The top of the upcoming NBA draft has been settled for years in some quarters, but it seemed to be cemented on Oct. 5 in Las Vegas when league scouts and executives hit the Strip after watching Victor Wembanyama play in person. They smiled as they tossed money on blackjack tables and sipped their drinks, the sight of a 2-foot-tall, good-shooting teen handling balls better than any 7-7-7 slot pull.
The reward of the No. 1 pick was as compelling as any chase this season, with the San Antonio Spurs snagging the rights to take a player who could change their future and perhaps the entire league.
It’s considered a pretty strong design by reviewers who view it in levels. At the top is Wembanyama, the 19-year-old from France; Alabama’s Brandon Miller, Scoot Henderson, another 19-year-old who plays in the G League; and perhaps Amen Thompson, a 20-year-old who plays in the Overtime Elite pro league. Then there’s a group of another five or six players for a large group of similar talent.
The “eye of the beholder” nature of the design makes it difficult to project. There is also speculation about teams prioritizing players who are more NBA ready, with the new collective bargaining agreement straining the NBA’s biggest backers. Cheap, manageable talent has always been valued and new competition rules can improve that.
Based on conversations with scouts and executives across the league, here’s The Times’ first attempt at a mock draft on June 22, when it actually falls out.
1. San Antonio Spurs: Victor Wembanyama, 7-4, C, France
Prior to the season, an NBA general manager wondered if there were more than three active players that could be traded for this pick. A scout recently wondered if there was anyone the Spurs would trade outright for. Expectations are ridiculously high – matching Wembanyama’s ridiculous physical resources.
2. Charlotte Hornets: Brandon Miller, 6-9, SF, Alabama
Considered the top contender from last season’s college basketball, Miller is a seamless fit with Charlotte and LaMelo Ball. Scoot Henderson could be an option, but Miller’s all-round skills and size on the wing make him the choice.
3. Portland Trail Blazers: Scoot Henderson, 6-2, PG, G League Ignite
This is where things start to get interesting, because there’s no guarantee that Portland will make this choice. The Trail Blazers have strongly indicated their intention to compete now while Damian Lillard is still in his prime, meaning a trade may be in the works. There are questions about Henderson, shooting being foremost among them, but he’s going downhill and making plays. At best, he’s the future face of a franchise.
4. Houston Rockets: Amen Thompson, 6-7, PG, Overtime Elite
Scouts have wondered how helpful any Overtime Elite evaluations have been, but there’s no questioning Thompson’s size and athleticism. He sees the field well and can shoot the ball to shooters, which is good because there are concerns about his shooting. The Rockets need an organizer.
5. Detroit Pistons: Jarace Walker, 6-7, PF, Houston
One of the big losers on lottery night, the Pistons made a big impression this offseason by hiring coach Monty Williams. Walker is one of the most physically impressive prospects in the draft – a big, strong forward with a shooting touch that extends to the perimeter.
6.Orlando Magic: Ausar Thompson, 6-7, SG, Overtime Elite
There is some belief that Thompson may be more NBA ready than his twin brother, Amen, due to his superior shooting and defensive advantages. The magic can go in many directions.
7. Indiana Pacers: Cam Whitmore, 6-6, SF, Villanova
Whitmore could be off the board by the time the Pacers choose because of his size and power on the wing. He’s a great competitor, but he’ll have to take shots constantly. A scout compared him to Justise Winslow regarding the gap between his NBA ready body and lack of proven skills.
8. Washington Wizards: Anthony Black, 6-6, PG, Arkansas
The Wizards flipped their front office this offseason by hiring Michael Winger from the Clippers. Black has large dimensions at the point guard and is a selfless player willing to defend. As teams rebuild their rosters, players like him are immensely valuable.
9. Utah Jazz: Cason Wallace, 6-4, PG, Kentucky
There are plenty of options for the Jazz as their rebuild went much faster than expected after sharing Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert last summer. Wallace is a defensive ace with natural point guard skills.
10. Dallas Mavericks: Taylor Hendricks, 6-9, PF, Central Florida
Like Portland, signs are that Dallas is open to business when it comes to this pick due to a desire to help Luka Doncic win immediately. If the Mavericks don’t handle it to rebuild the depth they lost in the Kyrie Irving trade, Hendricks’ 3-and-D potential could be as strong as anyone else in the lottery.
11. Orlando Magic (via Chicago): Jalen Hood-Schifino, 6-6, PG, Indiana
Another pick that could move due to Orlando’s stock of young players. Hood-Schifino is a point guard sized to fit a lineup full of oversized players. Markelle Fultz is a free agent after next season and Orlando could start looking for his replacement.
12. Oklahoma City Thunder: Gradey Dick, 6-8, SG, Kansas
If there’s a skill, every team is on the hunt for his shooting, and Dick is arguably the best marksman in this draft – meaning he could be off the board ahead of this pick. He also has great sizes for the wing and would be another great piece for the soaring Thunder.
13. Toronto Raptors: Keyonte George, 6-4, SG, Baylor
It’s hard to know which direction the Raptors are heading in, perhaps looking to reload rather than rebuild. George would suit one of those strategies, a scoring guard who can pull off the perimeter attack for a team if he gets a little more consistent.
14. New Orleans Pelicans: Dereck Lively II, 7-1, C, Duke
His large size and athleticism made Lively the top contender going to college this past year, and after a slow start, he flashed the tools modern NBA centers have: rim-running and shot-blocking. He shot the ball well on his pro day and helped his stock in the pre-draft process,
15. Atlanta Hawks: Bilal Coulibaly, 6-6, SF, France
Scouts came to France to watch Wembanyama and got the bonus of watching Coulibaly blossom into one of the hottest names in the pre-design process. He has had a good run of games as he and Wembanyama led Metropolitans 92 to the French League final. He could sneak into the top 10.
16. Utah Jazz (via Minnesota): Leonard Miller, 6-10, SF, G League Ignite
The Jazz’s stock picks give them the luxury to gamble a little. Miller is a big rebounder who has shown some skill against the pros in the past year in the G-League. He is big in size and can pass the ball similar to Lamar Odom.
17. Lakers: Kobe Bufkin, 6-5, PG, Michigan
Bufkin, another player coming up on the draft board who could be one of the lottery picks, has the kind of two-way skills that will set him apart from oth
er point guards in this draft. He has many fans in the NBA.
18. Miami Heat: Nick Smith Jr., 6-5, PG-SG, Arkansas
One of the best players to go to college last season struggled with a knee injury. He is a gifted shooter and ball handler, but there are doubts about his ability to make teammates better.
19. Golden State Warriors: Jett Howard, 6-8, SG, Michigan
The son of former NBA player and Michigan coach Juwan Howard is big enough to move and shoot the ball well. The big questions are on the defensive side, where he hasn’t maximized his frame’s potential.
20. Houston Rockets (via Clippers): Jordan Hawkins, 6-5, SG, Connecticut
Hawkins, one of the NCAA tournament’s biggest stars, is considered one-dimensional by some reviewers. Lucky for him, that dimension is shooting and everyone is willing to adopt more floor distance.
21. Brooklyn Nets: Dariq Whitehead, 6-7, SG-SF, Duke
Another part of Duke’s heralded recruiting class who struggled to gain a foothold as a freshman. Whitehead has an NBA wingmate and can shoot, although there are concerns about an off-season foot injury.
22. Brooklyn Nets (via Clippers): Colby Jones, 6-6, SG, Xavier
Jones has strong all-around offensive skills and uses his body well to make up for average physical aids. There is also a two-way potential.
23. Portland Trail Blazers (via New York): Kris Murray, 6-8, PF, Iowa
After his brother Keegan left Iowa to play for the Sacramento Kings, Murray showed that his game is similarly polished offensively. If Portland keeps this pick and wants to find win-now rookies, Murray will be near the top of that list.
24. Sacramento Kings: Jaime Jaquez Jr., 6-7, SF, UCLA
Jaquez really helped himself in the pre-design process, reviewers have said. Teams appreciate his versatility, maturity and resourcefulness. He is seen as a player who could contribute sooner than most.
25. Memphis Grizzlies: Brice Sensabaugh, 6-6, SF, Ohio State
The Grizzlies like meaty wings, and Sensabaugh is a big physique that can get a bucket. He wasn’t seen as a one-time prospect, but he played himself in the first round.
26. Indiana Pacers (via Cleveland): Brandin Podziemski, 6-5, SG, Santa Clara
With Buddy Hield’s future up in the air with the Pacers, Podziemski would fill the void as he can actually shoot the ball. He has big questions about defense.
27. Charlotte Hornets (via Denver): Maxwell Lewis, 6-7, SF, Pepperdine
Lewis has a real shot at becoming a 3-and-D winger, and the Hornets need as many reliable players as they can find. He has a good size and height and can be a complementary goalscorer.
28. Utah Jazz (via Philadelphia): Oliver-Maxence Prosper, 6-8, PF, Marquette
No one helped himself to the NBA group more than Prosper, who showed his toughness and versatility to the scouts while most of the top players refused to play live scrimmages.
29. Indiana Pacers (via Boston): GG Jackson, 6-9, PF, South Carolina
With three picks in the first round, the Pacers can beat the draft’s youngest player, who must refine his shot as he matures.
30. Clippers (via Milwaukee): Noah Clowney, 6-10, PF, Alabama
The Clippers could use this pick in a trade to get rid of paychecks, or they could face a player like Clowney – a player with defensive versatility and the potential to stretch the floor as a shooter.
This story originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.