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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

NBA draft preview: After Victor Wembanyama, watch for these players

GG Jackson has a combination of size and skill that’s hard to find.

By David Gardner

The only mystery surrounding the top pick in this year’s NBA draft was resolved a month ago. On May 16, the San Antonio Spurs won the draft lottery, giving them the opportunity — or, perhaps more aptly, the obligation — to select Victor Wembanyama with the first overall pick.

Wembanyama, a 7-foot-4 French superstar, is perhaps the most hyped NBA prospect since LeBron James, and for good reason: He shoots the ball like a modern lead guard and blocks it like a classic paint-patrolling center. Within his 8-foot wingspan, Wembanyama has just about every skill NBA teams seek in a franchise player.

“There is no better environment for him than the Spurs,” said Jonathan Givony, a draft analyst for ESPN. He added: “Everyone around him is thrilled for him. I don’t see the Spurs messing this up.”

But while Wembanyama, 19, is the draft’s ultimate prize, there are plenty of potentially franchise-altering prospects throughout the lottery — the celebrated top 14 picks — and even into the second round.

“There are tiers to this draft,” Givony said. “Victor is in a tier of his own. Then it’s Brandon Miller and Scoot Henderson after that. And from there, it really opens up.”

Miller, a guard from Alabama, and Henderson, a guard from the NBA G League’s Ignite, are expected to be drafted within the first few picks.

Here are five other players to know in the 2023 NBA draft (Thursday, 8 p.m. ET, ESPN, ABC).

Anthony Black

6-6, 210 pounds | guard, Arkansas

Black’s first college scholarship offers came from football teams. As a sophomore wide receiver for Coppell High School in Texas, Black hauled in 39 passes for 762 yards and eight touchdowns. His play got the attention of powerhouse programs including Arkansas, Baylor and Cincinnati. But basketball was his first love.

“No doubt I would have made it to the NFL if I would have focused on football,” Black, 19, said. “I was pretty raw with it. I didn’t get to reach my potential. Once I started getting basketball offers during my sophomore year, that became my focus.”

Black was born into an athletic family: His mother was a scholarship athlete at Baylor in soccer; his father, in basketball. But they never pushed him to become a Bear, which is how he wound up at Arkansas, where he averaged 12.8 points, 5.1 rebounds and 3.9 assists in one season. He became a more confident and reliable shooter as the season wore on, but the reason he is projected as a potential top-10 pick is his defense. He puts great pressure on the ball and can even defend big men because of his strength and size.

“Defense is what I’ve always hung my hat on,” Black said. “I was always the best defender on the team, or in the league or in my area. I sometimes haven’t been aggressive enough on offense so that I could be more active on defense. To me, getting scored on is pretty embarrassing.”

Jordan Hawkins

6-4, 186 pounds | guard, Connecticut

During the 2022 NCAA Division I men’s basketball tournament, Hawkins watched from the sideline as New Mexico State, a 12th seed, upset his fifth-seeded Huskies in the round of 64. In the postgame locker room, Hawkins told coach Dan Hurley, “This will not happen again next year.”

He spent the summer getting basketball advice from UConn alumni and NBA greats such as Richard Hamilton and Ray Allen. He also prioritized his mental strength, beginning a daily meditation practice with the Calm app. All of that work paid off. After posting one of his worst performances of the season — 5 points on 11 shots — in UConn’s second-round loss to Marquette in the Big East tournament, Hawkins pledged to play better during the NCAA Tournament.

“The best players show up in March,” Hawkins, 21, said. “I wanted to prove that I was one of the best players at my position — and of the best players, period, in the country.”

In the NCAA Tournament, Hawkins was named the most outstanding player in the West Regional after averaging 22 points a game and sinking nine total 3-pointers against Arkansas and Gonzaga. (He shot 38.8% from beyond the arc for the season.)

Before the team’s Final Four matchup against Miami, Hawkins contracted a stomach bug. He threw up more than a dozen times before the game and almost passed out during the first half. But he remembered the promise he had made to his coach. He helped guide the Huskies to their fifth NCAA men’s title.

“That’s what I’m bringing with me to the NBA,” Hawkins said. “I have the confidence that I’m a great defender, and I believe that I’m the best shooter in the draft. But more than that, I know how to buy into my role and work hard and win championships.”

GG Jackson

6-8, 214 pounds | forward, South Carolina

In a seven-month stretch last year, Jackson became the No. 1 player in the class of 2023, committed to North Carolina, decommitted from North Carolina, reclassified to the class of 2022 and committed to South Carolina. It was a tumultuous time for a player who had yet to turn 18, but by the start of the season, Jackson believed he had made the right decision.

“The coaches told me I had the power to uplift a lot of people in my home state by staying in South Carolina,” he said. “Plus, staying so close to home made my mom happy.”

Jackson posted a respectable 15.4 points a game this season, but he made just 38.4% of his shots. He also publicly criticized his coaches on Instagram Live after a loss to Arkansas in February. Jackson apologized, and he said he owned up to the outburst during meetings with NBA teams. Although he is not projected to be a top-10 pick, he has a combination of size and skill that is hard to find and that could persuade a team to select him in the first round.

“I remember where I came from in basketball,” Jackson said. “I was a frail kid who had to wear goggles. I got to that No. 1 spot, but now I’m starting back over. I’m not the bad guy that people perceive me to be. I’m serious about the player and person I want to become.”

Kris Murray

6-8, 213 pounds | forward, Iowa

While Keegan Murray matriculated to the NBA last June, his twin, Kris, decided to stay at Iowa for another season. When the Hawkeyes came together for a workout a few weeks later, Kris came to a realization: This would be the first practice without his brother.

“I knew I could be an NBA player eventually, but going back to college gave me the chance to make a name for myself,” Murray, 22, said. “Basketball-wise, I got to be the focal point of our team. I got to lead our team, to be on top of the scouting reports for other teams, to be the guy everyone’s trying to stop. That was an invaluable experience for me.”

It was also a successful experience. Murray doubled his points and his minutes over the previous season but maintained his field-goal percentage and improved as a passer and rebounder. His 20.2 points-a-game average were slightly behind Keegan’s 23.5 the season prior.

“He gives me crap, and I give him crap,” Kris said, referring to his brother. “But we really like to gang up on our dad.”

Their father, Kenyon Murray, averaged a mere 9.9 points a game during his four-year run with the Hawkeyes in the mid-1990s.

In April, Kris watched Keegan start for the Sacramento Kings in a first-round playoff game win against the Golden State Warriors. And in May, the brothers got to spend a week together training and preparing for the next NBA season.

“I feel like my player comparison in the draft is pretty obvious,” Kris said. “It might be a little bit lazy, but it’s pretty accurate.”

Rayan Rupert

6-6, 193 pounds | forward, France

Rupert, 19, was born into one of the best basketball families in France: His father, Thierry, was a former captain of the French national team; his sister, Iliana, won a WNBA championship last summer with the Las Vegas Aces. Thierry died when Rayan was 8, but he instilled in his children a love for the game that he had dedicated his life to.

“For me and my sister, it’s important to represent the Rupert name,” Rayan said. “I’m very proud of my father. At the same time, I want to have my own career. I want people to know me not only as the son of Thierry, but also as Rayan.”

After playing at the prestigious French academy INSEP for four years, Rupert signed with the New Zealand Breakers as part of the NBL’s Next Stars development program. He was following in the footsteps of his best friend, Ousmane Dieng, who went from INSEP to the Breakers to the Oklahoma City Thunder as the 11th overall pick in last year’s NBA draft.

He is part of a movement of French players who have turned into first-round NBA draft prospects, and he has known Wembanyama since he was 12. But for now, he is more concerned with making a name for himself.

“I’m very happy for Victor and for all the French players in this class,” he said. “But my goal is to be one of the best players in this league. That’s my only focus.”

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