Perhaps it is the timing. The NBA is preparing for its annual player draft a month later than usual, at the close of an exhausting season, in the middle of the Olympic Games. This environment seems to have drained away the event’s excesses. We are left with an NBA Draft that not only falls short of being overhyped, it barely is hyped.
Holding this occasion in its proper perspective is not a bad thing. The basketball world has tended lately to operate as if every year’s draft has an obvious LeBron or AD or Zion at the top, but that is not how things have tended to develop. We’ve had about as many along the lines of Anthony Bennett, Markelle Fultz and Andrew Wiggins: a total flop, a mystifying disappointment, a productive but underwhelming regular.
Keep that in mind as you watch Thursday night. The answers aren’t always as clear as they seem, and there may be extraordinary players hidden where few would expect: No. 13 overall (Donovan Mitchell), No. 14 (Bam Adebayo) or No. 15 (Giannis Antetokounmpo), for instance.
The Sporting News mock draft is here to show how the 2021 NBA Draft may play out:
NBA DRAFT BIG BOARD: Ranking the top 60 prospects in 2021
NBA Mock Draft 2021
1. Detroit Pistons – Cade Cunningham, Oklahoma State, guard
If there’s anyone who understands the value of a 6-8 player with high-level playmaking and scoring skills, it’s got to be Pistons general manager Troy Weaver. In 2001, he was the assistant coach most responsible for recruiting Carmelo Anthony to Syracuse, and as a freshman in 2003, Anthony helped the Orange win the NCAA championship.
Cunningham is a different player but brings a lot of the same, winning qualities. Cunningham shot 40 percent from the college 3-point line, with nearly two makes per game, and averaged 20.1 points and 6.2 rebounds. Although he played point guard at OK State, he may become a better wing in the NBA. He has somewhat of a loose handle and is more a willing passer than a dazzler. He certainly could shine at the point if with some minor work on his ballhandling.
2. Houston Rockets – Jalen Green, G League Ignite, guard
Green has the potential to be an elite scorer at the NBA level. There are some similarities between him and last year’s top pick, Anthony Edwards, who averaged 19.3 points and made the All-Rookie team.
Choosing not to play in college, Green signed with the new G League initiative and played 15 games against league competition in their mid-winter “bubble”. He performed very well, averaging 17.9 points and shooting 36.5 percent from the NBA 3-point line.
That’s already a good number and should translate well to the NBA, the only real difference being the escalated competition. Green has the length and strength to function at an elite level at the NBA level; the issue with projecting him to the No. 1 overall pick is whether he can dominate. If you’re going to take a wing at that level, he’d better be capable of completely taking command of a game. Green scored 26 in one G League game; he also had four games of 13 points or fewer.
Given that the Ignite was built to showcase his skills, this is a minor concern.
3. Cleveland Cavaliers – Evan Mobley, USC, center
Call him a center, a power forward or simply a big. Whatever you choose in that regard, the Cavaliers’ ideal scenario is to choose him with their first pick.
Mobley is the model of the modern big man: mobile, skilled, competitive at both ends. He averaged 16.4 points as a freshman — even though it took him a while to find his scoring touch given the challenge of practicing during the pandemic and the adjustment to his new surroundings — and ultimately led the Trojans to the NCAA Elite Eight.
Mobley had 10 games of four blocks or more and fell just short of nine rebounds per game. He also showed a developing shooting touch.
4. Toronto Raptors – Jonathan Kuminga, G League Ignite, guard
Kuminga has the potential to be the star of the draft – or the biggest disappointment. He is the most dynamic high-end prospect since at least Wiggins in 2014, and maybe beyond. He is longer than Wiggins, which could translate to exceptional defense if he’s interested.
Kuminga is not a shooter, though, at least not yet. Pre-draft scouting video showed he’s clearly worked on his jumper. His form is tighter and more sound, but the action still looks somewhat uncomfortable, like he’s still getting used to it, still is thinking about each rep. If it takes, he’s a tremendous prospect. If it wavers, he’s a useful piece, but not a top player on a winning team.
5. Orlando Magic – Jalen Suggs, Gonzaga, guard
Quite simply, if you want to see what Suggs is capable of – all that he is capable off – you only need to watch the second half of the West Coast Conference title game, in which Gonzaga recovered from a double-digit deficit against a very capable BYU team to remain undefeated entering the NCAA Tournament. And it all happened because Suggs made every play he could imagine to help his team recover: deep shots, drives, steals, blocks. He would not let the Zags lose, and he had the talents to assure that wouldn’t happen.
6. Oklahoma City Thunder – Scottie Barnes, Florida State, guard
Barnes is beginning to gain buzz as even a higher selection than this, and it’s easy to see why – except it wasn’t easy to see why. Barnes has so much to offer. At 6-9, he’s got the side to operate as a small-ball power forward, but he also has the ball skills and passing ability of a point guard. However, in Florida State’s balanced system, he played only 25 minutes a game and took only eight shots on average. That’s not to criticize what FSU does; it works for them, and there’s something to be said for a player willing to make that sort of sacrifice. In a different environment, though, he might have dominated enough to challenge for the No. 1 overall pick.
7. Golden State Warriors – Davion Mitchell, Baylor, guard
If Klay Thompson regains full health, the Warriors still have the goods to return to championship contention. In that scenario, imagine bringing Mitchell off the bench to run the second unit. The on-ball defense becomes better, and Mitchell fits the offensive approach with his 44.7 percent deep shooting.
Mitchell is as capable an on-ball defender as has been in college basketball in the past half-dozen years. His tenacity, strength and quickness will assure that translates to the NBA.
8. Orlando Magic – Keon Johnson, Tennessee, guard
If the Magic choose to exercise this pick rather than use the two first-rounders to make a move up, they could complete a promising young backcourt by selecting Johnson, who has excellent size and strength and high-level dynamism. What he does not have yet is a proven 3-point shot, only 27.1 percent from the college line on a low number of attempts. But he is adept at getting into the lane and either finishing at the rim or scoring on mid-range jumpers, something teams have become more willing to consider given all the space created by the deep shooting game.
9. Sacramento Kings – Alperen Sengun, Besiktas, forward
He may not fit the model of the modern big man, but he is exactly what the Kings need if they’re serious about improving and not just shuffling “assets” through their roster. They were one of the poorest rebounding teams in the league, 24th in rebound percentage overall and 29th in defensive rebound percentage. Sengun is the sort of player who commands space, is rugged along the baseline and could alter the personality of the Kings frontcourt.
At 19, he was MVP of the Turkish Super League, averaging 19.2 points and 9.4 rebounds.
10. New Orleans Pelicans – James Bouknight, Connecticut, guard
If you are a YouTube surfer, you can see the dream: Bouknight adding elite deep shooting to his already absurd dynamism. He plays so far above the court it’s almost like he’s got one of those jet packs or Silver Surfer hoverboards. He is 6-2, and he’s not a true point, so the shot has to be part of the package for him to earn real NBA minutes.
As with many players who are so explosive, Bouknight can tend to drift on his shot when the game is played at full speed. He hit only 29.7 percent as a sophomore, after a solid 34.7 percent his freshman year. But that decrease also could be partly the product of an elbow injury that cost him a big stretch of last season. There’s so much potential here, it’s easy to see why a team would take him and plan on working to correct the shot.
11. Charlotte Hornets – Kai Jones, Texas, forward
In two seasons at Texas, Jones started only 14 games and never averaged even 23 minutes. He entered the definition of wrong place/wrong time in choosing the Longhorns. They already had plenty of size when he enrolled, and top prospect Greg Brown came along last season. There were only so many minutes – and Jones needed all he could get to make the necessary progress. He was a top-50ish prospect out of high school and always was a what-can-he-be player, not a look-what-he-is guy.
He is so dynamic for a player his size, it’s impossible not to be be impressed. But how long will an NBA team have to wait for him to add the strength and polish necessary to contribute significantly?
12. San Antonio Spurs – Corey Kispert, Gonzaga, guard
One of the poorest shooting teams in the NBA has the opportunity to add college basketball’s best shooter from the most recent season. What could go wrong?
Well, there’s this: Kispert finished the 2020-21 season on a downward trend. It was apparent during the NCAA Tournament that one of Gonzaga’s big concerns in pursuit of the NCAA championship was his sudden struggle hitting deep jumpers; when he missed an early three against Baylor it was clear, with everything else that was an issue, the Zags would have a very difficult time catching up.
Kispert wound up 7-of-25 from deep in the team’s final three games. Maybe it was fatigue or defensive gameplanning – opponents willing to let others beat them, but not the Zags’ best. That’s what seems most likely. Guys like Kispert make shots, and guys who make shots are a valuable commodity in the league.
13. Indiana Pacers – Franz Wagner, Michigan, guard/forward
It’s hard to imagine anyone who enjoys the NBA Draft less than Pacers fans. They haven’t had a single-digit pick since 1989, and the middle-round picks they’ve gotten of late have been mostly misspent, on such players as T.J. Leaf, Aaron Holiday and Goga Bitazde. How much better would those drafts look if the Pacers selected John Collins, Jalen Brunson and Brandon Clarke?
Wagner at least has the tools to be a successful pick. He is a tremendous finisher at the rim, an exceptional defender and an aggressive rebounder. As is the problem with many top prospects in this draft, he has not shown a consistent long-range shooting touch. He hit 34 percent as a sophomore, which at least was an improvement from his freshman year. He is not comfortable as a first option; that is not necessarily a bad quality for a mid-round pick. If he suddenly develops a taste for that, as well as the 3-point shot that could facilitate stardom, great. If not, he already has shown great comfort as a role player on a winning team.
14. Golden State Warriors – Chris Duarte, Oregon, guard
He is 24 years old. Let’s get that out of the way. Many NBA executives are overly fixated on player age, despite overwhelming evidence that most pro players still can make massive improvements in their late 20s, so it must be acknowledged that Duarte is “old” even by the Cameron Johnson-Obi Toppin-Matisse Thybulle standard. Those guys were 22 entering the league. Duarte just passed his 24th birthday last month.
But the teams that pass him on that account will miss out on a big guard who is a rapidly developing shooter, who went from 33.6 percent in his first Division I season to 42.4 percent in 2020-21. There are younger players out there, but teams have to answer this question when their picks arrive: Are there better?
15. Washington Wizards – Moses Moody, Arkansas, guard
16. Oklahoma City Thunder – Josh Giddey, Adelaide 36ers, guard
17. Memphis Grizzlies – Jaden Springer, Tennessee, guard
18. Oklahoma City Thunder – Usman Garuba, Real Madrid, forward
19. New York Knicks – Tre Mann, Florida, guard
20. Atlanta Hawks – Jared Butler, Baylor, guard
21. New York Knicks – Isaiah Jackson, Kentucky, forward
22. Los Angeles Lakers – Jalen Johnson, Duke, forward
23. Houston Rockets – Greg Brown, Texas, forward
24. Houston Rockets – Nah’Shon “Bones” Hyland, VCU, guard
25. Los Angeles Clippers – Ziare Williams, Stanford, forward
26. Denver Nuggets – Cameron Thomas, LSU, guard
27. Brooklyn Nets – Sharife Cooper, Auburn, guard
28. Philadelphia 76ers – Joshua Primo, Alabama, guard
29. Phoenix Suns – Ayo Dosunmu, Illinois, guard
30. Utah Jazz – Rokas Jokubaitis, Zalgaris, guard