NBA draft 2023: Surprises, winners and losers from the first round

ByNBA Insiders ESPN logo
Friday, June 23, 2023

The first round of the 2023 NBA draft saw a generational 7-foot-5 talent hearing his name called at No. 1, trades involving top-10 picks and one player surprisingly sliding out of the lottery.

The moves NBA teams made Thursday will have a ripple effect into free agency, the 2023-24 season and beyond.

As expected, French phenom Victor Wembanyama was drafted with the first overall pick by the San Antonio Spurs. Wembanyama's status as the most hyped NBA prospect since LeBron James in 2003 gives the Spurs hope of building around a young superstar.

Several other teams are hoping their picks will give them similar hope, including the Charlotte Hornets after drafting Brandon Miller and the Portland Trail Blazers, who selected Scoot Henderson. Twins Amen and Ausar Thompson became the first brothers taken in the top five picks of the same draft in NBA history when the Houston Rockets took Amen at No. 4 and the Detroit Pistons took Ausar at No. 5.

The first round also saw its fair share of trades, as the Indiana Pacers and Washington Wizards swapped draft rights for Bilal Coulibaly and Jarace Walker, and the Oklahoma City Thunder and Dallas Mavericks swapped draft rights for Cason Wallace and Dereck Lively II.

Our basketball insiders break down the biggest storylines from the night and what they mean for the league moving forward.

What surprised you most from the draft?

Jeff Borzello: Bilal Coulibaly going at No. 7 seemed a couple spots early. Perhaps the surprise wasn't simply Coulibaly going ahead of the likes of Jarace Walker, Taylor Hendricks and Cam Whitmore, though, but his rise over the past few months. He was barely on the radar this time a year ago and was still an afterthought earlier this season. Over the past couple weeks, buzz had grown that he was going to be drafted in the lottery, and his perceived ceiling just kept rising. It's a long-term play with huge potential for the Wizards.

Tim Bontemps: The lack of trade activity. Only two teams -- the Sacramento Kings at 24 and Boston Celtics at 25 -- moved out of the first round completely on draft night. The other two trades that happened during the first round came in the form of a pair of swapped picks in the lottery. Given how wide open it seemed like things could be heading into the draft, it was interesting to see it play out close to how it was lined up at the start of the night.

Jonathan Givony: The lack of surprises. By NBA draft standards, it went almost entirely the way we thought it would, starting with Brandon Miller being drafted second (the worst-kept secret in the NBA the past month) and continuing with the fact that we were able to project 18 of the top 24 picks precisely to the right team, and 28 of the 30 players who ended up hearing their names called in the first round overall. That doesn't normally happen. Sure, there were a couple of players who went higher or lower than we thought they would, but overall it might have been the most predictable draft we've seen in some time.

Jeremy Woo: Jett Howard at No. 11 was the main thing I wasn't expecting, but it wasn't entirely out of left field. We knew Orlando needed to add shooting, and it opted for him instead of Gradey Dick or Jordan Hawkins, placing a bet on Howard's potential to become a more dynamic all-around scorer playing alongside Franz Wagner, Paolo Banchero and now Anthony Black. It's not necessarily what I would have done, and I didn't see it coming, but in a first round that went mostly according to our projections, this pick stood out.

Dave McMenamin: Besides Gradey Dick's red-sequined jacket? The lack of centers selected in the first round. There's an argument to be made that the three best players in the league are all centers in Nikola Jokic, the reigning Finals MVP;Joel Embiid, the reigning regular-season MVP; and Giannis Antetokounmpo (no further context needed for the Bucks superstar). That said, there were only three centers in the first 30 picks: Victor Wembanyama (No. 1), Dereck Lively II (No. 12) and Noah Clowney (No. 21). And Wembanyama declared he wants to play the 4 next season, with a 5 playing alongside him.

With the Trail Blazers drafting Scoot Henderson No. 3 overall, what does Damian Lillard's future in Portland look like?

Borzello: Whatever it was before the draft. Portland couldn't pass up on a talent such as Henderson, regardless of Lillard's decision. If Lillard leaves, Henderson is a player for Portland to build around. If Lillard stays, the Trail Blazers will balance trying to be competitive with Lillard and keeping an eye on the future with Anfernee Simons and their other young players.

Bontemps: Uncertain. Henderson has massive upside. I love the pick for Portland and think taking -- and keeping -- Henderson always made the most sense moving forward. It remains to be seen how Lillard will react to the Blazers not using the third pick to land an impact veteran player to help the franchise move more quickly toward contention.

Givony: Exactly the same as yesterday. Lillard was a full participant in Portland's pre-draft process, attending workouts for both Henderson and Miller, as well as other top prospects, and he knew better than anyone how unlikely it was the Trail Blazers would end up trading this pick.

Woo: Probably the same. I do think both sides might eventually land on a decision to part ways, but the timeline on that doesn't seem imminent, and the Blazers appear ready to rebuild on the fly. It's hard to trade your franchise player, especially one making as much as Lillard is making, and sometimes it's also hard for those guys to decide to move on.

McMenamin: Hazy. Credit Henderson for already pitching Lillard on their pairing, telling NBA TV shortly after he was drafted, "If we combine our games, it will be over [for the rest of the NBA]." Confidence is the secret sauce that can turn a prospect into an immediate-impact pro, after all. But after 11 years in the league and with his 33rd birthday coming next month, no one could blame Lillard for hoping to play with more experienced teammates at this stage of his career.

True or False: The San Antonio Spurs will win a championship with Victor Wembanyama

Borzello: True, just because there's a strong possibility Wembanyama is the best player in the NBA at some point, and that should theoretically give the Spurs a good chance to win a championship with him leading the way. If he comes anywhere close to living up to expectations, he's going to be a player who lifts up a franchise, and eventually, someone other players around the league want to play with in an attempt to win a title.

Bontemps: True, because for a player with as much upside as Wenbanyama, it's no fun to root for them to fail. And, if Wenbanyama stays healthy, he has a chance to be the third incredibly special No. 1 pick in Spurs history, after David Robinson and Tim Duncan -- who led the franchise to all five of its championships.

Givony: True, because I wouldn't bet against Wembanyama's competitiveness. And this Spurs front office has shown it knows what it takes to put together a championship-caliber roster.

Woo: True, eventually. If we're not going to put our chips on this guy, who are we supposed to bet on? It's impossible to know the timeline or what the future holds, but Wembanyama is different from most players. If he has a long, mostly healthy career, I think he makes it happen.

McMenamin: True. What more can you ask for as a franchise than what Wembanyama brings to the table? It's not just the inside-outside skill set or the equally impressive impact on offense and defense, it's his whole persona. Listening to him speak in the weeks leading up to the draft, you just get the sense destiny is on this kid's side.

Cam Whitmore sliding to the Houston Rockets at No. 20 is ___.

Borzello: Stunning -- even when factoring in the reported medical concerns. He had an inconsistent freshman campaign and missed the first seven games of the season, but he was still in the mix to go in the top five as recently as a few days ago. To drop to 20 represents an incredible value for Houston. Whitmore, 18, has physical tools that are as impressive as anyone in the draft, and he began to show late in the season why he was such a highly touted prospect coming out of high school.

Bontemps: Predictable -- only because there's always one player who winds up dropping on draft night, and Whitmore happened to be the guy this year. Still, it made all the sense in the world for him to land in a place like Houston, which has a new coach in Ime Udoka who likes big, physical players exactly like Whitmore.

Givony: Motivating -- Whitmore's intensity level left a lot to be desired both at Villanova this season and, according to teams who worked him out, during pre-draft workouts and interviews, where he didn't show the level of engagement they were hoping for. While there were other reasons he fell -- his medicals weren't pristine, according to several teams I spoke with -- it was a confluence of issues that included his lack of productivity in his one-and-done season on a team that didn't make the NCAA tournament and often looked better when he was off the floor.

Woo: Unfortunate, but OK. Obviously, this was one of the night's bigger storylines, but there had been chatter around the league all week as teams expressed concern, and it came to a head Thursday as teams in the 10-to-20 range did last-minute research on whether Whitmore might be there, and what his bill of health looked like. The Rockets, who considered Whitmore at No. 4, were comfortable enough to take a swing after he tumbled to their next pick, and they might well be rewarded for it. He's landing in a situation in which he won't have to take on an outsized role immediately, something that might help him in the end.

McMenamin: Salvageable. You know who will relish having a 6-foot-7, 232-pound physical prospect with a chip on his shoulder? Udoka. It's hard to imagine a better coaching fit to turn the hurt Whitmore felt on draft night waiting to hear his name into fuel by infusing him with confidence by making him feel needed in Houston. No matter the reason, Whitmore went from looking like a lottery lock to being passed up 19 times, his new beginning starts now with a motivated Rockets team.

Which draft pick outside the lottery will have the biggest impact on his team next season?

Borzello: Jaime Jaquez Jr. will be a popular option because of his maturity, experience and offensive skill set, but I can't ignore Nick Smith Jr. falling to Charlotte at 27. He was arguably the best NBA prospect in college basketball entering the season but struggled with injuries and consistency. Smith found a strong landing spot, however, given the late first round is usually filled with playoff teams looking for more experienced players. He will be reunited with former AAU teammate Brandon Miller, and he also won't have to shoulder the ballhandling and playmaking responsibilities next to LaMelo Ball.

Bontemps: Jaquez. The UCLA product is an older prospect who knows how to play and is joining a Miami Heat roster that has a potential money crunch to keep this team together, with both Gabe Vincent and Max Strus set to be free agents. Jaquez seems like a perfect fit to slot into coach Erik Spoelstra's rotation early on.

Givony: Most of the agents of green room guard prospects had Utah's backcourt situation circled as one of the most enviable because of the ample playing time that appears to be available for a team that doesn't need to be in any rush to win games. Keyonte George ended up beating out a big pack of candidates to win this spot and was selected No. 16 overall, potentially giving him a runway to starting and getting ample offensive opportunity. His scoring instincts and ability to hit pull-up jumpers and make pocket passes out of the pick-and-roll gives him a strong framework of offensive ability to build around, especially if he's willing to buy into playing with the type of defensive intensity coach Will Hardy demands.

Woo: Kris Murray. He's going to be able to make shots and earn minutes for the Blazers, who don't have a ton of reliable shooting in their frontcourt and are presumably hoping to plug and play him. I don't know if Murray has a Keeganesque campaign (Murray's twin brother, Keegan, was a first-team All-Rookie selection for the Kings in 2022-23), but the stuff he naturally does on the court is pretty useful. There's certainly opportunity here for him.

McMenamin: Brandin Podziemski. While the Warriors have been hit or miss in the draft in recent years, Podziemski just seems like a guy we'll see filling up the stat sheet in coach Steve Kerr's schemes, given his size and elite shooting knack. Plus, with Jordan Poole gone and Donte DiVincenzo possibly leaving for more money in free agency, there should be touches available for him on next season's team.

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