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Zion Williamson or Anthony Davis? Why the No. 1 pick is more valuable to most NBA teams

With one notable exception.

Anthony Davis wants out of New Orleans, and there’s an easy argument to be made that given his age (25) and status as one the five best players alive, he’s the biggest superstar to hit the NBA trade market in decades.

The Pelicans have two options: deal Davis before February’s trade deadline, or hold out until the offseason. If New Orleans waits, they get to see who lands the No. 1 pick in the draft lottery.

Winning the No. 1 pick means the rights to Zion Williamson. The Duke forward has separated himself from his peers during a sensational freshman season, proving he’s so much more than just a dunker. Williamson has been as statistically dominant as any college player in recent memory, showcasing a robust skill set and team-first attitude in addition to his unparalleled physical gifts. He looks like everything a team would want out of a franchise player.

This leads to an obvious question: would a team that wins the lottery trade that pick for Davis? This is particularly prescient for the New York Knicks, who currently have the worst record in the NBA and have been mentioned as one of the biggest Davis suitors outside of the Lakers.

Would a team really rather have an unproved 18-year-old who struggles to shoot from the perimeter instead of a future Hall of Famer like Davis? Most should, and here’s why.

Zion has two big advantages on Davis: youth and contract

Williamson doesn’t turn 19 years old until after the draft, so team that gets him should have the opportunity to build around him for at least seven years. This is Davis’ seventh year in New Orleans.

NBA rookie contracts are for four years. After that, a player enters restricted free agency, which gives his incumbent team the right to match any contract from another club. The only way to get around that is for a player to sign a one-year qualifying offer that would allow him to be an unrestricted free agent when it ends.

There’s simply too much risk for any star player to go that route. The real money is in your second contract, which is why Davis signed a five-year, $145 million deal with the Pelicans back in 2015, even though they hadn’t won a playoff game to date.

By contrast, how long would any team have to build around Davis? He’s on record saying he seeks a team that would consistently give him a chance to win a championship. Through his agent Rich Paul, Davis also desires a “first class organization” — which could just be code for a big market, most notably Los Angeles or New York. While there’s nothing stopping the Cavaliers, Suns, Hawks, or his hometown Bulls (who Davis reportedly has zero interest in) from offering the No. 1 pick for Davis, all signs point to Davis being a one-year rental that won’t sign a long-term deal after the 2019-20 season.

The Knicks’ situation is more complicated and more compelling

New York is always thinking big. It’s just that for the last 20 years or so, the Knicks tend to strike out on their plan. Perhaps that changes if they get the No. 1 pick and deal it for Davis. The top three teams in the draft lottery all have about a 14 percent chance at the No. 1 pick this year under the reformed odds, and that’s the position the Knicks currently sit in.

Getting Anthony Davis could be the first step in a potential superstar coup for New York. Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant are both unrestricted free agents this summer, and both players have already been loosely tied to the Knicks in the rumor mill. Land Davis first and suddenly New York has a much better chance at signing one of them.

The Knicks appear to be the only team with a realistic shot at the No. 1 pick who might opt to trade it for Davis. A superteam in New York actually coming to fruition? It sounds too good to be true, but it’s possible.

For almost any NBA team, save for the Lakers, Knicks, and a few other contenders, it’s more prudent to think long-term and build around Williamson.

Regardless, the Pelicans should wait and hold out for Zion

Kyle Kuzma and Lonzo Ball are fine. Jayson Tatum is terrific. Pretty much every other team in the league could also put together an attractive trade package. But for New Orleans, the best case scenario is to replace Davis with Williamson.

The Pelicans should be doing whatever they can to land Zion. That means tanking right now, and it also means holding on to Davis until the offseason to see if they can trade him for the rights to the No. 1 pick in June.

There is no certainty that Williamson’s impact in the NBA will ever come close to Davis’, but he does have the potential to be that type of franchise-changing player. Given his age, contract situation, and talent, Williamson is the biggest prize on the trade market for New Orleans.

So big, he’s arguably worth even more than Davis himself.