Photo illustration by Claire Komarek, CBS Sports

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was the best NBA Draft prospect ever. Then, LeBron James was the best NBA Draft prospect since Kareem. Now, 20 years later, who's the best NBA Draft prospect since LeBron?

In some ways, the answer being Victor Wembanyama is perfect. The narrative fits. Abdul-Jabbar was the best college basketball player ever, coming of age in an era when every top NBA player graduated college. He was a center in an era dominated by them and taken by the Bucks at No. 1 in 1969. James, the No. 1 pick by the Cavaliers in 2003, was the best high school basketball player ever, coming of age in an era when the best NBA players were skipping or only attending a year or two of college. He was a small forward-slash-point guard in an era that values versatility on the perimeter.

Wembanyama? Look at the game today: Four of the five first-team All-NBA players this season are not American. All five are 6-foot-6 or taller. We don't even bother with the label "unicorn" anymore because we've seen too many of these 7-footers with guard skills. But in this land of unicorns, Wemby got the nickname "The Alien." He's different among the different ones. 

When CBS Sports NBA Draft experts got together to vote on the best NBA Draft prospect of the past 20 years (since LeBron James was drafted in 2003), I was not sure if this American-based panel full of people with long memories would embrace the 7-4 Frenchman. Would they rank him ahead of some great American prospects -- many of whom played in the NCAA Tournament on CBS?

The result: Victor Wembanyama is undeniable. And he's atop our list of the 20 (plus two) best NBA Draft prospects of the past 20 years by unanimous consensus. The method here was that each panelist ranked 20 prospects as they were viewed when they entered their NBA Draft -- attempting to ignore the results that came later. That led to 35 different players receiving votes. Some players who missed the cut: NBA All-Stars Brandon Ingram and D'Angelo Russell; rising stars such as Evan Mobley and LaMelo Ball; and outright busts like Jahlil Okafor and Derrick Williams.

Our top 20, compiled from votes by 247Sports director of scouting Adam Finkelstein, CBS Sports college basketball senior writers Gary Parrish, Matt Norlander and reporter David Cobb; CBS Sports NBA senior writer Brad Botkin; and myself -- a group with long memories and decades of experience covering the NBA Draft. They'll be part of our NBA Draft coverage Thursday when we break down and grade every pick live starting at 7 p.m. ET on CBS Sports HQ (watch it on the CBS Sports app,, Paramount+ or Pluto TV). Without further ado: 

1. Victor Wembanyama

Getty Images
  • No. 1 ranked prospect on CBS Sports' 2023 NBA Draft big board
  • Highest ranking: 1 (unanimous)
  • Stats during final pre-draft season: 21.6 ppg, 10.4 rpg, 2.4 apg, 3.0 bpg for Metropolitans 92 in France's top league

What makes him special: When you watch Wembanyama, you feel like you're watching the future of the NBA before your eyes. He has the skills to operate at every level on both sides. He should be an immediate impact defender and scorer and has the killer instinct and work ethic to keep growing in those areas, but it's the potential he shows as a playmaker that could really open his game up. And if his smooth shooting stroke can go from good to great, it seems impossible to stop him. More than any draft prospect since LeBron, it's easy to imagine him becoming the best player in the world.

Biggest pre-draft concerns: Mostly it's about the body frame. Wembanyama has dealt with some knocks already, and because he's so unusually tall, it feels inevitable that at some point he will miss time.

2. Anthony Davis

Getty Images
  • No. 1 overall pick in the 2012 NBA Draft to the New Orleans Hornets
  • Highest ranking: 2 | Lowest ranking: 5 
  • Stats during final pre-draft season: 14.2 ppg, 10.4 rpg, 1.3 apg, 4.7 bpg, 1.4 spg for NCAA champion Kentucky

What made him special: The greatest one-and-done college basketball player of all time left a massive legacy -- and did it without scoring all that much. But we always knew he had more to show on that end, stemming from his time as a mid-tier 6-3 guard recruit who exploded after a growth spurt turned him into a center. The entire skill package was there; comparisons almost uniformly were to Kevin Garnett or Tim Duncan, and he's largely validated them when healthy.

Biggest pre-draft concerns: There was an element of skepticism about Davis not taking over offensively enough, but Kentucky's system wasn't built for that. Generally he was probably the safest No. 1 selection of this time span -- he ranks below Wembanyama more because Wemby looks like a 7-4 version of AD than anything else.

3. Zion Williamson

Getty Images
  • No. 1 overall pick in the 2019 NBA Draft to the New Orleans Pelicans
  • Highest ranking: 2 | Lowest ranking: 6 
  • Stats during final pre-draft season: 22.6 ppg, 8.9 rpg, 2.1 apg, 1.8 bpg, 2.1 spg for Duke

What made him special: After arguably the most efficient season in college basketball history, Williamson simply confounded people. A high-scoring Draymond Green? A modern Charles Barkley? We'd never seen anyone with a build like his (6-7, 285) who could move like him, and no one could stop him getting to the rim.

Biggest pre-draft concerns: The body that got him here also seemed like an obvious limitation. Would he stay healthy? (So far, no.) Would he be able to get past NBA defenders? (Actually, stunningly, yes.) And if he couldn't, would he be able to score at multiple levels?

4. Greg Oden

Getty Images
  • No. 1 overall pick in the 2007 NBA Draft to the Portland Trail Blazers
  • Highest ranking: 3 | Lowest ranking: 8
  • Stats during final pre-draft season: 15.7 ppg, 9.6 rpg, 3.3 bpg for NCAA runner-up Ohio State

What made him special: The best defensive prospect since Tim Duncan had been hailed as a future No. 1 pick since he was a freshman in high school. And he delivered in college, particularly in the NCAA Tournament. He looked the part even with an injured hand, which made people salivating at how dominating he could be at full strength. (About that ...)

Biggest pre-draft concerns: The injury issues were the primary concern and bore out. Aside from that, Oden came into the NBA a few years before the center position was devalued, but his inability to score on multiple levels and create drew some concern that caused some skeptics to favor the guy who comes in at No. 8 on our list.

5. Derrick Rose

  • No. 1 overall pick in the 2008 NBA Draft to the Chicago Bulls
  • Highest ranking: 3 | Lowest ranking: 8
  • Stats during final pre-draft season: 14.9 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 4.7 apg, 1.2 spg for NCAA runner-up Memphis

What made him special: Rose had already risen to No. 1 on many draft boards before he ran roughshod over the NCAA Tournament field. But the display in March Madness is the reason he's so high on this list: He displayed a killer instinct, athleticism rarely seen before in a point guard and an ability to create in John Calipari's dribble-drive offense that no one doubted would translate to the NBA.

Biggest pre-draft concerns: Unlike Williamson and Oden, no one saw the injuries that undermined Rose's career coming. The primary knock was on his shooting, which would have been much more scrutinized a decade later. His passing vision also drew some questions.

6. Dwight Howard

  • No. 1 overall pick in the 2004 NBA Draft to the Orlando Magic
  • Highest ranking: 4 | Lowest ranking: 7
  • Stats during final pre-draft season: 25.0 ppg, 18.1 rpg, 3.5 apg, 8.1 bpg for Southwest Atlanta Christian Academy

What made him special: The final preps-to-pros No. 1 overall pick had a jaw-dropping physique and athleticism that allowed him to dominate every opponent at the high-school level. His knack for shot-blocking and rebounding felt like locks to translate (and did). Mostly, though, the physical tools simply were impossible to overlook.

Biggest pre-draft concerns: Howard's entire skill set was unrefined, and he was coming into the NBA as other preps-to-pros bigs such as Kwame Brown and Eddy Curry were earning the label of busts. So there was a portion of the public that held skepticism. But in NBA circles, Howard was a guaranteed success. 

7. John Wall

  • No. 1 overall pick in the 2010 NBA Draft to the Washington Wizards
  • Highest ranking: 4 | Lowest ranking: 10
  • Stats during final pre-draft season: 16.6 ppg, 4.3 rpg, 6.5 apg, 1.8 spg for Kentucky

What made him special: Playing for the same college coach and entering the league on the heels of the first All-Star appearance by Derrick Rose, Wall immediately made the case that he could be the next in a growing group of super-athletic point guards taking over the NBA by storm. What set him apart was his tremendously instinctual playmaking -- watching Wall pass was every bit as impressive as watching him dunk. 

Biggest pre-draft concerns: Thanks to a lack of team success in high school and an underwhelming exit for Kentucky in the NCAA Tournament -- and video of him dancing (yes, seriously) -- some felt Wall was a showboater more than a winner. But the more valid criticism was on his jump shot, as even in the two years between Rose and Wall, 3-point shooting had become more important for NBA point guards.

8. Kevin Durant

Getty Images
  • No. 2 overall pick in the 2007 NBA Draft to the Seattle SuperSonics
  • Highest ranking: 4 | Lowest ranking: 11
  • Stats during final pre-draft season: 25.8 ppg, 11.1 rpg, 1.3 apg, 1.9 bpg, 1.9 spg for Texas

What made him special: Alongside Oden, the crown jewel of the first high school class that was not allowed to enter the NBA directly, Durant was the headline-maker most of the year because of his crazy statistics en route to a player of the year awards sweep. His ability to score at every level in every method at 6-9 (or taller, depending on whom you ask) made him unstoppable, particularly because he was able to shoot 3-pointers at a 40% clip. The fun thing with Durant: He's had the best career of anyone on this list, and he's been exactly the scorer anyone thought he might be.

Biggest pre-draft concerns: Durant's thin physique drew the most criticism and ultimately separated him from Oden. Would he be able to defend effectively or finish in the paint? (It took a while, but eventually he could.) Another frequent target was his low assist rate, which concerned some analytics experts who thought he might be a pure volume scorer. 

9. Blake Griffin

  • No. 1 overall pick in the 2009 NBA Draft to the Los Angeles Clippers
  • Highest ranking: 6 | Lowest ranking: 17
  • Stats during final pre-draft season: 22.7 ppg, 14.4 rpg, 2.3 apg, 1.2 bpg for Oklahoma

What made him special: Though he would have been a top-10 pick in 2008, Griffin returned to college for his sophomore season and absolutely mauled opponents. No one could stop him from getting to the rim, and no one could stop him from finishing every time he got there en route to a player of the year awards sweep. A chiseled 6-10, Griffin frequently was compared to Dwight Howard and Shawn Kemp.

Biggest pre-draft concerns: Unlike Howard and Kemp, Griffin showed a lack of shot-blocking and overall defensive instincts that limited his upside. And he had not developed much of a mid-range or perimeter game, which left people wondering whether pure explosive athleticism would be enough.

10. Kyrie Irving

  • No. 1 overall pick in the 2011 NBA Draft to the Cleveland Cavaliers
  • Highest ranking: 9 | Lowest ranking: 16
  • Stats during final pre-draft season: 17.5 ppg, 3.4 rpg, 4.3 apg, 1.5 spg for Duke

What made him special: Coming on the heels of Derrick Rose, Russell Westbrook and John Wall, Irving was a totally different point guard prospect: super-skilled in a way that made it seem like he'd been dribbling and shooting since birth. He seemed capable of running the Steve Nash playbook, but he was an even better scorer. 

Biggest pre-draft concerns: There's a weird element to Irving's case on this list: He only played 11 games for Duke because of a toe injury that no one expected to hamper him in the pros but ultimately limited his sample size. More nuanced criticism came because he did not have much defensive aptitude or potential.

11. Cade Cunningham

  • No. 1 overall pick in the 2021 NBA Draft to the Detroit Pistons
  • Highest ranking: 5 | Lowest ranking: undrafted
  • Stats during final pre-draft season: 20.1 ppg, 6.2 rpg, 3.5 apg, 1.6 spg for Oklahoma State

What made him special: The 6-6 natural playmaking point guard seemed to be able to do just about anything on a basketball court and made the smart decisions look natural. He came into the league amid the ascent of Luka Doncic and shortly after James Harden's MVP, and Cunningham had (and has) the tools to pick that style up.

Biggest pre-draft concerns: Like Doncic and Harden (both No. 3 overall picks), Cunningham was not an explosive athlete, which led to questions about his ability to create and exploit off the dribble.

12. Ben Simmons

  • No. 1 overall pick in the 2016 NBA Draft to the Philadelphia 76ers
  • Highest ranking: 7 | Lowest ranking: unranked
  • Stats during final pre-draft season: 19.2 ppg, 11.8 rpg, 4.8 apg, 2.0 spg for LSU

What made him special: The back of the trading card speaks for itself: Simmons was a 6-10 point guard who put up huge stats in college. His athleticism and defensive potential -- though that was not a certainty at this point -- put him in line with other positionless players who were redefining the NBA, including then-ascending star Giannis Antetokounmpo.

Biggest pre-draft concerns: Simmons couldn't shoot then, either, and as later bore out, it wasn't simply that he wasn't a good shooter, but he also was an entirely unwilling one. Also, Simmons' lack of team success raised questions about how he would fit.

13. Luka Doncic

Getty Images
  • No. 3 overall pick in the 2018 NBA Draft to the Dallas Mavericks
  • Highest ranking: 7 | Lowest ranking: unranked
  • Stats during final pre-draft season: 16.0 ppg, 4.8 rpg, 4.3 apg for Real Madrid in Euroleague

What made him special: The first player on this list ranked above a player (two, in this case) who was drafted ahead of him, Doncic was atop many draft boards in 2018 despite where he was selected. That's because he had, as a teenager, been a dominant force in the second-highest-level club competition in the sport, winning MVP honors in both Euroleague and Liga ACB (Spain's top league). His credentials were impeccable, and his feel for the game and versatile skill set as a playmaker and scorer seemed impossibly polished for a teenager.

Biggest pre-draft concerns: Ultimately, concerns over conditioning and explosiveness were primary culprits in Doncic's slide. His defensive apathy and limitations led to fear that he would have to be spectacular offensively to stay on the court in big moments.

14. Ja Morant

  • No. 2 overall pick in the 2019 NBA Draft to the Memphis Grizzlies
  • Highest ranking: 12 | Lowest ranking: unranked
  • Stats during final pre-draft season: 24.5 ppg, 5.7 rpg, 10.0 apg, 1.8 spg for Murray State

What made him special: Morant immediately called to mind flashes of Wall as a prospect for obvious reasons: his explosiveness in the open court as both a finisher and passer. But he was probably an even better player than Wall in half-court scenarios, particularly as a scorer.

Biggest pre-draft concerns: Shooting also was Wall's biggest weakness, but Morant came of age in an era where that mattered more, and while his step-back 3-pointer showed potential, he needed to work on his form. But the bigger issue probably was his weight: Morant came in at 174 pounds, more than 20 pounds less than Irving (195), Rose (205) or Wall (210) at the same height.

15. Jayson Tatum

  • No. 3 overall pick in the 2017 NBA Draft to the Boston Celtics
  • Highest ranking: 14 | Lowest ranking: unranked
  • Stats during final pre-draft season: 16.8 ppg, 7.3 rpg, 4.6 apg, 1.1 bpg, 1.3 spg for Duke

What made him special: Tatum hit the draft with a blend of pedigree and polish that few can match. There was no doubt he'd be a top scorer, capable of doing it from multiple levels. Passing and defense were more divisive traits of his, as some believed he would be able to be a lead playmaker for a good team and more than capable defensive player -- two traits he's absolutely delivered on, as the Celtics bet on when they traded down from No. 1 specifically knowing he'd be available at No. 3.

Biggest pre-draft concerns: The most common question about Tatum was simply: Does he have much upside left? In retrospect, asking that about a 19-year-old was always crazy, but because Tatum had been so productive from such an early age, it felt like he was a closer-to-finished product than Markelle Fultz in particular, the No. 1 pick of that year.

16. Chet Holmgren

  • No. 2 overall pick in the 2022 NBA Draft to the Oklahoma City Thunder
  • Highest ranking: 13 | Lowest ranking: unranked
  • Stats during final pre-draft season: 14.1 ppg, 9.9 rpg, 1.9 apg, 3.7 bpg for Gonzaga

What made him special: Holmgren almost served as the in-between step from Davis to Wembanyama. Incredibly long, tall player who dominated defensively but also could hit 3-pointers and create off the dribble from the perimeter. His college productivity and efficiency were everything anyone could ask for at a stacked program like Gonzaga. There's a MonStars vibe to him and his game, a similar alien quality to what Wembanyama shows.

Biggest pre-draft concerns: More than any other prospect on this list, the body type question popped up as a major red flag for Holmgren. His frame simply doesn't look like it can add much weight, and at 7-1, 209 pounds, that simply is unsustainable. If he were able to do what he did in college at 235, he would have been the top pick in his class and probably 10 spots higher here.

17. Andrew Wiggins

Getty Images
  • No. 1 overall pick in the 2014 NBA Draft to the Cleveland Cavaliers
  • Highest ranking: 15 | Lowest ranking: unranked
  • Stats during final pre-draft season: 17.1 ppg, 5.9 rpg, 1.5 apg for Kansas

What made him special: Hailed as the best Canadian prospect ever, Wiggins' explosive athleticism and pedigree as a long-followed prospect created visions of a player who could dominate in isolation on both ends of the court. The role-playing superstar concept was a hot one after Kawhi Leonard led the Spurs to a championship that same season.

Biggest pre-draft concerns: Wiggins was not a particularly creative player, and his best flashes often came in fast breaks where he was basically unstoppable. Questions abounded about his basketball IQ because he had more turnovers than assists and struggled to facilitate for teammates in general.

18. Karl-Anthony Towns

  • No. 1 overall pick in the 2015 NBA Draft to the Minnesota Timberwolves
  • Highest ranking: 11 | Lowest ranking: unranked
  • Stats during final pre-draft season: 10.3 ppg, 6.7 rpg, 1.1 apg, 2.3 bpg for NCAA semifinalist Kentucky

What made him special: As the central figure in Kentucky's historically unique season -- undefeated entering the NCAA Tournament while not playing anyone more than 25.9 minutes per game -- Towns showcased serious potential as a post player and defensive presence. But then the pre-draft process came around, and anyone who wasn't sold on him quickly turned. Videos of him dropping 3-pointers with a smooth, natural stroke (after only attempting eight in college) and showcasing perimeter dribbling skills opened up the idea that Towns could be so much more than a traditional big man.

Biggest pre-draft concerns: Only playing 21 minutes per game in college drew skepticism about his fitness and productivity, but the more concerning red flag was his high foul rate (5.6 fouls per 40 minutes). Sustainability across the board was the core concern.

19. Scoot Henderson

  • No. 2 ranked prospect on CBS Sports' 2023 NBA Draft big board
  • Highest ranking: 13 | Lowest ranking: unranked
  • Stats during final pre-draft season: 16.5 ppg, 5.4 rpg, 6.5 apg, 1.1 spg for G League Ignite

What makes him special: Henderson joined the G League, playing against adults including star college players and former NBA players, as a 17-year-old in 2021, and he immediately jumped off the screen. Henderson is almost like a muscular version of Ja Morant, and his production as a slasher should immediately translate.

Biggest pre-draft concerns: Henderson's defense is an immediate question, as often is the case for point guards in the modern NBA. The question of his inconsistent jump shot also hangs over him. What was acceptable for Wall or Rose was less so for Morant and even less so for Henderson because of the NBA's evolution.

T20. Paulo Banchero 

  • No. 1 overall pick in the 2022 NBA Draft to the Orlando Magic
  • Highest ranking: 11 | Lowest ranking: unranked
  • Stats during final pre-draft season: 17.2 ppg, 7.8 rpg, 3.2 apg for Duke

What made him special: Offensively, there aren't many prospects who showed the full range of skills that Banchero had. Chris Webber was a frequent comparison, a player who could create and handle and score at multiple levels. 

Biggest pre-draft concerns: Banchero's skill set made him a perfect power forward for 20 years ago, so the questions mostly were centered on his defense and 3-point shooting in the modern NBA context.

T20. Jabari Parker

Getty Images
  • No. 2 overall pick in the 2014 NBA Draft to the Milwaukee Bucks
  • Highest ranking: 12 | Lowest ranking: unranked
  • Stats during final pre-draft season: 19.1 ppg, 8.7 rpg, 1.2 apg, 1.2 bpg, 1.1 spg for Duke

What made him special: The comparison everyone made was to Carmelo Anthony, an absolutely dynamite scorer who had mastered the midrange but could step out as well. No one doubted he would be a 20 points per game scorer in the NBA (which he, just barely, did manage to become for one season).

Biggest pre-draft concerns: Everything except scoring. Fitness was a concern, defense was a bigger one. Passing and keeping the ball moving also were up there. It speaks volumes that all these concerns were well-chronicled, yet he still managed to make this list and be drafted ahead of ...

T20. Joel Embiid 

  • No. 3 overall pick in the 2014 NBA Draft to the Philadelphia 76ers
  • Highest ranking: 13 | Lowest ranking: unranked
  • Stats during final pre-draft season: 11.2 ppg, 8.1 rpg, 1.2 apg, 2.6 bpg for Kansas

What made him special: Embiid, who played with Wiggins in college, had every trait of a classic dominant center when he was on the court for Kansas. He brought to mind Hakeem Olajuwon and David Robinson, with a physique that could allow him to bulk up and dwarf either of them. Embiid is one of two players on this list to have an NBA MVP and his upside would rank in the top five on this list.

Biggest pre-draft concerns: The only player on this list with major injury red flags, Embiid missed extended time during the college season with a back injury, then had a serious foot injury going into draft night. 

In that sense, it's fitting to end on Embiid. Wembanyama, despite some frame- and workload-based concerns, does not have the injury red flags that Embiid did. No one expects him to miss his full first season, like Embiid, Oden, Griffin, Simmons and Holmgren all did. But even among those five players, three became All-Stars and one (Holmgren) is preparing for next season with Rookie of the Year in his sights already.

Wembanyama's expectations already far exceed what was expected of Griffin, Simmons and Holmgren. And they're even loftier than what would have been hoped for from fully healthy versions of Embiid and Oden. He's a prospect unlike any we've seen in a long time — 20 years, to be exact. And that guy, he turned out pretty good.