2023 NBA Draft winners and losers: Gradey Dick lights up the night; building blocks for Rockets, Thunder, Mavericks

Many learned scholars of NBA basketball have said that you can’t judge a draft until at least five years down the line. But as I am not a learned scholar — I am, in fact, Just Some Guy — I say, respectfully, “Cram it, Socrates.”

What follows is a stab at a first draft of history — a thumbnail sketch of who had a good night at the 2023 NBA Draft, and who might not have come away from it all that stoked. (There will be more winners than losers, because on draft night, hope springs eternal.)

We begin, appropriately, at the top:

WINNER: San Antonio Spurs

A truly searing take, I know. San Antonio won this draft on lottery night, but it became official on Thursday in Brooklyn, when Victor Wembanyama became a Spur. When you draft a 7-foot-4 demigod whose status as a prospect has drawn favorable comparisons to the likes of LeBron James and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, it seems fair to suggest you did all right.

From his emotional post-draft interview to his first-blush impression of new boss Gregg Popovich — “He’s not intimidating yet, but I’m sure he’s going to get intimidating when I see him in real life” — the vibes surrounding the French phenom heading to San Antonio seem to be as immaculate as his fit in a lineage of Hall of Fame big men featuring fellow No. 1 picks David Robinson and Tim Duncan. And speaking of immaculate vibes …

WINNER: Victor Wembanyama’s Strength and Conditioning Program

Belay those injury concerns, Nervous Nellies. I think the young fella’s got a plan for putting some more meat on those bones. (It remains to be seen whether that meat is barbacoa or carne guisada.)

WINNER: Twins!

First, the Rockets picked Amen Thompson fourth overall, followed immediately by the Pistons snagging twin brother and Overtime Elite teammate Ausar Thompson at No. 5, making them the first pair of brothers ever selected in the top 10 in a single NBA Draft. Then, UCF forward Taylor Hendricks came off the board to Utah at No. 9 — and was promptly joined for his post-pick interview by twin brother/UCF redshirt freshman guard Tyler Hendricks. After that, the Portland Trail Blazers landed Iowa forward Kris Murray with the 23rd pick, just one year after his twin brother Keegan Murray went to the Kings at No. 4.

I’m not going to say that having a fertilized ovum split and develop into two babies that share genetic information is a fast track to the NBA. After this year’s first round, though, I’m not not saying that.

WINNER: Troy Weaver’s Approach to Talent Evaluation

We’ll all find out together whether Detroit’s draft picks — Ausar Thompson at No. 5 and Houston point guard Marcus Sasser at No. 25 — pan out in the league. What we found out on Thursday, though, is that the Pistons general manager is capable of communicating a complex idea simply, and beautifully.

Asked if he had any pause about drafting Thompson over other prospects given the relative lack of track record for the Overtime Elite program compared to, say, the G League Ignite, Weaver offered the following: “You can say that, but when you see something different, you see something elite, you know it. I think Halle Berry’s pretty in church or in the grocery store. I think you can kind of figure it out when you see something pretty special.”

On one hand: Yes. Perfect analogy, Troy. Thank you. On the other: I really hope Ausar’s film study doesn’t include regular breakdowns of Halle’s game in "Catwoman". That feels like it would be counterproductive.

LOSER: Gradey Dick’s Sartorial Decision-Making

Oh, Gradey. Dear, sweet, sparkly Gradey.

Well, just like fashion inspo source Dorothy, Dick ain’t in Kansas anymore. He’s on his way to Toronto, selected by the Raptors with Thursday’s 13th overall pick.

Yahoo Sports NBA draft analyst Krysten Peek loved the fit (with the Raptors, I mean, not this fit) highlighting the 6-foot-8 swingman’s ability to “make the right read in the lane.” While that may be true on the court, he made a questionable read on Thursday — one that had him out here looking like B.J. from "The Righteous Gemstones." Looking like a mid-1980s Anthony Michael Hall character. Looking like “an ‘SNL’ sketch.”

Looking like “Rik Smits as a genie.” Looking like “raw meat.” Looking like Bobby “The Brain” Heenan. Looking like he’s “hosting the 76th Annual Hunger Games.”

You get the idea.

“This is a once-in-a-lifetime type thing,” Dick told CNN’s Omar Jimenez. “My mentality with it all was, ‘I’m going to wear this suit one time in my entire life.’ So I might as well go out with it.”

One can only hope that Dick promised everyone who loves him that wearing this would, indeed, be a “once-in-a-lifetime” thing.

Now, all that said …

WINNER: Gradey Dick’s Confidence

… if you’re a dude fully comfortable turning up for the biggest night of your life in a bright red figure-skating costume complete with a 1970s linebacker’s shoulder pads, I’ve got to imagine you’re going to be comfortable stepping into huge shots in huge moments without even a hint of fear.

This, perhaps, shouldn’t come as a surprise; for someone forged in the fires of the TikTok content game, as Dick appears to be, second-guessing is a luxury you simply can’t afford.

For a Raptors team that finished last season 28th in 3-point makes per game and team 3-point accuracy, a little unshakable self-determination might not be the worst thing in the world. (Hell, his color scheme even matched Toronto’s! Maybe it was written in the stars … or, at least, the reflective gleam from the spotlight hitting that coat.)

WINNER: Bilal Coulibaly

At the start of the season, most draft prognosticators projected Wembanyama’s teammate on Metropolitans 92 of France’s LNB Pro A as a prospect for consideration in next year’s draft. As the campaign wore on, though, he earned more minutes and began to blossom, showcasing the kind of length — 6-6 with a 7-2 wingspan, the result of a growth spurt of a foot over a couple of years — athleticism and defensive activity that tends to leave evaluators salivating. (The phrase “Baby Giannis” has made an appearance.)

That combination of physical traits, ramped-up production in the French playoffs and projectable upside at just 18 years old led Coulibaly from the 2024 discussion all the way up to 2023’s seventh overall pick, which the Wizards gave the Indiana Pacers two future second-round picks to secure. The move made Big Vic — one of Coulibaly’s biggest boosters — awfully happy:

Of course, a meteoric rise does not a sparkling future make; a player as young and as raw as Coulibaly has a long way to go to make the kind of impact that’ll reward Washington for its bold swing and its faith in what he showed in limited action at the senior level in France. Given how far he’s come and how fast he’s traveled, though, it might not be wise to bet against him.

On the other end of the spectrum …

LOSER: Cam Whitmore

Back in October, our Krysten Peek had Whitmore mocked at the seventh pick. After the lottery, she had the Villanova freshman sitting eighth. Just 2½ weeks ago, he was up to No. 5, lined up for a Pistons team with a clear need for size, athleticism and juice on the wing — all traits Whitmore seemed to have in strong supply.

It seems like one highly touted prospect experiences a bracing plummet every year, though, and Whitmore had the ignominious honor of being this year’s slider. The notion that he might fall started to gain steam throughout draft week, with Peek reporting “rumblings” earlier Thursday “that Whitmore is slipping on draft boards due to his medical evaluation that took place at the NBA Draft Combine.”

I’m not sure anyone expected that slippage to drop him all the way out of the lottery and all the way down to No. 20, though — a precipitous fall for an elite prospect who suffered a broken leg in high school and missed time early in his lone college season after thumb surgery, but who insisted Thursday night that there was nothing of particular concern in his medical records.

Cam Whitmore poses with NBA commissioner Adam Silver after being selected with the 20th overall pick by the Houston Rockets during the 2023 NBA Draft on June 22, 2023 in New York City. (Sarah Stier/Getty Images)

“No, I promise you there’s not,” he told reporters. “I have no idea. I don’t know what happened. But I feel fine. It’s my body. If they think it’s something different, they have their own opinions. But at the end of the day, it’s my body.”

Non-health-related matters might’ve played a role, too: During ESPN’s draft broadcast, insider Adrian Wojnarowski said that several NBA “teams and front offices describe a combination of some poor workouts, some not great interviews with teams over the last month, as part of the reason Cam Whitmore has dropped.”

Whatever the reason for the slide, Whitmore landed with a Rockets team that reportedly considered him at No. 4 — and how you got to the dance ultimately matters a hell of a lot less than what you do once you get on the floor.

“At the end of the day, it doesn’t really faze me,” Whitmore said. “I know I’m different than everybody else, but it’s just another chapter in my life, another step in the journey. Time to get to work.”

WINNER: The Rockets’ Raw Materials

Adding Whitmore and Amen Thompson to a roster that already features Jalen Green, Jabari Smith Jr., Alperen Şengün, Tari Eason, Usman Garuba and Kevin Porter Jr., among other recent draftees, gives Houston one of the most athletic and exciting young groups in the entire league.

“I think Houston got a lot of players that have great potential, and I think [we] have a scary future,” Thompson said Thursday.

The onus is on new head coach Ime Udoka to institute the kind of system and structure that can alchemize all that athleticism into consistent professional basketball — something that predecessor Stephen Silas wasn’t able to do, and something that’s a must if the Rockets are to have any hope of steering out of a skid that’s seen them roll up the NBA’s worst record over the apast three seasons. (A veteran point guard sure would help.)

WINNER: Oklahoma City Thunder

Oklahoma City rented out some of its 2023-24 cap space to take the final two years and $33 million of Davis Bertans’ contract off the Mavericks’ hands in exchange for moving up two spots to No. 10 in the first round and landing Kentucky’s Cason Wallace — yet another athletic, hard-charging, long-limbed, super-competitive perimeter player to add to a Thunder rotation now overflowing with them.

Wallace joins Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Jalen Williams, Josh Giddey and Luguentz Dort in what’s become one of the NBA’s most ferocious and versatile perimeter corps — a group where everyone is capable of handling the ball, initiating the offense, facilitating for teammates, attacking the basket, shooting with confidence and defending multiple positions like their hair’s on fire. And oh, yeah, Oklahoma City’s going to add 2022 No. 2 pick Chet Holmgren to that mix, too, while still having a bunch of cap space and a bajillion future draft picks in its coffers. Sam Presti and Co. have something brewing in Bricktown; Thursday’s wheeling and dealing added another potent and enticing ingredient into the mix.

WINNER: Dallas Mavericks

The flip side of that deal wasn’t a bad bit of business, either.

By excising Bertans’ contract, the Mavericks put themselves in position to get under the luxury tax line, opening up the possibility of using the $12.2 million non-taxpayer midlevel exception this summer to target another veteran helper for the rotation. By shipping him into OKC’s cap space without taking any salary back, Dallas also created a $17 million traded player exception … which it promptly used in a subsequent deal with the Kings to import veteran center Richaun Holmes, who’d fallen out of the rotation in Sacramento but remains a quality big man who should play up in a pick-and-roll-heavy offense captained by elite playmakers like Luka Dončić and (potentially) Kyrie Irving.

The Mavs did that while still getting the prospect they’d long been connected to at No. 12 — Duke center Dereck Lively II, who’ll partner with Holmes in a revamped center rotation aimed at rim-running, board-crashing and shot-blocking — while also adding high-rising Marquette forward Olivier-Maxence Prosper, the kind of big defensive wing they sorely missed after trading away Dorian Finney-Smith in the Irving deal, with Thursday’s 24th pick.

Shedding long-term money, adding three potential rotation players plus a pathway to a fourth, and retaining the flexibility to potentially bring back Irving? Pretty decent work for Dallas’ front office.

WATCH THIS SPACE: Sacramento Kings

Sacramento wound up landing veteran Xavier wing Colby Jones and Furman’s Jalen Slawson in the second round, but what we should keep an eye on is how general manager Monte McNair’s wheeling and dealing sets the table for whatever comes next.

Dealing Holmes and the 24th pick to Dallas puts the Kings in position to open up more than $30 million in salary cap space this summer. Do they search for a high-priced player on the trade market to add to their existing talent? Do they go big-game hunting for a forward to put next to Domantas Sabonis in free agency? Do they stand pat and keep their focus in-house, looking to bring back free agent Harrison Barnes or perhaps renegotiate-and-extend Sabonis’ contract? They should have options, and now they’ve got the financial flexibility to pursue them; coming off the franchise’s best season and first playoff appearance in 17 years, it ought to be fascinating to see which path forward McNair and Co. choose.

LOSER: Celtics Fans Who Crammed for Draft Night

After the stunning late-night three-team trade that sent longtime linchpin and spiritual standard-bearer Marcus Smart to Memphis for Kristaps Porzingis, the Celtics suddenly had the 25th overall selection, surely sending Boston fans scouring the internet for every bit of information they could find on mid-to-late first-round prospects. And then Brad Stevens went and got his Belichick on.

The 25th pick went to Detroit, for No. 31 and multiple future second-round picks. Then 31 went to Charlotte, for Nos. 34 and 39. Then 34 went to Sacramento, for 38 and a future second, and 35 went to Chicago, and on, and on.

Boston did come away with a pick — Arkansas forward Jordan Walsh at No. 38, a long-limbed, high-motor wing who seems amped to get to work:

But coming off the shock of the Smart trade, and the whiplash of all those tradebacks, I wouldn’t blame Celtics fans for exiting draft night with their heads spinning a little bit.

LOSER: Everyone Who Hoped The Damian Lillard Saga Might Reach a Conclusion

After all the sturm und drang and Zion Williamson rumors, the Trail Blazers didn’t find that win-now superstar trade by the time they went on the clock. So they just did the next right thing, drafting electric G League Ignite point guard Scoot Henderson with the No. 3 pick before adding forwards Kris Murray and Rayan Rupert later in the evening.

Which, naturally, led to the other shoe getting a centimeter or so closer to dropping:

And so, the NBA’s longest ongoing game of chicken continues apace. Tune in again next week for a fresh round of staredowns!

WINNER: Utah Jazz

The Jazz couldn’t package their three first-round picks to move up, as they’d reportedly been interested in doing … so they just took three players who might be able to help immediately. UCF forward Hendricks could be a perfect floor-spacing and defending 4 to fit between stellar second-year center Walker Kessler and All-Star big wing Lauri Markkanen, and in Baylor’s Keyonte George and Ohio State’s Brice Sensabaugh, Utah adds a pair of bucket-getters on the perimeter whose ability to create and knock down shots should fit nicely into head coach Will Hardy’s free-flowing offense.

Damn near everybody expected Utah to tank last season, only to see the Jazz contend for a playoff berth for much of the campaign on the strength of a surprisingly potent offense. Thursday’s additions only fortify that, while also adding length and athleticism to a team that could be back in the postseason mix much sooner than many anticipated.

LOSER: Those Sick of Hearing About Heat Culture

Bad news, rap dudes: The Heat got UCLA’s Jaime Jaquez Jr. with the 18th pick, and his favorite player is Jimmy Butler, and you’d better believe that his interview hit hard on the topics of competitiveness, attention to detail, impacting winning and — of course — the C-word.

“Coach [Mick] Cronin [at UCLA], he set a standard. He set a standard that we tried to achieve my entire four years there, and I don’t think it’s going to be any different when I get to the Miami Heat,” Jaquez told reporters Thursday. “They have a culture, and when you’re a part of a program or an organization with that high level of culture and winning, it’s your job to sustain that and obtain it. That’s what I’m looking forward to doing, is continuing that legacy.”

And in the process, ideally, holding off the next dozen undrafted pitbulls that Pat Riley and Co. find to earn his minutes. Welcome to Miami, Jaime. Full-pads practice on Monday.

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