2023 NBA draft: Five burning questions

With 2023 on the horizon, we’re nearing the midway point of the season. It’s still early to discuss the draft in certain terms, but there certainly are people in the NBA thinking hard about it, as this class has been looking pretty interesting, even for the teams that won’t get to draft Victor Wembanyama in June. At one point I thought about doing a New Year’s mailbag, but forgot, so instead I made up some questions to ask myself. Here are some draft-related items of consequence to ponder as we enter 2023.

1. How’s Victor Wembanyama doing?

Um … really well. He’s averaging nearly 23 points in addition to 9.6 rebounds and three blocks per game (leading the league in all three categories), and shooting 48% from the field. Metropolitans 92 owns an 11–4 record and sits in second place in France’s Pro A. They’re legit title challengers, and Wembanyama is the frontrunner for MVP. If we want to get nitpicky, he’s shooting only 29% from three, but that’s probably going to tick upward over time. We’re not going to worry about that. He turns 19 next week!

Anyway, this is all going according to plan. Wembanyama is here, and he has an argument as the most exciting prospect ever to play the sport. It’s all over but the tanking. Speaking of which …

2. Which teams are aiming for rock bottom?

The Pistons are already there, with Cade Cunningham out for the season. The Hornets are bad. The Spurs, Rockets and Magic are rolling out young teams, and they aren’t actively trying to get better yet. The Thunder are in the mix as always, althoughÂShai Gilgeous-Alexander is helping them win a little too much. The Wizards and Bulls are bad enough to think about it. Chicago’s pick goes to Orlando this year unless it’s a top four selection, which is a wrench in any tanking plans. We haven’t had a single NBA trade yet, but I suspect as soon as the first domino inevitably falls we’ll get a flurry of action. The middle part of both conferences has yet to fully separate, but by the end of January, it should all make a lot more sense.

3. When will we see Nick Smith again?

Projected No. 2 pick Scoot Henderson made his return Tuesday from a nose fracture and concussion that sidelined him for a month of action. He didn’t really need to play again this season in order to hold his spot on the majority of NBA draft boards, as there’s perceived separation between him and whoever the third-best prospect is. But he’s back, which will be entertaining and a welcome sight. His personal quest to become the No. 1 pick might be a little bit tough this year, but we have to respect the drive.

Next up in the “will he play” carousel is Smith, a projected top-five pick who has been ruled out ‘indefinitely’ by Arkansas as he deals with a knee injury. The issue doesn’t appear to be serious, but Smith also missed the start of the season for similar reasons and the Razorbacks have downplayed the severity of the problem pretty much throughout. Smith has appeared in just five games this season, and played well in the three where he was fully available—it’s a small sample no matter how you cut it, but NBA teams are pretty familiar with the speed, playmaking and competitiveness he brings to the table.

Smith remains the next projected guard off the board after Henderson, but how well he plays upon returning, presuming he returns, will play a role in where he falls in the hierarchy of the lottery. It’s a situation NBA teams are monitoring closely, as he has the upside to go as high as third, but may need a stronger body of work comparative to some of the other guys at the high end of the lottery to maximize his position in the end.

4. How will scouts judge the Thompson twins?

Amen and Ausar Thompson are not the same person or the same player, and I’m doing my best to discuss them in separate breaths this season. Just because you have a twin brother who is identical not only in looks, but athletic gifts, doesn’t mean you should have to be compared to him all the time. However, because the twins are playing on the same team in the same Overtime Elite league and (spoiler alert!) are the exact same age, they’re going to get graded on the same curve. And there’s some variance of opinion around the NBA here as evaluators try to get a handle on their level and what parts of their game will immediately translate.

The statistics here are a small sample, and they’re playing against younger players, which teams have to take into account, but they do more or less support the eye test for both guys. Through nine games, Amen is averaging 16.6 points on 56/20/81% shooting splits with 5.5 rebounds, two steals and 0.6 blocks per game, plus 5.8 assists to 3.22 turnovers, operating primarily on the ball. Ausar is averaging 17.2 points and shooting at a 51/33/63% clip, with 7.7 rebounds, 6.2 assists to 2.8 turnovers, and an impressive 2.7 steals and 1.4 blocks.

The numbers back up the surface-level evals here, which aren’t new: Amen is more passing-oriented, projects to spend more time on the ball and has upside attached to the possibility he plays point guard at least some of the time. Ausar will pick up the toughest assignments on defense and looks like a marginally improved shooter, and if that holds, he could actually have a higher floor than his brother. Amen is widely projected to be selected ahead, as high as No. 3, but I do wonder at times how big the gap ultimately is between the twins in the long run. It’s probably not as wide as some would think.

With that said, some scouts I’ve spoken to seem fascinated by each twin’s respective athletic gifts, positional size, and wide range of tools that can still be developed, regardless of the fact they turn 20 in January. If you threw them into a more bogged down, clogged-paint college basketball game, it’s fair to think they may not be as effective in the halfcourt. Still, as someone who’s sat through a lot of college basketball over the last few months, I feel pretty comfortable saying the electric movement skills, transition play and defensive coverage both guys offer would still pop. And with college wings in the lottery range like Dariq Whitehead and, to a lesser extent, Brandon Miller, going through some growing pains, my feeling is that the twins may become more attractive to teams in the predraft process, as they get a better feel for their skill level and personalities in private settings. And now that we have a better handle on the draft class overall, I don’t see a scenario at the moment where the relevant questions concerning each Thompson twin would truly cripple either one’s stock.

5. Who are the sneaky prospects that could shake up the draft?

A lot is going to happen between now and June, but we can make some inferences operating off what we saw in non-conference college play. There are three lesser-known prospects who I think are real candidates at this point of the season to break into the Top 20 (or higher) and mess up the pre-ordained hierarchy of more hyped and established names. These guys all entered the season with modest to no repute, but have been buzzing with NBA teams behind the scenes for the last six weeks or so: Alabama’s Noah Clowney, UCF’s Taylor Hendricks and Maxwell Lewis of Pepperdine.

I highlighted all three of these guys in my column a couple weeks ago, and all rated as first rounders on that Big Board, but I think all three have room to keep rising. They’re very different players, but the common thread here is that all of them have great physical tools, skillsets that suit the modern NBA, and were under-recruited by colleges for different reasons. Without getting too granular here, they all fit the mold of guys who could sniff at lottery status if all goes correctly: they’ve been productive, they offer a ton of untapped ability, and they’re players who teams are still gathering information on.

As more decision-makers get eyes on them and presuming the strong play continues, they’ll have great cases to move up boards in what seems to be a somewhat flat draft from a talent perspective, beginning in the late lottery and running into the early 30s. That last point is worth keeping in mind, too: very little figurative dust has actually settled. For the most part, teams know who the names are now, but there’s still a very long way to go. Making sense of things from here is the fascinating part.Â

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