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Spurs drafting for Wemby’s timeline, Rockets’ perfect prospect and more: Draft mailbag

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Normally this would serve as an intro but the draft is upon us and you all have many questions. Let’s dive in.


I think the Rockets’ biggest needs are shooting and rim protection. Although shooting is always desirable, it seems like more of a gamble in the draft. It seems to me that the league is moving more to the value of big men. I really like the big fellow from UConn — Donovan Clingan. What do you think? — Jerry C. 

It’s rare to find centers at that age who have displayed defensive dominance and versatility, fluidity for his frame and ability to contain ballhandlers in front of him, the space behind and snuff out everything at the rim. Clingan is also efficient offensively, showcasing playmaking and screening. He has a soft touch and power when necessary.

For the Rockets, who still produced a top-10 defense without a traditional rim protector, it comes down to spacing. Clingan took eight 3s last season at Connecticut and is 2-for-9 for his collegiate career. I saw him shoot at the combine and at his pro day. He has a decent-looking form but it’s going to be a work in progress.

One of head coach Ime Udoka’s goals last season was to get starting center Alperen Şengün to become more comfortable stepping away from the paint and shooting 3s. In the right scheme, dual-big lineups can work. Houston’s mid-season trade for Steven Adams not only signals Udoka’s preference to have a physical presence on the floor, but also adds to the possibility Adams and Şengün could play together at times. The Minnesota Timberwolves featured a versatile inside-outside roamer (Karl Anthony-Towns, Naz Reid) alongside a traditional rim runner/protector (Rudy Gobert), making it to the Western Conference finals. Udoka found success in Boston a few years ago with Al Horford and Robert Williams III. Don’t forget how proficient Adams is as a rim runner, a 94th percentile big during his last full season (2022-23) and how much Udoka talks about offensive variety. 

The Rockets want to be able to throw different looks in games depending on what the opposition dictates. At times, they will go go small with Jabari Smith at center. In other instances, you could see Şengün solo, Adams solo or both of them together.

In a vacuum, could Clingan and Şengün work? Sure. But given how much the Rockets are shifting toward optionality moving forward, Adams’ (healthy) presence and Udoka’s preference for veterans make the Clingan-to-Houston theory a bit difficult to actualize.

What’s your “perfect” Spurs draft? — “.”

San Antonio is in a position of strength heading into the draft, a situation you wouldn’t typically associate with a team coming off a 22-win season. Victor Wembanyama’s ascension to stardom — and more importantly, his defensive floor and ceiling — has arguably shifted the Spurs’ thinking. With two picks in the top 10, there’s a chance to grab two young players on a similar timeline to Wembanyama and, if development goes according to plan, a pair of contributors moving forward.

In Sam Vecenie’s latest mock draft, he has the Spurs selecting Stephon Castle and Nikola Topić with the No. 4 and 8 picks. The recent news of Topić’s knee scares me, in addition to his reported wingspan (6-foot-5.5 compared to his 6-6 height), but any scenario that has them getting Castle and another bigger wing is perfect to me. The Spurs historically bring high-IQ players that can contribute on both ends of the floor and while this draft class is less heralded than its predecessors, some names in here should pan out.

Imagine a world where San Antonio walks away with Castle and Matas Buzelis, two competitors who can operate with the ball in their hands, have connective traits and can defend. Castle is further along on defense than Buzelis, but the former G League forward is no slouch. I would also be thrilled as a Spurs fan if Kentucky’s Reed Sheppard was still on the board at No. 8. But for me, Castle is the bar. There’s another world where maybe the Spurs draft Castle at No. 4 and trade No. 8 and 35 for a veteran guard (Dejounte Murray?) that would qualify as a perfect draft night, for me.

The argument among Grizzlies fans is whether we should trade for a veteran center or draft a center. … Is there one in this draft that you see capable of making a similar to what Derek Lively II has done for Dallas in the playoffs? — Martin H.

Assuming Memphis doesn’t move up, probably not. Lively was a rare case of a young rim runner who immediately fit with a franchise, and that largely stems from Luka Dončić’s gravitational pull. There are some players with similar profiles in this class, but none that jump out as likely to impact things from opening night.

I’ve scoured the draft landscape for weeks and have seen Indiana’s Kel’el Ware’s name connected to Memphis a few times in mocks. Taking a project like Ware that high, as athletically gifted as he is, would put the Grizzlies at a disadvantage. You could move back from nine, collect assets and still be able to draft him. Alternatively, you could solve your center problem in free agency with a Nic Claxton or Isaiah Hartenstein.

The more I watch Ware, the more I think of Christian Wood.

There’s still a lot to be desired with Ware’s decision-making, especially out of the short roll. There are several instances — Wood is also guilty of this — where he attempts to bail himself out with athleticism as opposed to making the right read. Ware graded as an excellent offensive player last season, but i don’t think he’s Memphis solution at center.

I like Duke’s Kyle Filipowski for the Grizzlies if they move back. He’s not in the mold of Lively, but a Kelly Olynyk-ish type of center might be better suited to what Memphis needs right now. Filipowski’s offensive game is mature and his floor spacing would allow for lineups with Jaren Jackson Jr., giving Ja Morant and Desmond Bane ample space to operate.

If you could describe the perfect player to help complement and take Houston to the next level what would they do and look like? With that in mind, who do you see them targeting this offseason? — Donald C. 

The Rockets are in Phase 2.5 right now.

Last season, they established competitiveness and a culture change, coming within a few games of the Play-In Tournament. Given the age of their core, there’s no rush to jump into title contention this summer. Continue to build the youth with veteran experience around the edges.

However, there should be a focus on making the playoffs next season. It’s hard to have a 19-win improvement in the standings and not think upward, even if the climb isn’t as steep as the previous year.

The perfect player for Houston is a two-way wing with size, one who can also put the ball on the floor and create for himself to some degree and others. He doesn’t have to be an all-star type, but an efficient, connective player would work. Think San Antonio’s Keldon Johnson or Chicago’s DeMar DeRozan. Alternatively, they could go in another direction and try to find a 2019 Robert Covington, a small-ball dream: smart, unselfish, connective and defensive-oriented floor-spacing wings.

Looking at the free agent market, if I’m the Rockets (and looking at the more realistic route), Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Bruce Brown are circled on my big board. Both are veterans who would mesh with Udoka’s defensive discipline while providing half-court spacing that was sorely lacking last season. Brown’s shooting has dipped in recent years but both Royal Ivey and Tiago Splitter were on Brooklyn’s staff in 2021-22 when Brown shot 40 percent from 3. Caldwell-Pope could have made an All-Defense team this past year. No brainers, in my opinion.

Without high-level talent in the 2024 draft, should the Spurs drafting philosophy be: 1. Take safer role players in 2024 and wait for the 2025 draft; or 2. Take home run swings in 2024, knowing they always have the more talented 2025 draft to fall back on? — Anonymous

Going back to an earlier point about Wembanyama’s timeline, I don’t think the Spurs should fall into this habit of hoping to draft high for the next three years or so. That can get dicey — and there’s no inherent advantage to doing so.

The simple answer is to go at Wembanyama’s pace. If next season he shows that he’s an All-NBA player, San Antonio’s brass has to start thinking in phases like Houston’s front office divided their rebuild. Right now, the Spurs are in Phase 1. Be aggressive when it comes to drafting, take the players who have the highest upside and also can fit around Wembanyama defensively and continue to build that way. The 2025 draft is loaded with talent, but the Spurs don’t want to wait another year to start to turn things around.

How likely do you believe it will be for the Grizzlies to trade down in the draft if there is no one on the board they want at No. 9? What sort of trades can you foresee to help fill the two glaring holes on the Grizzlies (starting center and backup PG). — Chip C.

Oh no. Fake trades? He’s trying to trap me!

We see teams trade down every year, so I don’t think pulling one off on draft night is hard, especially considering how aggressive Grizzlies general manager Zack Kleiman can be. Why not give the Trailblazers a call?

Portland is the one team in the middle of the first round that has players who could satisfy both positions of need for Memphis, center (Williams) and point guard (Malcolm Brogdon).

Fake trade 1 — Portland receives No. 9, Santi Aldama, Luke Kennard

Memphis receives No. 14, 2027 first-round pick (lottery-protected), Williams

(This requires due diligence on Williams’ injury and recovery, but the Grizzlies would send out a pair of underperforming expiring contracts to give the rebuilding Blazers a shot at two top-10 selections.)

Fake trade 2 — Portland receives No. 9, Marcus Smart

Memphis receives No. 14, 2027 swap option, Brogdon

With Udoka’s preference for defensive versatility and Stone’s draft history favoring positional size, if the Rockets keep pick No. 3, could you see them favoring a multi-positional wing (Risacher, Buzelis, Holland, Salaun) over a less positionally versatile guard or center like Reed, Clingan, Dillingham? — Mary S.

Yes, personally.

Smith, Amen Thompson, Cam Whitmore and Tari Eason were instances of Stone going the positional size route. That’s four out of six first-round talents that make up Houston’s core. Drafting along those guidelines allows you more versatility down the line while also helping your coaching staff. Udoka wants to add shooting, yes, but you can solve that in free agency and he’s defensively inclined first and foremost. If someone like Castle or Buzelis showed some shooting consistency, those are the names I (key word, I) would want.

So many options for the Spurs at (picks) four and eight. I know they need shooting, but I love the upside and switchability of Castle and Holland. Any way the Spurs pass on shooters altogether for defensive upside? — Lucas M.

Absolutely.

I would be terrified of the spacing with Ron Holland and Jeremy Sochan, but San Antonio needs to lean into a defensive identity, similar to their heyday. Wembanyama was just named to an All-Defense team and runner-up to DPOY as a rookie. That doesn’t happen, ever.

The Rockets are a clear example of what can happen when your defense rises from the worst to the top 10 — and they didn’t have a Wemby in the middle swatting away everything. If versatile, multi-faceted defenders are available, you take those guys and figure out the rest later. Cody Williams is another name I would have my eye on for this reason.

(Photo: Tyler Kaufman/Getty Images)

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