2021 NBA Draft: 5 Late-Bloomer Prospects on the Rise
The 2021 NBA draft conversation has mostly revolved around the projected one-and-done freshmen at the top. But there are always late bloomers who tend to rise over the final few months.
Each of these five prospects has a chance to move up into different tiers on boards.
One figures to generate more attention overseas with his season about to tip off. The other four are returning college basketball players who are validating their breakout starts with more consistency midway through January.
Chris Duarte (Oregon, SG, Senior)
Draft ceiling: Late first round
The list of junior college players-turned-NBA pros could expand in 2021. Chris Duarte, the 2019 NJCAA Player of the Year, has surfaced as a legitimate pro prospect this season in Oregon, now that's he's averaging 18.4 points per game on 45.6 percent shooting from three with the fifth-highest box plus-minus in the country.
The noise is getting louder by the week, too, as Duarte is coming off three consecutive games with at least 23 points.
Easy to overlook because of a lack of athleticism and creativity, the 6'6" 2-guard is making his NBA case with valued skills and intangibles that are easy to envision carrying over.
With 31 threes in 11 games, Duarte is becoming a proven shot-maker and has the size, mechanics and an 87.1 free-throw percentage that suggest the shooting will translate. Aside from the spot-up makes, he's hit enough early jumpers off the dribble (10) and screens (5) for scouts to envision a more useful, multidimensional shooter.
And though not the most crafty ball-handler, he picks his spots wisely as a line-driver, using his first step and strength to attack through contact and get to the rack. Even though he lacks bounce, Duarte's a physical finisher below the rim.
Defensively, he's tough and intense. He forces turnovers and plays with visible effort. He's registering a fantastic 4.2 steal percentage while blocking 11 shots in 11 games—impressive for a guard or wing.
Everything about Duarte's tools, shooting and competitive demeanor screams potential NBA role player, just as former teammate Payton Pritchard's game did last season. Duarte isn't the same caliber of playmaker, which could make it tougher for him to crack the first round.
But with Oregon ranked and winning games, and Duarte a driving force behind the team's success, an NBA franchise could buy the idea that he can be a plug-and-play three-and-D pick.
David Duke (Providence, SG, Junior)
Draft ceiling: Mid-first round
NBA scouts are starting to catch on to David Duke's breakout season.
He blended in last year as just another solid player. Whatever offseason plan the Providence guard was on seems to have worked. Every aspect of his offensive game looks stronger. One NBA guard who worked out with Duke throughout the summer told Bleacher Report that the 6'5" junior was a surefire pro.
Averaging 19.9 points, Duke has evolved into a well-rounded scorer with takeover ability, having already gone for at least 28 points in three matchups. Through 13 games, he's converted 21 field goals as a pick-and-roll ball-handler, 20 in transition, 19 out of spot-ups, nine from isolation and six out of the post.
A versatile shot-maker, Duke is generating offense in different ways, shooting 46.9 percent from three (2.3 3PTM), 41.0 percent off the catch and 39.4 percent on pull-ups (26 makes) with a high release that's tough to contest.
He isn't the most explosive, but he does an effective job of changing speeds and using his footwork off the dribble to beat or split defenders and get through gaps on drives and fast breaks.
His 4.8 assists per game represent another promising development, as he's demonstrating legitimate playmaking acumen. Despite struggling from the field Tuesday against Marquette, he still added value with creation and passing that led to a nine-assist night.
NBA scouts should also feel confident in the shooting guard's defensive tools and projection. Frequently assigned to the opponent's top perimeter scorer, he's tough and rangy.
It's getting harder to poke holes in his NBA potential and scouting report by the week as his production remains consistent. Duke checked in at No. 43 on my latest big board, and he's carving a path into the first round.
Franz Wagner (Michigan, SF, Sophomore)
Draft ceiling: Late lottery
While Franz Wagner's production doesn't jump out, his skill set and impact pop off the screen.
The same age as most freshmen while playing his entire sophomore season at 19 years old, the 6'9" combo forward ranks No. 4 in the nation in box plus-minus, a stat that helps underscore the classic "knows how to play" cliche written on his scouting report.
From an NBA standpoint, Wagner's offensive versatility is an obvious draw. With power forward height, he's making plays on and off the ball around the perimeter for Michigan, working as a pick-and-roll ball-handler, spot-up shooter/driver and backdoor cutter. After shooting 61.0 percent inside the arc last season, he's at 63.9 percent this year, taking good shots and capitalizing in space.
He's also moving the ball and passing with more confidence and IQ, with an assist percentage (17.3) nearly triple last year's (5.9).
Since missing his first six threes of the season, he's shot 43.3 percent from deep over the last nine games, and given his career 84.4 percent free-throw mark, it's easy to buy his jumper and shooting projection.
It still may be Wagner's defense that gives him an edge over other prospects. His combination of foot speed, anticipation and hand-eye coordination translate to defensive playmaking and contested shots, both inside and outside the paint.
He recently racked up five blocks against Northwestern and four steals versus Wisconsin. He's giving his assignments little room to get shots off while also reading plays and helping from off the ball. Wagner has both attractive on-ball and team-defensive upside.
Limited creation and pull-up scoring ability cast a lower projected ceiling, but between his age, tools, dribble-shoot-pass skill set, defense and impact on winning (Michigan remains undefeated), his sales pitch has gotten strong. He'll look like an easy fit for every NBA team.
Josh Giddey (Adelaide 36ers, PG, 2002)
Draft ceiling: Late first round
Scouts are anticipating the NBL pro debut of Josh Giddey, a standout over the years at the NBA Global Academy and Australia Junior Championships.
A lack of athleticism and muscle didn't restrict him in the preseason. Giddey, a 6'8" ball-handler, gets to his spots and finds ways to make plays with crafty maneuvers off the dribble. He plays at his own pace, which can be uptempo or slowed down in the half court.
Positional size and passing skill/IQ separate him. The appeal and potential value tied to Giddey stem mostly from his knack for manipulating defenses and finding open teammates with either hand.
While it's debatable whether he projects as a primary point guard in the NBA—because of questions about his ability to blow by offensively and defend the position—Giddey is a point guard at heart. NBA coaches will want to use him as a side pick-and-roll playmaker, and he'll still contribute to the team's offense with unselfish and quick-decision passing, regardless of what position he's playing.
As a scorer, he improvises and compensates for limited burst by converting at tough angles and effectively using his body to shield his man. Though it's difficult to get a read on how far along he is as a shooter, he's always looked capable, with limited moving parts and an easy, concise release.
For Giddey's draft stock, LaMelo Ball's strong NBA play can't hurt, considering he came from the same Next Star program last year in Australia. Giddey isn't the same caliber prospect, but scouts may find it easier to buy his production, assuming he builds on what we've seen in preseason with the Adelaide 36ers.
Kai Jones (Texas, C, Sophomore)
Draft ceiling: Top 10
Off the radar as a freshman who averaged 3.6 points per game last year, Texas' Kai Jones has NBA scouts' attention, despite still playing a limited role in 21.3 minutes per contest and carrying just a 16.1 percent usage rate.
He's not producing like a typical lottery or first-round pick. But Jones' flash plays this season have been eye-opening, even if they aren't happening consistently throughout games or resulting in regular, notable scoring outputs.
The 6'11", 218-pounds Jones' mobility and athleticism pop first, usually on rim runs (15-of-19 in transition). However, the enticing visions of upside appear on fluid slashes past closeouts and jumpers for a player his size. He's generated 22 points on 14 spot-up possessions (98th percentile) this season, showing a comfort level with the three-ball, a quick first step to beat his man off the line and enough ball control to get to the rim.
Moving up draft boards will require Jones to continue swaying scouts with shooting that looks translatable.
Defensively, his highlight blocks suggest there should be more of them. He needs to play stronger when challenging around the basket, but he has encouraging tools for rim protection, and he moves well enough around the perimeter for adequate switch defense.
The idea of Jones seems more appealing than the product. But the flashes are beginning to sell scouts on his potential.