The 2023 NBA Draft is officially complete, and while the opening selection has basically been guaranteed for the past month, there were still plenty of interesting storylines to chew on. After weeks of debate, the Charlotte Hornets settled on Brandon Miller at No. 2 overall. The Portland Trail Blazers weighed trade possibilities, but ultimately decided to stay put at No. 3 without shaking up their current roster. Amen and Ausar Thompson made NBA history by becoming the first set of twins to be selected in the top five of the same draft when they were selected by the Rockets and Pistons, respectively.
But now the draft is officially in the books, and after months of speculation, we finally know how all 58 picks shook out. So with tonight’s results in mind, who won and lost the 2023 NBA Draft? Here are a couple of picks in each lane.
What did you expect? San Antonio just drafted arguably the best prospect to reach the NBA since LeBron James 20 years ago. There might not have been much suspense involved for the Spurs, but landing Victor Wembanyama is still the single biggest victory any team enjoyed on Thursday. His presence changes everything for a franchise that has missed the playoffs four years in a row now.
Before Wembanyama, the Spurs were largely directionless. They finally only committed to a full-on teardown last summer, when they traded first-time All-Star Dejounte Murray to the Atlanta Hawks and spiraled down the standings. That gave a number of interesting role players like Keldon Johnson, Devin Vassell and Jeremy Sochan space to develop, but none of them profile as the sort of player that can lead the Spurs to a championship. Wembanyama does. Tim Duncan arrived on the scene 26 years ago and led the Spurs to five championships. Now, it’s Wembanyama’s turn to lead the Spurs to greatness.
Loser: Charlotte Hornets
Scoot Henderson has been the No. 2 prospect in this class dating as far back as rankings were meaningfully tracked. The reporting at the time suggested that pretty much every team that tried to move up to the top three in this class, most notably including the New Orleans Pelicans, were doing so with Henderson in mind. There is no such thing as consensus where drafts are concerned, but Henderson was as close as a prospect can get to the consensus No. 2 in this class. Yet when the Hornets handed in their card on Thursday, it was Brandon Miller’s name they submitted, not Henderson’s.
Miller is a cleaner positional fit. Wings are the rarest players in the NBA, and Miller should almost immediately slot in as a do-it-all small forward that can scale up positionally when needed. But a Hornets team with only two long-term keepers in LaMelo Ball and Mark Williams simply were not ready to start prioritizing fit over talent at this stage in their rebuild.
They should have emphasized talent and taken Henderson, and most of the league knew it. As a general rule, if a team that has made the playoffs twice in the past 13 years is defying conventional wisdom, we should probably trust the rest of the league. Michael Jordan has made a number of disappointing draft picks during his tenure as owner of the Hornets, and his last big one before handing the team over to Gabe Plotkin and Rick Schnall was a doozy.
Winner: Portland Trail Blazers
Charlotte’s loss was Portland’s gain on Thursday. Just as he would have been in Charlotte, Miller could have easily fit onto a Blazers team that is currently loaded with guards. After leading Alabama to one of its best seasons in recent memory, it wouldn’t have been hard to imagine Miller helping Damian Lillard back into the playoffs sooner rather than later. But opportunities to draft true franchise-altering talents are so rare in the NBA that they should be cherished even when the fit isn’t clean.
The Blazers definitely have too many guards. Finding enough minutes for Henderson, Lillard, Shaedon Sharpe and Anfernee Simons is going to be a challenge if all four remain on the opening night roster. But at this stage, we’re judging the draft, not based opening night expectations. Five years from now, the Hornets will probably have a very good small forward, but the Blazers could have an All-NBA guard. This is the highest draft pick Portland has made since selecting Greg Oden first in 2007. They might never have had a chance to pick this high again, and they ultimately took advantage of that opportunity to land a prospect that could help them compete for the next decade or more. There are definitely questions left to answer, but the Blazers got a prospect who probably would have gone No. 1 overall in a normal draft class with the No. 3 pick. That is an unbridled victory.
Had the Blazers called it a night from there, they would have been in great shape. But they also owned a second first-rounder through the New York Knicks and used it on Iowa’s Kris Murray, brother of rising Sacramento Kings star Keegan Murray. While Kris doesn’t have quite the same upside that his brother does, he fits nicely into the wing position the Blazers would have filled if Charlotte had left them Miller instead of Henderson and should be ready to contribute immediately. That doesn’t mean that the Blazers found the win-now talent they were looking for, but the did a solid job of adding the right prospects with their selections.
Loser: The Thompson twins
Yes, as a family, tonight was historic for the Thompson twins. They just became the first set of twins to be selected in the top five (or the top 10 for that matter) of the same draft, and getting picked back-to-back will surely be something that they remember forever. In the grand scheme of things, every prospect that was picked tonight was a winner.
But the Thompson twins are prospects best-suited to succeed under very specific circumstances. Both of them struggle as jump-shooters, so in a perfect world, they’d land on teams in a position to let them handle the ball as they develop. But that’s not what happened. Ausar is joining a Pistons team that already has two recent top draft picks in the backcourt in Cade Cunningham and Jaden Ivey, and Ivey, like Thompson, is still developing as a shooter.
Amen’s situation could be even more difficult to adjust to. Not only do the Rockets have two high usage young guards in Jalen Green and Kevin Porter Jr., but they are expected to pursue veteran guards in free agency, with James Harden reportedly at the top of their list. Couple those guards with Alperen Sengun, a center who needs the ball to be effective, and Amen will have a hard time getting the developmental touches he needs with the roster Houston currently has. Both Thompson twins are still very high-upside prospects. Their success in the NBA will boil down to the work they do to develop within the league. But neither are starting off in ideal situations.
Typically, teams that want to clear significant salaries have to give away first-round picks outright. Back in 2019, for instance, the Nets traded two first-round picks to turn Allen Crabbe’s $18.5 million salary into Taurean Prince on a rookie scale deal because they needed extra financial flexibility to pursue Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant.
Now Irving has made his way to Dallas, and the Mavericks needed to clear even more money. Davis Bertans is owed $17 million guaranteed next season, and he is owed $5 million in guaranteed money for the 2024-25 season that becomes a fully-guaranteed $16 million if he plays in 75% of his team’s games. But did the Mavericks have to give away their first-round pick to get off of that contract? Nope. They just moved down two slots, from No. 12 to No. 10, and still wound up with Dereck Lively II, the prospect that was largely expected to land in Dallas anyway.
The Thunder have more than $30 million in cap space this offseason, they so can afford to take on Bertans and make the jump up to No. 10 for Cason Wallace. But the real beneficiary here is Dallas. The Mavericks quickly turned around and used some of the flexibility this trade created to pick up a free first-round pick at No. 24 overall by absorbing the contract or Richaun Holmes from the Kings, who also wanted to clear some money. Holmes is still only 29, and prior to the arrival of Domantas Sabonis in Sacramento, he was the starting center for the Kings. Dallas desperately needed a big man, and if Holmes can find his old form, they were effectively paid one first-round pick to get their new starting center. That’s a very solid bit of business.
Loser: Cam Whitmore
Early in the draft prospect, Cam Whitmore seemed as though he had a chance to be picked as high as No. 4 overall. That’s obviously not what happened. Whitmore ultimately tumbled all the way out of the lottery and landed at No. 20 overall, costing himself roughly $14 million on his rookie contract, according to Spotrac.
Whitmore’s fall doesn’t seem to be the result of any single factor. He dealt with a thumb injury early in his lone season at Villanova. He’s been criticized for his practice habits and effort. According to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski on the broadcast, he did not do well in his workouts and interviews. Whitmore’s talent is not in doubt, but making it as an NBA player takes much more than that. This tumble suggests that the league does not believe he is ready for that transition.
He ultimately lands in Houston, a team he might have hoped would take him with its higher selection. Had he gone one or two picks earlier, this fall would have at least gotten him to a contender. Had he wound up with Miami or Golden State at picks No. 18 or 19, for instance, their team cultures would have been better-positioned to help him make the most of his talent. Instead, he lands on a Rockets team that has seen its young players develop poor on-court habits during its rebuild. Maybe Ime Udoka changes that, but for now, Houston doesn’t seem ideally situated to maximize Whitmore.
Winner: Heat culture
Miami just made the NBA Finals largely on the backs of undrafted free agents. The Heat used seven of them in their surprise run to the NBA Finals, so almost by definition, first-round picks are something of a rarity on this roster. Of course, when the Heat do make picks, they tend to go fairly well for them. Their three previous first-rounders have all made a major impact: Precious Achiuwa was traded for Kyle Lowry, and Tyler Herro and Bam Adebayo turned out to be excellent players. These players may be highly-touted, but all of them have the undrafted mindset that the Heat have weaponized for the past few decades.
This is where Jaime Jaquez comes into play. Few prospects in this class match that ethos more than he does. He isn’t a great athlete and he struggled from deep in college, but his on-court hustle and intangibles helped UCLA go 31-6 last season, and his high basketball IQ will fit in well to Miami’s egalitarian offense. Who cares if his physical dimensions aren’t ideal? The Heat have turned far less heralded prospects into valuable players. Now they’ve added exactly the sort of prospect they typically covet.
Loser: The viewers
If every draft was unpredictable, every draft would be predictable. We can’t expect chaos every year because then chaos would just be the norm, but purely as far as surprises are concerned, this draft was fairly uneventful. The only real surprise in the top 10 was Bilal Coulibaly at No. 7, but he had steadily been rising up draft boards throughout the process. The trade market was relatively dull. Indiana and Washington and Dallas and Oklahoma City made minor swaps in the lottery with no significant assets changing hands. The biggest-name players to move during the first round itself were Davis Bertans and Richaun Holmes.
It ultimately isn’t the NBA’s job to shock us with blockbusters during the draft. These teams are trying to win, and sometimes, winning means make subtle and sensible moves. But the Chris Paul trade coming hours before the draft began indicated that today could have been a wild day of NBA transactions. That just isn’t what happened.