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2023 NBA Draft: Previewing top prospects to watch with Matt Babcock

2023 NBA Draft: Previewing top prospects to watch with Matt Babcock

If this month has given us any indication, the 2023 NBA Draft could be special.

Victor Wembanyama and Scoot Henderson went head-to-head in two thrilling showcases to start October, exemplifying the potential greatness that could headline this prospect group.

Senior NBA Draft Analyst Matt Babcock has Wembanyama atop his initial 2023 Big Board, with Scoot Henderson at No. 2. But they're just the headliners. Amen and Ausar Thompson, twin uber-athletes, are carving up the court with Overtime Elite. Then you get to the collegiate standouts, led by Villanova's Cam Whitmore and Arkansas' Nick Smith Jr.

Babcock broke down the top names to monitor as the scouting season gets rolling. He also dove into his own scouting process and the challenges that come with criss-crossing the globe to watch basketball's best young talents. 

How much did Victor Wembanyama's dominance in Las Vegas change his reputation as a generational prospect compared to before the exhibitions?

In my role as an NBA Draft Analyst, I do my best not to go too high or too low on guys based on individual performances. But to be in Las Vegas in person, sitting courtside to see Victor Wembanyama, an 18-year-old that's 7-foot-4 and has an 8-foot wingspan do the things that he did — it was remarkable. The combination of his length, coordination, and skill level is unbelievable. I don't know if we'll ever see a prospect quite like Victor Wembanyama again. He's so incredibly unique and has about as much upside as possibly imaginable.

What do you want to see from Wembanyama over this next season before making the likely leap to the NBA?

Although this may seem obvious, I'd like to see Victor stay healthy and out on the court this season. Considering that he has such a unique body type, I think that is very important. He's such an incredible prospect, but he needs to get stronger and take care of his body to maximize his potential.

How does Scoot Henderson compare to some of the dynamic guard prospects we've seen over the past decade?

Suppose we look at the top-tier guard prospects from recent years' drafts. In that case, we'd be talking about guys like LaMelo Ball, Ja Morant, Darius Garland, Trae Young — and I guess you could put Luka Doncic in that group, too, since he's essentially a big point guard. 

Well, I'm comfortable saying I'm just as excited about Scoot Henderson as I was about all those guys at the same stage. But, of course, Scoot needs to take care of his business to get to those players' levels. However, my point is I do think he has that type of talent and potential.

What makes Amen and Ausar Thompson special, and could the twins also be franchise-altering talents?

Although the Thompson brothers are identical twins, I do see differences in their games. For example, Amen seems to have better ball skills and a feel for the game, and Ausar is wired more as a scorer. However, they're both incredible athletes with so much versatility on both sides of the ball. Outside shooting is their swing skill, and their development in that area will likely determine how much career success they'll find. It seems as if both guys are about all of the right things and are serious about their craft, which tells me they'll continue to improve. I think they're both big-time prospects and worthy of being high lottery picks.

Wembanyama, Henderson and the Thompson twins come from unconventional pathways. How does that change your scouting process?

Well, first of all, I take a compartmentalized approach to evaluating prospects regardless of whether they take an unconventional pathway or not. Each evaluation presents unique challenges, so I don't think it changes things for me too much. 

Players taking unconventional pathways sometimes allow me more direct access to them. For example, with these players, as mentioned earlier, it's been more advantageous for me because I have unique connections to them. Victor Wembanyama's agent, Bouna N'Diaye, is a good friend, and I collaborated with him and his agency, Comsport, for years when I was an agent. 

Scoot's mentor in Atlanta, Desmond Eastman, aka "The General," has been my guy since I played high school ball in Atlanta. The General, Scoot, and his family invited me out to their family's gym, Next Play 360, a couple of years ago to watch Scoot work out, and I got a chance to spend some time with all of them. And I've kept in touch with them since then. 

I've also had opportunities to spend some time with the Thompson Twins. Before Overtime Elite was publicly launched, I spent about six months as an advisor for them; I assisted in setting up their scouting operations. So naturally, I'm close with all of the folks out there. A little while back, Overtime Elite invited me to come to Atlanta to speak to their players about scouting, intel, and the business of the NBA. Of course, I'm not always connected to top prospects like I am with those guys, but my background and experience in hoops does tend to serve me well regarding access, which I certainly don't take for granted.

Which other 2023 draft-eligible players do you think have a chance at putting themselves in that Tier 1 prospect conversation?

I'm not sure if any other players will be able to crack that first tier. Still, I am excited to track some college freshmen like Cam Whitmore at Villanova, Nick Smith at Arkansas, Dariq Whitehead at Duke, Dillon Mitchell at Texas, and Keyonte George at Baylor, to name a few. I could list off a handful or so more, too, as I think the freshman class this year has a bunch of talented prospects.

As a scout, how do you make sure you're being fairly critical of top prospects without overanalyzing their flaws?

My process for evaluating prospects is to ask questions constantly, whether by asking myself questions internally or blowing up my right-hand man, Derek Murray's phone, to ask him questions. A comprehensive evaluation or conclusion of the evaluation of a prospect before their draft ultimately comes down to the concept of the sum of all its parts. 

Experienced scouts can gather comparable information on prospects, evaluating the players' on-court talent and gathering intel on their background, character, and personality. Generally, we all know a prospect's strengths, weaknesses, and questions that need to be raised at a certain point in the process. The most challenging part is how one weighs out all the different variables within the evaluation. 

For example, maybe a player lacks physical strength, has character flaws, or is an inconsistent shooter. How big of a problem are specific players' "issues" compared to how much talent and upside they have, and how much could their issues limit their ability to maximize their potential? It's all about balancing out the risk versus the reward. It's certainly a juggling act, but you know what? I love it. I live for it. I wake up as a scout everyday seeking more information on prospects in hopes of figuring out the big puzzle, which is the NBA Draft.

Which top returning college players are you most excited to see make improvements in their games?

There are many returners I'm hoping will make a big jump in their development. Some players that come to mind first are Terquavion Smith from NC State, Marcus Sasser from Houston, Kris Murray from Iowa, Harrison Ingram from Stanford, Oscar Tshiebwe and Daimion Collins from Kentucky, Arthur Kaluma and Ryan Kalkbrenner from Creighton, Terrence Shannon and Coleman Hawkins from Illinois, and Caleb Love from North Carolina.

Honestly, I could list off a bunch of guys. I love to see guys return to school and keep grinding. Having a front-row seat to watch young players' stories unfold as they chase their dreams is perhaps the best part of my job. I love it!

Beyond Wembanyama, what does this year's international prospect landscape look like?

Of course, Wembanyama is the big name this year. Some other internationally-born prospects that are playing overseas that I'm excited to track are Rayan Rupert with the New Zealand Breakers, Nikola Djurisic with Mega in Serbia, and James Nnaji and Ousmane NDiaye with Barcelona and Baskonia in Spain, respectively.

How do you set a roadmap for the early scouting season — do you prioritize geography, teams or specific players at first?

I first get my initial player rankings and priority watch list together, which helps me prepare and organize who I need to see. Secondly, I identify "must-see" games and events. For example, early this college season, I plan to attend the State Farm Champions Classic in Indianapolis, including Duke, Kansas, Kentucky, and Michigan State. Then I plan to attend the Phil Knight Invitational and Legacy events in Portland, which include many talented teams. There are some other double-headers and unique matchups in neutral locations I have penciled in too. 

From there, I look at "low-hanging fruit" games. This would include games and events with NBA prospects that I can travel to cheaply and easily. I live in Denver, Colorado, so the drivable spots for me are mainly the University of Colorado, Colorado State, Air Force, and I drive to Wyoming here and there too. I also pencil in high-priority high school events into my schedule, like the Hoophall Classic in Springfield, Massachusetts, City of Palms in Fort Myers, Florida. My tentative schedule is planned through March already. I still need to squeeze in a couple of trips overseas, and I will likely make some adjustments as we go, but I like to prepare ahead of time.

What are some of the challenges when it comes to planning scouting trips for a draft class that could have several special players at the top?

Having "special players" doesn't change scheduling much, or at all, honestly. However, I will say this; I generally go extremely hard in November and December to get my bases covered regarding scouting the higher-rated prospects. This is because I like to get a head start so that I can pick and choose my spots later. 

Injuries can be a significant disruptor. It's impossible to predict who will be healthy throughout the season. Fortunately, my processes have served me well at times. For example, I went to see Vanderbilt play USC in LA a few years back for their season opener, and I'm sure glad I did because I got to see Darius Garland, who was terrific. Unfortunately, he got hurt shortly after and only played five games that entire season before becoming a high lottery pick. 

Similarly, I watched Patrick Baldwin Jr. several times before him missing the bulk of the season with a foot injury. He only played in 11 games the entire season. Anyway, I don't underestimate seeing a top prospect while I can; you never know how things will unfold.

What under-the-radar college teams should NBA Draft enthusiasts make sure to watch?

Although they're ranked high, we don't usually see Houston and Creighton mixing it up with the blue bloods and top programs. However, I think both teams have a chance of doing big things this season.

Coach Kelvin Sampson has done a terrific job building up that program in Houston. I was a bit surprised that their stud guard, Marcus Sasser, decided to return to school after doing so well at the NBA Draft Combine, but I'm happy he did. I think he's poised for a breakout year. They have a lot of other talented players too. Most specifically, I'm excited to see five-star recruit Jarace Walker. I have had the chance to watch Walker many times at various high school events. His physical tools, toughness, and versatility are interesting.

I usually head out to Omaha, Nebraska, once or twice yearly to see Creighton games. It's an easy flight to Omaha for me coming from Denver, there is a fantastic Marriott hotel right across from Creighton's arena, and they take great care of the media, as they have always given me a seat courtside. I've seen some terrific games there in the last few years. I remember watching teams like Villanova, including Jalen Brunson, Mikal Bridges, and Eric Paschall, and then a stacked Gonzaga team featuring Rui Hachimura and Brandon Clarke. 

I will likely try to see Villanova play Creighton this season because they have highly touted freshman Cam Whitmore, who is projected as a lottery pick. Still, I will also focus on Creighton's prospects this year, as Arthur Kaluma, Ryan Kalkbrenner, and Baylor Scheierman have been generating some buzz.

Has the success of some of last year's rookies changed your scouting philosophies at all?

The biggest thing for me recently is not necessarily adjusting to how individual players have performed but just keeping the pulse on the trends and how the game continues to evolve. For example, the idea that the NBA is moving towards a positionless game is becoming more apparent each year. Subsequently, players with decent size, well-rounded skill sets, and versatility on both ends of the ball have never held so much value. 

On the flip side, undersized guards and traditional big men are not carrying as much value across the board as they once did. Of course, there are always exceptions to these rules, but it has certainly changed how I look at specific prospects.

What is the most enjoyable part of this first month of college scouting for you?

I will be a little cliche here, but I just love getting back in the arena. 

I'm a member of the staff for Damian Lillard's Formula Zero, a group of top high school and college prospects. One exercise we do as a group is having everyone take a turn to share one thing they have been doing well and one thing they have been struggling with or would like to improve on. It got me thinking about that recently regarding myself; I've gotten to a point in my career where I've developed to become very organized, detail-oriented, and prepared, which hasn't always been the case. Over time, I've turned these areas from my weaknesses into strengths. And I'm proud to be able to say that. 

Alright, now my weakness. Of course, the offseason is a great opportunity to spend time with my family, which I do, and I love having that time! But the fact is, I don't have any real hobbies, and I essentially am obsessed with the game and what I do. So I get impatient and uneasy when I don't have a lot of basketball in my life — it happens every year. So naturally, when the season starts, it puts me at ease. There is so much great basketball to see in November and December, and I'm just ecstatic to get back out there and start chipping away, trying to figure out this year's NBA Draft.

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