In 2016, it was never part of the plan. In 2018, they tried to stave it off, but by 2022 they couldn’t deny it any longer: it was time for the Spurs to start over. It was something they hadn’t done since the 1980’s thanks to winning the top overall pick in two of the best seasons to win it and some shrewd drafting in the late first and second rounds in between.
After thinking they had found the next player to smoothly transition into another generation of success, they got hit by the star trade request bug that had been sweeping the league, proving even the most successful franchise in all of sports was no longer immune from drama. After trying to stave it off for four more seasons after Kawhi Leonard left, the Spurs finally accepted reality in 2022, trading away Derrick White and Dejounte Murray for draft assets, and while this season will end up being one of their worst record-wise, it could pay off in more ways than just getting them one of the top picks in a star-studded 2023 NBA draft.
With three picks in the 2022 draft, one in the lottery and two of which were acquired in trades from their rebuilding effort, what began as a merely good haul may end up being one of the Spurs better classes in franchise history. With their highest pick since Tim Duncan, they drafted Jeremy Sochan 9th overall. He filled a gaping hole at the power forward position and earned a starting spot from day one. While he was already a good pick from the start, his in-season growth and rapid improvement on offense has been a pleasant surprise to many, to put it mildly, and it shows he may have a higher ceiling than many initially thought.
While Sochan grabbed all the attention as a lottery pick and continues to with his play on the court, the Spurs’ other two picks were a bit of an afterthought but have been worth keeping an eye on. Malaki Branham was selected 20th overall with a pick that was acquired from the Toronto Raptors for Thaddeus Young, and Blake Wesley was grabbed with the 25th pick, which was acquired from the Celtics as part of the White trade. Both were expected to spend plenty of time in Austin, but thanks to an injury-riddled season, they’ve had chances to show what they bring to the table.
While Wesley made an impression early (in an admittedly very small sample size) with his athleticism and some outside shooting, he was lost after just two games to a sprained MCL and is only just now finding his rhythm again, but he’s still an intriguing prospect that fans want to see more of.
However, Branham has been able to stay healthy, made the most of the minutes initially made available by injuries, and has since earned a spot in the rotation for good. With shooting being his calling card coming out of Ohio State, he has steadily improved throughout the season, never hitting the rookie wall and showing off his ability to be a three-tier shooter. He’s still adjusting to three-point shooting in the NBA, shooting just under 30 percent for the season, but in the last two games he has exploded, scoring a combined 48 points on 69 percent shooting and hitting 5-10 from three, making a little history along the way.
Malaki Branham has a combined 48 points in the last two games.— Jordan Howenstine (@AirlessJordan) February 4, 2023
Most points by a Spurs rookie in a two-game span since Tim Duncan had 56 in 1998.
It’s too early to tell what the future holds for the three rookies and if it includes the Spurs, especially Branham and Wesley, but Sochan and Branham have certainly made their cases, and Wesley’s chance will come as he continues to get healthy again. The Spurs don’t always nail the draft. The mysterious decision to draft Josh Primo in 2021 (which backfired in about the worst possible way) will always linger on Brian Wright’s resume, and 2019 is a wash with Luka Somanic being a bust but Keldon Johnson exceeding expectations, but more often than not they have shown they know what they’re doing, and so far, this draft class has been a bit of a redemption for him.
There will always be years such as 1987, 1997, 2001 and 2011 (and maybe 2023 going forward) that will stand out more because of who they got and where, but one day down the line, we may look back at 2022 as one of the better classes the Spurs ever drafted, especially if at least two of their three picks end up being keepers, which looks quite possible today.