- The Washington Times - Monday, June 22, 2009

In an NBA Draft that - like many before it - features one perceived franchise savior and only a handful of elite prospects followed by many question marks, the forecast for Thursday is anything but predictable, and many trades are expected.

In 2006, there were 15 draft-day trades, and this year’s draft is expected to rival or surpass that. Some teams low in the draft - or without a first-round pick - badly want to move up to upgrade their rosters. Some teams higher in the draft would prefer to move down to get more picks and bolster their rebuilding projects.

In the middle of it all is the Washington Wizards, who hold the fifth pick but are in one of the more favorable positions in the draft. Thanks to their circumstances, they could be key players in the draft, affecting not only their future but those of their counterparts as well.

The Wizards - who endured a 19-63 injury-plagued season - are healthy again and boast a roster that features three All-Star caliber players: Gilbert Arenas, Antawn Jamison and Caron Butler. After that, the Wizards have five more seasoned veterans and six players 24 or younger who are being developed as key backups.

With the team healthy, Wizards management seems to believe they will go from basement dweller to championship contender - top-five pick or not.

The Wizards could use the pick to address their depth. The front-runner to be the No. 1 selection, Blake Griffin, will be gone by the time the Wizards are on the clock. Believed to be available around that pick are shooting guard James Harden; point guards Tyreke Evans, Brandon Jennings, Stephen Curry and Jonny Flynn; swingman DeMar DeRozan; and power forward Jordan Hill.

Or Washington could - and multiple league insiders believe they will try - trade the pick for a veteran that can contribute right away, just as they did in 2004 when they traded the fifth pick (used on Devin Harris), Jerry Stackhouse and Christian Laettner to Dallas for Jamison.

“We’re in a good spot,” Wizards president Ernie Grunfeld said. “It remains to be seen what opportunities there will be and what comes to fruition. But we have options, and that’s a good thing.”

Teams as high as Minnesota at No. 6 (the Timberwolves also own the 18th and 28th picks), New York at No. 8 and Boston (which has no first-round pick) are said to have interest in Washington’s pick. Minnesota reportedly wants to dangle the Wizards’ pick and the sixth pick in front of Memphis to land the No. 2 pick and the player - either Ricky Rubio or Hasheem Thabeet - it covets.

Depending on the report, the Knicks also have a strong desire to select anyone from Rubio to Curry to Hill. Landing two top-10 picks would position them to take two of those players or to use both picks as trade bait to move up.

The Celtics traded the 28th pick to Minnesota as part of the Kevin Garnett deal. Boston reportedly would like to land a lottery pick to ensure it continues reloading while remaining among the league’s elite.

“A lot of teams want that fifth pick,” one league official said on the condition of anonymity. “It’s rare a winning team can be in the position to select fifth, and if the Wizards are interested in moving back, it’s a good opportunity for some teams.”

The Wizards’ financial situation could be a factor. With 14 players under contract, Washington already has $75.9 million committed to salaries for next season. The luxury tax spending threshold is expected to drop to roughly $69 million, and teams are permitted to carry only 15 players, so Washington could need to make a move to gain flexibility going into next season.

But Grunfeld said that perception is overblown and that the Wizards are under no pressure to deal the pick for financial or roster reasons.

“We have all summer and training camp to sort out who we’ll carry on the regular-season maximum 15,” Grunfeld said. “A lot of opportunities will present themselves. We like several players that are expected to be around at number five.

“A lot of people are talking, and there are a lot of rumors, but we’ll do what we feel is best for our ballclub.”

• Mike Jones can be reached at mjones@washingtontimes.com.

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