Photo Credit: Eric Francis

Padding the Stats: San Antonio’s Lucky Day

May 17, 2023

Tuesday was the day many NBA front offices and fan bases had been looking forward to for quite some time: lottery day.

There’s always a certain level of excitement surrounding the lottery as it determines the order for next month’s draft, but this year’s ceremony carried special intrigue because of the price awaiting whoever ended up with the top pick: French 7-footer Victor Wembanyama.

If you haven’t heard of Wembanyama at this point, you’ve probably either been living under a rock or simply don’t pay attention to basketball. The 7-foot-4 teenager dominated the French league this season, leading it in points (21.6), rebounds (10.5) and blocks (3.1) at just 19 years old. His height and length allow him to change the geometry of the floor from a defensive standpoint and on offense he has the capability of creating his own offense off the bounce, which is unheard of for someone of his height.

The hype train for Wembanyama has been going full steam ahead for some time now, but ESPN ramped it up to a whole other level during the Draft Lottery show as Adrian Wojnarowski described him in glowing teams a few different ways, including calling him maybe the best prospect we’ve ever seen, regardless of sport. That might be going a bit overboard (heck, ESPN sent Omaha resident Brian Windhorst over to Spain for a 2:30 a.m. local time, 60-second interview with the future Spur post-lottery), but Wembanyama does possess the potential to be truly special.

And now, thanks to Tuesday’s lottery, he’ll be heading to San Antonio. The Spurs tied for the worst record in the West and second-worst overall. The league’s last-place team, the Detroit Pistons, fell all the way to No. 5 while the Charlotte Hornets (home to Bryce McGowens) will pick second, the Portland Trailblazers third and the Houston Rockets fourth.

Spurs managing partner Peter J. Holt served as the franchise’s representative at the lottery, and the emphatic “Let’s go!” he called out after NBA Deputy Commissioner Mark Tatum announced the Spurs had gotten the top pick revealed how excited he was on behalf of his franchise.

As a Suns fan who came up in the Seven Seconds or Less era, my feelings are conflicted about seeing the Spurs win the lottery. As a young fan, the Spurs were seemingly the team that ended Phoenix’s season every year, the one team they couldn’t get past no matter what they did (until, of course, the Suns finally swept them in 2010). The Spurs were our hated rival, and it stung seeing them win a title every other year.

However, the hatred I felt for them has died down a bit as the Spurs have been mediocre to bad over the last few years. Post-Steve Nash, the Suns became irrelevant, then as they shot back up into contender status a few years ago the Spurs went in the other direction.

I still would prefer to see the Spurs in the NBA cellar rather than contending for titles, but even so, San Antonio seems like a great landing spot for Wembanyama. As a fan of basketball as a whole, I hope he lives up to the hype, and San Antonio seems to be as good of a place for him to do that as anywhere. He has a Hall of Fame coach in Gregg Popovich and a strong young core to develop around the team’s new centerpiece.

Jeremy Sochan had a very intriguing rookie year after the Spurs took the one-and-done Baylor Bear with the ninth pick in the 2022 draft. The versatile defensive forward showed some real offensive promise down the stretch of the 2022-23 season and seems like a terrific frontcourt partner for Wembanyama.

Keldon Johnson and Devin Vassell combined to average just over 40 points last season and have the look of long-term quality starting-caliber wings. They also have some young backcourt prospects in Tre Jones, Malaki Branham and Blake Wesley that could develop into rotation pieces down the road. 

Oh, and every player I’ve mentioned here is less than 24 years old.

I don’t think the Spurs will be renewing their rivalry with the Suns as contenders in the next couple of years, but if things go according to plan in San Antonio I get the feeling the Spurs will be a thorn in my side once again for the tail end of Devin Booker’s prime in Phoenix.

The Spurs don’t pick at the top the draft very often, but they’ve certainly had great timing when they’ve done so. The last time the Spurs picked at No. 1 was in 1997. They took Tim Duncan. Before that, they received the top pick a decade prior and chose David Robinson.

Before Tuesday, those were the only years the Spurs had received the No. 1 pick, and in each of them they chose a generational center who went on to lead the team to multiple titles during a Hall of Fame career. Now they’ll look to go three-for-three when the pick Wembanyama on June 22.

While Wembanyama is undeniable the prize in this draft, he’s not the only one to get excited about. 

Explosive lead guard Scoot Henderson spent the past two seasons playing against grown men as part of the G League Ignite program and will be a fine consolation prize for Charlotte to pair with LaMelo Ball in the backcourt.

Unless the Charlotte brass decide to go in a different direction at No. 2 and take this year’s top prospect from the NCAA ranks in Alabama wing Brandon Miller, who averaged 18.8 points and shot 38.4% from 3 on high volume in his freshman season.

Another option near the top of the draft is Amen Thompson, the freakishly athletic, 6-foot-7 point guard out of Overtime Elite. I got a chance to see Thompson and his twin brother Ausar (a lottery prospect in his own right) play in person with Overtime Elite’s TBT team in Omaha last summer, and I can confirm that he’s capable of pulling off some truly outlandish athletic feats on the basketball court while also possession creativity as a passer.

I find it fascinating that arguably the top four prospects in this year’s draft — all fantastic players that would go highly in any draft — took four different paths to get to this point. In the end, if you’ve got what it takes, the scouts will find you.

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