With the first pick in Thursday night’s NBA draft, the Philadelphia 76ers took Markelle Fultz, the sure-thing guard from the University of Washington. The high selection continued a recent league tradition. Last year, too, the Sixers picked first; the two years before that, they picked third. This is by design. Philadelphia’s strategy, installed by the former analytically minded general manager Sam Hinkie, has involved fielding overmatched squads that lose at record or near-record rates and give the team the best chance to attain high picks in the league’s draft lottery. Those picks, the thinking goes, offer chances to get superstars, and superstars are what champions need. Philadelphia fans nicknamed the plan “The Process.” Elsewhere it is known, more pejoratively, as tanking.
The arrival of Fultz—whom the Sixers were able to draft after trading Boston, the initial holders of the first spot, the number-three selection and a future first-round pick—is largely thought to signal the end of the team’s talent-accumulation era and the beginning of an attempt to produce a competitive lineup. Fultz joins what has slowly become a promising, if fragile, roster. Ben Simmons, last June’s top pick who missed his entire rookie season with a foot injury, stands six feet 10 inches tall and flashed such a gift for passing in his lone year at Louisiana State University that Philadelphia is considering making him an abnormally large point guard. The seven-foot center Joel Embiid, the Sixers’ top pick from two years prior, has played only 31 games in his career to this point while dealing with leg injuries, but those games have been remarkable: deft footwork, effortless scoring, obliterating defense. Dario Saric, a Croatian drafted in 2014 who arrived stateside last season, has a long reach and an understanding of angle and tempo. It is the kind of group that basketball obsessives can spend hours thinking about, a collage of pure potential.