The tanking worked. The Spurs won the Draft Lottery and have secured the top pick in the 2023 NBA draft and will have the opportunity to pick Victor Wembanyama, the consensus best prospect in his class and arguably the last 20 years.
The basketball gods once again smiled upon San Antonio by giving the team the third chance to draft a franchise-altering big man with the No. 1 overall pick, after David Robinson and Tim Duncan. It’s safe to say that unless something shocking happens, the French phenom will be their selection. Now what’s left to figure out is what adding Wembanyama could mean for the future of the franchise.
The rebuild could speed up dramatically
There has been a tremendous amount of hype surrounding Wembanyama, and it all seems warranted. From physical tools to skills, the big man seems to have all it takes to be a superstar. He’s also been playing professionally overseas, so the adjustment to the league should be more seamless than what some other prospects will have to go through. Still, expecting him to be a difference-maker right off the bat could be asking too much.
His presence could still change the timeline of the rebuild, though. Even if Wembanyama doesn’t do enough to lift the Spurs’ from the basement with his play as a rookie, if he shows enough promise as a potential cornerstone — and he arguably already has, even without logging a single minute in the NBA — he could cause the front office to speed things up. Assuming the decision-makers believe they have their guy, they could be willing to switch strategies. It’s unlikely they go directly into win-now mode but could focus their efforts in free agency on acquiring pieces with the cap space the team will have instead of renting it out for future assets. The Spurs still have all their future picks, after all, and a couple of extra ones, so getting, say, a 2027 conditional first rounder instead of someone who can either assist with the development of Wembanyama now or help him out once he starts to show dominance might not be all that appealing.
There are downsides to that potential game plan, of course. One of the reasons the Cavaliers couldn’t win with a young LeBron James is that instead of being patient and getting him more help through the lottery (Luke Jackson doesn’t count, for obvious reasons), they tried to make the playoffs as soon as possible by adding some veterans. Something similar happened in New Orleans with Anthony Davis. The Spurs are on a slightly different boat since they have some young talent already on the roster, but they could still use another high pick that gets them another potential cornerstone instead of relying on Devin Vassel, Keldon Johnson or any of the 2022 rookies from becoming a legitimate second option. And there’s no such thing as too many extra picks.
It shouldn’t take long to figure out what direction the Spurs try to take as soon as free agency hits. If they are still in asset acquisition mode, we can expect another tanking season. If they try to add some talent, they might just be willing to gamble on Victor reaching his full potential and someone else breaking out.
Pop will have a tough decision to make when it comes to his starting lineup
Again, unless something completely unexpected happens, the Spurs will pick Wembanyama, who is a big man. The big question is whether they think of him as a center right away or an oversized power forward, at least for now. Since he still has to gain some muscle to hang with the bigger NBA bigs, and his health is of the utmost importance, it feels like he’d be better suited to spend his time at power forward while a stronger big handles the wear-and-tear that come with playing inside. If that’s the case, which of Keldon Johnson or Jeremy Sochan sits to make room for Victor in the starting lineup?
Considering the trust the coaching staff had in Sochan’s ability to guard perimeter players last season, it wouldn’t be surprising to see them move him to the small forward slot. His lack of range wouldn’t be a huge problem as long as Wembanyama can provide some spacing with his still inconsistent outside shot, and Sochan could punish smaller wings in the post. Those two young players developing chemistry together as the likely power forward and center of the future would be valuable. That said, the fit with Johnson is more seamless in the short term. Keldon is a more resourceful scorer than Sochan and could take pressure away from Victor to be a featured option night in and night out early in his career. It could also be simpler for the French big man to play next to two more traditional wings in a more conventional lineup than having to share the floor with a center and another interior player as a rookie.
There are a lot of potential solutions that could keep all three of Keldon Johnson, Sochan and Victor on the starting lineup, from the unconventional, like going without a point guard and playing Devin Vassell, Johnson, Sochan, Wembanyama and Zach Collins, to the more traditional like having Victor start his career as a center. The easiest path, however, would seem to be to simply try to turn Johnson into a sixth man, at least until Wembanyama is ready to play center, assuming that’s the long-term plan. It could be hard to convince Johnson, coming off a season in which he scored 20 points per game, to give up his spot as a starter for a team that will likely still lose a lot, but if he sees the vision of a future in which he could be a major contributor, he might be amenable to the switch as long as he still gets his minutes.
Not knowing who to start because there are a lot of talented young players around is the best type of problem the coach of a rebuilding team could have, but it will be interesting to see which way Gregg Popovich leans because it could reveal a lot about how he plans to build the next great Spurs team.