NBA Draft: With Victor Wembanyama projected at No. 1, uncertainty looms for the rest of the top 10

Next Monday, just under two weeks before the NBA Draft on June 22, a large number of scouts and other team personnel will travel to their organization’s headquarters for front-office meetings and big-board planning sessions, and that’s when the bulk of legitimate offseason chatter will begin to buzz. Trade calls between teams will have greater weight and substance as opposed to the general feelers that have taken place since the Draft Combine. Many executives around the league are anticipating quite a bit of movement throughout the first round, beginning at the No. 3 selection ever since Portland leaped to that spot during the Draft Lottery in Chicago.

While the Trail Blazers have signaled an openness to move that No. 3 pick — general manager Joe Cronin told Yahoo Sports in May his team is “trying to win and trying to maximize Damian [Lillard’s] timeline” — rival teams are skeptical Portland will find a suitable trade partner for that coveted selection before the Blazers come on the clock. There is no straightforward answer to what Charlotte will decide at No. 2 with many mock drafts pinning Alabama freshman Brandon Miller as the Hornets’ likely direction as a perceived better fit next to All-Star point guard LaMelo Ball instead of G League Ignite guard Scoot Henderson. Yahoo Sports' Krysten Peek has Henderson projected to go No. 2. That level of uncertainty could present a challenge for any team hoping to jump to the third pick without a clear idea of which prospects will still be on the board until those five minutes start ticking away.

Charlotte plans to host twins Amen and Ausar Thompson of Overtime Elite on Friday, league sources told Yahoo Sports, before welcoming Henderson to its facility Sunday, followed by Miller next Tuesday. The Hornets typically land among the league’s annual leaders in terms of pre-draft workouts. And with Charlotte also holding the No. 27 pick, plus three picks in the top half of the second round, the Hornets’ gym has featured dozens of prospects over the past few weeks since the combine, with no goal to slow the number of players visiting town.

Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard runs up court during the first half of an NBA basketball game against the Phoenix Suns in Portland, Ore., Friday, Oct. 21, 2022. (AP Photo/Craig Mitchelldyer)

There’s plenty of additional context hanging in the background of Charlotte’s prime draft positioning, once the San Antonio Spurs select French sensation Victor Wembanyama with the No. 1 pick as expected. The looming possibility of the Hornets’ sale from majority owner Michael Jordan to minority partner Gabe Plotkin and Hawks investor Rick Schnall is an unusual circumstance clouding the critical franchise decision-making that comes with a top draft pick.

There has already been plenty of speculation among team staffers regarding potential replacements for general manager Mitch Kupchak and head coach Steve Clifford, both of whom have one more guaranteed year on their contracts for the 2023-24 season, sources said, for whenever any possible new management structure takes shape in Charlotte. Choosing between Henderson and Miller, or perhaps one of the Thompson twins, and then overseeing a possible contract extension for Ball and a perhaps new deal for forward Miles Bridgeswho sat out last season following ugly domestic violence charges — are massive responsibilities for any team’s long-term team-building strategy, especially if leading voices in the front office aren’t assured to be involved in the planning process beyond this offseason.

There’s nothing promised about Portland’s future at this juncture, either. But one detail has emerged from early trade conversations around the league: Trail Blazers officials have left inquiring teams with the impression that Shaedon Sharpe, the No. 7 pick in last year’s draft, is off limits in any dialogue regarding the No. 3 pick.

The Rockets are fielding trade interest for the fourth overall selection, as well. It’s hard to lock any team in the top 10 as a strong bet to remain where it's been slated since those pingpong balls bounced out of the Smartplay machine at McCormick Place.

Detroit is known to have designs on improving next season, fresh off signing Monty Williams to the richest coaching contract in NBA history and then luring former Houston head coach Stephen Silas as Williams’ associate head coach — despite known overtures from Boston for Silas.

The Magic at No. 6 are also armed with the No. 11 pick, thanks to the 2021 trade deadline deal that sent Nikola Vučević to Chicago, which may be enough capital to move up a few positions. Indiana, with the seventh choice plus picks Nos. 26 and 29, was quite active searching for answers at starting power forward before February’s trade deadline, sources said, and has made no secret about continuing those efforts this summer.

The Wizards have three new top executives in president Michael Winger, general manager Will Dawkins and vice president of player personnel Travis Schlenk leading the selection process at No. 8.

Utah has a bounty of future draft ammunition, in addition to the No. 9 choice, where the Jazz can entertain a variety of options to improve a restructured roster if they intend to step closer to the playoffs.

Dallas is widely known to be evaluating trade possibilities with the 10th pick to bring reinforcements to Luka Dončić, as well as All-Star guard Kyrie Irving, who will become an unrestricted free agent.

Word of Irving’s apparent attempts to lure LeBron James from Los Angeles to Dallas, as reported by The Athletic and Bleacher Report, certainly made headlines Monday. A reunion for the former Cavaliers teammates has been a juicy talking point ever since Irving seriously considered declining his player option with Brooklyn for the 2022-23 season, sources told Yahoo Sports, to then join James in Los Angeles at a significant discount in salary. Alas, Irving returned to the Nets and requested a trade when negotiations for a long-term contract extension faltered with Brooklyn brass before the February deadline, which has since left both Dallas and Irving with the strongest incentive to find a new agreement before the 2023-24 campaign begins. The cap mechanics required to land James, however, not to mention the difficulty of filling a roster around three hefty contracts under the league’s new collective bargaining agreement, plus Dallas’ depleted stash of trade assets, make any photoshops of James standing alongside his old running mate in a Mavericks jersey seem like nothing more than a fantasy.

What other options Irving has outside of Dallas remain to be seen. There are few teams projected to hold the maximum salary space Irving is said to desire. The Rockets harbor plans to invest in winning additions to Houston’s three-year rebuild, but have so far only been linked to the franchise’s former All-Star centerpiece, James Harden, as well as other potential veteran newcomers who could slot alongside Harden, should he spurn Philadelphia on the open market. Would the Rockets eye Irving if they don’t land Harden? Would Phoenix attempt to bring Irving and Durant back together again?

While Bucks guard Khris Middleton has been mentioned by league personnel as a possible target for Houston in free agency, Middleton’s inclusion during meetings with Milwaukee’s final candidates to replace former head coach Mike Budenholzer strongly signaled a mutual interest in keeping the All-Star guard next to Giannis Antetokounmpo. And there is a growing sense among league executives that Middleton will return to the Bucks on a long-term agreement. Another key Milwaukee starter, however, sharp-shooting center Brook Lopez, is a veteran free agent on Houston’s radar, league sources told Yahoo Sports.

There will be no shortage of players on the market connected to the Rockets between now and the opening of free agency June 30. Houston is projected to hold the largest amount of cap space in the NBA — over $60 million in wiggle room — with expectations to spend and improve. No agent could manufacture a better landing spot than Houston either for a client’s payday, or as potential leverage over other teams hoping to obtain that client’s services. The Rockets, though, are prioritizing adding a proven table-setting point guard, then looking to acquire upgrades at the wing and center position, sources said. And for that, should Harden ultimately stick with the 76ers, Raptors point guard Fred VanVleet has often been linked to Houston as a secondary option who could perhaps slot into the team’s lead ball-handling role.

On the wing, the Rockets do hold an interest in sharpshooter Cam Johnson, sources said, although Brooklyn personnel has indicated the Nets' plan to match any realistic offer sheet for the restricted free agent, who was part of the franchise’s return for Kevin Durant. Dillons Brooks, last seen as Memphis’ starting small forward, is another Rockets target, sources told Yahoo Sports, and appears to be a more realistic candidate to join Houston this summer.