Victor Wembanyama is big prize, but whomever lands him faces long odds of winning big

Detroit Free Press

You know the odds. And if you don’t, here’s a quick refresher: the Detroit Pistons have a 14% chance of winning tonight’s NBA draft lottery; they have a 52% chance of landing in the top four.  

Now, I know what you’re thinking: Aren’t there three top-tier prospects? And what if the Pistons end up with the fourth pick? And … Amen Thompson? 

Well, maybe he’ll eventually be the best player of the draft. A longshot? Yeah, sure. You know what else is a longshot? That the No. 1 pick ends up as the best player of the draft.  

An even longer shot is that the No. 1 pick wins a title as the best player on the team that drafted him. Technically, LeBron James counts. But the former prodigy won in Cleveland after he returned from Miami.  

PISTONS BIG BOARD: Victor Wembanyama and the best fits ahead of the lottery

A fluke? Sure. And that’s the point. 

In the last 25 years, only one — ONE — other No. 1 pick won a title as the best player on the team that drafted him: Tim Duncan.  

Kyrie Irving was a No. 1 pick in 2011, and he won with Cleveland in 2016. But he wasn’t the best player on the team. That was James.  

Now, a few other top picks have won titles, just not with the team that drafted him. Anthony Davis comes to mind. So does Dwight Howard. And Andrew Bogut won a championship in Golden State 10 years after the Milwaukee Bucks selected him No. 1. 

All of which is to say that winning the lottery is fun, and if a team lucks into the best player of a generation, and then lucks into him again because he wanted to return “home,” then winning the lottery is super fun. 

So, yay? 

Victor Wembanyama could be that sort of generational talent. He could also be the next very tall human to hit the league with futuristic skill and spend most of his time tending to ailments, like Zion Williamson has so far.  

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The New Orleans Pelicans forward at least showed he is a dominant force when he’s on the floor this season, and if not for another injury-riddled season, his team might still be playing. Williamson was the No. 1 pick in 2019.  

Remember the No. 2 pick? He just got suspended for flashing a gun on Instagram — for the second time this year.  

Ja Morant is as electric a player as there is in the league. He can be thrilling to watch. Beyond that, he led a turnaround in Memphis and not that long ago, had the Grizzlies positioned as the most promising young team in the NBA. 

They may still be if Morant sheds whatever impulse drove him to brandish his piece on IG and proves the Grizzlies can trust him again. If nothing else, his suspension is a reminder — albeit an uncomfortable one — that rebuilds are full of potholes.  

Take the Philadelphia 76ers, who are now out of the playoffs because their leading man hurt his knee during their first-round series against Brooklyn. Joel Embiid was taken at No. 3 by the 76ers in 2014. It was the beginning of “trust the process.” 

Or should we say: “Trust the Process?” 

Capitalized or not, Philadelphia has been the poster child for preaching patience as it rebuilt with high lottery picks, including No. 1 picks in 2016 (Ben Simmons) and 2017 (Markelle Fultz). Yet the franchise hasn’t gotten past the second round of the playoffs. 

They’ve had bad luck, of course. This isn’t the first time Embiid has been hurt. And in 2019, when Embiid was available and Simmons was at his best, the 76ers lost to Toronto and Kawhi Leonard’s Game 7 buzzer-beater in Round 2. 

That team was good enough to play in the Finals. A bouncing ball on the rim kept it from them. Which is to say luck, especially lottery luck, is a predictor of very little.  

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Now, the Pistons would take a second-round playoff appearance in a second. It’s a fun place to be. But if you’ve watched the playoffs this spring, you’ll notice that only one of the four teams remaining were built with their own high lottery picks. 

And that’s the Boston Celtics, proving that it can be done. Also proving that the best teams in the league, in general, make their playoff runs supported by a different kind of foundation. 

The Los Angeles Lakers are here because two of the best players in the league wanted to live in Los Angeles — and play together. Though if the team’s general manager, former Michigan basketball player Rob Pelinka, hadn’t found a handful of perfect role players before the trade deadline, even James and Davis wouldn’t be enough to make the Western Conference finals. 

Denver will host the first game against the Lakers tonight. The Nuggets rely on an MVP (Nikola Jokic) they found in the second round and a budding star at point guard (Jamal Murray) they took at No. 7 in 2016, along with a couple of former Pistons draft picks — Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Bruce Brown — who finally gave them the makings of a passable defense.  

Then there’s Miami, led by arguably the best coach in the game, centered around a peak playoff performer in Jimmy Butler, a late first-round pick of Chicago in 2011, and a bevy of tough-minded players procured in all sorts of places. 

Just not the high lottery. 

So, keep that in mind if the Pistons lose out on Wembanyama tonight, or fall to No. 5 (the farthest they can fall), and must decide between a couple of twins. And remember that rebuilds can come from anywhere. 

Remember, too, that the best team of the last decade won four titles with the No. 7 pick and the No. 35 pick as its cornerstones. 

There is no single way to win big in the NBA, even if the best teams are almost always defined by a singular force, as the Golden State Warriors are with the golden Steph Curry. Finding that force is the key.  

Only once in the last quarter century has that force come from the very top of the draft and won big for the team that drafted him. Could Wembanyama be the next to do what Tim Duncan did? 

Sure. But the odds say otherwise.  

Contact Shawn Windsor: 313-222-6487 or swindsor@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @shawnwindsor.

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