The 2021 pool of draftees is, on balance, regarded as one of the best draft classes of the past 10-or-so years. That collective opinion is in regard to projected top-10 players and the quality of prospect available deep into the second round. Bully for Cunningham that he’s the overwhelming pick to go No. 1, then. I can’t argue. I’m not all-in with Cunningham being the surefire best player in this draft, but he’s easily the safest pick in the top spot. He’s got the highest floor, that’s for sure. Big, heady, guard who can play the 1, 2 or 3 and effortlessly switch at those positions on a possession-by-possession basis if you ask him to. My favorite stat of Cunningham’s: According to Synergy’s tracking, he scored 103 points in “clutch situations” last season with Oklahoma State. That was tops in college hoops. The No. 2 player, Trevion Williams of Purdue, had 65.
He’s ready to start from Day One, and that’s not always necessarily the case with top-three picks. Suggs is as smooth a combo guard as we’ve seen in a while. Gonzaga had the No. 1-rated offense last season and that was with Suggs running the point. Great control, great shift-of-pace player. He’s a monster in transition and it’s not because he’s a blur. He wasn’t John Wall or De’Aaron Fox or one of these meep-meep roadrunner point guards. He has a rugged confidence to his game in transition that made him a nightmare to face on the break in college. He either had the composure to anticipate his opponents’ defensive commitments, or he was usually aware enough to make the pass. Because he has such good balance and overall body strength, he was able to improvise with the dribble or even after leaving the ground. Great balance around the rim, fearless on the attack, has a shot to be one of the best rebounding guards in the NBA by the end of his rookie contract. Superstar ceiling.
It would not surprise me to learn that a few teams — even if they’re picking outside the top 10 — have Barnes as high as No. 3 on their boards. The 19-year-old’s per-40 numbers with FSU were healthy and encouraging: 16.6 points, 6.5 assists, 6.4 rebounds, 2.3 steals. He’s every bit of 6-9, and is just shy of scraping a 7-3 wingspan. On offense, he can push the pace despite not being a speedster. He has great vision and constantly plays with his head up. SUPER competitor, too. Defensively, most of what you want is there. Barnes can recover on defense; he wants to be good on that end, you can tell. He doesn’t have elite instincts, but he has enough of a combo of natural ability and want-to to make him easily good enough on D to validate top-five status.
Has the best chance to be the best defender to come out of this draft. His floor on that end is probably No. 5 or 6 overall, even if he doesn’t hit. He’s too long and adroit not to be, at the least, a plus defender in the NBA for the duration of his first two contracts. Mobley is a wonderful teammate, a charitable passer, and someone who has quietly but steadily kept his reputation as an elite pro prospect going three-plus years now. He guided USC to its best season in more than a decade. The mid-range game will never truly die in the NBA, and I’d expect Mobley to consistently pay some rent with his reliable J from beyond 12 feet. I’ve got him No. 4, and he will not fall below this spot on draft night.
If we look up in a decade to realize that a handful of five star-level high school players are still choosing the G League’s pathway program as their route to the first round of the NBA Draft, Jalen Green will be recognized as the one who blazed that trail. (Whether he has a good NBA career or not.) A preternatural scorer, Green is projected by many experts to be a 20-a-game guy (at minimum) within a few years of being drafted. Whether he’s a franchise-changing player is up for debate, but his talent on offense, right now, dictates he should be in the top five. It’s not just that he’s a scorer, he’s someone who has a willingness to bring color to his repertoire. Green is a player who can get points all over the floor and with a variety of styles and moves.
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As longtime readers know, I invariably zag on a few players each year, be it projecting them higher or lower than groupthink. So this is my first surprise. I acknowledge it’s a gamble, but I do love Williams’ upside. His one and only season of college basketball doesn’t suggest he should be a top-10 pick. But Stanford’s COVID situation, on top of some personal issues (he dealt with a death in his family) also staggered his development. He’s much better than what he showed on balance in college. Williams is slight, for sure, but his length, want-to for learning, shot-creating ability and natural feel make him a sleeper. Yes, it could also be about fit. With OKC in this spot, he’d no doubt have two seasons toiling in irrelevancy from a team standpoint, but I also think going to an OKC-type situation would also enable him to produce and increase his value.
Buzz has emerged in the past two weeks that Bouknight could jump into the No. 5 spot by the time draft night arrives. I’m not seeing that, but I do think his diverse and undeniable skill set of shooting and shot creation will make it almost impossible for teams to pass on him past the No. 9 spot. I like him as the seventh-best long-term prospect in this draft because he can shoot and score (and there is a difference). What is the NBA about in 2021? It’s about how you can score, how you can create space, create offense, do it on your own — but also with that skill, open up offensive opportunities for teammates. Bouknight battled through an injury last season (which hurt his 3-point accuracy), and yet that hasn’t dinged his stock because he’s a killer competitor.
The best shooter in the draft. Kispert had a subpar performance in the national title game, but his 137 games at Gonzaga tell the story in convincing fashion: 41% 3-point accuracy on 662 attempts; 59% 2-point accuracy on 487 attempts; 82% free-throw accuracy on 250 attempts. He is a perfect off-the-bench shooting guard for the NBA. Has a wonderful shot at a three-contract career because of his size, easygoing attitude, infectious competitive spirit and unselfish approach to winning basketball. His ceiling isn’t top-10 among 2021 prospects, but his floor is top-five, no doubt.
If the Kings have the No. 9 pick the night of July 29, no way they are taking Robinson-Earl. I may well be the only draft prognosticator who lists JRE in their top 10. The Big East Player of the Year has the statistics, program pedigree and defensive facility to warrant consideration, though. If he goes to the right franchise, he’s going to be immediately valuable as a role player and should ultimately last at least 10 years in the NBA. His 30% 3-point accuracy in two seasons at Villanova will, above all other things, preclude him from going in the top 10. But I think he’s a top-five defender in this draft. Quality shooter from midrange, good rebounder at both ends. He’s not top-tier, but he’s built like a pro and approaches the game in the same manner. Hard not to see him sticking in the league for a long time.
Classic case of production vs. projection, which at a basic elemental level is what every NBA GM is tasked with. But with Mitchell, it seems like a compelling challenge. He was Baylor’s best player in the NCAA Tournament (13.5 points, 5.8 assists, 2.8 rebounds, 1.7 steals on 27-46 (58.7%) from 2 and 8-22 (36.4%) from 3) and the best defender in college basketball last season. Mitchell’s ceiling on defense in this draft class is top-three, while his floor is maybe No. 6 or No. 7. But offensively, his ceiling is maybe No. 10 at best, whereas his floor could be somewhere in the 30s. Can this continue in the NBA? Will Mitchell be able to have similar shooting success against much better defenders, bigger players, longer length and more complicated schemes? Was this past season a magnificent crescendo — the way so many guys used to do it — but his room to grow might be limited?
Proven bucket-getter who embraced pressure, led Illinois to its best season in 16 years and did so despite injury and a never-ending greeting of double teams. Dosunmu will almost certainly be drafted 5-10 spots lower than he should be, because he’ll be over-scrutinized and overanalyzed. He’s a desirable player because he’s fundamentally good at so many things. What will hold him back is some thought that he’ll never be NBA-great at any one thing. Once you’re outside of the top six or seven picks, those hangups can shoot you awry. Dosunmu will be a plus on the offensive end, will have defensive reliability, and he’ll be a quality role player. His toughest challenge heading into the draft is the question of if he should, or will, be able to guide an NBA offense in a lead guard role.
I have two players going in the lottery who will be 23 when the season starts. One is a lock to be taken in the top 10 (Davion Mitchell). The other is a lock to not be taken in the lotto, though as you can see here, I’m making the case he should be. Duarte was the best junior college player in the country before transferring to Oregon, where he proved to NBA general managers and their scouting departments that he is indeed an NBA player. His age will be used against him, but I’d bet on Duarte being one of the 10 best rookies next season. The defensive tools are there, and then look at the efficiency: 63% from 2-point range, 42% from 3-point range, 81% from the foul line. Any team beyond No. 15 who passes on him is making a mistake.
Not as high on him as most others. Some of this dates back to when I watched Kuminga in person on the grassroots circuit, in 2019, when he was considered top-of-the-class material. I never saw him at that level. But he has irrefutably improved, and grown (both physically and with his skills), and is a high-quality athlete. He’s not a quality shooter. He’s not a natural, instinct-driven defender either — though it seems like he’s got the body and muscle to face up against many NBA players right away. Kuminga won’t be 19 until October. I think one of Kuminga’s best traits, the thing he might become borderline elite at in a few years’ time, is his rebounding. He could mature into one of the more physical and reliable go-to-the rim players in the league.
I’m about ready to plead for the basketball world to retire the phrase “he/she is a bucket,” but in Cam Thomas’ case it wholly applies. Thomas has been scouted and/or recruited at a mainstream level for the past four years and in that time he has always been a good scorer. Doesn’t matter the team, situation or time of game, Thomas puts it up and puts it in. He isn’t overly efficient — that’s his issue; if he was, he’d be a universal top-10 pick here — but I will bank on the scoring skill set and say that he’s going to wind up as a top-15 player in this class. The defense, or lack thereof, is utterly worrying and is going to prevent him from being picked in the lottery.
The stat/nugget you’ve likely heard about Johnson is the one that will be repeated often on draft night: he set the combine record with a 48-inch running vertical jump. To state the obvious, 48 inches is an even 4 feet. Getting that high off the wood is insane. Johnson is going to be taken before No. 15, but based on my intel, I’m going to sell his stock as a lottery talent on the whole. His on-ball defense is laudable, no question, but he’s not a plus player at the offensive end in the NBA yet. Can he get there? Will he be able to create? He was up and down with Tennessee. A team will take him based on potential, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but sometimes those players don’t meet that potential. I’ll lean toward Johnson being an average NBA player.
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It’s hard to get a true read on where Giddey will be taken; his first-round projection feels as wide as any player considered to be a top-25 talent in this class. Surprisingly, he did not make Australia’s national team for the Olympics. But I think he’ll have a great chance at being a role player in Year One if he’s drafted to the right team. Good size, good defender, really nice passer for a wing, too. American fans aren’t familiar with him yet, but he’s an NBA player, no question.
How’s this going to go? Jones was a fairly efficient player … who started just four games for Texas last season and was on the floor for less than 55% of the team’s minutes. He is the embodiment of drafting-on-potential. High-level athlete with covetable length, Jones will also be helped given how many bigs have come out of Texas and met their expectations as first-round picks. His stock has only improved since the season ended, and that will be reflected on draft night.
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You’ll notice the 2021 draft class doesn’t have an international prospect that’s widely viewed as a top-five or top-10 player. This is becoming more rare by the year, but it’s the case this time around. If Josh Giddey isn’t the top foreign draftee, then it’s likely to be Sengun, who won the MVP award this past season in the Turkish League. He’s a stat monster and there’s no way he’s falling outside of the No. 15 pick, I don’t think. But I’m grading him a bit below some others due to his developmental needs on defense, in addition to some small questions about how he’ll fit as a 6-9 power wing who’s more prone to look for his points six feet from the basketball as opposed to from the perimeter.
In talking to sources, there’s a chasm of differing opinions on Wagner. He was a really good piece on a really good Michigan team. He’s a good defender — despite some boniness; he plays stronger than he looks — and his feel for the game is immediately noticeable if you sit and watch him for six or seven consecutive possessions. Good feet, solid shot, and probably a bench player for a decade so long as the shot doesn’t fall off against improved defenders. There’s some buzz he’ll go 11-13, but I’m not seeing him as a lottery-level long-term talent in this draft.
No way of getting around it: Brown was an underachiever at Texas, and he didn’t play enough minutes (21.7 per game) to prove his worth as an A-level talent in this draft. His inconsistency is going to prevent him from being taken in the top 15, which is a different reality from the trajectory Brown was on a year ago. But I still love his upside and down-the-road potential to develop into a force. Athletic as hell, quality instincts as a shot-blocker … maybe the next John Collins if he can put it all together? (That said, Collins was much more developed coming out of Wake Forest.) I can’t see him developing into a top-four offensive player on any team, but I do think all other aspects of his game will evolve and it will lead to a 10-year career.
The terribly kept secret in NBA circles for the past two years is no longer a secret. Butler has an undisclosed heart condition that’s currently preventing him from doing any sanctioned NBA activity, as a Fitness-to-Play panel is reviewing his eligibility. But I am rating Butler based off a future that has him cleared to be in the NBA. If that happens, there is no denying his talent is first-round-level in this draft. He looked wonderful in the NCAA Tournament. Butler creates off the bounce, distributes well, is a good defender for his size and has a really nice handle. The medical is going to lead to some teams taking Butler off their board, but if he is cleared and stays healthy, he’ll be at least a two-contract player in the NBA.
A name unfamiliar to most, Garuba hails from Spain and has played the past five seasons for Real Madrid’s basketball program. He’s a top-five defender in this draft. He’ll be picked for his defense. Extremely strong, with a great base, Garuba should prove to be a plug-and-play defensive asset off the bench for the team that selects him. It wouldn’t surprise me if he wound up going to a team who either trades up or trades down to snag him on draft night. He could go in the 14-18 range, but I’m going to sell him as a top-20 player in this draft because I think the majority of his production and value will come from him not having the ball in his hands.
Two outstanding defenders back-to-back here, as Herb Jones is a fascinating combination of discipline and quirkiness on defense. But, boy, is he effective. Jones is not there yet, but I think he has the potential to guard 1-5 at the NBA level in a few years’ time. He has great foot recovery, plays vertically with such discipline that he needs a training video made to show others how to body up without fouling. Jones’ shooting took a big leap this year — his 3-point accuracy rose from sub-25% in his first three seasons to 35% this season — and that’s why he gets a first-round grade. The best way I can describe Jones is: He’ll never be a top-three asset on any team. He’ll probably be traded three or four times in his career, but the teams that need him REALLY need him. In two or three seasons’ time, Jones can help turn a team just on the edge of competing for a championship get over the hump.
UNC, as it almost always was the past 15 years under Roy Williams, was well-stocked with bigs last season. Because of that, Sharpe’s numbers weren’t outstanding. That was to be expected. But he was the most talented of UNC’s bigs, and he deserves a first-round grade. I wouldn’t go as far to say as he’s only scraped the surface of his potential, but I think there’s a healthy chance we look up in 2025 and see a player who’s progressed mightily from who he was as a Tar Heel. Sharpe is a traditional center with no outside game, so he’ll be waiting until the 20s at least to be picked. But there is this, which I put a lot of stock into, and it’s why I grade him so high: On a per-possession basis last season, Sharpe was the No. 1 offensive rebounder in college basketball.
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Have we really gone all the way to No. 26 before mentioning a Kentucky player? It’s true. Isaiah Jackson boasts at 7-3 wingspan and is someone with high-level athleticism and defensive presence in the paint. One of the best shot-blockers in the country last season, Jackson was also a consistent rebounder on both ends of the floor. Kentucky was putrid, but Jackson seldom took plays off. Rim-running big from a program with pedigree that has a good track record of sending bigs to the NBA. Has no business falling to the second round.
I’ve seen no shortage of forecasts, coverage and chatter regarding Moody as a guy who’ll go in the 10-14 range. I’m just not seeing it. Watched him plenty the past two seasons at Arkansas, and he was a pretty good college player. He’s a first-round talent … but for me, the back end of the first round is the more practical projection. I’ve got reservations over his consistency. I’d put his ceiling a bit lower than where some scouts and GMs have it. Again, this is not to slight the player. I think Moody deserves to be used in the top 30, but I’d take at least 24 guys before him when attempting to predict the next 8-10 years of performance and development.
Too young and too talented not to put him into the 20s. I think his ceiling in this class is Nos. 10-12, though I’m not close to going that far on him. Springer’s best quality is probably his capacity for improvement and his evolution through adaptation. By that I mean: The more he played at Tennessee, the better he looked. It clearly clicked by February. He’s not a vocal player, but he is someone who has a lot left to dig out of his game. Nothing he does right now is at an A level (for the NBA), but almost every facet of his game is B-to-B-plus. I think you have to take a chance on him if he’s still sitting there at 26, 27 or 28.
It’s plausible, now, that Murphy goes in the first round. This was unthinkable a year ago and nearly unthinkable five months ago. From Rice to Virginia to the NBA. Fascinating path, all the more so because he wasn’t declared eligible until right at the start of last season. Murphy was one of only two players to shoot 50/40/90 last season. For the uninitiated, that’s the coveted club of players that make at least 50% of their total field goals, 40% of 3-point attempts and 90% of free throws. I have to put a top-30 assessment on a player like that, all the more when you factor in his length and perimeter defense proficiency. This is a good draft night story.
Queta is likely destined to be the No. 5 offensive option when he’s on the court in an NBA game, which is why he has little chance of being picked in the first round. (He attempted seven 3-pointers in three seasons.) But his overall impact — catalyzed by his pinpoint physicality, hound-like nose for rebounds and elite timing for shot-blocking — vault him into my top 30. Queta may well also be docked for playing in the Mountain West, though his statistics show that he was a better player against better competition. If you’re a team picking in the late 20s, you’re a championship contender. If you don’t need shooting, youthful size is always a bonus. Queta would be a constructive addition. I think he’ll earn a second contract in 2025.
The Jalen Johnson we saw play at Duke is probably not going to be a reliable indicator of who Jalen Johnson becomes in the next two or three seasons in an NBA uniform. (If it was, he wouldn’t be picked.) He’s my final choice of the first round, based on potential, because of his exceptional passing ability as a 3/4 tweener, his terrific hands and physical presence to play in reach-range of the rim at both ends. He’s behind in his offensive development because of the hiccup at Duke, and so although it’s more likely than not he goes in the early 20s, I’m holding off on buying too high on a talented player with plenty left to prove.