NEW YORK — The midtown ballroom looked familiar, an array of lecterns and microphones for each customer invited to the annual NBA Draft green room to meet with the media before Thursday night’s proceedings. However, there was the usual air of uncertainty at this year’s event. With every draft pick starting with the No. 3 pick discussed in trade talks across the league, few players beyond presumed top pick Victor Wembanyama, G League Ignite guard Scoot Henderson and Alabama freshman Brandon Miller, who had any sense of confidence where they will land. Thursday evening.
“With all the trades that could happen, anything is possible,” Central Florida forward Taylor Hendricks, who was projected as a lottery pick, told Yahoo Sports. “You can be drafted to a team you didn’t even train for.”
Metropolitans 92 forward Bilal Coulibaly, Wembanyama’s teammate, appears to have one of the more fluid draft lineups of the prospects invited to the Barclays Center. Not only did Coulibaly, 18, help Wembanyama lead their club to the LNB Pro A finals, but they played together as just 13-year-olds to help win a national youth championship. The San Antonio Spurs have made calls in pursuit of a second lottery pick Thursday night, according to league sources, and many opposing front offices believe Coulibaly is their target to pair with Wembanyama again.
“To be teammates with him again would be great. One of the best starts for his career and for mine,” Wembanyama, 19, said.
The French phenomenon has been an ardent supporter of Coulibaly, takes to Twitter to suggest his running mate should be considered for a top-five selection. “He’s actually 6[-foot-]8, 7-3 wing catch. And you know, often players, they cheat with their goals. But we don’t do that in France,” Wembanyama said with a smile on Wednesday. “He probably looks small compared to me, but he’s actually not. Let me tell you, some people were shocked when they joined my team. He’s just so … he can be just as valuable to a team, I’m sure. His agility, athleticism, skills, speed, shooting, defense. He can guard four out of five positions, and he can play several positions in the attack.” And the future Spurs cornerstone said something that would make Golden State Warriors owner Joe Lacob blush. “[Coulibaly]’s just so complete as a player and he plays at a level – he performed against competition that is light years away from what other prospects are doing. Our pro league is light years away from many prospects in this draft class. So yes, I believe he’s top five.”
After Miller and Henderson hear their names called second and third in some order — with Miller seen as the likely No. 2 selection at this point — rival teams continue to predict Houston will select Overtime Elite guard Amen Thompson with the fourth choice. Coming into the clock at No. 5, Detroit appears to still have a handful of names under the Pistons’ consideration as rumors have spread around the league that Villanova wing Cam Whitmore might slide toward the 10th pick in the draft.
Jarace Walker, the leaping forward from the University of Houston, told Yahoo Sports that he believes his reach begins with the Pistons at the fifth pick. Some opposing team personnel have questioned that fit with the idea that Detroit is already assembling recent lottery picks in their frontcourt, such as Jalen Duren, Marvin Bagley and James Wiseman, plus another recent first-round pick in Isaiah Stewart. However, Walker believes he can add another dimension to the Pistons’ frontcourt with his ball-handling ability and slot more along the wing than Detroit’s other big men.
Walker also had a great visit with the Indiana Pacers, who pick No. 7 and have long been looking for a starting power forward to introduce into their lineup between All-Star point guards Tyrese Haliburton and Myles Turner. If Indiana holds onto the pick and Walker is still on the board, seventh place is seen around the league as Walker’s floor. “I guess you could say that,” the freshman said with a smile.
The Pacers’ seventh pick brought perhaps the most interesting news about Wednesday’s availability. Ausar Thompson, Amen’s twin brother and fellow Overtime Elite guard, had canceled a scheduled workout with Indiana last week, but Ausar told Yahoo Sports he was still meeting with Pacers officials. Indiana ended up sending a select group of personnel to Atlanta over the weekend to meet with him.
Ausar could very well follow his brother at the fifth pick to Detroit, knocking out Hendricks, Walker and Whitmore. Pistons general manager Troy Weaver is said to appreciate Thompson’s size at 6-6 with a 7-foot wingspan at the guard position. But the fact that Detroit values all four of those options had opened the Pistons to talks with the Utah Jazz to trade the No. 5 pick for the No. 9 and 16 picks.
Ausar initially canceled his Indiana workout, prompting some rival teams to wonder if he had secured a pledge from Orlando, which has the sixth pick. Ausar seems to fit the team-building mold that this Magic regime has followed lately. “They have so many long, athletic guys coming up and down the floor,” he told Yahoo Sports.
The Magic are actually considering guards with the size of No. 6. Arkansas playmaker Anthony Black had a strong visit with Orlando and believes he is very much in play for the sixth pick.
Black’s camp initially showed resistance to working out for the Magic, sources said, because of Orlando’s perceived sluggishness in the backcourt with a trio of first-round guards in Markelle Fultz, Jalen Suggs and Cole Anthony. Anthony will be extension eligible this summer and is considered to have a good relationship with the Magic front office, but Orlando has left various employees with the impression that drafting a guard like Ausar or Black would lead the Magic to explore trade options for one of the Suggs or Anthony.
“They didn’t tell me,” Black told Yahoo Sports, “but that’s what I figured they would do if they picked me.”
Baylor guard Keyonte George is another ball handler expected to be selected in the first half of the first round. The Lakers, No. 17, have been looking for trade routes to move up in the early teens, perhaps to take George, but he declined to say whether he had worked out for Los Angeles. George has also been linked to the Raptors at No. 13, but also chose not to extend his visit to Toronto. “Same thing,” George told Yahoo Sports. “I want to keep it to myself.”
There’s been plenty of conversation about the rise of Duke center Dereck Lively, who told Yahoo Sports he’s proud to cement himself as the best center in this class behind a generational prospect like Wembanyama. Lively has been linked as high as No. 10, possibly to Dallas or whichever team the Mavericks trade the pick to as Dallas continues to explore trade-down scenarios, sources said. “I’ve been told I can go anywhere from 10-14, and then I’ve been told I can go anywhere from 15-20, so we’ll have to wait and see,” Lively said.
Hendricks, who is slated to become the first UCF player selected in the first round in school history, has another fluid reach. Hendricks worked out for Detroit, Orlando (also with the 11th pick), Indiana, Dallas and then the Oklahoma City Thunder at No. 12. Hendricks said he was comfortable not expecting any particular outcome and just enjoying the night wherever he lands, but the 6-9 freshman said he thinks No. 12 to OKC could be his floor on draft night.