With the First Pick: Pre-March Madness Mock Draft

By Luke Scotchie

Ah, the sounds of March.

Birds chirping, nets swishing, universities celebrating and Luther Vandross’ “One Shining Moment” playing in the background. Cheers and tears alike permeate the rowdy arenas that host some of the world’s best basketball this month. You couldn’t ask for a better environment. Nowhere else will you witness this much chaos, this much excitement or this much madness.

March madness, that is.

Yes, the most prestigious tournament in sports is about to commence. Starting Tuesday, 68 of the best basketball teams in NCAA’s Division I will duke it out in the month-long tournament that changes fortunes, careers and even lives. Brackets will be busted, bars and stadiums will be packed and many of the country’s best young players will have a chance to prove to scouts that they are worthy of playing in the National Basketball Association.

I take special interest in that last fact. The NCAA Tournament is without question the biggest event of the Draft Cycle behind the draft itself. It’s the biggest stage that any of these athletes have ever faced so far, where having great performances is necessary for the teams that want to keep dancing. This will be the ultimate test for these players, a final collegiate exam that asks just one simple question: Do you have what it takes to go pro?

Well, we don’t know the answer to that. But now that the regular season and conference tournaments are both officially over, we have a good idea of which players are most likely to pass that test. I present to you my latest mock draft, how I would choose the 2023 NBA Draft order if it were being held today, just ahead of this year’s NCAA Tournament.

It’s worth noting that each team has a different grading rubric for this exam, meaning that a player can pass Milwaukee’s test but fail Houston’s. That’s why this list is not a big board or a player ranking, but a list that attempts to ascertain which player a given team would select given their draft position and players available. This means that sometimes, a team will pass on a slightly better player for a significantly better fit on their roster, a fact I reflect in this mock frequently. Without further ado, here is my latest mock draft.

*Draft order is based on the reverse order of NBA standings as of Mar. 13, 2023

  1.       Detroit: Victor Wembanyama: Metropolitans 92
  2.       Houston: Scoot Henderson: G-League Ignite
  3.       San Antonio: Amen Thompson: Overtime Elite
  4.       Charlotte: Brandon Miller: Alabama
  5.       Orlando: Jarace Walker: Houston
  6.       Washington: Anthony Black: Arkansas
  7.       Portland: Cason Wallace: Kentucky
  8.       Indiana: Cam Whitmore: Villanova
  9.       Orlando (via Chicago): Gradey Dick: Kansas
  10. Toronto: Nick Smith, Jr.: Alabama
  11. New Orleans (via LA Lakers): Keyonte George: Baylor
  12. LA Lakers (via New Orleans): Ausar Thompson: Overtime Elite
  13. Oklahoma City: Taylor Hendricks: UCF
  14. Utah: Jalen Hood-Schifino: Indiana
  15. New York (via Dallas): Rayan Rupert: New Zealand Breakers
  16. Utah (via Minnesota): GG Jackson: South Carolina
  17. Atlanta: Jett Howard: Michigan
  18. Golden State: Kris Murray: Iowa
  19. Miami: Brice Sensabaugh: Ohio State
  20. Houston (via LA Clippers): Dariq Whitehead: Duke
  21. Brooklyn (via Phoenix): Kyle Filipowski: Duke
  22. Portland (via New York): Dereck Lively II: Duke
  23. Brooklun: Terquavion Smith: NC State
  24. Memphis: Jordan Hawkins: Connecticut
  25. Sacramento: Maxwell Lewis: Pepperdine
  26. Indiana (via Cleveland): Julian Phillips: Tennessee
  27. Utah (via Philadelphia): Colby Jones: Xavier
  28. Charlotte (via Denver): Leonard Miller: G-League Ignite
  29. Indiana (via Boston): Kobe Bufkin: Michigan
  30. Los Angeles Clippers (via Milwaukee): Jalen Wilson: Kansas

The draft order has shifted considerably since my last mock draft. Some teams are using their post-trade deadline acquisitions to make a playoff run, while others have sold their souls (and players) to the Tank Gods at the very bottom of the standings. This means that there are several player-team couples that I haven’t discussed yet. Here are a few of my favorites.

I’m very interested in this draft haul for Orlando. Jarace Walker is a player that fits like a glove on many NBA teams, such as Indiana, Charlotte, Oklahoma City and Utah. But at first glance, Orlando doesn’t seem like one of them. They appear to have their frontcourt set with Franz Wagner, Paolo Banchero and Wendell Carter Jr. for the foreseeable future—there doesn’t seem to be enough room for Walker. 

And sure, this does seem like a luxury pick more than anything, but he does fill a need. Carter is this team’s anchor, especially around the paint…when he’s healthy. When he misses time, he’s backed up by the likes of Moritz Wagner and Goga Bidatze. Walker fills that backup center, rebounding and paint presence that Orlando misses without Carter, while also providing elite defense and switchability that only the even-more-injured Jonathan Isaac can replicate. He’s also a really sound playmaker that this bench just doesn’t seem to have.

There’s also a universe in which the Magic, who are notable for their absurdly large lineups, start Fultz and Wagner at guards, while playing Banchero, Walker and Carter at the frontcourt. It’s not a perfect lineup by any means, but it does make sense. Walker adds versatility to an already-versatile Magic team, making head coach Jamahl Mosley’s job much more fun.

But one thing that Walker doesn’t provide is one of Orlando’s biggest weaknesses: shooting. I’ve talked about it before, but the Magic have long been desperate for an elite shooter, especially when Gary Harris is out. And so with Chicago’s pick, why not draft Kansas’s Gradey Dick, possibly the best shooters in this draft? It’s not like he creates a logjam like Walker could; the Magic could use another backup wing to begin with. They need someone who can come in and get buckets off the ball, preferably from the 3-point line. Dick does exactly that, and he fits the Magic perfectly. 

Walker and Villanova’s Cam Whitmore are two very different players. Walker is a defensive specialist with a budding talent in playmaking, while Whitmore is a bucket-getter both with and without the ball in his hands. And yet, Whitmore fits Indiana’s emerging young lineup almost as well as Walker does. While he doesn’t fill the same gaping hole in their lineup that Walker does, the Pacers could use Whitmore’s cutting potential and athleticism to give star point guard Tyrese Haliburton another toy to play with. He’s even shown flashes of elite shot creation that the Pacers could use more of. Whitmore provides a lot to the Pacers, and I think he’d be a good fit there.

I’ve seen Arkansas’s Anthony Black to the Wizards quite a lot among draft speculation, for good reason. Washington needs point of attack defense since they choose not to play Delon Wright. They also need an elite facilitator that can set up great looks for Bradley Beal, Kyle Kuzma and Kristaps Porzingis. They’re in luck, because Black is all of those things rolled into one very tall point guard. He immediately slots into the starting lineup and will immediately take pressure off Beal to create for himself. Sixth overall does seem high for a guy who doesn’t have an above-average jump shot, but I can see the Wizards taking a small reach for a guy I’ve always liked in Black. I’d imagine they like him even more than I do given their needs.

Portland and Kentucky’s Cason Wallace is a match made in heaven that no one talks about. I’ve been very vocal about how much I love Wallace. He’s one of my favorite players in this draft for being its best guard defender while being a solid shooter. He will absolutely be an important piece on a championship team one day, something that Portland seeks to build soon. But before that day comes, they need to replenish their perimeter defense and add some off-ball threats. Wallace fits both of those needs at once, while also giving head coach Chauncey Billups much more versatility than the three score-first guards on his roster. He’s been in a little bit of a slump as of late, but I believe that will pass by the time he enters the league.

I’ve been a fan of Ohio State’s Brice Sensabaugh for a while now. He’s a bucket-getter with the ball in his hands and an elite shooter without it. He had a breakout freshman season this year, jumping from unranked to a bona fide first round pick. I have a bit of personal attachment to him too; he grew up not too far away from me in Orlando, Florida. I think he’s going to be great and I’m finally glad I get to talk about him now.

In this scenario, Sensabaugh falls to Miami simply because some of the teams ahead of the Heat have more pressing concerns or already have players with similar skillsets as him. But I don’t see a world in which Miami doesn’t take him if they have the opportunity to. He’s the best player available and gives them another shot creator to ease the pressure off of Jimmy Butler. Sensabaugh’s presence also gives Miami the wing depth that has been either inconsistent or injured all season. Sensabaugh is possibly the best thing that could happen to Miami’s offense in this draft.

The final intriguing player-fit combination in this draft is Pepperdine’s Maxwell Lewis and the Sacramento Kings. Earlier in the season, Lewis shot up draft boards after putting his Pepperdine Waves on the map with some dominant, 30-point victories against Rice and Alabama State. Some considered Lewis to be a lottery talent. His team looked solid and fun…up until Pepperdine lost to UCLA 100-53. Conference play wasn’t much better for the Waves. They finished with a West Coast Conference record of 2-14, the worst in the league. As the losses kept piling up, Lewis’s draft stock began to tumble. Now, he’s a borderline first round pick. Worth a flyer, but not much else.

Except for a team that could use him in the right situation, Lewis’s defensive skillset or shot creation are not yet at an NBA level, but what he does have is elite-level catch-and-shoot ability. Plugging him into Sacramento’s offense gives the Kings even more lethal shooting, meaning more weapons for Domantas Sabonis to work with and more chances for Kevin Huerter and Malik Monk to get some rest. He slots perfectly into that rotation too, having him back up Harrison Barnes and come in on shooting-centric or taller lineups. 

Sure, his defense worries me, as he does zero favors for the Kings, who aren’t the most defensively gifted team under the sun. But he has the length and quickness to one day become a good defender in a way that no other King has. And if he does so in Sacramento, he just becomes an even better fit.

The 2023 NBA Draft is still months away, but March is here, meaning that the madness has only just begun. Over the next month, these players and more will have to prove to NBA teams that they should be drafted. And the only way to do that is to perform well enough to answer that one easy, yet excruciatingly difficult question to determine:

Do you have what it takes to go pro?