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The Biggest Unanswered Questions on Draft Day

How high will Darius Garland rise? Will the Pelicans deal no. 4 to get Zion immediate help? That and more of the most pressing questions ahead of the 2019 NBA draft.

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The draft is the closest thing to Christmas in the NBA outside of ... the NBA on Christmas. But the presents are still wrapped, and we’re getting a little antsy. Here are six questions we can’t wait to see answered during Thursday’s draft.

Should we buy into all the Darius Garland hype?

I watched Darius Garland play in person last November, against USC and fellow highly touted NBA prospect Kevin Porter Jr. in what would be one of two meaningful games the Vanderbilt freshman would play as an NCAA student-athlete. He played with a familiar poise and understood how to get to where he wanted to be on the floor as a scorer. He was lithe but willing and able to absorb contact. It was like watching CJ McCollum’s game in Jeff Teague’s body. His abilities as a facilitator weren’t nearly as apparent as his skill as a scorer: He had one assist and six turnovers in the game, an 82-78 Commodores win. Still, he demonstrated enough to walk away with a positive assessment. Three games later, he fell off the map, sitting out the rest of the season with a torn meniscus. He was largely projected to land in the back half of the draft lottery then, even before news of the injury.

Now, the consensus has shifted him as far up as the top four. ESPN reported on Tuesday that teams like Minnesota, Chicago, and Boston are all interested in moving up in order to land Garland. The 6-foot-2 guard skipped media availability in New York City on Wednesday to work out with the Knicks, who have the no. 3 pick in the draft. According to Marc Berman of the New York Post, there is a faction within the Knicks brass who believe Garland could be a better player for the team than R.J. Barrett, who appears primed to be New York’s selection on Thursday night.

Every draft has unique circumstances defined by its talent pool, but certain patterns and templates always emerge. And one of my favorites since the turn of the century has been the winning idea that, in certain circumstances, the less exposure, the better. If the draft is all about projection, there is nothing more tantalizing than talking yourself into a half-baked premise. Dante Exum, the no. 5 pick in the 2014 draft, hadn’t played a single competitive basketball game in nearly a calendar year before he was drafted—but what data was available was irresistible. He was a 6-foot-6 point guard with elite athletic gifts and poise in the pick-and-roll; one NBA GM said Exum was the closest he’d seen to a young Kobe Bryant. When an image, a comparison, an idea that vivid is planted, it can be hard not to run with it. What if Garland is McCollum in Teague’s body?

Perhaps the Garland hype is all smoke; maybe it’s another point guard in the 2019 class, like Coby White, who will actually be the big riser Thursday night. But there is certainly precedent for what is happening.

Who will the Pelicans end up pairing with Zion on draft night?

Armed with the Lakers’ no. 4 pick and an executive VP in David Griffin who evidently is not afraid to shake things up, the Pelicans might just uproot the draft’s very foundations. New Orleans can hold on to its second pick in the top five and draft the best player available, but with so many potential suitors in line, it could be looking at a vastly different team on Thursday night than what it created just last Saturday.

One potential trade partner could be Indiana. As our own Kevin O’Connor reported on Tuesday, the Pacers have discussed a trade with the Pelicans for the no. 4 pick. While no names were explicitly mentioned, there is one clear target the Pelicans should covet: Myles Turner, who last season led the league in blocks per game and attempted 2.6 3-pointers per game at a 38.8 percent clip. Pairing Zion Williamson with a floor-spacing rim protector would help cover up some of Zion’s immediate NBA-level deficiencies while also giving him wide-open lanes down low to put his tanklike body to good use.

It’s an intriguing scenario and a window into just how varied the outcomes can be when building around a unique player like Zion. Williamson could be a franchise-changing presence if the team lets him be one. The haul the Pelicans got in return for Anthony Davis is Griffin’s biggest achievement in his first two months on the job, but what he’ll do with those assets could define the next decade of New Orleans basketball.

How many teams will trade up or down?

The Hawks have five picks in the 2019 draft, including three in the top 17. The Boston Celtics, currently sinking like the Titanic, have four picks—three in the top 22. The Sixers have five picks between nos. 24 and 54. The rent is too damn high, and these teams have too many damn draft picks.

Atlanta is young and in no rush to contend, but even Hawks GM Travis Schlenk probably doesn’t have the patience to develop that much fresh talent. The Celtics are reportedly about to lose their two most important players in Kyrie Irving and Al Horford, and now might try to recoup their losses—possibly with Garland, who has drawn comparisons to a young Kyrie. The Sixers may have a boatload of assets in this draft but appear firmly in win-now mode; they need one or two cheap and reliable options to augment their core; they don’t need five. Something has to give.

It may seem counterintuitive in a purportedly weak draft to move up when the difference in talent between the players available at the end of the lottery isn’t much greater than the ones available at the end of the first round. But the consensus in a team’s war room can differ greatly from the public consensus. Teams will do what they need to do to get the man they feel is right for the job. There were three trade-ups in last year’s lottery, whose swaps involved the rights to Luka Doncic, Trae Young, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Miles Bridges, Mikal Bridges, and Zhaire Smith. There could be even more on Thursday night.

How many teams will be cramming during the final stages of pre-agency?

For some teams, the draft is really just a means of tidying the house before company shows up. The Thunder are reportedly looking to make some draft-day deals to lighten their luxury tax burden after three consecutive first-round playoff exits. Rotation players like Steven Adams, Dennis Schröder, and Andre Roberson are all being floated, according to Sports Illustrated’s Jake Fischer.

The Lakers may not currently have a draft pick, but they will end up with a few by the end of Thursday night. Or, at least, they’d better. Rob Pelinka reportedly did not consider the salary cap thoroughly before signing off on the Anthony Davis trade. As a result, the team is pushing hard to pawn off its remaining contracts to other teams in hopes of creating enough cap space to sign a max free agent, and will need to acquire as many second-round picks as possible to: (1) fortify their bare-bones roster with cheap labor and (2) have the cap holds necessary to exceed the salary cap once free agency comes around.

Likewise, we could find out just how intent the Rockets are on acquiring Jimmy Butler during free agency, depending on the types of moves they make or don’t make. Butler could find his way to Houston the way Chris Paul did two years ago—by strong-arming a trade after opting into the final year of his contract. While it was reported last week that Butler intended to decline his player option to become an unrestricted free agent, there is still time for him to renege; two years ago, Paul informed the Clippers that he would decline his player option, only to opt to facilitate the trade he demanded less than a week later. Daryl Morey could go down that same path, but may very well find other avenues of creating cap space to facilitate the long-coveted star.

How many Mega Bemax players will be drafted this year?

It’s a tradition like every other: Once again, it’s time to think about the men in ostentatiously colorful Adriatic League jerseys! The tidbit has been shared ad nauseam at this point, but nine alumni of Mega Bemax, the Serbian club run by a sports agency, have been drafted by NBA teams since 2014, and all but one (Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot, drafted 24th in 2016) were selected in the second round. The fact that Mega Bemax has become a self-contained draft-and-stash emporium is impressive enough without noting that it has already produced one All-NBA-caliber player in Nikola Jokic. Shockingly, the 2018 draft featured zero prospects from the biggest NBA pipeline in the Adriatic. That will not only change, but history could potentially be made: Goga Bitadze, one of the most productive big men in the world outside the NBA, could be the first Mega player to be drafted in the lottery.

The club is known for bringing on the deep cuts, so one other player to look out for as a potential draft-and-stash is 20-year-old Frenchman Adam Mokoka, a strong and compact 6-foot-5 wing who has solid defensive instincts and ability, but will need to refine his jumper to make it in the league.

Which name will Mark Tatum have the most fun with in the second round?

Ah, another question I love to ponder. It could be a down draft year, but it’s actually a great time to be a fan of deputy commissioner Mark Tatum’s impeccable enunciation! There are some remarkable names in this class, from Alen Smailagic to Zylan Cheatham.

Here are a few names Tatum would absolutely crush:

  • Ignas Brazdeikis
  • Sagaba Konate
  • Simisola Shittu
  • Yovel Zoosman
  • Marcos Louzada Silva