Blake Griffin was the consensus No. 1 pick. Shaq to the Cavs was the consensus blockbuster.
On a day of head-turning trades around the NBA, the Los Angeles Clippers started Thursday night’s draft with the obvious choice: Griffin, the only player considered a sure thing in a class full of question marks.
Griffin was the consensus college player of the year after leading the nation with 14.4 rebounds per game while averaging 22.7 points last season for Oklahoma. The Clippers said they would take the forward with the top pick just hours after they won the draft lottery last month, and never considered changing their minds.
“The fact is we’re getting an incredible player, incredible person, an impeccable work ethic and a guy that we plan on having in L.A. for many years to come,” Clippers coach Mike Dunleavy said. “He’s going to be a great, exciting fit for our ballclub.”
The draft followed a day of big trades in the NBA.
The deal that sent Shaquille O’Neal to play alongside LeBron James in Cleveland was completed earlier Thursday, and Eastern Conference champion Orlando acquired Vince Carter from the Nets in a swap completed shortly before the first pick was made.
San Antonio landed Richard Jefferson from Milwaukee on Tuesday, and more big names could be available this summer as teams are forced to slash payroll. The best way to improve quickly this year was through trades, because the draft was considered weaker than in recent years.
It lacked the star power of 2007, when Greg Oden and Kevin Durant battled it out for top pick honors, or when Derrick Rose beat out Michael Beasley last year.
There was no debate this time. Dunleavy announced the Clippers’ intentions shortly after his team’s surprising lottery win, and they began a marketing campaign featuring the forward the next day.
The Clippers are hoping Griffin turns out better than their last No. 1 overall pick. They opened the 1998 draft by taking center Michael Olowokandi, a bust who is out of the league.
“Hopefully I can bring something they don’t have,” Griffin said. “I know they have a lot of great players but at the same time I’m excited about the opportunity and hopefully I can bring something to the table that they don’t have or maybe they need.”
The Memphis Grizzlies then grabbed Connecticut center Hasheem Thabeet, a dominant rebounder and shot blocker who doesn’t have strong offensive skills.
After the two big men, the rest of the first round was dominated by guards, with at least 10 players selected who could play the point. Seven guards went in the first 10 selections.
The Minnesota Timberwolves took two of them with the fifth and sixth picks. They snapped up Spanish teenager Ricky Rubio at No. 5, a pick they acquired from Washington earlier this week, before going for Syracuse’s Jonny Flynn with the next pick.
It was thought Rubio might go as high as No. 2, but that never worked out for Memphis. Instead the Grizzlies went with Thabeet, the 7-foot-3 native of Tanzania who switched from soccer to basketball just a few years ago. He has rapidly developed his defensive skills, but still has work to go on the other end.
“The whole season I spent working on my offense and working with so many different people, and to me this is a great opportunity to come out here and go play,” Thabeet said.
Rubio has to pay a multimillion dollar buyout to his Spanish club team to get out of his contract, and he said Wednesday his mother doesn’t like cold weather. So he sounded lukewarm about heading to Minneapolis.
“I have to think about that, because I’m just three minutes from a Timberwolves player,” he said. “So I’m going to talk with my agent about that and we are going to see.”
Oklahoma City took high-scoring Arizona State guard James Harden with the No. 3 pick and Sacramento followed by drafting Memphis freshman Tyreke Evans — who like Griffin was wearing a purple tie. So was Stephen Curry, the NCAA scoring leader from Davidson who went at No. 7 to Golden State.
Jordan Hill (New York), Demar DeRozan (Toronto) and Brandon Jennings (Milwaukee) rounded out the top 10, but Jennings didn’t come out to don his Bucks hat and shake hands with commissioner David Stern. His agent, Bill Duffy, released a statement earlier Thursday saying he had advised Jennings and his family not to attend the draft and wait in the green room because he was unsure of his client’s draft position.
However, Jennings — the point guard who skipped college to spend a year playing in Europe — came out from behind the stage, wearing the Milwaukee cap, to greet Stern and wave to the fans after the 14th pick was announced.
A run of forwards followed before Philadelphia grabbed another point guard, UCLA’s Jrue Holiday, who was considered a top 10 pick but tumbled to No. 17. Minnesota followed with its third point guard of the draft, Ty Lawson of national champion North Carolina — though he was shipped to the Denver Nuggets in yet another deal. Atlanta grabbed still another playmaker, Wake Forest’s Jeff Teague, at No. 19. Utah kept up the run by selecting Eric Maynor from Virginia Commonwealth.
The Knicks made a pair of trades, acquiring the No. 29 pick, guard Toney Douglas, from the Los Angeles Lakers for a future second-round pick and cash. New York also acquired former No. 2 overall pick Darko Milicic from Memphis for Quentin Richardson and cash.