The 2023-24 NBA season has arrived, and with it one of the most exciting rookie classes ever. No. 1 overall pick Victor Wembanyama is a generational prospect, Scoot Henderson is already being compared to Russell Westbrook and last season's No. 2 overall pick Chet Holmgren will finally make his debut. And that's to say nothing of the likes of Brandon Miller, the Thompson twins, Amen and Ausar, and the countless other intriguing talents.
Before the action gets underway, we took some time to sit down and discuss this group of youngsters, debating everything from Rookie of the Year to our favorite non-lottery picks.
Who do you have winning Rookie of the Year?
Jack Maloney: Victor Wembanyama. This is an awesome class and you can pretty easily zag here if you want to, but Wembanyama is just too advanced, and too good on both sides of the ball already. And Rookie of the Year is exempt from the new 65-game threshold for awards, so you don't have to worry about him missing out on a technicality if the Spurs pace him. It's Wembanyama all the way for me.
Sam Quinn: Victor Wembanyama. That pick defies the historical stranglehold guards have held on this award. Only two traditional big men (Blake Griffin and Karl-Anthony Towns) have won this award since 2006, but Wembanyama defies positional designations. He'll have the ball at least as often as Paolo Banchero did a year ago, and dominance like his is rare enough to overcome any durability concerns we might have. If Joel Embiid can get 23 first-place votes for Rookie of the Year after playing 31 games in 2017, Wembanyama really only needs to play 50 or so to knot up this award.
James Herbert: Victor Wembanyama. I can see both Chet Holmgren and Scoot Henderson having ROY-caliber seasons, but we shouldn't be surprised if Wembanyama's first year is an all-timer. The guy seems like a Defensive Player of the Year candidate already, which is not something I've ever said about someone who has yet to play a regular-season NBA game. After watching him dominate in the preseason, I have no interest in tempering my wild, wild expectations.
What was your favorite Victor Wembanyama preseason highlight?
Maloney: It's crazy how difficult it is to choose, but I think I have to go with the steal from his preseason debut where he digs at the nail while still having one foot on the 3-point line. That wasn't the most exciting play, but it was the most "what the f—, how did he do that?" one for me. With rookies, the answer is almost always offensively, but not for Wembanyama. There are going to be nights where he's getting pushed off his spots, or his shot isn't falling, but his defense will always be there. His length, instincts and timing are remarkable for someone his age.
Quinn: The nutmeg. Come on, how is it not the nutmeg? Putting aside the audacity of the move itself, the entire sequence showcases everything special about Wembanyama. The steal that led to it showcased his length and vision. If he doesn't complete the steal, it's two easy Houston points. The move itself, against an established, veteran defender, showed just how rare his combination of size and ball-handling was. Then, as he approaches the basket, he makes the smart play and dumps it inside to Charles Bassey, who got fouled. His talent, physical gifts and basketball IQ were all on display in that one moment.
Herbert: The block against Jalen Williams. It just shouldn't be possible. Williams had fully shaken Wemby, who simply turned around, launched himself from outside the charge circle on the right side of the basket to block a layup on the left side. I love that he's an ambidextrous shot-blocker, and I love imagining what must have been going through Williams' head. (This play was even better in real-time, as it came mere possessions after Williams had beaten Wembanyama off the dribble for an and-1. A revenge swat!)
Will Chet Holmgren make enough of an impact to get the Thunder into the playoffs this season?
Maloney: I'm leaning yes because a true big man was the key piece they were missing last season and Holmgren has had an entire year of NBA-level nutrition, lifting and non-game experience, so he should be more advanced than a regular rookie. Plus, he's looked awesome in the preseason. However, the Western Conference is so deep that you're probably going to have to win at least 45 games to guarantee a top-six spot. I think the Thunder certainly can do that, but I would not be surprised if they're a play-in team again.
Quinn: As Jack mentioned, Oklahoma City didn't use big men last season, and their playing style reflected it. Their aggressive defense generated the most turnovers in the league, but the other side of that equation was that the Thunder fouled constantly and ranked 28th in defensive rebounding rate. Hopefully having a big man like Holmgren allows the defense to settle down a bit, and while Holmgren needs to add a bit more muscle before he becomes an impact rebounder, he's unquestionably an improvement on that end of the floor. His shooting is going to be valuable as well for a team that starts two shaky shooters (Lu Dort and Josh Giddey), and perhaps most importantly, 30 minutes or so per night of Holmgren means 30 fewer minutes of Oklahoma City's developmental youngsters. Add all of that together and yes, his presence should be enough to lift the Thunder into the playoffs.
Herbert: Hell yeah. It seems like the playoff/play-in race is going to be extremely tight, but I like Oklahoma City's chances of sneaking in. Holmgren is tougher than his skinny frame suggests, and he's going to fly around defensively, erasing advantages and deterring drives. Offensively, too, I can see him enhancing everything the Thunder already had going for them. They put a ton of pressure on the rim, and now they'll have a lob threat who doubles as a floor spacer (and yet another player who can drive and kick). This answer is both an endorsement of Holmgren as a winning player straight out of the box and an endorsement of how OKC's pieces fit.
Can Scoot Henderson actually be Russell Westbrook 2.0, as Scott Brooks claims?
Maloney: In general, the safe answer to these sorts of lofty comparisons is no, just because the odds of a young player being an MVP and a top-75 all-time player are slim. But everything we've seen and heard about Henderson so far suggests he has a real chance to be special. The physical gifts are obvious, he has an incredible work ethic and he excels at getting downhill. If Westbrook's former coach is saying the similarities are "uncanny," we should probably take note.
Quinn: Can he be? Sure. He has the physical tools. But should he be? That's the more interesting question. Westbrook's development as a player emphasized accentuating strengths rather than improving weaknesses. If he were to do it over again, his teams would probably prefer him to invest those early years into developing even a halfway acceptable jumper and the right habits defensively. There's a lesson in there for Henderson. The modern NBA is far better equipped to punish Westbrook-style players than it was even during Westbrook's peak. Henderson's physical gifts will define him as a player, but if he wants to avoid the perpetual postseason disappointments Westbrook endured, his best bet is to focus on becoming a more well-rounded point guard than the 2017 MVP did.
Herbert: I'm not here to put any limits on Henderson's potential. Stylistically he reminds me more of Baron Davis, but if he develops as a shooter and a defender then he could theoretically be better than both of those guys. Please remember that he doesn't even turn 20 until February, though, and Westbrook himself was all over the place as a rookie.
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Which non-lottery pick intrigues you the most?
Maloney: Julian Strawther. After losing Bruce Brown and Jeff Green in the offseason, there are some questions about the Nuggets' depth. They may have found an answer in Strawther, who has been a preseason standout, averaging 17.8 points on 45.2% shooting from 3-point land. Michael Malone has raved about his shooting, and Denver can always use reliable outside threats around Nikola Jokic. It will be interesting to see what sort of opportunity Strawther gets once the real games start.
Quinn: Why can't Keyonte George start at point guard for the Utah Jazz right now? The Jazz have plenty of guards, but no entrenched starters in the backcourt. George shined at Summer League and in the preseason. His creativity as a ball-handler and strength as a pick-and-roll driver should mesh well with Lauri Markkanen, but his willingness to fire away from 3 will help him fit into an established offensive hierarchy early on. If there's a dark horse for Rookie of the Year, it's George. Utah struck gold with Walker Kessler in last year's rookie crop. George has a chance to make a similar impact for the Jazz this season.
Herbert: Leonard Miller, a 6-foot-10 playmaking 4 who can do a bit of everything and might be the steal of the draft. I don't know how much room there is for him in the Timberwolves' crowded frontcourt rotation, but if and when he gets a chance to play, I'll be tuned in. His development with the G League Ignite was insane, and everything he did at summer league reinforced the notion that he should have been picked way higher than No. 33.