The NBA Draft Lottery Defies the Odds


Up-and-coming basketball players shoot their shot at the NBA Draft. (Source: Joanna Lin (II))

On May 16, the National Basketball Association (NBA) draft lottery took place, with the San Antonio Spurs taking home the number one overall pick. This moment has the potential to redefine the franchise and basketball landscape for the next 15 years.

At the conclusion of the regular season, the NBA draft lottery emerges as a glimmer of hope for struggling franchises and loyal fans who endured a tough season: a chance to turn the tides. Each year, the 14 teams with the worst regular-season records are rewarded with a chance to win the coveted first pick. The odds decrease the better the team performed; the more games you lose, the higher likelihood of landing the top spot. This year, the Detroit Pistons, Houston Rockets and San Antonio Spurs had the highest probabilities, while the Toronto Raptors and New Orleans Pelicans had the lowest of the eligible teams.

With these probabilities in place, 14 ping pong balls are placed into a lottery machine, each labeled with counting numbers up to 14. Then, four balls are taken out, creating a unique four digit number. This system creates 1,001 possible  combinations, with 1,000 of those being assigned to the different teams based on their odds. For example, since Houston had a 14.0 percent chance of winning, they received 140 possible combinations. 

The team assigned the winning numbers are given the first pick, and this process is repeated for the following three picks. Once the first four picks are locked in, the remaining nine are given to the teams in order of worst record. 

This year, the lottery shook out in this respective order from first to last: the San Antonio Spurs, Charlotte Hornets, Portland Trail Blazers, Houston Rockets, Detroit Pistons, Orlando Magic, Indiana Pacers, Washington Wizards, Utah Jazz, Dallas Mavericks, Chicago Bulls (traded to Orlando Magic), Oklahoma City Thunder, Toronto Raptors and New Orleans Pelicans.

Starting with the losers of the draft, the Detroit Pistons underwent a huge upset. Despite enduring a dismal campaign and possessing a shared claim to the best odds, the basketball gods frowned upon them, casting them outside the top four. The Motor City cannot catch a break, witnessing the injury of their young star Cade Cunningham as well. The Detroit Pistons will likely face a long road ahead before they put an end to their 15-year streak of playoff futility, a period without a single victorious game in the postseason.

As for the winners, it is certainly the San Antonio Spurs. For the first time since 1997, Greg Popovich and the rest of the organization will be picking from the top spot. In 1997, they received a basketball treasure in the form of Tim Duncan, an all-time great who led the franchise to five championships. Now, the Spurs aim to capture lightning in a bottle once more, as their gaze falls upon a prodigious talent poised to etch his name into the history books. 

Enter Victor Wembanyama, a remarkable 19-year-old hailing from Nanterre, France. Standing at 7’4”, this upcoming star possesses the finesse of a player much shorter, coupled with the shot-blocking prowess of Hakeem Olajuwon. Not only is Wembanyama a better prospect than Duncan, but also the most anticipated since “The Chosen One” himself, LeBron James. 

San Antonio stands as the ideal destination for this future star, blessed with a stable and accomplished organization, guided by the coaching genius of Greg Popovich, and surrounded by promising teammates Devin Vassell and Keldon Johnson. The possibilities are endless for the San Antonio Spurs, with a remarkable talent now firmly in their grasp.

While the French prodigy undoubtedly overshadows the other prospects, other notable headliners are Scoot Henderson and Brandon Miller. Starting with Henderson, a 6’3” point guard blessed with exceptional physical attributes, his capabilities shine brightest when executing difficult finishes. Boston Latin School varsity basketball player Aaron Tran (II) drew comparisons to another explosively dynamic guard: “I think that Scoot [Henderson] has the potential to be a Derrick Rose type of player,” remarks Tran. “He’s already shown his skill and freakish athleticism attacking the rim.”

Not every prospect is perfect, however. Henderson certainly has his flaws. Tran also acknowledged the guard’s lack of “ability to rely on a jumper,” evident from a dreadful 17 percent shooting from three during his G-League campaign last season. Despite these imperfections, Henderson’s talent warrants the second overall pick. Paired alongside the flashy guard LaMelo Ball and the rest of the Charlotte Hornets, they could form a daunting backcourt duo capable of wreaking havoc on the league for years to come.

If not taken in the second spot, Brandon Miller will undoubtedly be chosen third. The 6’9” forward out of Alabama possesses an elite ability to score from all three levels while maintaining respectable efficiency. His combination of size, polished-ball handling and exceptional shooting aptitude allows him to execute plays reminiscent of stars like Paul George and Jayson Tatum. His lack of explosiveness, however, hinders his ability to generate space, resulting in more challenging shots. Miller’s addition could provide much-needed size to the Trail Blazers, pairing him alongside the backcourt of Damian Lillard and Afronee Simons. If he is able to fill out physically and convert difficult finishes at the rim, he has the potential to be an outstanding asset for any franchise.

With the 2023 NBA draft lottery now in the books, its aftermath has sent shockwaves echoing throughout the league, leaving fans both exhilarated and disappointed. With the emergence of talented prospects like Victor Wembanyama, Scoot Henderson and Brandon Miller, the future of the NBA appears promising. Yet, only time will reveal the true impact these young stars will have on the game. As fans, we can only speculate and await their journeys, as the true narrative unfolds on court.

Photo Credits: Jeff Haynes, Philippe Desmazes, AFP, Dale Zanine, Crimson Tide Photos, UA Athletics, Steve Marcus