NBA franchise fortunes will soon change—at least one in a massive way.
Whoever gets the No. 1 pick will keep it under lock and key until they're allowed to invest it in French super-prospect Victor Wembanyama. He has once-in-a-generation type of potential, and the list of the league's players who would be off-limits in a Wembanyama deal can probably be counted on one hand—maybe without even using all five digits.
He'll drive the bulk of draft discussions leading up to both Tuesday's lottery and the actual talent grab on June 22. Still, the Wemby sweepstakes are far from the only plot line worth tracking over the next month-plus.
Who Gets Wemby?
It's impossible to speak about Wembanyama at this point and not sound hyperbolic.
The Ringer's Kevin O'Connor dubbed Wembanyama "the NBA's greatest prospect in decades" and a "potential GOAT." That should come off as something between extreme optimism and outright click-bait, but in Wembanyama's case, seemingly crazed hype is actually well-deserved.
He is a 7'5" teenager with a sweeping 8'0" wingspan and a skill set that just might break basketball. He offers everything from shot-creation and three-level scoring to elite paint protection and grab-and-go rebounding. He dunk-tipped his own missed step-back three earlier this season; he'll do things on the hardwood that basketball lifers can't remember ever seeing.
"He's a freak," Dirk Nowitzki told Tim Reynolds of the Associated Press. "I mean, unbelievable. You always think you've seen it all during your life and your career and history of the league, and then somebody else comes along. Kevin Durant comes along, a 7'2" two-guard. Now we have a [7'5"] two-guard. … This can be his league for a long, long time."
Whatever you hear of Wembanyama over the next month-plus, believe it—no matter how outlandish it may initially sound. If health isn't an issue, he'll be Hall of Fame-bound.
Winning this lottery will be truly transformational. He could put certain lottery teams into next season's championship conversation. For the rest, he'll put them on the path toward title contention. He is a one-of-one superstar. Whoever is fortunate enough to land him could be celebrating their lottery winnings for a lifetime.
Who Goes Second?
The early discourse around this draft class opened with two names: Wembanyama and Scoot Henderson.
It's possible those two will still lead the class when the actual picks are made, but Henderson is no longer a lock at No. 2.
He had a solid second season with the G League Ignite, but it wasn't spectacular. His per-game averages of 17.6 points and 6.4 assists are good, but not great. Their shine is also dimmed a bit by some shaky outside shooting (32.4 percent) and turnover troubles (3.3 giveaways per game).
This opened the door to other prospects entering the mix for the second overall pick. In March, The Athletic's Sam Vecenie relayed that Alabama swingman Brandon Miller had narrowed the gap to the point that "a number of lead front-office executives as well as high-level scouts ... either think the margin between Miller and Henderson is razor thin or just have Miller ahead at this point."
Henderson is a 6'2" floor general with elite explosiveness (think of the prime Russell Westbrook and Derrick Rose level), hyper-competitiveness and the elusiveness to consistently create scoring chances. Miller is a 6'9" two-way playmaker who could become an annual All-Star if he harnesses his outside shot (25 percent in his final nine outings) and tightens his handle to create more separation.
Both appear to be high-end building blocks, but given the narrow gap between them and their different sizes and styles, you wonder if the needs of the team in the No. 2 slot will ultimately settle the score.
Who Rounds out the Top Five?
Get past Wembanyama, and there are more names to know in this prospect pool than Henderson and Miller.
The Association's next pair of twin brothers, Amen and Ausar Thompson of Overtime Elite, will both have fans in the top five—if not the top three. Each aces the eye test at 6'7" and 200-plus pounds with elite athleticism. Amen typically slots in a pinch higher than Ausar on most big boards, as he's generally regarded as the better dribbler and distributor, but NBA teams could see it differently.
Houston big man Jarace Walker is a 6'8", 240-pound wrecking ball with fluidity and skill to complement the force in his game. Arkansas' Anthony Black is a 6'7" lead guard who will elevate his teammates with his passing alone. Villanova's Cam Whitmore is a 6'7" wing with explosive hops and both a high floor (due to his defense and power) and high ceiling (his handles and shot-making are major swing skills).
UCF's Taylor Hendricks could log minutes anywhere along the frontcourt and be a dream screen-setter since he can pop out to the perimeter and roll to the rim. Kentucky's Cason Wallace is a hyper-disruptive defender who can score on the move and create shots. Kansas' Gradey Dick is a 6'8" sharpshooter with excellent vision and a knack for moving off the ball.
So, even if teams are drafting outside of the Wembanyama-Henderson-Miller range, they'll have chances to add a difference-maker. They just need to sort out which of these prospects stands out from the rest.
Who Delivers the Draft's First Stunner?
The deeper we get into draft season, the more susceptible we all become to groupthink.
We're following the same experts, reading the same mocks and breaking down the same big boards. We eventually convince ourselves that we know when, where and how each prospect is supposed to land.
Then, NBA commissioner Adam Silver starts announcing the picks, and we're all blown away by the twists and turns we never thought to anticipate. That's when it sinks in—every single franchise has its own prospect ranking, and they could read a lot differently than the ones we've been tracking throughout the pre-draft circuit.
Prospects will inevitably go higher than we expect. It happens every year. And once that first shockwave gets sent out, the draft landscape can keep shifting in surprising ways.
So, who's the prospect who could jump five, 10 or 20 spots from their projected landing spot?
Jordan Hawkins had some magical moments in UConn's run to the national title. Does a team with a top-10 pick want some of that magic? NBA teams waited too long on Malaki Branham last year, allowing the San Antonio Spurs to turn the No. 20 pick into a player who netted 20-plus points nine times between February and April. Could that nudge someone toward taking an early look at Ohio State's latest surprise one-and-done player, Brice Sensabaugh?
Could a lottery team see enough in GG Jackson's age, tools and upside to overlook his shooting woes and uninspiring defense? Will Keegan Murray's strong season in Sacramento convince someone to spend a lottery pick on his twin brother, Kris? There wasn't much difference in the counting categories during their respective final go-rounds at Iowa.
Draft-night surprises are coming. If they surface early enough, they might take the draft board in directions no one could anticipate.
Which Picks Are for Sale—and Who's Buying?
When you think of the NBA draft, you usually picture some forlorn franchise finding new hope in the form of a top prospect.
That's far from the event's only source of excitement, though, as it always sparks a flurry of wheeling and dealing. Teams can trade up or down the board, turn draft picks into established players or even swap out this year's picks for future selections.
Still, it takes (at least) two clubs to get trades done, so who might be interested in flipping picks for current contributors? And which future-focused franchises are willing to flip win-now players for long-term lottery tickets?
The Dallas Mavericks need polished players to put around Luka Dončić (and maybe Kyrie Irving) in the worst kind of way. If they can keep their top-10 protected pick away from the New York Knicks, they plan to "explore trade prospects" with it, per Marc Stein.
The need for instant-impact players is even greater with the Portland Trail Blazers, assuming, of course, they still view 32-year-old Damian Lillard as their centerpiece. That seems to be the plan, as The Athletic's Jason Quick reported the pick "will likely" be in play unless it lands at No. 1.
Those are the obvious candidates to trade their picks. Here's a less obvious one to watch: the Houston Rockets. For whatever reason, they are extra eager to snap out of their rebuild. They have mulled over the idea of moving Jalen Green, the No. 2 pick in 2021, to help get "established star talent," per Yahoo Sports' Jake Fischer. If Green is on the table, it feels relatively safe to assume Houston's draft pick is, too.
With these candidates (and more) perhaps interested in trading today's production for tomorrow's potential, who might land on the other side of those deals? Long-term rebuilders are always an option (the San Antonio Spurs seem in no rush to compete), but so are blow-up candidates, like the Chicago Bulls or Toronto Raptors. If they populate the trade market with difference-makers, they'll be on the lookout for prime draft assets.
Zach Buckley covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @ZachBuckleyNBA.