2021 NBA Draft Big Board: Who Is Challenging Cade Cunningham for No. 1?

Jonathan Wasserman@@NBADraftWassNBA Lead WriterJanuary 27, 2021

2021 NBA Draft Big Board: Who Is Challenging Cade Cunningham for No. 1?

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    Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

    The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic is wreaking havoc on the college basketball schedule, but there have already been enough opportunities to scout and develop confident reads on the top NBA draft prospects. 

    The next phase of scouting involves the G League Ignite, who'll participate in a bubble at the Walt Disney World Resort in February. Jalen Green and Jonathan Kuminga could have a chance to shake up the top of our board, which already has a strong top three.

    As the college season continues to roll along despite cancellations and postponements, more players are emerging as prospects who can add depth to the 2021 NBA draft class. 

Nos. 50-41

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    Michael Woods/Associated Press

    50. Isaiah Livers (Michigan, SF, Senior)

    Shooting 13-of-22 from three over Michigan's last four games, Livers is a making strong senior-season push for draft consideration. Although he's a limited creator, his role in the NBA won't look different from the one he plays now, which values his shot-making reliability, passing, efficient play and late-game poise.

    49. Luka Garza (Iowa, C, Senior)

    Improved shooting should give Garza a chance in the NBA, where his physical post game won't be valued as much as it is in college. Heavy feet may make him tough to play for long stretches defensively, but he could earn minutes in an enforcer role, particularly if he's able to stretch the floor and hit open threes.

    48. Sandro Mamukelashvili (Seton Hall, C, Senior)

    Playing some point-center for Seton Hall, Mamukelashvili has evolved into an interesting big-man prospect with ball-handling and passing skills and three-point range. In the second round, it should be worth ignoring defensive limitations for his potential NBA-friendly offensive versatility. 

    47. Miles McBride (West Virginia, PG, Sophomore)

    A defensive pest, McBride has developed into a clutch scorer and playmaker for West Virginia, recently carrying the team to a last-second win over Texas Tech on Monday. Shooting 47.3 percent from three with 4.2 assists to 1.8 turnovers, the sophomore guard now possesses an intriguing mix of speed, skill and grit.

    46. Ayo Dosunmu (Illinois, PG/SG, Junior)

    It's tough to pinpoint Dosunmu's most translatable skill, but he's sharp and productive enough with each (for a 6'5" guard) to justify draft looks and carve out an NBA role. His shot-making versatility and footwork for scoring seem more appealing than his playmaking.

    45. Taevion Kinsey (Marshall, SG, Junior)

    Kinsey has unsurprisingly cooled off from three, but for a world-class leaper, he's made enough strides with his shot-making skills and touch to justify NBA draft looks. 

    44. Jeremiah Robinson-Earl (Villanova, PF, Sophomore)

    Inconsistent shooting has been frustrating, as Robinson-Earl's jumper will be key for his pro potential. But he does have a projectable stroke, and at 6'9", his skill level, footwork and passing from the post are pluses. 

    43. Aaron Henry (Michigan State, SF, Junior)

    Three consecutive postponed games put a stop to Henry's best stretch of the season. Shooting remains a swing skill, but it's worth waiting/betting on for a 6'6" slasher, passer and defender. 

    42. Terrence Clarke (Kentucky, SG, Freshman)

    A foot injury has kept Clarke out since December, but we cooled on the freshman before the injury. His shooting and decision-making looked too far behind to justify drafting him in the first round. However, the 6'7" wing still has long-term upside given his slashing, floater game and potential to eventually hit spot-up and dribble jumpers.

    41. Allen Flanigan (Auburn, SG/SF, Sophomore)

    It's becoming tougher to ignore Flanigan and the remarkable improvement he's made as a shooter—from 5-of-35 on threes as a freshman to 32-of-82 (39.0 percent 3PT) in 16 games this season. The jump is notable from an NBA standpoint given his 6'6" frame and athleticism for slashing and defending.

Nos. 40-31

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    Matt Stamey/Associated Press

    40. Ariel Hukporti (Nevezis Kedainiai, C, 2002)

    Hukporti hadn't played a game yet by our last big board update earlier in January. He's logged three since, making a strong impression with his 7'0", 250-pound size and standout mobility while even hitting a three-pointer in consecutive outings. More minutes and confidence could create an opportunity for Hukporti to move closer toward the first-round discussion.

    39. Kessler Edwards (Pepperdine, SF, Junior)

    Edwards' three-ball was slumping until he hit six in a 37-point outburst last week against Pacific. Though he isn't a passing threat or projected defensive asset, his shooting versatility for a 6'8" forward could earn him an NBA role.

     

    38. Daishen Nix (G League Ignite, 2002)

    Nix stood out in high school for his 6'5" size at point guard and facilitating IQ. But in the G League bubble, he'll need to squash concerns over his scoring, shooting and weight.

     

    37. Davion Mitchell (Baylor, PG, Junior)

    Shooting 42.1 percent from three while averaging 5.9 assists and 2.1 steals, Mitchell is building a draft case around his improved jumper and playmaking and signature defense. 

     

    36. David Duke (Providence, SG, Junior)

    Duke is slumping after a 30-point game against Xavier on January 10. But he's still averaging 18.7 points and 4.7 assists while shooting 42.9 percent from three, making a case to scouts with his scoring creativity and secondary playmaking for a 6'5" guard.

     

    35. Trendon Watford (LSU, PF, Sophomore)

    Watford has finished with at least 20 points in eight games, beating defenses with his herky-jerky off-the-dribble game and versatile finishing for a 6'9" forward. From an NBA standpoint, there are concerns about his quickness, athleticism and defense for a limited shooter, but he's done a better of making open jumpers (12-of-31 3PT), which is key for his draft stock.

     

    34. Terrence Shannon (Texas Tech, SG, Sophomore)

    NBA teams could see Shannon as a useful wing with the athleticism and quickness to continue slashing, cutting (92nd percentile) for finishes (73.3 percent at rim) and defending at the pro level. He hasn't shown enough signs of shooting (13-of-41 3PT) to guarantee first-round looks, but it's worth having patience given the two-way potential an improved jumper could unlock.

     

    33. Tre Mann (Florida, PG, Sophomore)

    Mann had a season-high 24 points against Georgia on Saturday, adding more glimpses of ball-handling, creativity and perimeter shot-making to his breakout-season highlight reel. He still isn't an efficient-enough scorer or playmaker to solidify first-round status, but he's in the conversation with the improved shot-making and passing. 

     

    32. Scottie Lewis (Florida, SF, Sophomore)

    Health-and-safety protocols have kept Lewis out of Florida's lineup, but the shooting and passing improvement he's made this season have been encouraging for such an explosive athlete and quick defender. Josh Green going No. 18 overall in November serves as a reminder that teams will value transition offense, threes and defense, even if it's from a wing who doesn't create.

     

    31. Marcus Bagley (Arizona State, PF, Freshman)

    Shooting for a 6'8" forward will earn Bagley first-round looks. He doesn't offer much value elsewhere, but if he can continue hover around his 37.7 percent three-point mark while defending his position at an adequate level, an NBA team should find a role for him.

Nos. 30-21

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    Michael Dwyer/Associated Press

    30. Day'Ron Sharpe (North Carolina, C, Freshman)

    No skill versatility limits the appeal to Sharpe, but his 6'11", 265-pound frame, motor and activity still point to a high floor. His passing could be the skill that separates him from other interior specialists.

    29. Nah'Shon Hyland (VCU, PG, Sophomore)

    Averaging 3.1 three-pointers in 29.9 minutes, Hyland also has a number of eye-popping scoring performances, including Saturday's 28-point game versus Dayton. You may have to strain your eyes to see NBA upside and past his limited frame, lack of bounce and non-playmaking, but Hyland possesses advanced handles and footwork for creation, and his shot-making range extends to the logo. 

    28. Rokas Jokubaitis (Zalgiris, SG, 2000)

    Coming off a 13-point, seven assist game in Lithuania, Jokubaitis continues to efficiently produce, both in Euroleague and the Lithuanian LKL. Limited speed and athleticism hint at more of a best-case backup, but for a 6'4" combo, his offensive skill level and IQ look NBA-caliber. 

    27. Alperen Sengun (Besiktas, C, 2002)

    Sengun followed an eight-block performance in the Turkish BSL with a 25-point effort on Tuesday in FIBA Eurocup, as he continues to build on his unexpected breakout season. Even if he isn't a new-school, shooting and playmaking big, Sengun still deserves consideration for his post offense, roll game and inside activity, which seem worth betting on translating based on his footwork, mobility, timing, skill level and production.

    26. Cameron Thomas (LSU, SG, Freshman)

    Thomas has cooled off, having now shot below 40 percent from the floor in every game this month. He still manages to produce with a knack for creating shots and free-throw chances. And at 6'4" with his craft and shot-making, it's reasonable to think the streak scoring can translate. But he doesn't project as a passer or defender, so before considering him in the top 20, we'll want to make sure he isn't just an inconsistent isolation player.

    25. David Johnson (Louisville, PG/SG, Sophomore)

    Johnson made a strong case to scouts in Louisville's win over Duke on Saturday, finishing with three made threes and some high-level passes. He doesn't possess a bread-and-butter skill for the NBA, but he continues to make outside shots at an improved rate (42.6 percent 3PT), and though his playmaking numbers on the season aren't exciting (3.9 assists), Johnson may possess playmaking upside masked by the addition of backcourt partner Carlik Jones. 

    24. Josh Christopher (Arizona State, SG, Freshman)

    Christopher's difficult shot selection leads to inconsistency and raises concern about how efficient he can be in the NBA. On the other hand, he can separate into looks easily with his quickness, bounce and strength, both at the rim and around the perimeter, where he's capable of drilling contested jumpers and catching fire. 

    23. Roko Prkacin (Cibona, PF, 2002)

    Scouts will surely be looking at tape of Prkacin's 17 points against Mega Bemax's Marko Simonovic (Chicago Bulls stash) and Filip Petrusev (former Gonzaga star). The 18-year-old has earned a spot on the first-round radar with his scoring versatility, inside and out, for a 6'9" forward.

    22. Josh Giddey (Adelaide, PG, 2002)

    Giddey earned fans after his second NBL game, when he went for 16 points, 11 rebounds and seven assists and made big plays late in a double overtime win. Limited burst, athleticism, strength and shooting skills figure to result in inconsistent numbers. But Giddey's 6'7" size at point guard, passing skills, scoring craftiness and IQ should draw first-round looks.

    21. Greg Brown (Texas, PF, Freshman)

    For a 6'9" forward, Brown's athleticism, shooting confidence and slashing from the arc create highlights and vision of upside. But with one total assist to 28 turnovers, he has a long way to go in terms of decision-making and feel.

Nos. 20-11

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    Justin Rex/Associated Press

    20. Charles Bassey (Western Kentucky, C, Junior)

    Averaging 3.4 blocks with a 7'3" wingspan, Bassey is an obvious draw for his defensive potential around the basket. His shooting hasn't taken off, but he's capable enough (9-of-31 3PT, 73.8 percent FT) for a center with NBA tools, touch in the paint and upside in rim protection. 

    19. Jared Butler (Baylor, PG, Junior)

    The rim must looks like a hula hoop to Butler, who made 13-of-16 threes against Kansas and Oklahoma State and is now 40-of-81 for the season. He's also second in the Big 12 in assists and first in steals and is demonstrating stronger playmaking IQ at both ends, which are keys to his improved stock and NBA case.

    18. Corey Kispert (Gonzaga, SF, Senior)

    For a 6'7", 220-pound, high-IQ defender, Kispert's elite shooting should be enough to justify lottery consideration. Without burst or wiggle, it's tough to picture his scoring at Gonzaga carrying over, but he still figures to remain efficient with his two-point shot selection, decision-making and bankable jumper.

    17. Brandon Boston Jr. (Kentucky, SF, Freshman)

    Boston wasn't going to shoot miserably for the whole season. Coming off consecutive 18-point games, he's looking more confident with his shot-creation and shotmaking. It's still worth questioning his start to the season and whether there is concern with his effectiveness as a creator, but for a 6'7", 19-year-old wing, his slashing fluidity and perimeter scoring potential remain enticing.

    16. Usman Garuba (Real Madrid, PF/C, 2002)

    Garuba has been quiet overseas playing limited minutes at 18 years old. But we've seen enough of his convincing defensive tools, IQ and motor, as well as some hopeful glimpses of passing and open shooting. 

    15. James Bouknight (Connecticut, PG/SG, Sophomore)

    Out with an elbow injury, Bouknight could miss most of what's left in the season. Before going down, he grabbed scouts' attention with 20.3 points per game in flashy fashion, showcasing nifty ball-handling moves for creation, tough shot-making and crafty finishes. We just didn't see much playmaking (1.7 assists per game), and his three-point game (32.4 percent) was off more than on. 

    14. Franz Wagner (Michigan, SF, Sophomore)

    Wagner checks the right boxes for the NBA with shooting potential, passing and defensive versatility at 6'9".  His scoring upside is limited, but he could offer a valued mix of skills/strengths from a supporting role.

    13. Kai Jones (Texas, C, Sophomore)

    With Jones, we're buying the flashes over the limited stats and inconsistency. For NBA teams with patience, he's an upside play with a potentially valuable mix of shooting and athleticism for finishing and defending.

     

    12. Sharife Cooper (Auburn, PG, Freshman)

    In limited action, Cooper looks like the draft's most dangerous setup man, and his ball-handling, quickness off the dribble, passing skills and vision suggest the playmaking can carry over the pros. Alone, it should be enough to start the lottery conversation. Shooting, decision-making and defense are the concerns that have made scouts hesitate to see a quality NBA starter. 

    11. Keon Johnson (Tennessee, SG, Freshman)

    Johnson's case continues to be built around his physical profile, functional athleticism for attacking and defending and competitiveness. Upside kicks in if he improve his creation and shooting (5-of-21 3PT, 65.3 percent FT), but his high floor is equally as attractive as his ceiling. 

10. Jaden Springer (Tennessee, PG/SG, Freshman)

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    Sam Craft/Associated Press

    Scouts sound split on Jaden Springer, with skeptics questioning his NBA fit/position—whether he's a good enough playmaker or he possesses the athleticism and creativity to score like a 2-guard. I'm looking past the concerns, putting more stock into his versatility, efficiency and defense, along with the fact he doesn't turn 19 until September 25. 

    Tennessee also seems to miss him when he's out. The Volunteers lost all three games that their freshman has had to sit out because of ankle issues (he played five minutes against Alabama). 

    At 6'4", Springer plays on and off the ball, always wisely picking his spots as a scorer and setup passer. Sporting a 61.6 true shooting percentage, he operates with noticeable balance that leads to high-percentage finishing attempts and jump-shot opportunities (9-of-16 3PT). 

    Defensively, he has the tools to guard either backcourt spot, while a 3.2 steal rate highlights his quick hands and anticipation. 

    Springer may never be the focal point of an NBA offense, but his game/mentality points to a high-impact secondary/complementary player.

9. Jalen Johnson (Duke, PF, Freshman)

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    Keith Srakocic/Associated Press

    Back from a foot injury and a month off, Jalen Johnson returned to put up 24 points, 15 rebounds, seven assists, four blocks and two steals against Pittsburgh. That statement performance served as a reminder of his signature two-way versatility. 

    At 6'9" and 220 pounds, there is plenty of potential impact tied to his ability to handle and start fast breaks, pass on the move, earn buckets in the paint, play-make on defense and guard different positions. 

    Concerns over his shooting and self-creation for scoring will make it difficult to fall too deeply in love, however. Johnson was silent in the second half of Duke's tough loss to Louisville over the weekend, unable to get himself involved offensively in the half court. 

8. Ziaire Williams (Stanford, SF/PF, Freshman)

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    Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

    A triple-double against Washington earlier this month put Ziaire Williams back on track. But even during his cold-shooting December, there was never a reason to panic. 

    Williams has a picturesque stroke with both the footwork and size to get it off cleanly. Convincing shot-making ultimately creates a high floor for Williams, who's 6-of-13 from deep over his last two games. 

    There is also plenty to like about his defensive projection based on his mobility and length around the perimeter. But he's still more of a mid-to-late lottery prospect for me, with questions about his ability to blow by and handle contact potentially affecting his effectiveness as a two-point scorer in the NBA. 

7. Scottie Barnes (Florida State, SF/PF, Freshman)

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    Gregory Payan/Associated Press

    Slotting Scottie Barnes in the top seven means buying into his impact with versatility and intangibles and not worrying as much about his scoring. 

    The initial draw to Barnes stems from unique defensive potential fueled by big-man size, length and the foot speed to guard ball-handlers and wings. Even though he's 6'9" and 227 pounds, Florida State will use him to pressure full court.

    Offensively, he does struggle with self creation, but not playmaking for teammates. Barnes averages 4.0 assists, often working as a transition ball-handler, pick-and-roll operator and live-dribble passer. 

    And though he isn't known for shooting, he has made a three-pointer in seven of 10 games. He also grades in the 81st percentile out of spot-ups with his ability to attack closeouts and use a floater or get to the rim.

6. Moses Moody (Arkansas, SG, Freshman)

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    Michael Woods/Associated Press

    The three-and-D label given to Moses Moody before the season now feels limiting. He's hit the 25-point mark in three of Arkansas' last five games, and he's actually done more work inside the arc than behind it. 

    Moody is hitting 1.8 threes per game at a respectable 36.3 percent clip, but he's evolving into a three-level scorer with his slashing, pull-up game (12-of-25) and deep ball. Everything comes within the flow of the offense. Moody is averaging 17.3 points despite only 8.0 percent of his total possessions coming as a pick-and-roll ball-handler and on isolations. 

    There isn't anything flashy about Moody's creativity, and the lack of playmaking (1.7 assists) adds pressure to his shot-making. But with his 6'6" frame, projectable jump shot, opportunistic scoring and promising defense, Moody continues to strengthen his case as a worthy top-10 pick.

5. Jalen Green (G League Ignite, SG, 2002)

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    Gregory Payan/Associated Press

    G League defenses shouldn't slow down Jalen Green, a special athlete whose skill level has gradually caught up to his quickness and bounce. 

    He's on the verge of making his debut with the Ignite, and based on the team's two scrimmages last month, Green should have a green light and plenty of opportunities to showcase his explosive scoring. 

    More than just a leaper, transition weapon and slasher, he's made significant strides with his ball-handling for creation and shot-making. Production in Disney's bubble is inevitable. But he's vulnerable to inefficiency and casual defense. He'll want to avoid turning scouts off with too many tough shots, a poor assist-to-turnover ratio and lapses in focus or effort. 

4. Jonathan Kuminga (G League Ignite, SF/PF, 2002)

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    Scouts are eager to see Jonathan Kuminga in the G League bubble next month after watching the Ignite's two scrimmages. 

    There isn't any recent tape to go off except for those games, and Kuminga was a standout with his inside-out scoring skills for a 6'8", 220-pound forward with a 7-foot wingspan. His first step and strength are built for driving and finishing, and while we're still waiting to learn more about his shooting consistency, he looks fluid and confident getting into his jumper.

    Measuring similarly to Paul George or Tobias Harris with the ability to create and make shots from each level, Kuminga screams NBA talent. The biggest questions concern how effectively he applies it to winning and efficient offense. We should have a better idea after games against G League opponents at Disney. 

3. Jalen Suggs (Gonzaga, PG, Freshman)

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    Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

    The sales pitch to Jalen Suggs won't revolve around stats, especially given Gonzaga's roster loaded of veterans. Positional athleticism, versatility, impact and leadership are the selling points for NBA teams, who should be able to use the 6'4" freshman in different ways.

    He doubles as a lead guard and energizer, capable of running offense or influencing games off the ball with his energy and hustle. 

    Suggs has missed 19 of his last 23 threes, bringing his percentage down to 34.9 percent, which is a more accurate indicator of where he is as a shooter. But his jumper still works, particularly off the dribble (96th percentile on dribble jumpers). And given his burst turning the corner toward the rim, his passing skills and monster defensive upside (4.6 steal percentage), Suggs doesn't need to be Stephen Curry from outside.

    He projects as an easy plug-and-play fit for any team, regardless of whether it already has a point guard.

2. Evan Mobley (USC, C, Freshman)

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    Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

    The 2021 NBA draft could have multiple No. 1 overall talents. 

    More convincing than any prospect selected two months ago, Evan Mobley continues to strengthen his case as a top-two lock, most recently scoring 25 points on 13 shots against California on Saturday. 

    His fluidity for a 7-footer is different, and it was expected to show mostly on defense coming in. It still has, with Mobley sporting a 9.4 block percentage, demonstrating the ability to protect the rim with his quick jump and length and also contest shots away from the basket. But Mobley's fluidity has been equally impressive on offense, where he's averaging 16.5 points on 62.0 percent shooting inside the arc.

    His ball-handling and coordination pop on open-floor opportunities and face-up moves, while he shows shot-making skill from the post out to the arc.

    Other than a need to add muscle, Mobley looks like the full package at center. He's the exact, versatile type today's NBA game values.

1. Cade Cunningham (Oklahoma State, PG, Freshman)

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    Mitch Alcala/Associated Press

    Mobley has closed the gap between No. 2 and No. 1, but through no fault of Cade Cunningham.

    Cunningham hasn't played since January 12 because of postponed games and COVID-19 protocol. He also wouldn't need to play again to justify finishing as the favorite to go No. 1 overall.

    The 6'8", 220-pound guard has lived up his pre-college hype as a passer and leader while exceeding expectations as a self-creator for scoring and shooter. Cunningham ranks in the 90-95th percentile as a pick-and-roll ball-handler and isolation player while making 1.6 threes per game on 38.8 percent shooting.

    A search for weakness will lead to his spot-up numbers (25.0 percent FG). But the team that drafts Cunningham should be prepared to let the offense to run through him and his creativity, IQ and knack for taking over.

                   

    Stats courtesy of Synergy Sports and Sports Reference and are current through Monday, Jan. 25.