The Wembanyama era has officially begun. The primary debate on Victor Wembanyama coming into the NBA draft was whether he is the best prospect since LeBron James, the best since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, or the best of all time. That’s the bar being set for Wembanyama’s impact on the NBA, so from a betting and fantasy angle, the bar for his rookie projections and futures props will be similarly high. More on that below.
But, contrary to the hype, Wembanyama was not the only player drafted on Thursday. In fact, he wasn’t even the only major story. There was a huge surge of interest and action on who was going to be the second overall pick in the draft, Brandon Miller or Scoot Henderson. The betting odds on who would go second took a wild ride in the 10 days leading up to the draft, and it continued all the way to the draft itself. According to Caesar’s Sportsbook, on June 13, Miller was a -300 favorite (meaning one would have to bet 300 units to win 100, plus the initial wager) to be picked second, while Henderson’s odds were +175 (a bet of 100 units would win 175, plus the initial wager). One week later, on Tuesday, Henderson was the major favorite at -275 while Miller’s odds fell to +170. The next day, Wednesday, it reversed in a huge way with Miller at -900 and Henderson at +300. But by 12:30 p.m. ET on Thursday, draft day, it had gone just as far in the other direction with Henderson at -800 and Miller at +400. By the time the draft began, Miller was again favored to go second overall, and he in fact was picked second by the Charlotte Hornets.
Now, the next betting/futures race for this draft class is the Rookie of the Year Award. Wembanyama is obviously the huge favorite, but there are several of his classmates (and even a player from the previous draft class) who are worthy of being in the discussion. More on that at the end of this article, but for now, let’s discuss the players in this class who look like they have the shortest path to a potential starting gig in the NBA.
Victor Wembanyama, C, San Antonio Spurs: Wembanyama has the “offensive skills of a 6-2 guard, in a 7-5 body,” according to ESPN NBA draft analyst Jay Bilas. He’s got a strong handle, a soft shooting touch and strong passing ability in addition to the length and physical ability to finish easily anywhere around the rim. On defense, he is both a strong rim protector as well as someone with the agility to blow up the pick-and-roll or to switch onto guards and stay with them. In addition to all his physical gifts, Wembanyama was extremely productive as a professional last season, chosen as the MVP of the French League (youngest ever to win the award) after leading the league in points, rebounds and blocked shots. The Spurs will build their entire team around Wembanyama, with only health and coach Gregg Popovich’s sensibilities about his development as any sort of potential impediment to him posting monster numbers. I initially rank him as a top fantasy prospect, by far higher than I’ve ever ranked a rookie, and I’m not sure I’m not underrating him. Here’s more analysis on what history tells us about how Wembanyama’s early numbers could look.
Projected stat line: 21.0 PPG (51.0 FG%, 82.0 FT%), 10.0 RPG, 2.5 APG, 2.0 BPG, 1.0 SPG, 2.5 TO/G, 0.8 3PG
Brandon Miller, SF/SG, Charlotte Hornets: Miller often draws comparisons to Paul George, the player he recently named as his NBA GOAT. Miller is a 6-9 wing who can play either forward or guard, and he joins a Hornets squad that desperately needs a star wing to pair with their other young star, point guard LaMelo Ball. Miller could challenge to lead the Hornets in points as soon as this season, and he has the length and shooting touch to contribute in defensive stats, on the glass and from 3-point range.
Projected stat line: 17.5 PPG (44.0 FG%, 85.0 FT%), 6.8 RPG, 2.0 APG, 0.8 BPG, 0.8 SPG, 2.3 TO/G, 1.8 3PG
Scoot Henderson, PG, Portland Trail Blazers: Henderson is an explosive lead guard whom ESPN draft analysts compared to players such as Russell Westbrook, Ja Morant and Derrick Rose. He has been playing professional ball in the G League for two years, since being the youngest player ever drafted to the G League at only 17 years old. He is a showman, an excellent playmaker for both himself and his teammates, and his 3-point range (shot 27.5% from downtown last season) is his only offensive question. In a hyped matchup between Henderson’s G League Ignite squad and Wembanyama’s Metropolitans 92 team, Henderson rose to the occasion to drop 28 points, 9 assists and 5 rebounds (Wembanyama went for 37 points, 7 3-pointers and 5 blocks). Henderson’s production will depend strongly on whether Damian Lillard is still on the Trail Blazers when the season starts. For the sake of upside, here I’ll project Henderson as if Lillard is gone and Henderson is the focal point for the Trail Blazers.
Projected stats: 17.1 PPG (43.5 FG%, 77.0 FT%), 6.8 APG, 4.7 RPG, 1.0 SPG, 0.4 BPG, 3.5 TO/G, 0.9 3PG
Amen Thompson, SF, Houston Rockets: Thompson is a 6-7 wing who projects to a strong two-way player and could earn a spot in the starting lineup going into the season. (Remember that sentence because it will look very familiar for the next draft pick as well). Where Amen separates himself from twin brother Ausar is as a creator off the dribble, where Amen has experience playing point guard and projects as a decision maker in the Rockets’ offense. In fact, though his shortest path to the starting lineup for the Rockets would seem to be at small forward, it’s conceivable that Thompson could get some minutes on the point next to Jalen Green in a supersized, young, dynamic backcourt.
Ausar Thompson, SF, Detroit Pistons: Thompson is a 6-7 wing who projects to a strong two-way player and could earn a spot in the starting lineup going into the season. Déjà vu aside, Ausar has been more of a pure forward than his brother. Ausar is better at moving off the ball and projects to become an elite defender. In the past two drafts, the Pistons got their backcourt of the present and future in Cade Cunningham and Jaden Ivey, and they have a variety of talented young big men they’ve either drafted or brought in through trades, but Thompson has a clear path to playing time as the highest upside young wing on the roster.
Anthony Black, SG/SF, Orlando Magic: Black was a 6-7 point forward in college who could earn a starting spot in the Magic backcourt. He’s not a great shooter, which could limit him on a Magic team that already lacks shooting, but he has enough upside that the Magic could choose to start him as they build their team for the future. He has a strong all-around game, and he was the only player in the SEC to rank in the top 25 in scoring, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks.
Jarace Walker, PF, Indiana Pacers (via Washington Wizards): On the ESPN draft telecast, one analyst compared Walker to Draymond Green without the passing and another comped him to Aaron Gordon. This paints a picture of Walker as a versatile two-way forward with size, strength and strong defensive potential. On offense, he can step outside and knock down shots but as more of a catch-and-shoot guy than a creator. He’s also a big hustle player who competes for every loose ball, plays with passion and brings great leadership to the table. The Pacers could potentially slot him in as a starter at power forward.
Taylor Hendricks, PF, Utah Jazz: Hendricks projects as a new-age 3-and-D big man with upside. He led his conference in blocked shots but also shot 39% from downtown on five attempts per game. He’s a stretch four with a high motor, and was one of the leaders in Division 1 in transition points. Hendricks’ game seems to fit well next to both Lauri Markkanen (all-around scorer/shooter) and Walker Kessler (rim protecting center) for the Jazz frontcourt of the future.
Other picks who caught my attention
Cam Whitmore was a top-five pick in just about every mock draft I saw, and was listed as the fourth-best prospect on Jay Bilas’ list in the ESPN draft coverage. He slid all the way to the Houston Rockets with the 20th pick, for reasons that were never clearly explained outside of concerns about his one-on-one workouts and interviews. The Rockets had the fourth and 20th picks in the draft, but in Amen Thompson and Whitmore, they left the draft with two of the five highest-rated prospects.
Top three recruits of 2022 NCAA class (per ESPN): Dereck Lively II (center, Dallas Mavericks), Dariq Whitehead (guard, Brooklyn Nets) and Nick Smith Jr. (guard, Charlotte Hornets) were the top three recruits in 2022, according to ESPN. All dealt with injury difficulties as freshmen that slowed their collegiate careers, but all three were still drafted in the first round of the 2023 NBA draft. Because of their upside, all three are worth watching to develop into potential impact players.
Kris Murray went to the Trail Blazers with the 23rd pick. Murray is an older rookie who played three collegiate seasons, which means he should be physically mature enough to play as a rookie. He made a huge statistical leap last season and displays a game and skills profile extremely similar to the fourth pick in the 2022 draft … his twin brother Keegan Murray, who went on to earn NBA All Rookie first-team honors last season.
Rookie of the Year race leader:
In the hunt:
Long shots of interest:
Amen Thompson (+1500)
Cam Whitmore (+2000)
Ausar Thompson (+2200)
According to Casesar’s Sportsbook, Wembanyama is the odds-on favorite to win. I don’t typically play with odds this short, but that takes nothing away from Wembanyama, who barring injury is overwhelmingly likely to be this year’s Rookie of the Year.
In most seasons, Henderson and Miller would have been in the mix to potentially be the top pick. And Holmgren was very much in the mix to be the top pick in the 2022 draft before going second to the Thunder. Holmgren missed his rookie season because of injury, but that also gave him another full year to strengthen his lanky frame and enter this season physically ready to compete. All three of Holmgren, Miller and Henderson could produce impact rookie seasons that keep them at least mentioned in the Rookie of the Year race. Just think, as can’t-miss as LeBron was as a prospect and as strong of a rookie season as he had, Carmelo Anthony still got 40 first-place votes for Rookie of the Year, and both Melo and Dwyane Wade finished with more than 100 points in the vote (LeBron 508 points, Anthony 430 points, Wade 117 points). Any of this trio could push Wembanyama in a similar way, even if Wemby remains fully healthy.
The Thompson twins both have a path to starting for young teams on the way up, and Whitmore actually has the same opportunity to push for that Rockets small forward spot as Amen Thompson. It’s enough for all three to be worth mentioning, but all are very much long shots.
Overall, this projects to one of the better draft classes in recent memory, with the potential to be truly historic if the players at the top meet expectations. This means that the Rookie of the Year race could be fun — unless Wembanyama runs away with it.