It is perennially an inexact science, but there are spots where projecting an NBA draft gets particularly sticky.
For Sam Vecenie, the Pelicans this summer are in just such a spot.
The CBS Sports analyst feels “pretty good” about Kentucky guard Jamal Murray going in the top five picks. Same for Croatian forward Dragan Bender. The top two picks, LSU’s Ben Simmons and Duke’s Brandon Ingram, are all but assured in some order.
But by the time Vecenie gets to the Pelicans’ sixth pick, the picture blurs.
“They end up always being the pivot point when I do mock drafts,” Vecenie said.
That’s in part because if the Pelicans are shopping for perimeter players, it’s unclear which of the top options in the June 23 draft — Murray, Providence point guard Kris Dunn, Oklahoma shooting guard Buddy Hield and California wing Jaylen Brown — will be available at six.
And it’s in part because if Bender falls out of the top five — or another big man catches New Orleans’ eye — the Pelicans could eschew the perimeter altogether and opt for a frontcourt partner for franchise forward Anthony Davis.
A look at the options the Pelicans could be weighing:
If New Orleans looks to the perimeter, it’s almost certain that at least one of Dunn, Brown, Hield and Murray will be available.
In his most recent mock draft, Vecenie has the Pelicans selecting Dunn, the one true point guard in that lot and the player considered the most NBA-ready point guard in the draft.
The 6-foot-4 Dunn, who has drawn comparisons to the Wizards’ John Wall, is the most athletic and explosive guard in the draft, Vecenie said. He has “some of the best vision” available, he said.
“It’s relatively easy to see him fitting with Anthony Davis in the pick-and-roll, just because they’re so athletic,” Vecenie said. “They can both attack the rim. They can both do a lot of different things. You can give teams a lot of different looks.”
If Dunn is off the board — ESPN.com’s Chad Ford moved him up to Boston in the No. 3 spot in the mock draft he released Friday — Murray might be the Pelicans’ best bet, if he’s available.
“I think Jamal Murray is their best option because of positional versatility, the ability to play him on or off the ball, with Jrue Holiday there,” Ford said. “And then Buddy Hield’s probably No. 2 for them. But Jamal Murray, to me he’s a more well-rounded player, and if he’s there at six, I think they’d be crazy not to take him.”
Ford and Vecenie both have Murray going to the Minnesota Timberwolves with the No. 5 pick.
That could leave Hield available, and the Oklahoma guard fits the Pelicans’ profile. His outside shooting — he made 147 3-pointers as a senior, 22 more than any other player in Division I — could create floor space for a team in need of it.
And at age 22, Hield fits the Pelicans’ recent preference for older players. At 23, Davis is the youngest player on the New Orleans roster.
“I could definitely see them going Buddy,” Vecenie said. “It wouldn’t surprise me, and I don’t think it would be a terrible pick by any means. If they took Jamal, and that was the situation, I’d probably say it was an A-minus pick. If they took Buddy, I’d probably say it was a B pick.”
But might the Pelicans look beyond the perimeter?
Given coach Alvin Gentry’s preference to limit Davis’ time at center — he played a little more than half his minutes there this season — New Orleans could opt to add a bigger body.
“It wouldn’t even surprise me if, through some weird circumstance Buddy and Kris Dunn were both off the board, they went big,” Vecenie said. “They really do want to play Anthony at (power forward), it seems like, so it wouldn’t surprise me if they decided ‘Maybe we’ll take some pressure off Anthony inside and take this guy who can protect the rim and do a lot of the center duties and let Anthony float a little bit more.’”
But with so much money tied up in centers — Omer Asik is signed through 2020 on a deal that averages more than $11 million per season; Alexis Ajinca through 2019 on a contract that averages $4.9 million — New Orleans seems more likely to look elsewhere in the frontcourt.
With Ryan Anderson considered likely to leave in free agency, the Pelicans could seek a replacement “stretch four,” a 3-point-shooting threat who could play power forward when Davis is at center.
The Pelicans have scouted one such player, Washington forward Marquese Chriss, in a workout in California, and he’s one of the draft’s fastest risers.
DraftExpress’ Jonathan Givony this week moved the 6-foot-10 Chriss to third in his mock draft, and Ford has him fourth.
Another option, if he slips down the board, is Bender, who could go as high as third to Boston or could slip into New Orleans’ range.
The 7-1, 216-pound Bender has drawn comparisons to Knicks rookie Kristaps Porzingis, but ESPN analyst Fran Fraschilla — who specializes in evaluating foreign players — said Bender is more of a pure stretch four, where Porzingis is an inside/out threat.
“(Bender) can shoot the ball well,” Fraschilla said. “He moves his feet well and he can defend. I think he’s going to be a better defender than people think, but he’s not nearly the finished product right now that Porzingis was a year ago, and in that sense it’s unfair to compare them.”
It’s anybody’s guess which way the Pelicans might turn at No. 6. But they figure to have no shortage of options.
“I think there’s a lot of good players (in the draft), guys that potentially are going to be star players,” Gentry said last month. “So you’re going to get a good player in the position that we’re going to pick anyway.”