Drafting the best player available or the best fit is an age old debate. For the New Orleans Pelicans, I suggest one reasonable caveat to selecting the best player available. Ignore the rest of the roster and make the primary concern drafting the best player available who fits with Anthony Davis. There is a strong case that Kris Dunn, should his shooting improve and turnovers decrease, would represent the best of both worlds. However, it is also quite possible Dunn will not be available when the Pelicans are placed on the clock.
Past Dunn, the discussion often continues to focus on guards, with Buddy Hield and Jamal Murray as the most likely candidates. Hield presents a potential alpha on the court and in the locker room. The Bahamian Bomber has a sweet shooting stroke, an impeccable health record (those matter with this training staff), and rows of green flags surrounding his work ethic and character. Murray is younger, also dynamite behind the arc, but more the quiet type.
After weeks of reading and writing, I am beginning to sour on these three guards. I am not predicting any of them bust, but seeing the Pelicans select the best shooting guard available could be folly. The failure to select the best prospect in search of a functional replacement for Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson's shooting prowess. Drafting for fit to this roster as it is currently constructed instead of fit with Anthony Davis long term. Ignoring defense, ball movement (both Hield and Murray have very low assist rates), basketball IQ, and the direction the NBA is headed. Most importantly, ignoring chances to maximize Anthony Davis.
Domantas Sabonis is considered a desperate reach with the sixth pick by most mock drafts. But, by trading down a few slots, the Pelicans could secure an ideal big man to pair with Anthony Davis for the long term.
Fit with Antony Davis
Fitting big men with Anthony Davis properly has proven to be more difficult than Dell Demps envisioned. Davis is the NBA unicorn; a big man who can block shots and shoot behind the arc. A big man beside him should fill in other gaps necessary for success. Rebounding, passing, switchability on defense (for the modern NBA, a must), and the strength to defend bruising center. Ryan Anderson brought none of this skills. Omer Asik provided rebounding and defense, but his offensive limitations and terrible hands clogged the offense.
Sabonis is a superb rebounder. It is a product of desire and intelligence more than length and athleticism. Sabonis averaged at least 11 rebounds a game during the FIBA Europe U-18 competitions in 2013 and 2014. During the FIBA Europe U-20 games in 2015 Domantas Sabonis posted an absolutely ridiculous 18 points, 28 rebounds, and 6 assists to lead Lithuania past Ukraine. During the tournament he averaged 13 rebounds a game. Last year at Gonzaga he averaged 17.6 points and 11.8 rebounds a game. Simply put, the man inhales rebounds.
Beyond rebounding, Sabonis sports an excellent basketball IQ. He's a willing passer, demonstrated by his relatively high assist totals throughout tournaments in Europe. He boasts impeccable footwork (helps when your father co-authored the textbook) and has made mincemeat of other highly touted big men. Against Marquese Chriss he put up an efficient 17 points (on 5-8 shooting) and 8 rebounds while holding Chriss to 4 points and 3 rebounds. Chriss fouled out in just 14 minutes. Then in the NCAA tournament, Sabonis devoured Jakob Poeltl while posting 19 points and 10 rebounds. Poeltl had just 5 points and 4 rebounds in one of his least impressive performances of the season.
Sabonis has warts, mainly a short wingspan. But what he lacks in length, his IQ, motor, and quick feet make him valuable defensively. Importantly, when trying to pair a big man with Anthony Davis, Sabonis has NBA strength already. While he may not succeed immediately against massive big men such as DeMarcus Cousins, there is reason to believe Sabonis is going to get to a level to competently handle the big centers in the league and keep Davis fresh.
While Sabonis did not shoot a ton of jump shots as a sophomore, he converted at an excellent rate; according to Hoop-Math he shot 47.7% (73/153) on two-point jump shots. His stroke at the foul line also demonstrated significant improvement from 66.4% as a freshman to 76.9% last season. Some, including Jonathan Tjarks, believe Sabonis has the capacity to stretch out to the 3-point line. Beside Anthony Davis, I view a stretchy big man as more of a luxury than a necessity.
Where and how to draft Sabonis
Taking Sabonis with the 6th pick is foolish when the Pelicans could draft him with a later pick and receive another asset in the process. There is a wide range of projections on him in various mock drafts; as high as 8th at NBADraft.net and as low as 20th at USA Today. After skipping on the NBA Draft Combine, Sabonis has only worked out for four teams; the Toronto Raptors (9th), Utah Jazz (12th), Phoenix Suns (13th), and Boston Celtics (16th).
Toronto is the safest bet to trade back an ensure the Pelicans can draft Sabonis and receive an additional asset (hopefully the 27th pick) in the process. A number of teams could be interested in trading up to the 6th spot if Kris Dunn is available; the Sacramento Kings (8th), Milwaukee Bucks (10th), and Utah Jazz (12th) are all possible targets. Should Dragan Bender fall to the 6th spot New Orleans could find an even wider audience including Sacramento, Toronto, Orlando, Phoenix, and others.
Sabonis is far younger than his two years in college would indicate. For instance, Sabonis is a month and a half younger than Skal Labissiere. There is still untapped upside despite his less than astounding wingspan.
Like other "limited" athletes like Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, Sabonis comes from an NBA family, the son of Hall of Famer Arvydas Sabonis. Beyond the genetics necessary for the NBA, the younger Sabonis has a basketball education far beyond his peers. Combine that BBIQ with a motor that always runs hot, a developing outside shot, and a pure hunger to collect every possible rebound, the Pelicans could find the right big man to put alongside Anthony Davis.
Drafting Domantas Sabonis isn't sexy like the 3-point shooting of Buddy Hield or Jamal Murray. Not flashy like Kris Dunn's amazing athleticism. Trading back to draft Sabonis is the antithesis of the splash this front office probably wants to make in the coming weeks.
Choosing the less electrifying path, though, might be exactly the kind of move this franchise needs to make. Draft Sabonis. Pair Anthony Davis with a big man for the next decade.