2021 NBA Draft: Way-Too-Soon Top-10 Prospect Ranking
The 2020 NBA draft has come and gone. And just like that, one week later, scouts will be out evaluating for 2021.
The college basketball season will begin Wednesday. Compared to most years, NBA teams are likely less ready for it than ever, given how little time they've had to prepare for the 2020-21 campaign after this week's draft.
The projected 2021 class is viewed more favorably than 2020's, particularly at the top of the board, where it looks like there could be multiple All-Stars and one obvious franchise-changer.
10. Usman Garuba (Real Madrid, PF/C, 2002)
Usman Garuba has already played 20 games this season after gaining rare experience in Euroleague and the Spanish ACB last season at 17 years old.
He's struggled early offensively, and limited scoring skills could make it tough for Garuba to move much higher on the board. But for a 6'8", 220-pound teenage big, his elite IQ at both ends translates to high-level passing and impact defensive reads.
He's drawing comparisons to Draymond Green for his ability to find teammates, guard different positions in space, anticipate off the ball defensively and make hustle plays.
This season, he hasn't made his threes, but he also hasn't been shy about taking them when left open. Becoming just threatening enough as a standstill shooter could go a long way toward boosting his offensive value and draft stock.
9. Keon Johnson (Tennessee, SG, Freshman)
Tennessee's Keon Johnson figures to break into the top-10 discussion with an aggressive mix of quickness, bounce and energy.
At baseline, he's a transition weapon and slasher through defenses who features flexible finishing ability. And though still not overly polished, Johnson's shooting and passing skills are on the rise.
His percentages and assist-to-turnover ratio might not stand out, but athleticism, motor, flashes of combo-guard skill and expected production should buy him time with NBA scouts.
Many of them will likely be more familiar with fellow Volunteers freshman and former IMG guard Jaden Springer. I'm anticipating scouts will fall harder for Johnson, though, whose game and style hint at a different level of upside.
8. Jalen Johnson (Duke, PF, Freshman)
After a down year for Duke's NBA draft buzz, freshman Jalen Johnson should bring it back. He'll quickly make noise with versatility fueled by 6'9" size and point forward skills.
He'll create exciting highlights in transition with his ability to grab and go off defensive rebounds. And he'll get some reps as a big pick-and-roll ball-handler, similar to Zion Williamson during his one season at Duke.
His physical tools, attacking and passing will power his production and the dreams of upside. Still, there will be a lot of talk about his shooting and how effectively he'll be able to score in the half court once he reaches the NBA.
7. Jalen Suggs (Gonzaga, PG, Freshman)
The 2021 point guard discussion starts with Gonzaga's Jalen Suggs. Prepare for routine references to his days as a high school quarterback, given how frequently his toughness, leadership and passing stand out while he's running an offense.
He should plow through WCC defenses with his physical, downhill-drive game. And he shows encouraging shooting versatility with his spot-up and dribble jumpers.
Though not overly explosive, Suggs possesses a well-rounded scouting profile, with his shoot-dribble-pass skill set and bonus intangibles.
He did have trouble the last time scouts saw see him live at the U19 World Cup in July 2019. And he might not shoot a high percentage from three this season. Still, Suggs should benefit from guard Joel Ayayi's return, which will take pressure off the freshman.
6. Ziaire Williams (Stanford, SF/PF, Freshman)
Ziaire Williams should immediately pop as an NBA prospect with his mix of 6'8" size and perimeter skills.
For a forward or big, his flashes of pull-ups and face-up moves will quickly create buzz in the draft discussion. Consistent, efficient execution with these shots could rocket the Stanford freshman into the top five.
Williams is lacking in the muscle department and figures to have trouble rebounding and finishing through contact. But teams will be thinking years down the road, and there is too much upside tied to a stretch 4 who can handle and shoot threes off the dribble.
5. Jalen Green (G League Ignite, SG, 2002)
Jalen Green helped jump-start the G League's Professional Path program, and during his one-and-done predraft year, the plan is to suit up with other projected first-rounders and former college stars and pros.
There just isn't much known about how the season will go in terms of scheduling and opponents.
Regardless, enough tape exists on Green to have a good feel for his game and potential. An explosive guard, he rocketed to the top of high school rankings by improving his ball skills, shooting and playmaking.
There are typical questions about shot selection and efficiency, and it wouldn't be surprising if his percentages weren't great with the G League Ignite. But his combination of athleticism, scoring and creation should keep him in the top-five discussion all season, no matter how inconsistent he may look in an unfamiliar setting for evaluation.
4. Jonathan Kuminga (G League Ignite, SF/PF, 2002)
The 2021 draft crop received a boost from Jonathan Kuminga, who reclassified to the 2020 high school class and joined the G League's Ignite.
The scoring combo forward has the full package of physical tools (6'8", 210 lbs) and offensive skills, as he's equipped with face-up moves that take him into drives or jumpers. And he's continued to show development around the perimeter while possessing the body and strength to be effective in the paint.
He projects as a go-to option, capable of creating in one-on-one situations or shooting off the catch from the wings.
Kuminga has the tendency to settle or look bored since the game comes so easily to him. But with NBA scouts in attendance for his practices and games, we could see a more engaged, motivated and disciplined player.
3. Evan Mobley (USC, C, Freshman)
Despite the narrative that suggests bigs have become devalued in the NBA, teams clearly aren't afraid to use high draft picks on them, which we saw Wednesday night when James Wiseman went No. 2, Onyeka Okongwu went No. 6, Obi Toppin went No. 8 and Jalen Smith went No. 10.
Evan Mobley will immediately replace Okongwu at USC, but unlike Okongwu's, his impact and upside won't seem as surprising early on.
Mobley's game is updated for today's NBA, with his ability to handle in transition, make plays on the move and switch on the perimeter.
Offensively, he'll flash upside in spurts at USC. His defensive potential could pop first, given Mobley's 7'0" size and athleticism, shot-blocking timing and instincts, and lateral mobility while sliding away from the basket.
But he's also a skilled scorer, particularly with his ability to attack closeouts and use touch, both inside and outside the paint.
2. Brandon Boston Jr. (Kentucky, SG/SF, Freshman)
After losing 2020 first-round picks Tyrese Maxey and Immanuel Quickley, Kentucky immediately re-upped with Brandon Boston Jr.
He could be the Wildcats' highest draft pick since Karl-Anthony Towns went No. 1 in 2015. As a 6'7" wing, Boston will wow scouts with his ball-handling for creation and smooth shot-making skills.
He's a pure three-level scorer, capable of slicing through defenses off the dribble or separating into makable jumpers out to the arc.
Though he's not as long as Brandon Ingram, expect comparisons based on their skinny frames and sharp isolation games.
1. Cade Cunningham (Oklahoma State, PG, Freshman)
The 2020 NBA draft was missing a consensus No. 1 overall prospect. Rival teams and media were still in guess mode when the Minnesota Timberwolves were on the clock Wednesday night. That won't be the case in 2021.
Tankers will hope to win the lottery for the chance at landing Cade Cunningham, Oklahoma State's 6'8", 220-pound ball-handler.
Aside from his rare size and athleticism, Cunningham separates himself with special passing skills and basketball IQ. He might not play point guard full time as a freshman, but in the NBA, he projects as a Luka Doncic-like jumbo playmaker whom an offense runs through.
Encouraging flashes of creation moves and perimeter shot-making hint at a tough scorer as well, and though scouts may question his lateral quickness, Cunningham still shows the potential to overwhelm defensively with his strength and length.