In 2019, the New Orleans Pelicans selected 6-foot-6, 280-pound forward Zion Williamson over Murray State point guard Ja Morant for the top spot. A year before that, the Phoenix Suns drafted center Deandre Ayton with the No. 1 overall pick, while playmakers Luka Doncic and Trae Young fell to Nos. 3 (Dallas Mavericks) and 5 (Atlanta Hawks), respectively.
Fast forward to the 2022 NBA draft and it's three players over 6-foot-10 projected at the top. Jabari Smith, Chet Holmgren and Paolo Banchero have been the favored consensus top-three picks all season long. Sitting at No. 4 in most mock drafts is Purdue shooting guard Jaden Ivey.
The three teams at the top of the draft, the Orlando Magic, Oklahoma City Thunder and Houston Rockets, all need size in the frontcourt and Smith, Holmgren and Banchero not only fill that need but also are highly skilled players off the block. All three players can handle the ball extremely well, and Smith is an excellent 3-point shooter, knocking down 42% of his attempts this past season at Auburn.
Smith is emerging as the safest pick at No. 1 going to the Magic, and many scouts around the league believe the Thunder will then select either Holmgren or Banchero with the second overall pick.
But Ivey jumping up and going No. 2 to the Thunder wouldn't be shocking.
Jaden Ivey's breakout show glimpses of Ja Morant
Ivey hit NBA scouts' radars during the last game of his freshman season; he was relatively quiet until the 2021 NCAA men's tournament. In Round 1 in Indianapolis, No. 4 seed Purdue lost to No. 13 North Texas in overtime. Ivey, for his part, was phenomenal and netted 26 points, the most points scored in an NCAA tournament by any Big Ten freshman.
"That first round of games in Indy, he was one of the most impressive players on the court in terms of NBA upside," an NBA scout told Yahoo Sports after seeing Ivey play. "After we all started going to practices at Purdue last fall, it was clear he was a top-five lock."
Ivey's competitive nature shines in his play. He loves to go in transition and changes speeds better than any player projected in the lottery. His decision-making downhill improved throughout the season, and he has great body control at the rim while creating contact with other players.
Glimpses of Ja Morant seep from Ivey's game. The pair worked out together last summer heading into Ivey's sophomore season and Morant's breakout year.
— Swish Cultures (@swishcultures_) May 12, 2022
Why Jaden Ivey makes sense at No. 2
Rumblings of the Thunder's interest in Ivey at No. 2 started at the NBA draft combine in Chicago at the end of May. General manager Sam Presti has two first-round draft picks this year, after reportedly trading No. 30 to the Denver Nuggets on Monday, and 32 remaining draft picks in the next six years. OKC fans have been patient with the rebuild and trust Presti, who is credited for drafting Kevin Durant, James Harden and Russell Westbrook.
The Thunder are already building a strong core with Josh Giddey, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Lu Dort. They also have a Holmgren-like center in Aleksej Pokusevski (7-foot, 190 pounds) and drafted Jeremiah Robinson-Earl last year. By no means are the two bigs they drafted last year any reason to pass on the top three projected in this month's draft, but the Thunder have options if they want to try to secure Morant 2.0 with the second pick.
Giddey is a budding star in the making and showcased his incredible passing and vision in the first half of his first season, leading all rookies in assists before being sidelined with a hip injury in February. It's clear he'll have the ball in his hands with Gilgeous-Alexander also getting plenty of touches.
It's not necessarily who fits right now with the team. The Thunder are still a few years and a handful of draft picks shy of putting a playoff-caliber team on the court.
Let's say OKC takes Ivey at No. 2. There are still plenty of options at picks Nos. 12 and 34 to add size to the roster. Duke forward A.J. Griffin (6-foot-6, 222 pounds), Memphis center Jalen Duren (6-11, 250 pounds) and Duke center Mark Williams (7-0, 242 pounds) are all options at pick No. 12, and 7-1, 245-pound Walker Kessler (who led the country in blocks and is a projected late first-rounder) could still be there at pick No. 34 if he slides into the second round.
On paper, it doesn't make sense for the Thunder to take Ivey at No. 2, especially with Holmgren or Banchero on the board. Presti doesn't necessarily go by the books, and Ivey could be a piece to a much bigger picture.
Multiple teams are already eyeing next year's draft with a generational talent in 7-foot-2 point-forward Victor Wembanyama finally hitting the NBA scene. Not to mention the rest of the projected top five is littered with talent from point guard Scoot Henderson already dominating the G League and Amen and Ausar Thompson creating NBA buzz in Overtime's OTE league.
With so much talent on the board for the 2023 draft, a lot of the same teams that were in rebuild mode this past season will probably look to rinse and repeat to secure a high draft slot in 2023.
The most likely scenario on June 23 is the Thunder will take either Smith, Holmgren or Banchero with the second pick and possibly trade picks Nos. 12 and 34 and move up for a similar guard like Ivey or Shaedon Sharpe (who has a ton of question marks surrounding him).
If they don't want to take the gamble on Sharpe and want to keep the late lottery pick, OKC could target 6-foot-5 combo guard Malaki Branham or 6-5 guard Johnny Davis with the 12th pick.
Whatever the Thunder do, nothing should come as a surprise. This draft class is part of the bigger picture Presti and his staff have planned for the future, even if it is Ivey's name NBA commissioner Adam Silver announces at No. 2 on draft night.