The Washington Wizards acquired Bilal Coulibaly, the seventh overall pick of the 2023 NBA Draft, in a draft-day trade with the Indiana Pacers. Through 21 games, Coulibaly has been shining in a defensive role off the bench. But how does he stack up compared to the players selected before him?
Victor Wembanyama had been the presumptive first overall pick for years ahead of the draft, and he is showing out in his rookie year. Wemby currently leads all rookies in points (18.9), rebounds (9.7), steals (1.3) and blocks per game (2.6) — those 2.6 blocks per game are good for third in the entire NBA. The Rookie of the Year race between Wemby and Chet Holmgren, the second pick of the 2022 Draft who missed his rookie season with injury, has been one for the ages so far, and the Western Conference battles between the two seven-footers will be a spectacle for years to come.
Brandon Miller went second overall to the Charlotte Hornets, a much-maligned move at the time that is looking like a solid pick so far. Miller is putting up 14.2 points per game as the lone bright spot in a dark Charlotte season plagued by injuries and extensive losing.
Scoot Henderson, the third overall pick by the Portland Trail Blazers has struggled so far, largely due to a sprained ankle that has limited to just 11 games so far. Henderson is averaging 9.2 points and 4.2 assists per game on a ghastly 35.1% shooting from the field, but he is still just 19 years old with 11 games’ experience under his belt.
Amen Thompson was the fourth overall pick by the Houston Rockets, and he has been out for most of the young season so far with an ankle sprain. In just four games, the uber-athletic Amen is averaging a pedestrian 6.3 points, 2.8 rebounds and 1.5 assist per game. Amen is playing just 17 minutes per game when he does play as a result of the Rockets’ unexpectedly crowded rotation, but expect the rookie’s minutes load to increase once he returns to the court.
Amen’s twin brother Ausar Thompson went fifth overall to the Detroit Pistons. Ausar has been dazzling, averaging an efficient-for-a-rookie 10.4 points per game while pulling down 8.9 rebounds per game — second among rookies behind only Wemby, who is nearly a foot taller than Ausar. The Pistons are in the midst of a generational free-fall: Detroit’s 18-game losing streak has endured through Halloween and Thanksgiving, and I’m now working on some Christmas shopping with no end to the streak in sight. If there’s anything Pistons fans can take solace in, it’s Ausar Thompson.
The Orlando Magic selected Anthony Black with the sixth overall pick. Black is playing just under 20 minutes per game for the NBA’s surprise team of the year; the Magic have steamrolled to a 14-7 record and the third seed in the Eastern Conference so far this season. Black has started 15 games so far this season, and although he is not stuffing the stat sheet, he has been a solid contributor as a secondary ball-handler to a very good Orlando team.
The Indiana Pacers selected Bilal Coulibaly seventh overall before flipping him to the Washington Wizards in exchange for Jarace Walker, the eighth pick. It is impossible to overstate how stellar Coulibaly has been for the Wizards this season: 8.5 points and 3.6 rebounds per game are accented by a defensive presence for a rookie surpassed only by seven-footers Chet Holmgren and Victor Wembanyama. Further, Coulibaly’s shooting splits (52.5% from the field and 41.2% from three) are incredible for a 19-year-old rookie; I, 20, am unable to replicate those splits completely uncontested in an open gym.
Coulibaly has been incredible for the floundering Wizards, and I would imagine he will get far more starts and reps on offense once the Wizards trade away some of their veteran players around the trade deadline. The Wizards took a big swing and absolutely nailed a home run with the Coulibaly pick; this risk-reward payoff is refreshing to see from an organization that generally selected older pro-ready players destined to be role players in the late lottery over the past few years.
It is far too early to assign any grades or reach any verdicts on the 2023 NBA Draft, but results have been incredibly positive so far from the top of the draft. Few rookies have been better so far than Coulibaly, and the Wizards appear to have one of their building blocks of the future locked down.