holmgren. As of last week, Banchero’s camp was unsure if Orlando was even seriously considering him for the top pick. However, there was quiet interest: entering this week (and as was reflected in Monday’s mock draft), my understanding was that Banchero was scheduled to come to Orlando for a visit on Sunday. It’s unclear to me whether he ever actually made that trip—the rumor was that it had been canceled—but he did have a series of Zoom calls with Magic brass on Wednesday. Whatever was discussed, as I understand it, there was no additional sense of certainty for Banchero to glean from those interactions. The only true hint at a surprise outcome came from Vegas, where the betting odds sharply swung toward Banchero on Wednesday night, making him a surprise favorite to go No. 1 after sitting third behind Smith and Holmgren for most of the month.

Paolo Banchero

The best part of all this is that Banchero pretty much found out the way we found out. ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski sent some tweets in the hour before the draft that pointed to him as the top pick in increasingly less cryptic fashion, but from my understanding, Banchero didn’t know what to believe until he heard his name called. The genuine surprise and emotion we saw from him in the green room—plus a gaudy but memorable purple suit—made for one of the best draft-day moments in some time. In any sport, it’s exceedingly rare that the top pick goes into the draft not knowing that he or she is the top pick.

If we had eliminated all pretense about who was the favorite 48 hours ago and purely looked at the fit with the Magic’s roster, Banchero’s ballhandling and passing at his size make a whole lot of sense. Orlando doesn’t have a true point guard and needed a connective fulcrum, and Banchero can play all over the floor and put pressure on defenses with his vision, strength and scoring ability. Smith was my No. 1 prospect in the draft and the player I would have selected, but I had Banchero at No. 2, and objectively, taking my own feelings as a scout out of this, the Magic’s decision makes a lot of sense the more you think about it.

The lingering question here is why the Magic felt the need to be this secretive about what they were doing, considering that, well, nobody was picking in front of them. It’s likely that they didn’t even land on a final decision until this week. It’s also possible they wanted to maximize their leverage in potential trade-back opportunities. When Orlando was on the clock and Banchero chatter was flying, I wondered if they were trying to bait Houston into trading up. Evidently, he was their man either way. Regardless, this was an impressive feat that’s exceptionally difficult to pull off, and you have to tip your cap to Jeff Weltman and his staff. We’ll see whether the pick pays off for them in the end.

Holmgren at home in OKC

Chet Holmgren (Gonzaga) shakes hands with NBA commissioner Adam Silver after being selected as the number two overall pick by the Oklahoma City Thunder in the first round of the 2022 NBA Draft at Barclays Center.

Speaking of teams that operate in secrecy, the anticipated-but-never-fully-confirmed marriage between the Thunder and Chet Holmgren came to fruition at No. 2, as Oklahoma City selected Holmgren over Smith. While it was never entirely clear to other teams what the Thunder were going to do, there was significant suspicion amongst rival executives that Holmgren’s camp preferred he land in Oklahoma City and not Orlando. While rumors had been flying around the league for a couple weeks about what was going on, most of them unfounded and overly speculative, as I understand things, at least one concrete maneuver was taken to steer Holmgren away from the Magic: according to multiple sources with knowledge of the situation, Holmgren bailed early on the last day of his Orlando visit, conducting a brief on-court shooting workout that he cut short. While I don’t know whether that impacted anything with the Magic’s decision at No. 1, objectively, it’s very hard to use a high-stakes draft pick on a player that doesn’t truly want to be part of your team.

While I would have personally taken Smith ahead of Holmgren at No. 2, the more I think about it, the more I think the Thunder had one of the most successful drafts: Sam Presti landed three players in Holmgren, Ousmane Dieng and Jalen Williams who strongly fit his mold of tall, skilled perimeter players who can stretch the floor and make plays for teammates. You can clearly see the vision for where Oklahoma City’s team is going, and while Holmgren, Dieng and Williams will all have an adjustment period to the speed and physicality of the NBA, the Thunder may not be as far away as people realize from being pretty competitive. The presence of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Josh Giddey, both gifted distributors, will make life much easier for the rookies.

Everything they did made sense—and Presti even dipped into his giant bag of future first-rounders to grab the 11th pick and land Dieng in addition to Williams (two players who I’d heard linked behind the scenes as logical Thunder targets). The Cavaliers also badly wanted Dieng, and as I understand it, there had been conversations between Cleveland and New York about the 11th pick. Oklahoma City wound up trading for that pick instead, giving the Knicks three 2023 first-rounders and the salary space they desired in exchange. Presti can only sit on those picks for so long, and with so many young prospects now in place and in need of playing time for the next few seasons, it made a lot of sense to move off of three protected selections (originally belonging to Denver, Washington and Detroit). The Thunder have clearly charted a course with their group, and will be a fascinating watch this season as their young players begin to jell together.

Happy landing in Houston for Jabari Smith?

Jabari Smith meets Adam Silver on the stage at the 2022 NBA Draft.

In the wake of all the drama that unfolded at No. 1, the Rockets walked away pretty happy in the end, as Jabari Smith wound up available to them at No. 3. Most around the league felt that Houston was hoping Banchero would drop to them, but the Rockets are in great shape with Smith, who rival teams felt would have been their preference over Holmgren. I can’t state enough that Smith is my personal favorite prospect in the draft, and I think he should mature into a leader and become one of the faces of Houston’s rebuild alongside Jalen Green.

The basketball fit here is strong: the Rockets primarily want to play through Green and Kevin Porter Jr., two explosive ball-handlers who are learning to create shots for teammates. The presence of Smith will give them elite coverage as a floor-spacer, and he’ll directly benefit from having other guys who can put the ball on the floor next to him as he continues to develop his handle. Expect Houston to play through him plenty and allow him to expand his offensive game, as well. The Rockets also like to switch a lot defensively, and Smith is the most versatile defender of the three top picks. They also selected Tari Eason at No. 17, another big, rangy forward, and it’s easy to see those two wreaking havoc in tandem.

While you could see on television that Smith was disappointed not to come off the board at No. 1—entirely understandable, considering that the tenor of media coverage had painted him as the likely choice, and the Magic did have him under strong consideration—he might be exactly what the Rockets need as they work back toward being a playoff contender. Speaking from my own experiences dealing with Smith and learning about him, I was really impressed with the type of focus and poise he has at his age. For me, his character was a major part of the eval, not to mention the fact he’s the most impressive jump shooter in the draft. While neither Smith nor the Rockets expected this outcome, it’s a pretty promising pairing.

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Kings very comfortable with Keegan Murray

Sacramento’s spot at No. 4 was considered the first big inflection point in the draft, as the Kings fielded offers from a wide range of teams with interest in trading up. The pick was particularly marketable due to the expected availability of two players: Jaden Ivey and Keegan Murray. It is well-known that the Kings want to make a push for the playoffs next season, and it was easy to understand why Ivey wasn’t a good fit for their roster, as his skill set strongly overlaps with De’Aaron Fox. There will likely be some growing pains for him as he adds polish on top of his exhilarating athleticism and transition skills. But it was also widely circulating around the league that the Pistons were hoping to land Ivey at No. 5, and that the Pacers were Murray’s hard floor at No. 6. This put Sacramento in a spot that drew quite a bit of interest, with Indiana, San Antonio, New York and Atlanta among the suitors for the pick.

The one Kings rumor I heard from several rival teams on the day of the draft surrounded a possible swap with the Pacers, who sat at No. 6 and were rumored to be offering Chris Duarte in addition to that pick. My understanding was that when those teams negotiated the Domantas Sabonis-Tyrese Haliburton swap in February, Indiana had little interest in including Duarte at all. It was also well-known how much the Pacers coveted Murray—something the Kings certainly suspected—so trading back with Indiana would have meant taking a different player. And from my standpoint, for what it’s worth, looking at who the known trade partners were and what the potential packages could have been, I never saw a great pathway that would have made sense for Sacramento to actually move.

Considering all the context, No. 4 became a complex spot to navigate, and at the end of the day, the strongest choice was simply selecting Murray, a player Sacramento genuinely loved, did a ton of homework on, and valued highly. The sense I got over the past week was that they were quite comfortable drafting him, and that they would have been hesitant to move back all the way out of this second tier of prospects unless they felt the return was exceptionally strong. Not only did Ivey come with some fit concerns, but the Kings genuinely felt Murray was the better prospect, and so they drafted him. Time will bear that out, and Ivey could certainly flourish in Detroit, but Murray is going to help the Kings quite a bit.

Blazers went with home-run swing

From studying the shape of this year’s draft, the other fascinating spot within the top 10 was the Trail Blazers’ pick at No. 7, which wound up being Shaedon Sharpe. Based on the chatter, it felt to me like Portland had mostly cooled on potential trade scenarios in recent days and was believed by rival teams to be deciding between Sharpe and Dyson Daniels. The Blazers were known to be high on both players, and there was dissent within their braintrust as to which was the better option, with Sharpe a massive home-run swing and Daniels a plug-and-play utility guard with upside.

Sharpe didn’t play at all at Kentucky, and most decision-makers had never seen him play live. Teams were evaluating primarily off of in-person contact, background intel and tape from the Nike EYBL, where I saw him play last summer at Peach Jam. Sharpe’s camp was willing to put him in group workouts and showcase his competitive mettle against other lottery-level prospects, from which very mixed feedback circulated around the league, but that was probably to be expected from someone who hadn’t played much high-level, competitive basketball. Sharpe’s gifts are evident, but it’s going to take him some time to make an impact, something that doesn’t necessarily align with what the Blazers are trying to accomplish. They acquired Jerami Grant from the Pistons earlier in the week, which was a clear win-now decision. So as other teams tried to assess Portland’s strategy, that threw some doubt onto which of Daniels and Sharpe they actually preferred.

Some around the league suspect that Damian Lillard was a major factor in the Blazers’ decision, which feels like a pretty reasonable hunch: as Portland continues to try and toe the line between competing for the playoffs and laying groundwork for a post-Lillard future, cooperation with their star player is an essential part of maintaining a happy equilibrium within the organization. According to sources with knowledge of the situation, Lillard was involved with the Blazers’ predraft process and took a strong interest in Sharpe during his visits to Portland. (Per sources, Sharpe worked out for the Blazers on two different occasions, once in early June and again on June 15.) I was told that members of Portland’s group made a ton of calls to Kentucky staffers throughout the process and were clearly quite invested. And I suspect the Blazers would never have taken a clear long-view route at this pick without Lillard’s cosign.

By taking Sharpe at No. 7, the Blazers gifted the Pelicans and Spurs with their preferred options at No. 8 and No. 9. New Orleans’s brass had fallen in love with Daniels and were anxiously waiting to see if he’d make it to their selection. San Antonio coveted Jeremy Sochan, but was nervous the Pelicans might take him at No. 8. Washington, picking at No. 10, was viewed by some rival teams as Sharpe’s floor. But the Wizards were also quite high on Johnny Davis, who was the obvious solution to their backcourt needs at that spot. All four of those players ranked inside my top 10 and could have been in play at any of those spots. And to me, that’s where the second, high-quality tier of draft prospects ended.

One of the funnier niche subplots in this year’s draft was that three general managers who once worked closely together in the same office—and intimately understand each other’s tendencies and preferences as scouts—wound up drafting pretty much in a row. Longtime Nuggets president Tim Connelly is now running the Timberwolves, who drafted 19th. His two top lieutenants in Denver were Arturas Karnisovas, who now runs the Bulls and held the 18th pick, and Calvin Booth, who took over the Nuggets when Connelly left and drafted 21st. Suffice it to say, there was undoubtedly quite a bit of strategic chess taking place in that range of the draft.

Chicago was fielding trade calls from a wide range of teams over the 18th pick and was able to do that with some understanding of which players might come off the board immediately after them. The Bulls ended up keeping the pick and taking Arizona’s Dalen Terry, who had been rumored as an option for the Nuggets at No. 21. The Timberwolves had strong interest in Jake LaRavia at No. 19, but got an attractive offer from Memphis (who also really wanted LaRavia) to move back in the draft and acquire multiple firsts, which they used to select Auburn’s Walker Kessler and Duke’s Wendell Moore.

Kessler was at one point in play as an option for all three of Chicago, Minnesota and Denver, and Moore had been strongly tied by rival teams to the Timberwolves and Nuggets in the process. Minnesota wound up trading back up from No. 29 to ensure they landed him. And the Nuggets drafted Christian Braun at No. 21, who had been strongly tied by other teams toyou guessed itthe Timberwolves. I don’t know how it all went down behind the scenes, but it would have made for compelling television.

A new draft trend?

There’s an interesting point to be made here about how teams evaluate and how markets move for players depending on how much exposure they’ve actually had, centering on Shaedon Sharpe, who became a top-10 pick despite pretty much taking a season away from game competition. On the flipside, five players who had also been considered lottery-level talents coming out of high school—Patrick Baldwin Jr., TyTy Washington, Peyton Watson, Caleb Houstan and Jaden Hardy—fell into the 28-37 range of the draft, all enduring various struggles over the course of the season as their stock ultimately took a hit.

No two situations are the same, but teams are privately hoping that Sharpe’s favorable outcome won’t set a precedent for top prospects as they make decisions on how to spend their one-and-done gap years moving forward. At the end of the day, Sharpe’s upside is ostensibly higher than those guys based on what we know now, but this is still going to make for an interesting case study in how these careers play out. Most NBA executives strongly prefer that prospects embrace challenges and play at the best levels possible, giving them more information to make their decisions on draft night.

Sharpe may turn out to be a very special case, but at the same time, it’s kind of hard to argue that the other guys didn’t potentially leave some money on the table. It may not be great for the state of the sport at any level, but for as long as sitting out continues to benefit players, we’re probably going to see more guys try it. Teams are always tempted by potential, and it’s always harder to envision a promising player failing until you see it happen.

Parting note

I generally felt teams drafted quite well in relation to their own established needs and situations this year. I was pretty kind on my draft grades, a hasty exercise I admittedly hate doing. Next year I plan on lobbying my editors to let me evaluate teams pass/fail. But with all that said, it’s been another rewarding year covering the draft.

Thanks as always for reading along, and see you at summer league in Vegas, where I will be conducting a deep in-depth investigation into how all the casinos figured out Paolo Banchero was getting picked first before I did. (Kidding. Sort of.)

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