The Unusual Importance of the 2023 NBA Draft

Many fans underrate the value of building teams through the draft. The unique class of 2023 looks particularly impactful, and Raptors fans should take note.

When I first made the introductory article to this year’s class back in January, the Toronto Raptors were in the middle of their painfully confusing season and were fluctuating between the sixth and tenth best odds in the lottery. At that point, if you had asked me where I expected the Raptors to be by this point in the year, I would have replied that I expected them to probably finish around that spot. Perhaps the front office would realize that this core is not conducive to winning basketball, and instead they need to readjust their focus towards rebuilding around Scottie Barnes and whatever high draft picks were in their immediate future. That was just what made sense, in terms of moving assets around.

Unfortunately, an even more painfully confusing trade deadline followed. Jakob Poeltl was brought into the equation at the expense of next year’s draft pick (top 6 protected, but, c’mon let’s be real), and a couple of the Raptors’ most valuable trade assets in Fred VanVleet and Gary Trent Jr. were now on the free agency trajectory. No other moves were made, which meant that yes, the Raptors technically improved.

Jakob Poeltl filled the team’s hole at centre, but he is not your saviour.

I won’t bore with a retelling of the season. The Raptors finished with the thirteenth best odds in the draft lottery. Had they sold some players for assets at the deadline, or even just done nothing, they would have probably finished in that aforementioned range of odds from sixth to tenth. If Nick Nurse was amicable to the idea of not playing the starters a record amount of minutes every night, perhaps closer to the top-six side of that spectrum.

Toronto was, at points deep into the season, lower than the Portland Trailblazers in the standings, and Portland was later blessed with some ping pong ball luck which allowed them to move up to the third overall selection last Tuesday evening. Portland recognized that the higher chance to move up for a generational prospect was worth the temporary step back; preferable to an inevitable first round ousting at the hands of the West’s top teams, or a play-in loss to the Lakers. I still often question why Toronto’s leadership refused to think in a similar fashion.

The purpose of this article is to highlight the importance of the draft, and how teams are often capable of using the draft to build their teams effectively. The 2023 Draft is around the corner, and trade rumours are abundant on social media, especially when it came to light that Portland is heavily considering trading the rights to the third overall pick for a star to aid Damian Lillard’s search for a ring. Pascal Siakam’s name is naturally expected to come up.

The 2023 Draft is important simply due to the presence of Victor Wembanyama. The future San Antonio Spur has widely been recognized as the best prospect since Lebron James was selected first overall in 2003, and some have claimed he could be the best prospect in the sport, period.

Such lofty expectations will naturally be hard to reach. Does Wembanyama have Hall of Fame potential? As much as any prospect I have ever seen, yes. Is it also a possibility that his unique body fails him and he becomes one of the most tragic “what-if” stories in all of sports? Also yes.

When it comes to the draft, unless a player has a history of serious and repetitive injuries (Wembanyama does not fall into this category, for the record. Just a history of small things here and there), then it does not make sense to write them off entirely in this regard. Watching the film, Wembanyama looks like he could step in and be a top tier player in the NBA almost immediately, just due to his unique blend of size and skills on both ends of the floor. Wemby won the MVP, Defensive Player of the Year, Young Player of the Year, along with the scoring and block titles in the French league as an 18/19 year old. I’m surprised the tanking competition among the NBA’s worst teams wasn’t more blatant.

Behind Wembanyama are less-hyped-but-still-very-good prospects. Scoot Henderson, Brandon Miller, the Thompson Twins, Anthony Black, and Jarace Walker just to name a few. Henderson and Miller figure to shake out the top 3 of the draft, and I would expect their names to be frequent occurrences among Raptors fans while the rumours of the third overall pick continue to jump around. This draft is key due to the fact that a few of these guys figure to be franchise cornerstones for the lucky teams that happen to pick them, similar to how the Raptors were able to fall upwards into the Scottie Barnes selection in 2021.

Henderson, an athletic phenom with outstanding court vision and on-court leadership skills that figure to place him as one of the top point guards in the league in the foreseeable future.

Miller, one of the best shooters in college basketball with an ideal frame for a forward and a game that improved as the season went on.

I’ve talked about these players briefly already earlier in the year though, let’s get into the core of my argument. The draft itself, any year, is important, many people sleep on how important it is, and here’s why that should change, especially for Raptors fans.

The “Crystal Ball” Argument

I want to address one of the more common arguments that I see against rebuilding through the draft: “Draft picks are not sure things, they could turn out to be anything, it’s better to trade for someone proven since we don’t know what the draft pick will be”. Of course! After all, who could forget tragic busts such as Anthony Bennett, Darko Miličić, and Kwame Brown?

I don’t like thinking in those terms. It basically implies that picks are useless and players are only worth trading for if they’ve seen NBA minutes. Fact is, none of us can predict the future. Luka Dončić could slip on an ice cube tomorrow and suffer a career ending tailbone bruise, none of us know. Where I think people need to readjust their mindset is with regards to viewing the picks as investments in your team’s future rather than potential ticking timebombs.

Another common argument in a similar vein is when people appear resistant to trading proven talent in order to rebuild. “Why would we trade Pascal (for example) just to get a draft pick who might become Pascal?”. The point of a hypothetical Pascal trade would simply be due to the recognition that Pascal Siakam likely won’t be winning you a championship as a first option, and realizing that the team has very limited options when it comes to strengthening the roster without continuing to deplete the already incredibly shallow depth of talent. Discussions around Kevin Durant and Donovan Mitchell permeated fanbase discussion last offseason, and it wouldn’t be prudent to gut the team and essentially pair either player with a couple starters and fill out the remainder of the roster with borderline G-League tier talent.

Pascal won’t get you a paltry return. The incoming haul of youth and talent would give the Raptors ample room to develop high-ceiling developmental prospects (such as Miller or Henderson this year) as well as a number of valuable trade pieces. Such pieces would only give Masai and Bobby more freedom to work the trade markets in finding other deals to strengthen the roster. As of now, they’re far more restricted.

Yes, the team will have to take a step-back in terms of regular season wins for the foreseeable future while these young players and Scottie develop, and I think that frightens people. However, I would argue that it is preferable to be building towards something rather than floundering about in the middle, constantly trying to win a play-in game or first round series where the team is consistently outmatched in terms of talent, especially when your best two players are going to be over 30 next year and on insanely expensive contracts. The point is that the team will have a surplus of talent to trade or keep, as opposed to the current opposite situation in reality where they’re struggling to pull a rabbit out of a hat if a starter gets injured.

The team is struggling to find ways to replace their depth and young, high-ceiling pieces since 2019. This is how they’re going to have to do it unless they absolutely nail the 13th pick in the incoming draft and the player selected there exceeds all expectations from day one. Even then, they’ll still have holes in the roster in need of addressing, and no picks to trade in the future due to the protections on the pick used in the Poeltl trade.

The “Diamonds in the Rough” Argument

At Masai Ujiri’s season-ending press conference, he spoke about the team’s desire to win and how he felt they could continue to build through the middle. Of course, the Raptors have had success with later picks. Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby were picked in the mid 20’s, Norman Powell was picked 46th, and Fred VanVleet was undrafted. Those are the guys usually brought up as examples, and rightfully so — it takes truly impressive scouting to build a core from picks like that. The Raptors aren’t like other teams, they don’t tank (ignore Tampa). They’re too good for that, they can continue to replicate this process going forward and rebuild while staying competitive, right?

Unfortunately, since the 2016 and 2017 drafts, the Raptors have been unable to replicate that success:

2018: No picks
2019: Dewan Hernandez, 59th
2020: Malachi Flynn, 29th
2021: Scottie Barnes, 4th, Dalano Banton, 46th, David Johnson, 47th
2022: Christian Koloko, 33rd (traded down from 20th)

Scottie was a home run, considering many such as myself were clamouring for Jalen Suggs at the time. That said, he was still a top 5 pick, and many of the later picks that the team has made since the championship in 2019 have either not panned out or are currently too raw to even get minutes for a team trying to win like the Raptors claim they are currently doing. This leads me into the point about the value of higher picks compared to the belief that a team can constantly build through the middle of the draft. It becomes incredibly difficult to replicate the past successes of the team when they can’t use the draft to replace the depth that they lost since the championship.

From 1989 to 2019, a vast majority of high end talent is proven to come from the lottery, picks 1-14, with roughly 26% of lottery picks being named to an all star game. The remainder of the first round non-lottery picks in that time have only seen 8% of players named to an all star game. The higher that pick is, the more likely it is that a player will be an all star. It’s a simple numbers game. There are more players available to be selected the higher your pick is. You have a much wider talent pool to choose from, and there is far more consensus at the top of the draft where players are more widely scouted. Even if the prospect doesn’t make it to an all star game, the odds of an impactful player being selected increases with the draft pick.

Diluting that sample even further, the majority of lottery players that become all stars fall within the top 5 selections, with the most stemming from the first overall selection [19/30 in this timeframe]. Funnily enough, there are more examples of all stars from the third overall pick [17/30] than the second [12/30].

I’ve heard the term “crap shoot” used to describe the draft before, and I think that really only applies the further down the order that you go, as scouts more drastically deviate in consensus with less talented players on the board. Near the top, if your team knows what they’re doing in a good class like this one, the talent should fall into your lap.

The “2019 Team” Argument

The 2019 championship squad was truly unique. The first team to win a title without any lottery picks on their roster. Surely this renders the draft moot, correct? Any team should be able to look at what the Raptors did and find ways to win through late picks and savvy trades.

Yes and no. Kawhi Leonard, Serge Ibaka, and Marc Gasol were all non-lottery key pieces of the 2019 team that would not have a championship were it not for their contributions. What is important is how they arrived in Toronto. Kawhi Leonard, traded for DeMar DeRozan (multi time all star, 9th overall pick), Jakob Poeltl (9th overall pick), and future draft capital. Serge Ibaka arrived as a result of Toronto sending out Terrence Ross (8th overall pick) and a future first round pick by way of the LA Clippers. Marc Gasol was a deadline deal that saw the departure of Jonas Valanciunas (5th overall pick) and Delon Wright (20th overall pick) along with more draft capital.

That team does not get built without the value accumulated by lottery picks and the abundance of future picks that the Raptors had from previous trades. Yes, Kawhi was picked 15th. Gasol in the middle of the second round. Both are future hall of famers… But they are exceptions to the rule. If every late second round pick figured to have a Gasol or Jokic level outcome, the value of second round picks would skyrocket and the talent level in the league would be astronomically different. It’s a little silly to constantly expect your team to get similar talent later on in the draft and be capable of consistently being able to round out their depth with such few amount of picks at their disposal, especially when a team has a penchant for selecting players of a similar archetype (long, defence-first prospects with questionable offence) like the Raptors.

Sometimes when you have these high picks, the players selected may not fit the roster in ways the team plans. Sometimes something happens developmentally, such as with injuries or delays in improving a certain skill. In that case, you still have a valuable young talent that can be used in a trade for a win-now move. Many have joked about the Thunder or the Jazz for their use of accumulating a large number of picks in the next few drafts, but the fact of the matter is that both teams finished in the same ballpark record-wise as the Raptors last season, have far younger teams with similarly talented core players (or better, in the case of the Thunder and SGA), and have way more picks to improve their future outlook, whether that be through the draft or the trade market.

The 13th Pick, and Reality

All signs point towards Masai & Co. continuing on the path they laid out at the trade deadline. Whether it be due to financial pressures from MLSE, or a genuine belief that Siakam and VanVleet can champion this squad to a finals appearance within the next few years, there hasn’t been much indication that they are willing to use the draft in the ways that I have laid out. It feels like a lot is riding on Scottie Barnes making a massive leap on both ends of the floor, which is bold, considering they don’t have a lot else in the way of other major developmental talent on the team.

So as it doesn’t make sense to sit here and wax poetic about the ideal future where Scottie catches lobs from Scoot Henderson on the fast break, or where Scottie kicks out to an open Brandon Miller in the corner to hit 10 threes in a playoff game, we should instead be focusing on what we can with the 13th overall pick.

There’s much to like here. Even though there’s a talent drop off after the big name guys in the draft, I feel that there’s enough talent rounding out the lottery that the Raptors should still have a lot of good names to choose from on June 22nd.

My personal favourites are as follows, in rough order of preference, and you can expect pieces covering them in the coming days. These are players I expect to be available in the range of 13.

Cason Wallace, Guard, Kentucky
Gradey Dick, Wing, Kansas
Kobe Bufkin, Guard, Michigan
Dariq Whitehead, Wing, Duke
Keyonte George, Guard, Baylor
Brice Sensabaugh, Wing, Ohio State
Bilal Coulibaly, Wing, Metropolitans 82
Nick Smith Jr., Guard, Arkansas
Jordan Hawkins, Guard, Connecticut

Noticing a pattern, I hope. The Raptors are in dire need of guards and wings, specifically ones who can shoot, or at least show promise in that area. The bad part is that for those hoping to draft a point guard, your options get incredibly thin after Cason Wallace if he happens to be off the board. While I generally frown on drafting for need, it should be said that these players can also be argued as the “best player available” (with the exception of Hawkins and possibly Smith, depending on who you ask), given the range of talent on the board at this point in the draft, so it works out.

There are players that I tend to be lower on in this range, simply due to their reputation not matching their on-court production (GG Jackson, Jalen Hood-Schifino, Jett Howard), or the fact that they would be a redundant fit on the roster and wouldn’t see enough developmental reps to truly shine unless major moves were made that gave them more opportunities (Leonard Miller, Rayan Rupert).

The 2023 Draft is incredibly important for the trajectory of a lot of teams. For those at the top, a misstep on a selection could mean missing out on a future franchise cornerstone. For the Raptors, it could mean that they continue to struggle going forward, a limited team with limited means to make improvements. But hitting on the pick? The sky’s the limit. The 13th pick has the potential to yield a major future piece, and I love covering college basketball and the draft every year due to the anticipation that the selection brings.

Welcome to draft season.