The stakes are high for every franchise in the 2023 NBA draft lottery, but arguably no team has more riding on the ping pong balls than the San Antonio Spurs. After spending the past four years clearing cap space and collecting young prospects, San Antonio is searching for a true franchise player — one that can vault the team back into perennial playoff contention.
After their third-worst win total and a four-year playoff drought (the longest in franchise history), the Spurs join the Detroit Pistons and Houston Rockets with top-three lotto odds at 14% and the best possible chance at landing Victor Wembanyama.
After winning 48 games in 2018-19, marking a historic 22nd consecutive playoff berth, the Spurs changed course as Brian Wright took over as general manager and longtime decision-maker R.C. Buford moved into an overarching CEO position. San Antonio has methodically downshifted into a longer-term vision, stripping a veteran roster that lacked a championship ceiling, amassing prospects and draft capital and playing the lottery game.
Amid the losing, this season did bear some positives. Jeremy Sochan showed more scoring potential than many expected and looks like a key frontcourt building block. Forwards Keldon Johnson and Devin Vassell (who missed a large chunk of time to injury) averaged career highs in points. San Antonio also saw flashes from 2022 first-rounders Malaki Branham and Blake Wesley — the latter averaging 20.9 points per game in the G League.
The Spurs have a successful history of developing their young players, but this roster is still far from a finished product. It’s missing a true centerpiece that can pull the parts together. San Antonio lost a draft tiebreaker to the Rockets and can draft no lower than seventh in any scenario. Jeremy Woo breaks down how winning the draft lottery and the chance to draft Wembanyama would impact the Spurs.
How does Wembanyama fit with the Spurs?
From an on-court perspective, Wembanyama and the Spurs are an exceptionally clean match. San Antonio needs someone to help carry the offensive load and to anchor its defense in the paint. The idea that Wembanyama will eventually do both at an elite level is what makes him a generational NBA prospect. The young players San Antonio has drafted and developed recently project more safely as solid supporting pieces than stars.
Now the Spurs are hoping to find a centerpiece. Wembanyama would likely get the keys to try things and expand his game right away.
From a player development angle, Wembanyama would be joining the organization that drafted and developed Hall of Fame big men David Robinson and Tim Duncan and one where international talents like Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili evolved into stars. Wembanyama would also likely get to play for the winningest regular-season coach in NBA history in Gregg Popovich.
Which current Spurs player could benefit most from Wembanyama?
I would be most curious about the chemistry that could evolve between Wembanyama and Sochan — a versatile, high-energy, defensive-minded forward whose basketball roots also began in Europe. Sochan is a highly competitive, team-first player who can defend multiple positions and would help tackle more physical defensive assignments, allowing Wembanyama to play all over the floor on both ends.
The Spurs could run smaller, spacing-driven lineups with those two interchanging at the 4 and 5, or they could deploy a traditional center and use Wembanyama as more of a 3. Having multiple frontcourt pieces that can be used in a variety of looks could be a pretty pronounced advantage as the team matures.
Sochan, at 6-foot-8, is a smart cutter and an improving offensive player who doesn’t need designed touches to impact the game, making him an excellent fit with the 7-foot-4 Wembanyama, who’s made progress this season as a passer and should command quite a bit of attention from defenses.
Sochan can also handle the ball and make plays in a pinch, allowing him to play out of a range of spots on the floor. His versatility, smarts and team-oriented mentality makes him a crucial piece of San Antonio’s puzzle no matter who they draft, but pairing him with Wembanyama would be a pretty fun look and would fit the type of passing-driven style the Spurs have traditionally favored.
Which current Spurs player could be hurt most because of Wembanyama?
The Spurs’ roster, as it stands, looks like one of the better-suited to add Wembanyama without sacrificing much. He won’t be blocking anyone’s development in San Antonio, and the Spurs aren’t tied to any young players long-term who would clash with him stylistically or positionally. How Popovich and the Spurs’ staff decides to optimize Wembanyama’s role will create new and potentially unforeseen needs. But on paper, the players make sense: Sochan, Vassell and Johnson can all succeed without the ball. It’s possible one of those three guys may have to shift to a bench role, but there should be enough minutes to go around to where there aren’t immediate issues.
You drafted Wembanyama, now what?
While San Antonio would have no real reason to rush a rebuild — they have all their own draft picks and it’s not their style — it’s worth noting that Popovich recently turned 74. The opportunity to mold a talent like Wembanyama might certainly prolong Pop’s career and his desire to continue coaching. It’s worth wondering whether the eventuality of his retirement creates added impetus for the organization to return to playoff relevance sooner than later.
The Spurs are projected to have $60 million in cap room, with no essential players out of contract — prospects Tre Jones and Dominick Barlow are restricted free agents who they may want to keep. The situation gives them significant flexibility to chart a course and establish a timeline they’re comfortable with in building around Wembanyama, or whoever they wind up selecting.
San Antonio also holds the No. 33 overall pick, a valuable spot to take a swing. Imagine a world where the Spurs selected Purdue’s 7-foot-4 Zach Edey and paired him with Wembanyama in gargantuan, experimental lineups for stretches of games.
Should the Spurs draft Wembanyama and vault up the standings immediately, there will be some notable holes to address through free agency or trades. There’s a definite need for an experienced point guard, and they would also presumably want to add a bulkier big or two to take up minutes defending stronger bigs and save Wembanyama from center duties. This is not an exceptionally strong free agent class, but it’s possible the appeal of playing for Popovich and being part of what would be a highly promising rebuild could help San Antonio find success with more experienced talent on the market.
Can Wembanyama turn the Spurs into a playoff contender next season?
If the Spurs decided to push toward competing at a higher level, the roster as it stands will require quite a bit of work. They have the cap space and draft capital to improve the team creatively if they choose. But it shouldn’t be a foregone conclusion to rush things, particularly without first understanding how all their players fit together — one more year of drafting in the lottery would potentially give them an avenue to adding a higher level young talent before building more clearly toward contention.
Wembanyama is exceptionally talented, but he probably can’t do it all himself, and San Antonio might be better off staying somewhat neutral in year one. With organic player development and smart signings, the Spurs should certainly improve on 22 wins, but getting into the play-in mix in a crowded West will require them to vault into the 40-win range. It’s certainly possible they come close if everything breaks right.
It’s worth noting that the last two times the Spurs were this bad — winning 21 games in 1989 and 20 in 1997 — they won the lottery. In 1989, they selected Robinson and won 35 more games the following year, and in 1997, they drafted Duncan and increased their win total by 36.
Jeremy Woo is an NBA analyst specializing in prospect evaluation and the draft. He was previously a staff writer and draft insider at Sports Illustrated.