New York Knicks: Zion Williamson aside, a Ja Morant conundrum exists

HARTFORD, CT - MARCH 21: Murray State Racers guard Ja Morant (12) with the ball during the basketball game between Murray State Racers and Marquette Golden Eagles on March 21, 2019, at the XL Center in Hartford, CT. (Photo by M. Anthony Nesmith/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
HARTFORD, CT - MARCH 21: Murray State Racers guard Ja Morant (12) with the ball during the basketball game between Murray State Racers and Marquette Golden Eagles on March 21, 2019, at the XL Center in Hartford, CT. (Photo by M. Anthony Nesmith/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images) /

The New York Knicks have a realistic chance at the first overall pick in the 2019 NBA Draft, but the odds are higher for second.

Draft season is upon the NBA, and the New York Knicks will own one of 2019’s highest picks, given their league-worst 14-58 record. Zion Williamson remains the talk of the class, with everything he’s done at Duke over the past five months.

Then came Ja Morant — well, technically, he was always there, except he overtook the national stage with a standout performance in the NCAA Tournament’s opening round.

With a triple-double, the Murray State star became just the eighth player to accomplish this in March Madness since this accomplishment was official in 1983-84 — joining the likes of Dwyane Wade and Shaquille O’Neal.

So if fans did not know Ja Morant’s name before, they certainly know him now, after highlight-reel court vision and lightning quick athleticism that jumped off the court. ESPN’s scout-quoted scouting report, dated Feb. 13, of this sophomore star was on full display:

"“Morant has great explosiveness and athleticism — I can see why he’s compared to Russell Westbrook (1). He has a thin frame, but he’ll easily bulk up. I like his aggressiveness and attacking mentality. He really finishes at the rim and uses all dribbles to gain an advantage (2). He sees the floor very well, has a great handle, and he’s unselfish (3). His 3-point shooting [33 percent] is not a red flag; I don’t see anything wrong with his form, and that’s one of the easiest skills to improve in the NBA (4). On defense, he’s often not in a stance and flat-footed. He’s got great hands and causes deflections, but that’s not enough for the next level. He should be better on defense with his physical skills (5). Morant is a definite top-10 pick, and he could be top-three.”"

The hype was there long before Morant’s national showcase against Marquette. Now, fans and draft pundits alike know his name and realize a draft class beyond Williamson exists, even if New York Knicks supporters don’t see anything beyond Duke’s generational talent.

New York has the inside track on a top-five pick — not the first overall selection. The NBA’s worst record guarantees a spot no lower than fifth in the lottery, but No. 1 only has a 14 percent chance, which also applies to the second and third-worst records, which sit at 17-56 and 19-53, respectively.

So the odds are against the Knicks taking Williamson. Then again, this goes for everyone else in the lottery, since each team has a higher chance at selecting somewhere other than where they land in the standings from picks 1-7.

There is a 47.9 percent chance of general manager Scott Perry and president Steve Mills selecting fifth overall. Obviously, that’s not ideal for their Williamson hopes, but Morant’s breakout proved there are superior talents who soften the blow. The Knicks probably need the second overall pick to make that happen, and that’s only at 13.4 percent which, again, matches the second and third-worst records.

Maybe the Knicks don’t want Morant, with Dennis Smith Jr. flashing promise since the Kristaps Porzingis trade. The athleticism is there and the offensive potential arrives in spurts from the incumbent point guard, so maybe he sticks. So if they land the second pick, it becomes valuable for a team like the Phoenix Suns or Chicago Bulls, pending either doesn’t have first overall, to seek a trade-up, even by one or two spots.

In that case, RJ Barrett, Rui Hachimura, Jarrett Culver and Cam Reddish are still available.

Will the New York Knicks see Morant as an upgrade in this scenario? The aforementioned scouting report was telling, and while Smith is just 21-years-old, his concerns come from a volatile shooting percentage, where he’s lights out one game and goes 7-for-19 in the follow-up; he shot just 40.2 percent for 13.2 points after his 31-point game on Feb. 8 in the 14 appearances since.

Morant is more intriguing defensively, too, with a 6-foot-7 wingspan to his 6-foot-3 frame, which contributed towards nearly two steals per game. The Knicks’ point guard stands identical, but with a 6-foot-3 wingspan. Concerns at this end of the court have followed him from college, and he has a 114 defensive rating since joining the blue and orange.

If this is how the Knicks lean, Smith Jr. becomes trade bait on draft night, whether it’s towards one of the available superstars via trade or to upgrade another position, like either forward spot.

Free agency is the other fascinating part of this. The draft is about two weeks beforehand, and there are no givens towards which, if any, of the big-name point guards, willingly sign. Kyrie Irving and Kemba Walker can hit the open market on July 1, and the former has been linked to the Knicks since the preseason.

Passing on Morant is gambling on Irving or Walker, with Smith Jr. as the fallback option. There is approximately $70 million of cap space available for the Knicks to tinker with and no guarantees for who receives it, whether it’s one of those point guards, Kevin Durant or Kawhi Leonard.

Landing the second overall pick should be enticing for the New York Knicks, as they have options to make this as valuable as possible. That could mean trading it, selecting Morant or using it on someone else and not making this a conversation.

Next. Draft prospects who stepped up on March 21. dark

However, selecting Morant is a discussion worth having for the Knicks, because he might just be better than anything they have and will come cheaper than the free agents.