With the halfway point of January fast approaching, that means we're now also roughly halfway toward March Madness and the 2023 NBA Draft cycle is well underway. The San Antonio Spurs look to have struck gold with their three 1st round picks in the 2022 NBA Draft--Jeremy Sochan, Malaki Branham, and Blake Wesley--and all signs are pointing toward the Spurs having another high lottery pick this coming offseason.
For those that missed the first installment of our Heat Check series in December, the purpose of this monthly series is to briefly highlight players that have been rising (stock up) and falling (stock down) on draft boards outside of the two consensus top picks, Victor Wembanyama and Scoot Henderson. Even if the Spurs were to secure the worst record in the league by the end of the season, they'll only have roughly a 14% chance at securing the top pick in the draft, meaning our job will be to monitor several potential draft candidates for the team.
These are the names that Spurs fans should be paying attention to and how they fared against their competition this past month.
Dariq Whitehead - Duke
This is now the second month in a row that Duke freshman Dariq Whitehead has made the 'stock falling' portion of these heat checks, but while I thought last month that some of the top-five buzz he generated in the preseason could begin to return, I am now far from being as optimistic that this is a realistic possibility. While he's finally managed to scrape together three double-digit games in a row in his past three games, his production outside of the scoring column is still underwhelming at best.
Foot injuries can be particularly troublesome to come back from in a timely manner, and if there's any good example of that relevant to the Spurs, it's Zach Collins. Granted, Collins has about four inches and 30 pounds on Whitehead, but Whitehead's injury seems to have left him a bit heavy-footed, out of rhythm with his teammates, and generally rusty. He's still very much a 1st round prospect for the time being, but whether or not he's a lottery pick is beginning to be more debatable.
Nick Smith Jr. - Arkansas
When I say that Nick Smith Jr.'s stock is "falling," I mean that pretty lightly. Smith looked just as impressive as advertised in three of the four full games he played in, having scored over 20 points in two of those games, but his two-way performances weren't quite enough for me to completely overlook the odd circumstances around his injuries.
Considering how competitive the 2023 NBA Draft will be toward the top of the board, even if this is the best long-term decision for Smith to make for the sake of his health, sitting out won't do him too many favors. His length, high-level shotmaking, upside as a passer, and pesky point-of-attack defense will almost surely be enough for him to remain a lottery pick even if he were to sit out for the rest of the college basketball season, but this development is a bit troubling nonetheless.
Cason Wallace - Kentucky
Considering how bad of an offensive team Kentucky has been this season, Cason Wallace's consistency has been incredibly impressive. Wallace has been a lights-out shooter from distance, hitting nearly 46% of his threes on the season, is a harassing defender averaging 2.3 steals per game, and is a better passer than he's given credit for. His game isn't flashy or defined by eye-popping athleticism, but he understands how to play good basketball.
Wallace isn't free of criticism, though; he hasn't shown a very big sample size of pull-up shooting that makes me too confident in his upside as a shot creator, and has surprisingly only hit 58% of his free throws. While his lack of pull-up shooting may be more a result of his role rather than his capabilities, the free-throw shooting--both in terms of volume and efficiency--needs to improve for him to move further up boards.
Maxwell Lewis - Pepperdine
If you haven't heard Maxwell Lewis's name yet, expect to start hearing a lot more about him in the coming months. The 6'7" sophomore wing out of Pepperdine has made significant improvements to his game on offense, as he's currently shooting 52% from the floor, 43% from three, and 85% from the free-throw line while grabbing 5.7 rebounds and dishing out 2.9 assists per game. He's been wildly versatile and efficient on that end of the floor.
Lewis's defense and decision-making have been a bit inconsistent, but regardless, he's been productive to the point that he's making a serious push for lottery territory. If he continues scoring in the way he has, becomes a bit more disciplined on closeouts, and continues to hold up against tougher competition, expect him to regularly be in lottery talks.
Brice Sensabaugh - Ohio State
When looking for "sleeper" candidates that I think could turn some heads in the Spurs' front office, I tend to look for unorthodox players, which more often than not leads me to players with outlier skills and/or physical profiles. Ohio State freshman Brice Sensabaugh feels appears to qualify in the early going, as he has a Malaki Branham-like scoring package with a stalky build, standing at roughly 6'6" and weighing 235 pounds.
Sensabaugh has a knack for getting his defender out of position, blowing by, and easily getting to his spots for easy buckets. As a result, his shooting splits currently sit at 54/45/80 on a high volume of shots. Poor defense--particularly against smaller, twitchier guards--is what's holding me back from labeling Sensabaugh as a clear-cut lottery prospect, but if he can prove to be more effective guarding up a lineup rather than down, I can see him as a funky, scoring-minded small-ball 4 at the next level.
Taylor Hendricks - UCF
Last, but not least, comes Taylor Hendricks--a former four-star recruit that has seemingly come out of nowhere as a potential one-and-done candidate out of UCF. This 6'9" perimeter-oriented big has proven himself to be a very convincing shooter from distance (hitting just under 40% of his threes), a versatile defender with a bit of switching capability, and someone that's quite comfortable with putting the ball on the floor for his size.
The term "versatile" is thrown around a lot these days, often a bit too broadly, and is a term that has been frequently attached to Jeremy Sochan. I would argue that Hendricks is similarly versatile but would bring a dynamic to the Spurs that could complement Sochan's current skillset quite well. While Sochan brings ball-handling and playmaking on offense, Hendricks offers enticing spot-up shooting. And while Sochan would provide the team with his elite perimeter defense, Hendricks offers valuable weak-side shot blocking and can switch on the perimeter a bit himself.
Hendricks is currently projected in the late 1st round into the 2nd round of the draft, but expect him to continue to rise if he keeps producing as he has been. If the Spurs were to attain another 1st round pick through a deal at the trade deadline or through a draft-night deal, do not be surprised if Hendricks ends up high on the team's list of targets for that second pick.