- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 19, 2009

The last time Flip Saunders sat on stage representing a team at the NBA Draft lottery, the Minnesota Timberwolves landed the fifth pick and went on to select future Hall of Famer Kevin Garnett.

When the NBA conducts the 2009 lottery Tuesday, Saunders again will be on stage, only this time he will represent his new team, the Washington Wizards. And team president Ernie Grunfeld hopes his new good luck charm helps the pingpong balls bounce in a favorable way so the Wizards can land a player with stock and potential that rivals Garnett’s.

“We’ll see what Flip can do for us,” Grunfeld said with a chuckle.

It will mark the first time in five years that Grunfeld and the Wizards will be participants in the lottery - the NBA’s system that determines the order in which the league’s nonplayoff teams will pick June 25.

The Wizards are part of that group as a result of an injury-plagued 19-63 season that landed them the league’s second-worst record.

This year’s consolation prizes are headlined by Oklahoma big man Blake Griffin - the consensus top pick - and Spain’s Ricky Rubio, the 18-year-old point guard who dazzled scouts and team officials while leading his country’s Olympic team to a gold-medal-game loss to the United States last summer.

From there, the draft features a handful of promising, yet far less sure bets - Connecticut’s Hasheem Thabeet, Davidson’s Stephen Curry, Arizona’s Jordan Hill - followed by a collection of players who have been pegged as projects: Arizona State’s James Harden, Southern Cal’s DeMar DeRozan and Brandon Jennings, who went from high schooler to Italian pro player.

The Wizards enter the lottery in far less dire a position as some of this season’s other basement dwellers.

After slogging through the first 75 games with both franchise point guard Gilbert Arenas and top center Brendan Haywood sidelined with injuries, the Wizards finally got the majority of their pieces back, providing a glimpse of the team that had reached the playoffs the four previous years.

And drawing a sense of encouragement from the flashes a healthy Arenas and Haywood showed, plus the promise of a healthy shooting guard DeShawn Stevenson and the further development of Dominic McGuire, Javaris Crittenton, Nick Young and Andray Blatche, the Wizards believe they are in a prime position with multiple options.

“I think everybody recognizes why our record was what it was, and we feel like regardless of what pick we get, we’re going to have a very competitive team with our three All-Stars, the veterans we have, the extra experience our younger players got last year and also with the asset that the pick could be or the caliber of player we could select,” Grunfeld said.

The Wizards’ All-Star trio of Arenas, Antawn Jamison and Caron Butler all said at points last season that because of the team’s depth, they envisioned only Griffin - and possibly Rubio - as being able to earn enough playing time to make an immediate impact next season. Otherwise, the preference was to see management use the lottery pick to acquire a proven veteran.

Washington has a 17.8 percent chance of landing the top pick and a 17.36 percent chance of drawing the second spot. They are guaranteed of finishing no lower than fifth in the lottery.

If the Wizards land the No. 1 pick, Griffin is a no-brainer. And Rubio appears to be a lock at No. 2. Washington has a 35.16 percent chance of landing one of the top two picks, so is it Griffin, Rubio or bust?

Not necessarily. According to a high-ranking league executive familiar with the Wizards’ front office thinking, Washington could use the third pick to draft a player like Hill or possibly Jennings or Curry. But if they get the fourth or fifth pick, they’re more likely to try to trade it as part of a package deal.

“That pick’s an asset for them,” the official said. “You have to understand, there are some teams that don’t have a first-round pick at all and others that might be winning teams but feel like they need to get younger at a few positions and they’d be willing to offer something to get a high draft pick.”

Grunfeld wouldn’t outline his plans, partly because he doesn’t yet know which pick the Wizards will wind up with - and also because he wants to keep his options open.

Grunfeld said: “I see five players out there that could make an impact on this team. … It’s not as deep a draft, but there are still some talented players if you’re picking in the top 10. You just might have to wait a little longer for some of those players [to develop].”

The last time the Wizards had a top-five lottery pick was 2004, when fresh off a 25-57 season they were awarded the fifth pick. Grunfeld, however, packaged that pick (which ended up being Wisconsin’s Devin Harris) with Jerry Stackhouse and Christian Laettner to acquire Jamison from the Dallas Mavericks.

“It’ll be interesting to see how it plays out,” Grunfeld said. “There are players in the draft that can help us, but at the same time, that pick can be an asset for us. We’ll look at all our options, as we are always looking for ways to make our team better.”

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