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2023 will be the year of the superlative draft talent

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Scoot Henderson idolized the late Kobe Bryant because he admired his ruthlessness and iron will. But on the biggest night to date of his NBA draft season, Henderson channeled Michael Jordan's audacity.

The G League Ignite point guard drove the lane in suburban Las Vegas on Oct. 4 against the top-tier French pro club Metropolitans 92. Henderson, who turns 19 this winter, hit the brakes at the restricted area as two defenders soared past him in the third quarter. He swished a short jumper to cap the stylish fake, then shrugged as he jogged back on defense.

NBA G League

"That play signifies how confident he is. How much of a competitor he is. I know he really wanted to win the game," Ignite head coach Jason Hart told theScore recently. "Emotion and his confidence met at the same time."

Henderson wasn't the starriest prospect involved in the play. The help defender was Victor Wembanyama, the 7-foot-3 unicorn from the outskirts of Paris who does anything he wants on the court. A genuine two-way force, Wembanyama is the top scorer and shot-blocker in France's LNB Pro A league at 18 years old. His general dominance against the Ignite affirmed to American viewers that he's special.

Transcendent teenagers are set to enter and reshape two leagues next year. The NBA's never welcomed a talent like Wembanyama, meaning Henderson shouldn't kick himself in the likely event he's drafted second overall. On the ice, virtuosic Western Hockey League center Connor Bedard is the object of every tanking NHL team's affection. The rest of Bedard's draft cohort is also showing historic promise.

Scoot Henderson (left) drives past Victor Wembanyama in Nevada on Oct. 4. Ethan Miller / Getty Images
C.J. Stroud (left) and Bryce Young. Rich Graessle / Icon Sportswire / Getty Images

Bryce Young and C.J. Stroud, the best quarterbacks in the class of 2023, aren't in Wembanyama and Bedard's rarefied tier. But NFL teams that slump into the top five of the draft are expected to snap them up. Both players have been Heisman Trophy finalists - Young won it last year - and both could round into franchise cornerstones. That upside will be valued after the 2022 draft class was bereft of such passers.

Young's Alabama Crimson Tide and Stroud's Ohio State Buckeyes are gearing up to play in major bowl games on New Year's Eve. Bedard headlines the star-studded roster Canada sent to the World Junior Championship, which begins Monday. Fans nationwide will marvel at his gifts.

"For him, it's all about speed off the rush. He's the closest thing I've seen to Connor McDavid in regards to how he attacks our practices," said Nick Quinn, Bedard's longtime offseason skills coach with the Power Edge Pro consultancy.

"(We put) extreme stress on the player's mind to think and have his feet and his hands respond at the same time," Quinn added. "When you watch Bedard, that's what you see. You see an elite multi-tasker - a player who can create deception at top speed. He's reacting to defenders quicker than they can respond."

The Hockey News dubbed Bedard the future of the sport when he was 13 years old. Now he's 17 and skates circles around peers who aren't remotely on his level. Held scoreless in the Regina Pats' season opener, Bedard's recorded a point or five in every game he's played since. He's on pace to smash the WHL high for points per contest this century (2.14).

Unimposing at 5-foot-10 and 185 pounds, Bedard's slick stickwork enables him to toy with players. His dangles and feints embarrass international opponents and powerhouse WHL teams. Entire lineups sometimes fixate on his forays up ice, freeing teammates to pot easy goals. Quick and creative, intelligent and dexterous, Bedard can corral a deflected pass and snipe to the top corner without breaking stride.

TSN / House of Hockey

Bedard's shot is accurate and forceful. He beats goalies from awkward angles and when he's knocked off balance. He might have 50-goal potential in the pros. Without reaching the show yet, Bedard shoots the puck better than 95% of NHLers, Quinn estimates.

"He can make the stick torque. (He generates power) behind his shot. He's got great technique," Quinn said. "But it's the way he can give deception to get the defender to bite and get his stick in a different lane, or his body in a different lane, so he can shoot the puck. Very few players can do that at top speed."

Wembanyama is Bedard's basketball analog. LeBron James and Steph Curry have called him an alien and a 2K create-a-player, respectively. He combines the strengths of Kevin Durant and Rudy Gobert, the countryman Wembanyama blocked and splashed jumpers over in a viral two-on-two showdown when he was 16 years old.

He embodies how basketball is evolving. Young 7-footers who shield the rim now dribble the ball and stroke threes like guards, bending the action at both ends to their will. Good luck stopping them.

Uniquely graceful for his frame - his standing reach is 9-foot-7 - Wembanyama is the closest thing to unguardable. He crosses up defenders and scores at every level. In the Oct. 4 Ignite exhibition, Wembanyama swatted Henderson's jumper and dunk attempt while resembling Curry on offense, nailing three treys in a four-minute span via pick-and-pops and a handoff in transition. He dropped 37 points that game and 36 in an Oct. 6 rematch.

Meanwhile, Henderson's explosiveness and spunk at 6-foot-2 have stoked Ja Morant comparisons. He's averaging 21 points and six assists while shooting 47.1% from distance in his second year with the Ignite, the prospect incubator that springboarded Jalen Green and Dyson Daniels to the NBA.

Henderson's game is flashy yet controlled. He can dissect a defense with his smart passing reads or tight handle. He poured in 28 points and added nine assists in the first Ignite-Metropolitans matchup, draining a step-back three over Wembanyama's elastic arm and beating him to the rim to finish multiple layups.

"He's fearless. A mistake doesn't define who he is," Hart said. "He'll try anything at any point in the game, and he's confident that he can make something happen."

In football, the marquee quarterbacks have one more shot to burnish their draft resumes. Seeded fourth in the College Football Playoff, Stroud's Ohio State squad plays top-ranked Georgia in the Peach Bowl on Dec. 31, with the winner advancing to the national championship game. Young and No. 5 Alabama will face Kansas State in the Sugar Bowl after barely missing the playoff.

Stroud and Young are somewhat similar. Neither player makes many mistakes. Their pinpoint passes blend power and touch. Comparably superb in 2021, both passers slipped statistically this season after losing star wideouts to the NFL (Garrett Wilson and Chris Olave at Ohio State, Jameson Williams and John Metchie from Alabama).

Regardless, they're in contention to be drafted No. 1. Young is 6-foot and lacks bulk at 194 pounds, but he reminds NFL Network draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah of Drew Brees. Mobile and improvisational, he showcased the scope of his talent in last year's SEC title game. He fashioned a pitch on the fly and scrambled up the gut for a touchdown before he stuck to the script and burned Georgia's secondary with a deep ball to Williams.

CBS / Wheels

Stroud's most recent game - the blowout loss to Michigan that almost cost Ohio State its playoff berth - was a rare lapse, the second time in 24 college starts that he threw two interceptions. Usually, his ball placement is pristine. Staring down an early deficit to Utah in last year's Rose Bowl game, Stroud passed for 573 yards and six touchdowns - three of them on consecutive downfield slings - to orchestrate a memorable comeback win.

Big Ten Network

"He knows when to throw it hard and when to throw it soft. He doesn't just bullet everything. It's not like he has to show his arm strength every time that he can," said Mark Verti, Stroud's head coach in high school in Rancho Cucamonga, California.

"He's always been able to put the ball in good places," Verti added. "Some guys (are innately accurate) no matter how much you work on it. He's able to hit the spot outside the shoulder to go away from the defender."

Every sport's prospect pool is deep at the top. Kentucky passer Will Levis might join Young and Stroud in the top 10 of the draft. Chet Holmgren, the injured Oklahoma City Thunder 7-footer, should challenge Wembanyama for Rookie of the Year honors when he debuts next season. Forwards from three hockey nations - Canada's Adam Fantilli, Russia's Matvei Michkov, and Sweden's Leo Carlsson - will be drafted right after Bedard and heralded as potential franchise saviors.

Chet Holmgren. Michael J. LeBrecht II / NBA / Getty Images
Connor Bedard. Andy Devlin / Getty Images

Cellar dwellers in all leagues - from the Anaheim Ducks to the Charlotte Hornets to the Houston Rockets and Texans - will count on these players for revitalization. That dependence comes with immense pressure, though Quinn senses Bedard has too much fun when he plays to feel burdened.

"I don't think I've ever trained a guy who loves scoring goals the way he does, whether it's 9-0 or it's 2-1," Quinn said. "He just wants to bury shots."

"I noticed (that about) McDavid when he was coming through," he added. "I always thought, 'Does he not feel the pressure? How does he do it?' I think it's that Tiger Woods mentality: 'I just want to be the best.' He's able to drown out that outside noise."

Hopefully, injuries won't mar their careers. Back, shoulder, and finger issues sidelined Wembanyama for more than half of the 2021-22 season, stoking concerns about his durability. NBA international scout Jason Filippi voiced a counterpoint to The Guardian: Wembanyama is growing into his frame, will add mass, and "hasn't even scratched the surface" of his powers yet.

Henderson bumped knees with Wembanyama back on Oct. 6 and bowed out early in the Ignite-Metropolitans rematch. More recently, he missed several G League games with a concussion and nasal fracture. That won't stop him from being drafted high or disturb his acclimation to the NBA grind, though.

Greatness will be within reach starting next year. Henderson's coach recommends he remain dogged and humble.

"His work ethic will never change. That's who he is," Hart said. "As long as he keeps his work ethic, all of his dreams will come true."

Nick Faris is a features writer at theScore.

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