Spurs early-season top five returners: wings/forwards
5. Arthur Kaluma - Creighton
Arthur Kaluma is deemed by many as one of the first college returners that could be selected in the 2023 NBA Draft, and while I don't think that's necessarily a bad bet, a lot will ride on the progression of his jump shot. For the time being, Kaluma's calling cards are his physicality on both ends of the floor along with his ability to defend in isolation.
While Kaluma is a bit of a jack of all trades, at this point, his ancillary skills aren't quite advanced enough on their own to make me value him as a lottery pick. And even a bit lower on the board, there may be a few players still available with comparable or greater two-way upside that would better complement the current Spurs roster. If Kaluma's shot starts falling with consistency, that viewpoint could change very quickly, but for now, I still have some reservations.
4. Harrison Ingram - Stanford
Harrison Ingram is someone we've had our eyes on at Air Alamo since early in the 2022 NBA Draft cycle, but like Kaluma, his stock will largely depend on the development of his jump shot. In his freshman season with Stanford, Ingram only shot about 66% from the free-throw line and 31% from deep, which aren't too encouraging.
Here's why Ingram has the slight edge over Kaluma for now, though: he's a slightly better rebounder, a much more advanced playmaker, is equally adept at putting the ball on the floor, and I'd argue his off-ball defensive impact is a bit greater. Ingram isn't quite as physically gifted as Kaluma, but I'd say that he makes up for it and then some with his craft, finesse, and feel for the game. If Ingram can prove he's in better shape and that he can make big plays for Stanford on offense, I'll be a big buyer in the 1st round.
3. Emoni Bates - Eastern Michigan
I won't beat around the bush with Emoni Bates: he did not look good for Memphis this past season. Or at the very least, he didn't look good relative to where his draft stock once was. He wasn't a great decision-maker, was clearly isolation-heavy despite him not being efficient enough to be Memphis' offensive focal point, and didn't show much defensive engagement.
With that in mind, though, I'm giving him the benefit of the doubt for now. He came into college a year early after some highly questionable high school preparation and wasn't part of an ideal roster construction in Memphis. Purely when it comes to talent, he still has some 1st round upside, so for now, I'm going to act as if last season never happened. He'll certainly be the focal point for Eastern Michigan, so he'll likely be given the green light to score a will. Even so, Bates is by far the most volatile name on this shortlist and could easily plummet.
2. Kris Murray - Iowa
The twin brother of Sacramento Kings rookie Keegan Murray has a lot to like about him, and considering that he may still be available after the lottery, he could come at a great value. He shot 39% from the three-point line on over 3 attempts per game, is every bit as good of a defender as his brother is, and has a good feel for the game on both ends of the floor. He should come in as a game-ready 3-and-D role player that could turn into an excellent 3rd or 4th option on offense.
Kris likely won't experience quite the surge that his brother did last season, as he hasn't shown that he has the same kind of ball skills, but I'm not going to rule that kind of a jump out entirely. If he can handle the ball in transition, be more consistent on pull-up jumpers, and perhaps even take the ball to the bucket in the half-court on occasion, we could see another Murray picked in or around the lottery.
1. Alex Fudge - Florida
Alex Fudge was Tari Eason's defensive partner in crime this past season at LSU despite playing about 10 fewer minutes per game, and I find it pretty hard to believe he won't experience a breakout year of his own this coming season. At around 6'9", Fudge is one of the longest players on our list of wings and I would argue is comfortably the best defender on the list.
At LSU, Fudge posted a 3.4 STL% and 5.5 BLK%, making him one of very few freshman to accomplish that feat, and has the freakish athleticism that only intensifies that defensive impact. He'll need to continue filling out his frame to be an effective defender against more traditional bigs in the paint, but he's already versatile enough to switch on the perimeter and act as a weak-side rim protector, making him an incredibly valuable defensive asset already.
His offense, particularly in the half-court, is still very much a work in progress. He'll need to show more flashes of dribble drives and outside shooting to really sway teams in his direction in the first round, but based on some positive intel, I'd say we're in for some kind of improvement.