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2023 NBA Draft according to YODA: First Round Guards

G League Ignite v Raptors 905
YODA thinks Scoot Henderson should be the first guard taken in the 2023 NBA Draft.
Photo by Christian Bonin/NBAE via Getty Images

That burning smell wafting in from the west (at least in the DC area) may have been from my homemade stat-based NBA draft analysis tool dubbed Ye Olde Draft Analyzer (YODA for short).

I will neither confirm nor deny whether YODA is powered by Kyber Crystal.

YODA operates under the theory that a prospect’s on-court production is a reasonable way to assess how he applies his skills, size, athleticism, basketball IQ, etc. to competitive games. History shows that in most cases, excellent players in non-NBA leagues are usually the most successful at the NBA level. Not in every case, of course — there are always exceptions. But in general, it is the case.

I originally started work on YODA more than a decade ago in an attempt to see if I could develop an objective tool using publicly available information to predict the prospects most likely to succeed in the NBA. While I continue tinkering each year as I learn, the basic system works by analyzing prospects through the prism of what causes teams to win in the NBA, accounting for important factors like level of competition and age, as well as physical tools like length, agility, and leaping ability. Last, there’s a measure for “intangibles” such as superb defensive impact, injury history, getting in trouble off the court, etc.

I’ve come to realize that predicting the futures of 18-21 year olds is exceedingly difficult. While past performance by these youngsters tends to predict future performance, there are enough of those exceptions and circumstances and life events to make any sensible person approach these kinds of forecasts with humility.

So, while I may have your favorite prospect ranked lower than you think he deserves, I probably don’t think he sucks or even that he’ll be an NBA failure. I’ve seen enough marginal guys through the years sustain careers that I’ve come to believe that nearly anyone in the top 100 (or so) prospects could reasonably become a useful NBA player if he’s willing to work hard and smart, and he gets a chance to perform.

Now, before I dive into the 2023 draft class, note that I do not use the traditional PG-SG-SF-PF-C position designations. With the way the NBA operates today, I think there are four positions: guards, wings, forwards and centers. In general, everyone is asked to do some ballhandling and playmaking. Everyone needs to be a threat to score, or at least make open shots. Everyone needs to do some rebounding, defend players bigger and smaller, protect the rim, guard the perimeter and so on. It’s not truly positionless, but roles are increasingly blurry.

As Mike D’Antoni has said, everyone is a point guard when they have the ball.

If you want to translate my positions back to the traditional setup:

  • Guards = point guards and shooting guards
  • Wings = shooting guards and small forwards (who for whatever reason aren’t suited to assume traditional PG duties)
  • Forwards = small forwards and power forwards (who for whatever reason — size, skill, footspeed, aptitude — shouldn’t play traditional PG or SG roles)
  • Centers = big men who could theoretically play some traditional PF but are best equipped for the rim protecting, paint patrolling, big man duties.

For 2023, let’s start with the guards.

Looking through my analytic lens, I think this is a solid guard class. YODA currently has 27 players total with a first round grade — nine of them project into the backcourt at the NBA level.

Weirdly for an era that heavily values long-range shooting, the top guards have the same flaw: poor long-range shooting. Each of them seems to do enough “other stuff” to make me think they can still be effective NBA players, but their high-end potential is capped unless they can improve in that area.

Here’s the 11 guards with first round grades in YODA (note: their current position may shift until I “lock” my big board a few days before the draft; also: all stats are per 40 minutes unless otherwise designated):

  1. Scoot Henderson, G League Ignite, 19 years old — Despite a somewhat less than stellar second season in the G League, Henderson remains an impressive prospect. He has good size, agility and leaping ability, he rebounded well (7.0 per 40), and he’s a quality playmaker. The concern: 27.5% on threes and 4.5 turnovers per 40 minutes.
  2. Amen Thompson, Overtime Elite, 20 years old — Like his brother Ausur (see below), Thompson is an elite athlete with excellent size. Both twins are big enough to play on the wing at the NBA level, though both are likely to be at their most effective as lead guards. Amen’s numbers in Overtime Elite (OTE) look fantastic. But OTE is so new that it’s difficult to gauge how the competition compares to the NCAA, G League or international leagues. For now, I’ve classified at about the level of a weak NCAA conference. To the extent that’s wrong, I could be seriously underrating (or overrating) the Thompson twins.
  3. Ausur Thompson, Overtime Elite, 20 years old — see above. Ausur shot a little better than his brother last season, though neither was proficient from deep.
  4. Anthony Black, Arkansas, 19 years old — The first three are close enough that I would accept virtually any argument for picking one over the other. In YODA, there’s a significant step down from the Thompsons to Black. That’s not to say Black is a bad prospect — he’s big and athletic, his defensive impact looked good, and he flashed some nice playmaking instincts. And he’s still 10th overall on the YODA board. He doesn’t rate like a top five pick because of poor shooting (30.1% on threes, 70.5% on free throws), relatively low assist numbers for a primary playmaker (4.5 per 40) and high turnovers (3.5 per 40).
  5. Cason Wallace, Kentucky, 19 years old — Wallace could join the Kentucky tradition of guards who outproduce their draft slot. Overall, his NCAA numbers were on the plus side of good — 34.6% on three, 51.6% on twos, 4.6 rebounds, 5.3 assists, 2.4 steals — but not by a lot. He does not pop out as an outstanding athlete (at least by NBA standards). Still, he has promise as a modern guard who can be a good pro.
  6. Jaylen Clark, UCLA, 21 years old — Not much of a shooter (32.9% on threes and 69.8% on free throws), but he hit the boards (7.9 per 40) and was an active and disruptive defender (3.4 steals per 40).
  7. Brandin Podziemski, Santa Clara, 20 years old — Full disclosure, this is guard I’m closet to nudging up a couple spots. He’s small for the NBA, but he tested as athletic enough, and lord can he shoot — 43.8% on 6.4 threes per 40. He also hit the boards (9.7 rebounds per 40) and showed enough playmaking chops (4.1 assists per 40) while avoiding turnovers (2.5 per 40). That’s impressive production, even against relatively weak NCAA competition. The question on him is whether he can overcome the lack of size against NBA-caliber players.
  8. Jordan Hawkins, Connecticut, 19 years old — Another shooter — 38.5% on a whopping 10.5 three-point attempts per 40 minutes and 88.6% on free throws. Why doesn’t he rank higher? Kinda everything else — 44.3% on twos, meh rebounding, anemic assists, steals and blocks. He averaged just 1.9 turnovers per 40 and still had more turnovers than assists. The poor two-point percentage in combination with low steals and blocks puts his athleticism into question.
  9. Marcus Sasser, Houston, 22 years old — Shooter — 38.4% on 9.0 three-point attempts per 40 and 84.8% on free throws. He also finished inside reasonably well — 51.1% on twos — and produced 2.1 steals per 40. He even generated 4.0 assists per 40 and a nearly 2-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio.

Just missing the cut:

  • Nadir Hifi, French LNB Pro A, 20 years old
  • D’Moi Hodge, Missouri, 24 years old
  • Kobe Bufkin, Michigan, 19 years old

As mentioned above, Henderson and the Thompsons fit together in the top tier. At that point, there’s a significant step down to Black and Wallace, a smaller step to Clark, Podziemski and Hawkins, and then a modest step to Sasser, Hifi, Hodge and Bufkin.

Other guards that draw my interest in the second round or as undrafted free agents (with full understanding that consensus mocks have some of these guys rated significantly higher than I do):

  • Amari Bailey, UCLA
  • Keyonte George, Baylor
  • Nick Smith, Arkansas
  • Adam Flagler, Baylor
  • Isaiah Wong, Miami (FL)