CHICAGO — For the fourth time in franchise history, the NBA draft will begin when the Orlando Magic are on the clock. And while Auburn forward Jabari Smith Jr. has emerged as the closest to a consensus top prospect among scouts polled by B/R for this 2022 class, early word among rival executives and league personnel at this week’s NBA Draft Combine suggests a strong possibility Orlando will favor Gonzaga 7-footer Chet Holmgren.
There’s little consensus of how the top three choices will unfold between Orlando, Oklahoma City (drafting No. 2) and Houston (No. 3), but most NBA figures believe those picks will be some order of Smith, Holmgren and Duke forward Paolo Banchero. Yet league figures have consistently mentioned the Magic front office’s affinity for length, particularly length on the perimeter, as a clue they’ll target Holmgren—considered to have the most guard-like skill package of the trio and the most superstar potential.
Magic president Jeff Weltman and general manager John Hammond piloted a Bucks front office that selected Giannis Antetokounmpo back in 2013 (Weltman departed Milwaukee a few weeks before that draft to take a prominent role in Toronto’s front office). The year prior, the Bucks chose UNC forward John Henson and his 7’5” wingspan. Hammond’s Bucks then selected the interminable Thon Maker at No. 10 in 2016.
Orlando’s leadership has continued to favor lanky defenders like Holmgren ever since Weltman was named Magic president in 2017, selecting Jonathan Isaac and Mo Bamba in back-to-back drafts.
Holmgren’s remarkably long wingspan, spanning 7’6”, helped him become an elite shot-blocker at Gonzaga. While questions abound regarding his thin frame, there is little doubt among NBA talent evaluators that the 20-year-old will present a threatening presence at the rim, particularly as a weak-side help defender.
The idea of incorporating Smith or Holmgren into Orlando’s rebuild has sparked an expectation among league personnel that Bamba, a restricted free agent this summer, is likely to depart the franchise, especially after being considered a trade candidate prior to February’s trade deadline.
The additional connective tissue between Holmgren and the Magic is the prospect’s close relationship with Orlando point guard Jalen Suggs, the No. 5 pick in the 2021 draft. Holmgren and Suggs both starred at Minnehaha Academy in Minneapolis, where the two players overlapped during a dominant stretch of four straight state titles.
Suggs also spent his lone season of college basketball at Gonzaga, and it’s believed that his positive experience in Spokane played a key factor in Holmgren’s commitment to Mark Few and the Zags.
While Orlando secured the top prize of the draft lottery, the Sacramento Kings may have been the event’s biggest winner, leaping from the seventh-best odds to the No. 4 pick, ahead of a season in which the Kings are expected to push for a postseason berth that would end their 16-year drought.
That goal underscored Sacramento’s head coaching search, which landed on Golden State assistant Mike Brown. The Kings have already announced the addition of Denver Nuggets and Team Nigeria assistant Jordi Fernandez as associate head coach, and Brown is expected to bring on other playoff-experienced members from his Nigeria national team staff to aid Sacramento’s playoff push, sources said.
Given that, there’s a strong belief among rival teams that Sacramento will explore trading the fourth selection, either out of the draft entirely for an impact veteran or down later in the lottery to net a contributing rotation player in the process. The expectation of Smith, Holmgren and Banchero representing the top three puts the Kings front office in a strong trade position, where the uncertainty of the fourth selection could prompt eager teams to leap up to secure their prized prospect. The draft, in one sense, could begin in earnest after the perceived top three are off the board.
THE CURIOUS CASE OF SHAEDON SHARPE
Could that prized prospect at No. 4 be Shaedon Sharpe? Having never played a game for Kentucky this season, Sharpe’s pro day on Monday night was lined with NBA personnel eager for their first look at the electrifying athlete since he played at Nike's Peach Jam tournament in July 2021.
Sharpe measured at 6’5¼” with shoes and a 6’11½” wingspan, the fifth-longest of any guard at the combine. And during his workout, Sharpe drew near-unanimous praise from NBA onlookers for his shot-making, footwork and athletic ability.
But there are questions among league talent evaluators about the consistency of Sharpe’s jumper. Several scouts contacted by B/R noted how difficult it will be to project his skill set at the NBA game level. The upside is clear, but the risk is equally obvious. A front office on unstable footing or a team with direct intentions of competing for the 2023 postseason will think far more than twice about chancing a top selection on Sharpe.
All that being said, there’s definitive belief Sharpe’s range begins at No. 4, with several team executives telling B/R he has the talent and athletic profile that could have been worthy of the No. 1 pick if he had played at Kentucky.
Being such a mystery does afford Sharpe a unique advantage compared to his fellow top prospects. A savvy agent would use Sharpe’s case to steer him to particular workouts of teams he desires to play for, while doing the same with sharing his medical information. Teams will try to evaluate Sharpe in private one-on-one and three-on-three settings, but that will be up for negotiation like it is for all elite draft prospects.
In addition to Sacramento at No. 4, league personnel have pegged the Portland Trail Blazers and New Orleans Pelicans—picking seventh and eighth, respectively—as strong trade candidates.
Both the Blazers, starring Damian Lillard, and Pelicans, fresh off a playoff appearance, have designs on competing for the postseason. And akin to the Kings, there’s a likelihood that both Portland’s and New Orleans’ front offices could move those selections for an established veteran or to trade down while adding another rotation piece along the way.
This draft is considered deep in talent between Nos. 12 and 40. Multiple agents and league executives at the combine told B/R they expect varying rankings from each team, where players that one front office deemed in the lottery may actually be available in the 20s, and vice versa.
That dynamic could create a lot of movement in the draft. There are also several cap-conscious teams that will be driven to move their first-rounders for future selections, sources said.
Oklahoma City, holding the Nos. 12 and 30 picks, Memphis, with picks Nos. 22 and 29, and San Antonio, owners of the ninth, 20th and 25th selections, have all been described as teams to monitor for trade-up scenarios.
Jake Fischer has covered the NBA for Bleacher Report since 2019 and is the author of Built to Lose: How the NBA's Tanking Era Changed the League Forever.