The Washington Wizards could go with the soft-spoken, versatile swingman who first picked up a basketball at age 5, learned how to play from a small-town Missouri family that loved the game, refused to be influenced by the AAU star-creation machine and never boarded a plane until he made his first college visit.
Or they could go with the shy, skilled inside-out scorer who started playing basketball the summer before his freshman year in high school and decided after two years that he would leave his mother behind in Canada and play at a prep school in Las Vegas in order to make it in a game he was slow to learn but quick to love.
Georgetown sophomore Otto Porter Jr. and UNLV freshman Anthony Bennett don’t have remotely similar playing styles or back stories, but as Thursday’s NBA draft draws near, they find themselves at the center of the debate — both among fans and within the Wizards’ war room — about what direction team President Ernie Grunfeld should go with the third overall pick.
“I hear it all over, on Twitter, that I could come” to Washington, Bennett said in a recent telephone interview, “that it’s between me or Otto Porter.”
Other candidates could find themselves in the mix for the No. 3 pick — especially if Porter or Bennett goes sooner. But with most draft boards projecting that Cleveland and Orlando will take other options at first and second, respectively, the Wizards’ choice always seems to come down to Porter or Bennett.
Porter, a long-armed 6-foot-8 forward and Georgetown’s first first-team all-American since Allen Iverson, would appear to be an obvious choice since the 20-year-old is a local product who fills aneed as a defensive-minded, playmaking wing.
But the lure of the 20-year-old Bennett’s upside could have the Wizards looking back with regret if the 6-8 low-post presence with legitimate range can match production to his sizable potential.
“We’re going to get a solid player. We don’t know who is going to be available to us, obviously,” Grunfeld said. “But we’ve done our homework and most of our research and we feel good about the player we’re possibly going to get.”
Porter, Bennett and Kentucky center Nerlens Noel were the only top prospects to visit Verizon Center as the team made draft preparations. Porter was the only member of that group to work out for the team because Bennett is recovering from surgery on a torn left rotator cuff that will keep him sidelined until August and Noel is expected to be out until late December as he recovers from a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee.
Noel has been linked to the Cavaliers as the possible No. 1 overall choice, but he understands that Cleveland could go elsewhere: Maryland center Alex Len has been rumored as the primary target in recent weeks.
“I’m concerned more about the right fit for my career and going somewhere where I can contribute and work on my game to be the best player that I can in the future,” Noel said in a recent telephone interview, adding that he still believes he should go first. “Yeah, I’m not arrogant or cocky or anything. But it would be a dream come true.”
Porter has also been mentioned among the candidates to go first, an unusual position for a player who was unheralded coming out of high school. But Porter collected numerous admirers — including Syracuse Coach Jim Boeheim — during a season in which he averaged 16.2 points and 7.5 rebounds per game and shot 42.2 percent from three-point range and was named the Big East player of the year.
“The only different thing is that people know me. For me, I’m still the underrated kid that’s going to continue to work hard no matter what,” Porter said during his visit to Washington last month. “I’m focused on making an impact. Any team I go to, making a huge impact. I can come in and help [the Wizards] out, right out the gate. Be that guy that they missing. I think it would be a great fit.”
Bennett is considered somewhat undersized at power forward but compensates with his explosiveness and his ability to put the ball on the floor and shoot from the perimeter. He averaged 16.1 points and 8.1 rebounds while shooting 37.5 percent from long distance and believes he would complement Wizards guards Bradley Beal and John Wall.
“I’m versatile. I can play inside and out. I can shoot the three. If I’m open, I can shoot it. I can go down low, post up. I can basically do a little bit of everything,” Bennett said. “On a real young team that gets up and down, I think I’ll fit right in because that’s what I like to do.”
Beal, the Wizards’ pick at third overall last season, holds the odd distinction of having failed to recruit both Porter and Bennett as teammates. While in high school, Beal tried to lure Sikeston, Mo., native Porter to play for his AAU team in St. Louis. And as a freshman in college, Beal traded numerous messages on Twitter with Bennett to convince him to play at Florida. But Beal will soon likely end up finally calling either Porter or Bennett his teammate.
“Those two are great. You can’t go wrong with either one,” Beal said Sunday while making an appearance at the National Capital Barbecue Battle on Pennsylvania Avenue. “I know both of them pretty well, especially Otto since we’re from the same state. I’ll leave that to the front office. I’m just curious to see who we pick, and who we pick is definitely going to benefit our team.”