LeBron James. Blake Griffin. Zion Williamson. Victor Wembanyama. These four players brought out the worst in the NBA regarding tanking. In the last 20 years, these four were the most sought-after No. 1 NBA Draft pick players for rebuilding teams looking to land Draft Lottery luck and reverse their fortunes.
Wembanyama, or “Wemby” as he’s known colloquially in NBA circles, is the hottest first-round pick since LeBron in the 2003 NBA Draft. Like James, Wemby is a unique physical specimen. He lacks LeBron’s grown-man strength, but at 7-foot-4 with a reported 8-foot wingspan and a near 10-foot standing reach, he has a build and skill set never before seen in the NBA.
With the NBA’s middle class slowly eroding, fewer teams are in the dreaded purgatory ring of the NBA. With the addition of the Play-In Tournament, more teams are vying to remain competitive in hopes of breaking into the playoffs via the 9th and 10th seeds. With the level of competition rising, there are thankfully fewer teams at the bottom of the standings. This season even the three worst teams in the NBA have solid young cores: the Houston Rockets (13-49), Detroit Pistons (15-48), and the San Antonio Spurs (15-47) entering the Thursday games. The next worst team, the Charlotte Hornets, is five games better than the Spurs and Pistons at 20-44.
As it has been since 2019, the top three worst teams in the league are given equal odds for the top pick at 14 percent each. While it’s not guaranteed one of the three worst teams lands the No. 1 pick, it is the most likely scenario odds-wise. Given their current roster construction and front-office culture, we’ve analyzed how Wemby would fit with all three teams.
No NBA Draft prospect has built up this much anticipation in the age of social media and the 24/7 news cycle. Wemby will surely have an immediate and profound impact on the team lucky enough to land him.
Related: 2023 NBA mock draft
Let’s imagine what that impact could be for the three teams in first place for his services. Here’s how the three NBA Draft Lottery-bound leaders would fare with Wemby, ranked.
Tilman Fertitta is a candidate for the worst owner, as under his ownership, the Rockets have sunk into dysfunction and rot. Since they entered a rebuild after trading James Harden to the Brooklyn Nets in January 2021, the Rockets have failed to build the kind of culture on and off the court that facilitates development.
Rockets coach Stephen Silas seems grossly outmatched for the task at hand. Multiple post-game press conferences have revealed how razor-thin of a grasp he has on the team. He has made questionable decisions around rotations and minutes, benching their best player, Alperen Şengün, in pivotal fourth quarters. On the court, last season’s No. 2 overall pick, Jalen Green, has been one of the most inefficient players in the NBA. Between him and Kevin Porter Jr., the Rockets have a
chucking, me-first guard on the court at all times.
Adding Wembley would inject much-needed stability, character, and high basketball IQ onto a team that desperately needs all three. He would pair with this season’s sNo. 2 overall pick, Jabari Smith Jr., and Şengün to form a massive, defensively dominant front line. Wemby’s skill set would
cement him as the team’s top scoring option, allowing the ancillary players, Şengün, Porter, Green, and KJ Martin, to stop fighting for pecking order and ease into established roles.
The Rockets need a nexus point on both sides of the court to stabilize the chaos. Of the three
bottom-tier teams, the Rockets would be the most challenging to adapt to. Houston has developed a losing culture, landing at the bottom of the standings three seasons in a row, despite having the No. 2 overall pick in back-to-back NBA Drafts. Wemby would surely like to avoid the toxicity of Houston, which would only add to his learning curve of joining a new team, league, and country.
San Antonio Spurs
Don’t be fooled by the Spurs’ measly record. There is a clear delineation between them and the Pistons and Rockets in effort and competitiveness. That’s thanks to longtime head coach and NBA legend Gregg Popovich.
Popovich has evolved along with the NBA, with the formerly half-court dominant spurs currently sixth in pace at 102.9. In the last three years, the Spurs have continued their decades-long trend of developing talent and scouting the draft at every level. But to sustain an under-25-year-old core, they have gradually traded core players who have aged out, like Dejounte Murray and Jakob Poeltl, for pivotal draft capital.
The Spurs have two young guns, Keldon Johnson (21.8 points per game, 4.8 rebounds per game, 2.8 assists per game at 23 years old) and Devin Vassell (19.4 ppg, 4 rpg, 3.6 apg at 22 years old), surrounded by fellow high-upside players like point guard Tre Jones, forward Malaki Branham, and rookie defensive ace Jeremy Sochan.
Adding Wemby to the culture and developmental hive of San Antonio would be the best fit in terms of Wemby being able to learn the game the right way from the start. It would be a helluva Draft Lottery luck for Popovich to add him to the lineage of stellar rookies the Spurs have landed under his tenure: Tim Duncan and Kawhi Leonard.
Popovich plays mostly small-ball these days, and it’s possible he could slot in Wembanyana at center, surrounding him with floor spacing and a fellow defensive anchor in Sochan. Of the three most likely landing spots, the Spurs would see the highest jump in wins, as Wemby would be enough to launch them out of rebuild mode and back into at least the Play-In tournament.
Don’t judge the Pistons by their 15-48 record. Star point guard Cade Cunningham averaged 20 ppg, 6 apg, and 6 rpg before he underwent surgery on his left shin in December.
Cunningham is the engine for the Pistons’ offense. Without him, the rest of the Pistons’ young core struggle to self-initiate their offense. That is, besides rookie Jaden Ivey, who has scorched as the first option, with 15.4 ppg, 3.9 rpg, and 4.6 apg showing the Pistons’ have a stellar backcourt to build upon, as Cunningham seemed to be turning a star corner before going down. With Jalen Duren looking like a potential double-double machine, it seems like all Detroit is missing is an elite, three-level scoring wing.
Enter Victor Wembanyama.
Wembanyama would thrive with a pass-first point guard like Cunningham, helping to ease his
adjustment to the NBA. Ivey would also open up the 3-point line as his drives collapse the
defense, drawing defenders away from the perimeter and allowing Wemby room to cook.
Cunningham is 7th, and Ivey is 37th in the NBA in drives per game at 16.6 and 11.4 per game.
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Paired next to a developing defensive big in Duren would cover up the expected adjustments Wemby will have to the rigor and strength of the NBA. The Pistons lack athleticism and length
on the perimeter after trading Saddiq Bey to the Atlanta Hawks at the trade deadline. Adding Wemby to a healthy Cunningham would increase their wins by double-digits in dynamic pick-and-roll action.
Dwayne Casey was the defensive architect of the Dallas Mavericks’ 2011 championship team. Like his team, Casey is better at coaching than the record shows. He should be retained to mentor Wemby’s defensive skill set and guide him on unlocking his superstar potential.
Lee Escobedo covers the NBA for Sportsnaut. You can follow him on Twitter at @_leeescobedo