It’s foolish to judge a selection in the NBA draft exclusively on present day fit. Rosters around the league change far too quickly for that, especially when 19 of the 30 first round picks in the 2023 NBA Draft were teenagers. It’s going to take years before we can properly evaluate how teams did in this draft as the players in the class slowly grow into their bodies and into their games.
That doesn’t mean hope for immediate returns should be disregarded. As the league is set to embrace more punitive luxury tax restrictions, teams are becoming even more incentivized to find cost-controlled contributors with their draft picks. Rookie scale contracts remain among the most team-friendly in the league, with clubs controlling the first four years of a player’s career before getting matching rights on whatever their next contract looks like if they reach restricted free agency.
Our instant grades for the first round of the 2023 NBA Draft weighed a variety of factors, but were mostly determined by where players were based on my pre-draft board. Now let’s dive into the best fits of the 2023 NBA Draft.
9. Brandin Podziemski to Warriors at No. 19
Podziemski was somewhat of a polarizing prospect as a down-transfer from Illinois to Santa Clara who put up huge numbers despite his athletic deficiencies. I think he found a great spot for his skill set in Steve Kerr’s system of passing, spacing, and off-ball movement. The 6’5 guard shot the hell out of the ball — 44.7 percent from three and 51.3 from two thanks to a deadly floater. His defensive struggles should be insulated a bit playing with Draymond Green. Studying under Chris Paul and Stephen Curry can’t hurt, either. I also really liked the Warriors picking up Trayce Jackson-Davis in the late second round, a four-year college stud via Indiana who should be in an ideal fit in their dribble-handoff actions.
8. Dereck Lively II and Olivier-Maxence Prosper to the Mavs
The Mavericks had to replace the size and defense they lost in the Kyrie Irving trade, and they accomplished that with their two first round picks. Lively is a long center who posted the third best block rate in college basketball as a freshman at Duke. I’m skeptical of his offensive utility in the league, which is why I ranked him outside of the top-30 on my board and gave the Mavs a C grade for this pick. Still, he fills a clear need as a rim protector behind Luka Doncic, which was the team’s biggest weakness.
O-Max skyrocketed up draft boards as the big winner of the scouting combine. He’s a high-energy player on both ends who can hit the glass, defend bigger forwards, and offer some spot-up shooting potential. He’s a good bet to be Dallas’ replacement for Dorian Finney-Smith.
7. Gradey Dick to the Raptors at No. 13
Toronto’s plan to field an entire team of 6’8+ players proved to have an obvious hole: none of them could shoot. The Raptors only hit 33.5 percent of their threes last season, which ranked No. 28 in the league. Enter Dick, a 6’8 wing with a case as the best shooter in the draft. He should be a wonderful fit offensively spacing the floor for Pascal Siakam and Scottie Barnes with deep range and a quick release on his jumper. He’s skilled running off screens, and has upside as a connective passer, too.
Dick will never be a great defender, but he’s consistently stayed on the floor against high-level competition in high school and college. Toronto has the defensive length and toughness to alleviate some of his concerns on that end.
6. Julian Strawther to Nuggets at No. 29
The Nuggets took some time away from winning the 2023 NBA championship to make a sneaky trade into the first round with a goal of acquiring a player who could help them win now on a cheap contract. They struck gold by selecting Gonzaga junior wing Julian Strawther, a 6’7 shooter who should be a wonderful fit in an off-ball role around Nikola Jokic.
Strawther hit 40.8 percent from three on nearly 200 attempts this past season. He has deep range and a quick release on his jumper, and hit several clutch shots in his college career, including a Sweet 16 buzzer-beater to stun UCLA. He’ll add supplemental value as a cutter, and he should be able to compete defensively with a nearly 210-pound frame and and a 6’9 wingspan. The Nuggets needed to keep their championship window open with the threat of losing Bruce Brown in free agency, and Strawther is a player who can help them do that by ripping threes.
5. Taylor Hendricks, Brice Sensabaugh, and Keyonte George to the Jazz
The Jazz landed three players on the top-20 of my board entering the draft with a clear focus on adding shooting around Lauri Markkanen and Walker Kessler. Taylor Hendricks, their first pick at No. 9 overall, is the rare 3-and-D prospect whose defensive value comes from his rim protection. Hendricks has tremendous timing and toughness as a shot-blocker from the four spot with some ability to slide over to the five for high leverage minutes. He’s also an excellent shooter who made 39.4 percent of 155 attempts from three while knocking down 78.2 percent of his free throws.
George is a 6’4 freshman guard from Baylor who can play on or off the ball. What he lacks in elite athleticism he can make up for with versatile shooting from three-point range and tough shot-making ability inside the arc. Sensabaugh is nothing less than one of the best shooters in the class, a strong 6’6 wing who can bomb threes and rip mid-range shots. Sensabaugh slipped down the board because of injury concerns and lack of vertical explosiveness, but we had him rated as a lottery talent because of his shooting touch, which is a pretty great get at No. 28 overall.
4. Cason Wallace to the Thunder at No. 10
The biggest knock on Wallace is that he’s the size of a point guard without offering plus on-ball creation or a traditional floor general skill set. That won’t be a problem in Oklahoma City with everything running through Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. With the Thunder, Wallace found a perfect spot to focus on what he does best: defend like a maniac, force turnovers with incredibly quick and strong hands, and fit in offensively as a connective passer and spot-up shooter.
Wallace is an elite defensive guard prospect who plays bigger than his height (measuring 6’2.5 barefoot) because of a 6’8 wingspan and jacked 195-pound frame. He’s an awesome help defender who can rip the ball away with a well-timed and accurate swipe. He’s an on-ball pest, too. I think Wallace has more shooting upside than he’s typically given credit for with real moments of movement shooting on his freshman tape. He strikes me as a long-term replacement for Lu Dort, and a wonderful complement between SGA and Josh Giddey. This will be the next John Calipari guard to produce more in the NBA than he did in college.
3. Jarace Walker to the Indiana Pacers at No. 8
This is such an excellent fit for both the player and the team on multiple levels. The Pacers badly needed defensive help after finishing No. 26 overall on that end of the floor last year. They had an obvious hole in the lineup at the four. Walker checks both boxes. He’s one of the best defensive prospects in this class, a 6’8, 240-pound wrecking ball with a 7’2 wingspan who vacillate between rim protector and wing stopper while attacking the glass on both ends (another area where Indiana really struggled last season).
It’s a great fit offensively, too. I thought Walker needed to play with a stretch five to maximize his offensive impact, and he’s found one in Myles Turner. Walker’s slow and inconsistent three-point shot will be less of a concern with knockdown shooters in Turner, Tyrese Haliburton, and Bennedict Mathurin flanking him, which will allow him to tap more into his connective passing and one-on-one scoring. I worry the Turner-Walker front court could be a tad slow at getting around screens, but it should be one of the best shot-blocking tandems in the league. His offense can take the next step too playing with proper spacing Indiana’s core pieces will provide.
2. Amen Thompson and Cam Whitmore to the Rockets
The Rockets drafted the No. 3 and No. 4 overall players on my draft board who double as the two most explosive athletes in the class. Houston was thought to be picking between Thompson and Whitmore with the No. 4 pick and somehow landed both after Whitmore’s stunning fall to No. 20 on draft night.
We’ll start with Thompson, a super-sized point guard at 6’7 with a 7-foot wingspan who might be the most impressive run-and-jump athlete I’ve ever evaluated. He’s a walking paint touch with a blazing first step and absurd leaping ability. He’s also one of the best playmakers in the class. The hole is Thompson’s game is his jump shot which is extremely rough right now, but Houston has enough good shooters around him to keep the floor spaced and opened up room for his drives. The Rockets’ biggest need was a primary playmaker, and they found one with sky-high upside in Thompson if he comes out on the right side of his boom-or-bust potential.
Whitmore is a bully-ball wing with tons of scoring upside who we ranked higher than No. 2 overall pick Brandon Miller on our board. At 6’7 and 235 pounds, Whitmore is a monster rim attacker and incredible leaper who can play through contract in the paint with his strength. He was better than advertised as a shooter with real moments of shot versatility from three, and his handle is good enough to let him attack a set defense with his burst. The hole in his game is his passing vision, which might be a tough fit on a Rockets roster that already has some low-feel players. Still, this is a remarkable talent to get at No. 20 overall after he reportedly fell on draft night because of poor workouts and vague medical concerns. Whitmore and Thompson join Jalen Green, Jabari Smith Jr., Tari Eason, and Alperen Sengun on a suddenly fascinating young roster that has size, shooting, and overwhelming athleticism. The Rockets will need some time to mature, but they’re definitely going to be fun right away.
1. Victor Wembanyama to the Spurs
Wembanyama would obviously be an incredible fit on any roster in the league as one of the best draft prospects in league history. The Spurs feel like an ideal place for him to start his career, and not just because of their history developing both generational big men (Tim Duncan, David Robinson) and international talents (Tony Parker, Manu Ginóbili).
San Antonio already had a nice roster of complementary pieces in place — they just lacked a superstar to stir the drink. Devin Vassell could be in for an All-Star turn as a big guard who is so much more than a 3-and-D player. His shot-making, shot-creation, and awesome off-ball defense is everything Wembanyama will want next to him. Jeremy Sochan is essentially a five-position defender at the four who plays with non-stop energy on both ends and has some impressive passing flashes. Keldon Johnson is a determined rim-attacker locked into a team-friendly contract, and Malaki Branham and Blake Wesley have upside in the backcourt. The Spurs drafted another Frenchman in Sidy Cissoko in the second round who can provide versatile wing defense, too.
Everything will revolve around Wembanyama. He’s going to get room to grow as a shot-creator, the freedom to take one-legged threes, and chance to defend all over the floor. If he stays healthy, he has the talent to one day become a generation-defining big man. No pressure, kid.