The 2021 NBA Draft is fast approaching and a couple of potential franchise-altering talents are up for grabs.
Oklahoma State’s Cade Cunningham has been the consensus top pick of this year’s highly-anticipated class for a few years now while Jalen Green, Evan Mobley, and Jalen Suggs have continued to boost their stock and have also shown flashes of becoming cornerstones for their future teams.
This was once regarded as a five-player draft, but the growing concerns around the league–both on and off the court–that have emerged over the past year surrounding Jonathan Kuminga have caused him to slide in most projections.
The top four players to be selected are seemingly set in stone though the order by which they will be chosen continues to be fluid with the Pistons still non-committal on making Cunningham their first number one overall pick since Bob Lanier in 1970.
We’ll now take a closer look at the teams with the first five picks this year and how their likely selections will fit in with their current situations.
#1 Overall Pick: Detroit Pistons
Likely Pick: Cade Cunningham
The Pistons traded 2004 NBA Finals MVP Chauncey Billups for Allen Iverson in late 2008 and since then, they have made it to the NBA Playoffs a grand total of three times and were swept out of the first round on each occasion.
Following the Billups trade, the Pistons made one head scratching move after the other, from the free agent signings of Ben Gordon, Charlie Villanueva, and Josh Smith, to building their team for most of the past decade around the empty stats of Andre Drummond.
Winning the draft lottery this year and the chance to select the 6’8 Cunningham is an opportunity for them to reverse their fortunes and rebuild their once proud franchise. The 19-year-old wing has displayed a promising ability to lead an offense both as a shot creator and playmaker–something that Detroit sorely missed last year.
Cunningham will make a fine addition to the Pistons and immediately step in with their promising young core as the primary offensive facilitator. Last season’s breakout star Jerami Grant proved his mettle as a scorer after spending most of his career as a role player, but still needs a player like Cunningham to create opportunities for him.
Detroit also has three members of last year’s draft class who had encouraging rookie campaigns. The defensive-minded Killian Hayes, the seventh overall pick in the 2020 draft, was sidelined for most of the year, but finished the regular season strong and looks like a good fit in a potential backcourt pairing with Cunningham.
Meanwhile, the sharpshooting Saddiq Bey and their bruising center Isaiah Stewart made the 2021 NBA All-Rookie First and Second teams, respectively, after stepping into sizable roles with Detroit and proving to be more than capable of handling them. They too should mesh nicely on the court with Cunningham and benefit immensely from his passing ability.
The Pistons are rumored to also have interest in Green and Mobley, but Cunningham remains the consensus best player in this draft and the prospect with the best chances of accelerating Detroit’s return to relevance.
#2 Overall Pick: Houston Rockets
Likely Pick: Jalen Green
Green, whose mother is of Filipino descent, is an athletic 6’6 wing who can be the face of this Houston franchise for the next decade and beyond. He has drawn favorable comparisons to the similarly-built Bradley Beal of the Washington Wizards who was second in the NBA in scoring last season.
The 19-year-old Green proved to be as complete a scorer as one can be at his age during his one year playing for the G League Ignite, averaging 17.9 points per game with 4.1 rebounds and 2.8 assists. It may take him some time to acclimate to the NBA’s physicality, but his elite athleticism and already decent shooting should allow him to be the foundation for the Rockets moving forward.
Houston has reportedly considered Mobley with this pick, but they are said to be content with their current starting power forward Christian Wood. With Green onboard, the Rockets will parade an exciting backcourt with him and last year’s midseason acquisition Kevin Porter Jr. They also have 2021 NBA All-Rookie First Team member Jae-Sean Tate and the high-flying Kenyon Martin Jr. on their roster, both of whom closed the 2021 season on a high note.
Veteran guards John Wall and Eric Gordon remain on the roster, but are likely to be moved in the near future to pave the way for their up-and-coming young players to see more time on the court. It may take some time for them to return to the highs of the James Harden era, but with Green on board, they will at least provide flashes of excitement for Rockets fans in the near term.
#3 Overall Pick: Cleveland Cavaliers
Likely Pick: Evan Mobley
The Cavaliers have entertained trading this pick along with last year’s leading scorer Collin Sexton and the last remnant of their 2016 NBA Championship team, Kevin Love. Their roster has a number of promising players beyond Sexton, with Darius Garland, Jarrett Allen, and Isaac Okoro all playing meaningful roles for them last season.
Mobley is a tantalizing prospect whose offensive ceiling has been likened to 11-time All-Star forward Chris Bosh while he has also shown promise as an elite NBA-level defender. He should slot in nicely alongside Allen as an agile 7’0 big man with a 7’4 wingspan, decent perimeter shot and ability to handle the ball in certain situations.
The biggest knock on Mobley is his slight frame, but this is typical for most 20-year-olds with his height. If anything, the last two NBA Champions–the Los Angeles Lakers and the Milwaukee Bucks–were led by two All-Star big men, Anthony Davis and Giannis Antetokounmpo, who started out with a similar built to Mobley’s, but eventually developed into physical specimens and the driving force behind their title-winning teams.
The upside is there, but patience will be warranted from the team that ends up picking the University of Southern California forward. However, prospects with Mobley’s physical tools do not come around everyday and this guy might just be worth the wait.
#4 Overall Pick: Toronto Raptors
Likely Pick: Jalen Suggs
The Toronto Raptors have spiraled into the lottery just a little over two calendar years after winning the 2019 NBA Championship. That season was widely regarded as a one-of, with Kawhi Leonard leaving for the Los Angeles Clippers via free agency in the aftermath, but no one could have expected them to fall this far.
With Kyle Lowry expected to leave the team this offseason after his contract expired at the end of the 2021 campaign, Suggs will be a strong addition for them with the fourth pick in this year’s draft. He should take Lowry’s spot in the starting line-up and form a tough backcourt for the Raptors with Fred VanVleet.
While at Gonzaga, he showed that he can play both guard positions while hitting his three-pointers at a decent rate. The 6’5 Suggs is also one of the best defenders in the draft and his competitive spirit should allow him to fit right in with the remnants of Toronto’s title team.
The Raptors still have Pascal Siakam, OG Anunoby, and Chris Boucher on their roster, so the addition of Suggs or whomever they select is more of a reload rather than a rebuild for their team. They have also shown strong interest in the taller Barnes and Kuminga, both of whom are wing players, but it seems likely that Suggs will be the pick for them when the draft comes around.
#5 Overall Pick: Orlando Magic
Likely Pick: Scottie Barnes
The fifth pick is where most of the uncertainty regarding the draft begins.
The Magic have been linked to the 6’9 Barnes with this pick and they also have the eighth pick in the draft which they acquired in the trade that sent Nikola Vucevic to the Chicago Bulls.
Orland has been a mediocre team since Dwight Howard’s departure in 2012 and the chance to add two prospects to their roster from this year’s talented draft gives them a ray of hope. Barnes, a 19-year-old from Florida State, has risen in mock drafts over the last few weeks and leapfrogged Kuminga as the potential fifth pick.
He has an NBA-ready frame, already weighing 227 pounds, and is versatile on both ends of the court. His perimeter shooting needs improvement, but he is an efficient interior scorer with an ability to put the ball on the floor. Barnes and the returning Jonathan Isaac should provide the Magic with a tandem of top tier defenders for many years to come.
For a team like Orlando that is bereft of talent and direction, having a player like Barnes, who plays with a competitive fire and can do-it-all, is a crucial step for their franchise in their rebuilding efforts.
Kuminga, James Bouknight, and Josh Giddey have also garnered considerable interest in the build up towards the draft. One of these three or whomever slips out of the top five will likely be selected by the Oklahoma City Thunder with the sixth pick while the Golden State Warriors have also shown considerable interest in these wing players. Whoever from this group remains on the board with the eighth pick will likely end up joining the Magic.
The Warriors will be one of the most exciting teams to watch on draft day and it will not be a surprise if they end up packaging their pick in a trade to acquire a star to help them return to contention in this coming season. Beal, Ben Simmons, and Damian Lillard may be moved in a draft day deal, though a trade before this year’s midseason trade deadline does not seem imminent and all three are not an ideal fit with the current make-up of Golden State.
This year’s draft promises to be an exciting one and could be the turning point for several of these franchises. It remains too early to say, but the talent of this year’s pool is as deep as it has been in recent years and if this crop of players pans out accordingly, we may be looking at the successor to the historic drafts of 1984, 1996, and 2003.