With Kawhi Leonard out, Clippers draft situation is hard to figure

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Auburn guard Sharife Cooper (2) drives between Vanderbilt's Issac McBride, second from left, and Jordan Wright, right, during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game Tuesday, Feb. 9, 2021, in Nashville, Tenn. Auburn won 73-67. (AP Photo/Mark Zaleski)
Auburn guard Sharife Cooper drives through the defense of Vanderbilt during a game last season. He's projected to be a late first-round pick in the NBA draft Thursday night. (Mark Zaleski / Associated Press)

Back in June, when the Clippers were rolling through the second round of the postseason, their 25th overall pick in Thursday’s NBA draft carried the possibility of being expendable.

After all, what were the chances of a newly minted rookie taken deep in the first round cracking the rotation of a team pursuing a Finals run in 2022? Perhaps, some league observers believed, its return could be more meaningful if packaged in a trade in exchange for an established difference-making veteran.

Then franchise centerpiece Kawhi Leonard partially tore a ligament in his right knee, an injury he underwent surgery to repair earlier this month. Even if Leonard, who can become an unrestricted free agent next month by declining his 2021-22 player option, does return to the franchise its ability to build on this season’s first Western Conference finals appearance has likely been significantly hampered because of his injury recovery that could cost him most of next season, if not all.

With their plans for a realistic championship pursuit perhaps on pause because of Leonard’s uncertain timetable, the Clippers could view the 25th pick in a new light: A chance to draft and develop a prospect who, in their best-case-scenario, could become a factor when their title window re-opens.

The Clippers did not announce which prospects worked out for the team, but guard Daishen Nix, who spent last season with G League Ignite, and guard MaCio Teague, from national champion Baylor, are among those who auditioned.

Others whose workouts with the Clippers were previously known include Auburn freshman guard Sharife Cooper, Florida sophomore guard Tre Mann, Arizona State guard Josh Christopher — the former star of Lakewood Mayfair High who also worked out for the Lakers — Duke forward Matthew Hurt, Hillcrest Prep forward Kyree Walker, West Virginia guard Miles McBride, UC Santa Barbara guard JaQuori McLaughlin, Houston guard Quentin Grimes and Virginia Commonwealth guard Nah’Shon Hyland.

Their depth chart is deepest at guard for now but that won’t preclude them from selecting one for the future, given that the contracts of veteran guards Patrick Beverley and Rajon Rondo expire after the upcoming season.

North Carolina center Day’Ron Sharp, projected as the Clippers’ pick in an ESPN mock draft, was ultimately unable to work out with the Clippers, but workouts are not always indicators of the direction a team is headed. In 2019, the Clippers traded into the first round to select center Mfiondu Kabengele, who said he was as surprised as anyone because his only contact with the team leading up to the draft were conversations at the league’s combine.

Though the 25th pick is the Clippers’ only selection right now, under owner Steve Ballmer the team has been active on draft night in buying second-round picks. They also made a draft-night trade each of the last four years.

The difficulty of the Clippers’ position, picking ahead of a season with so much uncertainty, is compounded by the fact that many of their preferred prospects could be taken by the time their turn comes. This is the last first-round selection the Clippers control outright until 2027 because of their trade for Paul George with Oklahoma City.

If Leonard re-signs with the Clippers, much of their future payroll will be owed to the superstar forward and George. Keeping that core duo together is the team’s preferred outcome, of course, but would also limit its financial flexibility and heighten the pressure to draft a player capable of breaking into coach Tyronn Lue’s rotation while costing comparatively little because of inexpensive rookie-scale contracts.

In many ways, they are looking to unearth the next Terance Mann, the 48th pick in 2019 who was one of the Clippers’ breakout performers last season after averaging 7.6 points and 2.7 rebounds in nearly 20 minutes per game during the postseason.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.