The Pelicans most likely will pick a player in Thursday’s NBA draft, and that’s a rare enough occurrence in recent years.
More unusual still, they might even keep him.
As New Orleans has focused on building through trades and free agency, draft picks have been a rarity. The Pelicans haven’t made a first-round pick since 2013, when they selected Nerlens Noel, then traded him — along with their 2014 first-rounder — to Philadelphia for point guard Jrue Holiday.
Anthony Davis, the No. 1 overall pick in 2012, was the only Pelican on the 2015-16 roster who was acquired either via the draft or a draft-rights trade. New Orleans was the only NBA team with fewer than two such players this season, and the league average was 5.3.
“They’re not the only team that’s (building a roster) this way,” said Yahoo Sports analyst Bobby Marks, a former assistant general manager of the Nets. “But they probably stand out more than anybody right now.”
Dallas had two players on its roster this season acquired via the draft or a draft-rights trade. Four teams had three such players. But 19 teams had five or more, including Chicago, Oklahoma City and Utah with nine each.
New Orleans’ approach to the draft could shift this week, though not necessarily.
Though New Orleans figures to have plenty of options at No. 6, general manager Dell Demps — whose preference has been to build around Davis with players in their mid-20s with NBA experience — hasn’t ruled out making a deal.
“The philosophy is get the best players you can,” Demps said at a news conference Monday. “I think each draft you have to analyze the draft. If the situation presented itself where we can get a (better) player than we can draft, that’s going to help us for not only the short term but the long term, we would do it.”
Recently, that approach has resulted in dealing picks and young players.
New Orleans didn’t have first-round picks in 2011, 2014 or 2015. They had two first-rounders in 2012 and selected Austin Rivers with the second but traded him in 2015.
There are advantages to dealing picks for more experienced players, Marks said.
For one, New Orleans has yet to prove itself as a viable destination for top-tier free agents. Trades have proven the franchise’s better bet in landing established players like Omer Asik and Holiday, both of whom were acquired in deals that included Pelicans draft picks.
And trades, more so than free-agent signings, give teams control over the salary they’re adding.
In free agency, a team is at the mercy of the market. In trades, teams can acquire players with proven success in the NBA at a salary that’s already set.
But there’s risk, too.
“If you go the trade route, which they have with Jrue Holiday and Omer, and you’re going to move lottery picks, which they have, you better make sure those guys (you trade for) are going to be there for the long haul or they’re going to have some kind of impact,” Marks said. “It’s a dice roll.”
This week, the Pelicans might take a rare chance on a youngster.
With a much stronger draft expected next year, teams like New Orleans may find it challenging to get good value by trading picks this season, ESPN analyst Chad Ford said.
“I don’t think this is the type of draft to try to move into or to try to build your team around,” Ford said.
That could make the Pelicans more likely to hold onto the player they select sixth.
Though there are some experienced college players who might be available at No. 6 and might be immediate contributors — Providence point guard Kris Dunn, for example, or Oklahoma guard Buddy Hield — Demps said he could see taking a teenager who might need time to play a significant role.
“I think there’s some players in this draft that can come in right away,” Demps said. “I think some others are going to take some time to develop, but I also think we have some good core pieces and we have some opportunities to add players through free agency (to buy time for a young player).”
The Pelicans have all their future draft picks, and they could opt to use future first-rounders as trade chips moving forward. But the draft remains an option for adding high-level talent, and there’s a danger in avoiding it as a tool for team-building.
“The problem if (trades) don’t work out is that, besides Anthony (Davis), who’s that next layer of guys?” Marks said. “Who’s the next group in the pipeline that can kind of help them out? If you say, ‘I don’t know,’ you’re going to be back in the spot you were maybe two or three years ago.”