The top three picks of the 2021 NBA Draft went as expected, with Oklahoma State’s Cade Cunningham going to the Detroit Pistons with the top selection followed by Jalen Green and Evan Mobley.
The 6’8 Cunningham will immediately slot in as the Pistons’ first option on offense as a creator and scorer in a role similar to the one Luka Doncic plays for the Dallas Mavericks. Detroit hopes that the 19-year-old Cunningham can develop into a player of Doncic’s caliber and become the face of their franchise.
The Pistons will add Cunningham to a young core that showed considerable promise last season. Swingman Jerami Grant more than doubled his career scoring average in his first season with Detroit, averaging 22.3 points, after spending the first seven years of his career as a defensive specialist.
However, Grant struggled with efficiency last year and is seemingly a better fit playing alongside a primary ballhander. Cunningham fits the bill perfectly and can set him up for easier opportunities while relieving him of the pressure of creating on offense.
Last year’s trio of Pistons rookies–Killian Hayes, Saddiq Bey, and Isaiah Stewart–should fit in nicely alongside the pairing of Cunningham and Grant. Hayes gives Cunningham a defensive-minded backcourt partner who can take the assignment of covering quicker guards while Bey is a rangy 6’7 knockdown shooter in a league that values players of his skillset more and more by the day.
Stewart saw limited time early in the year behind Mason Plumlee but thrived late in the season as an energetic interior presence when he was given playing time. The veteran center Plumlee was traded to the Hornets on draft day for a second-round pick which paves the way for Stewart to become Detroit’s full-time starter as they embrace their new young core moving forward.
Meanwhile, Filipino-American Jalen Green will join a slightly more uncertain situation with the Houston Rockets after being picked second overall. He will be given as much opportunity as he can handle as he becomes the face of their team less than a year after they traded away 2018 NBA Most Valuable Player James Harden. The Rockets are looking to rebuild around another guard in Green and he has the talent to eventually become one of the league’s leading scorers.
Houston still has John Wall and Eric Gordon taking up most of the cap space on their roster, but these experienced guards may soon be dealt to pave the way for their youth movement. The development of Green and last year’s midseason acquisition Kevin Porter Jr will be a priority for the Rockets and trading their veteran guards may help accelerate the process.
The 6’6 Green mixes his electrifying athletic ability with a knack for scoring the ball which was put on full-display in his one-year with the G League Ignite. He has drawn glowing comparisons to Bradley Beal of the Washington Wizards and will form an exciting backcourt with Porter Jr who is still just 21-years-old.
Christian Wood, a NBA Most Improved Player candidate last season before an ankle injury forced him to miss several games, and 2021 NBA All-Rookie First Team member Jae’Sean Tate are still just 25-years-old and will complement their athletic young guards nicely. Wood has emerged as an effective interior scorer who can extend his range all the way out to the three-point line while Tate is a solid defender on a valuable team-friendly contract with a team option until 2023.
Following the Rockets, the Cleveland Cavaliers selected the 7’0 Mobley with the third overall pick. Mobley is mobile for his size and has the potential to become an elite two-way big man. His most common player comparison leading up to the draft was two-time NBA Champion Chris Bosh who was a dynamic inside-out scorer and mobile defender.
Mobley will line-up alongside Jarret Allen in their front court and form a menacing duo of rim-protectors for the Cavaliers. Allen is more of a lob threat and prefers playing close to the basket which should allow these two players to co-exist on the court.
Cleveland also has the feisty pair of 6’1 guards Collin Sexton and Darius Garland leading their attack, though Sexton has been involved in several trade rumors this offseason. Sexton averaged 24.3 points per game last season, but their undersized backcourt proved to be a defensive liability last season which could be why they have decided to shop their former first round pick.
In what could be a precursor to a Sexton trade, Cleveland also acquired veteran pass-first guard Ricky Rubio for forward Taurean Prince in a draft day swap. Rubio is expected to help lead their team both on and off the court, providing them with a respected locker room leader and unselfish facilitator.
The fourth pick was where most draft boards were broken after the Toronto Raptors selected 6’9 forward Scottie Barnes instead of the consensus choice Jalen Suggs. Barnes is a playmaking forward and strong defender with an NBA-ready body and 7’2 wingspan.
He joins a Raptors team that already has Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby as their starting forwards, but he should be able to contribute right away, even in a reserve role. He also has the fortune of training under the renowned Toronto development staff that oversaw the growth of Siakam, Anunoby, Chris Boucher, and Fred VanVleet from relative unknowns into the NBA mainstays that they have become.
The Raptors will try to bounce back after a disastrous season that saw them miss the playoffs and the selection of Barnes over Suggs may be an indication that they will try to keep franchise cornerstone Kyle Lowry in free agency or trade for the Philadelphia 76ers’ Ben Simmons.
The Orlando Magic immediately plucked the athletic Suggs off the draft board with the fifth pick and added him to their arsenal of young guards. Suggs is a tough point guard who has been likened to the Milwaukee Bucks’ Jrue Holiday on defense and should help set the tone for the Magic.
Markelle Fultz and Cole Anthony are already on Orlando’s roster, but Suggs’ availability was an opportunity that was too good to pass on and they made the right decision choosing the best player available in this situation. They also have RJ Hampton, Terrence Ross, and Gary Harris on the books, but Suggs should walk in as their main guard from the get-go.
The Magic also drafted German-born Franz Wagner with the eighth pick which they acquired in the trade that sent Nikola Vucevic to the Chicago Bulls. Wagner is a skillful 6’9 forward with an above average three-point shot and high defensive IQ. He should slot in nicely as their small forward alongside their plethora of guards and the returning Jonathan Isaac.
The rest of the evening was relatively quiet, with no groundbreaking trades being announced over the course of the draft. The biggest transaction of the day leaked out before the night’s festivities following the announcement that the Los Angeles Lakers were set to acquire 2017 NBA Most Valuable Player Russell Westbrook from the Wizards for Kyle Kuzma, Montrezl Harrell, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, and the 22nd pick of the draft.
Westbrook, the holder of the league record for most triple doubles with 184 and counting, joins his third new team in three years after spending the first 11 seasons of his career with the Oklahoma City Thunder. His fit, as a below-average perimeter shooter, alongside LeBron James and Anthony Davis is questionable, but his relentless motor and work ethic should inject life into a team that looked lethargic in the months that followed their grueling run to the 2020 NBA Championship.
The injection of new talent into the league and the Westbrook trade made this year’s Draft Night a memorable one and an exciting prelude to what promises to be another exciting season when the league tips off once again in the last quarter of the year.