2021 NBA Draft Buzz: Top 5 Stars Beginning to Separate from the Pack

Jonathan Wasserman@@NBADraftWassNBA Lead WriterFebruary 5, 2021

Southern California forward Evan Mobley (4) shoots over Arizona forward Ira Lee during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Thursday, Jan. 7, 2021, in Tucson, Ariz. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)
Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

It may sound early to suggest the draft's top five is already set in stone. But that's how scouts are making it sound, or at least that's the expectation of most.

Among NCAA prospects, Oklahoma State's Cade Cunningham, USC's Evan Mobley and Gonzaga's Jalen Suggs have separated from the pack. It's difficult to imagine any scenario in which one of these players is available at No. 6 overall, regardless of how the lottery order plays out.

Cunningham and Suggs are versatile and interchangeable enough to fit in anywhere, including on teams that already have lead guards. And though Cunningham is the early No. 1 overall favorite, scouts don't believe Mobley is that far behind. He'll have a best-player-available case starting at No. 2 overall, and teams Nos. 2-5 each won't have centers (or rosters) strong enough for their general managers to pass on talent for needs.

Suggs and Mobley's biggest challengers from Tier 2 include Duke's Jalen Johnson, Stanford's Ziaire Williams and Auburn's Sharife Cooper, who are perceived to offer more upside than other (potential) Tier 2 prospects like Arkansas' Moses Moody, Tennessee's Keon Johnson and Jaden Springer, Gonzaga's Corey Kispert, Connecticut's James Bouknight and Florida State's Scottie Barnes.

But compared to Cunningham, Mobley and Suggs—who have reputations as sure things—these Tier 2 prospects either have flaws that create uncertainty or limitations that hint at lower ceilings.

Mitch Alcala/Associated Press

And then there's Jalen Green and Jonathan Kuminga, who still haven't played yet. They'll be making their G League debuts next week. But based on their production/comfort levels during Ignite team scrimmages, which came against former college studs and draft picks, it's assumed they'll at least meet or approach the bar that was set by the hype, recruiting rankings and accomplishments from high school.

And that bar is higher than the ones for Duke's Johnson, Stanford's Williams and Auburn's Cooper. 

So at this point, unless red flags are thrown at Green and Kuminga, just matching their play from scrimmages should give them an edge over those Tier 2 prospects from college basketball.

From talking with scouts, it sounds like Kuminga and Green could both go as high as No. 2, depending on how efficient they look and the eventual draft order. 


Scouts: Gonzaga's Corey Kispert a legitimate lottery prospect 

Ashley Landis/Associated Press

After a three-year absence from scouts' draft rankings, Kispert is now moving toward the top. 

Scouts are now buying his start and value at the NBA level. With an average of 3.1 threes at a 48.6 percent clip—while hitting 90.0 percent of his free throws—the level of certainty tied to his shooting has become too high for a 6'7", 220-pound forward. 

We've seen perceived shooting specialists go in the lottery of the past two drafts with Aaron Nesmith and Cameron Johnson, a senior who was a year older than what Kispert will be (22) when he's picked.

He's put together an unbeatable shooting profile in terms of accuracy and shot-making versatility. Per Synergy Sports, he's converted 52.8 percent off the catch, 50.0 percent off screens and eight of 16 dribble jumpers.

But what seals the deal is the fact that he doesn't project as a liability elsewhere, and though his 20.2 points per game aren't likely to carry over (because of a lack of on-ball creation), he's beyond efficient at making/finishing plays opportunistically. 

While scoring in volume for the nation's No. 1 team, he's converting 67.3 percent of his 6.1 two-point attempts per game, grading in the 99th percentile in transition and 88th percentile as a pick-and-roll ball-handler. 

Scouts also see a high-IQ team defender with enough strength to hold his own against NBA forwards.

And nobody is describing his numbers as fluky based on the competition in the West Coast Conference. In five games against Kansas, Auburn, West Virginia, Iowa and Virginia, Kispert averaged 22.4 points on 61.9 percent from the floor. 

Once the flashy one-and-done names are off the board, the senior could be one of the most coveted prospects for 2021. 


Davion Mitchell, Baylor's new top prospect

Eric Gay/Associated Press

Mitchell may be soaring further up draft boards than teammate Jared Butler, Baylor's preseason first-team All-American. 

As mentioned in the last edition of NBA Draft Buzz, Butler has helped himself as well after withdrawing from last year's draft. But some scouts are seeing a higher ceiling for Mitchell, whom one described as the most improved prospect in the nation and its best perimeter defender.

He exploded for 31 points last week against Kansas State before hanging 27 points on No. 6 Texas on Tuesday. 

Splitting time on and off the ball, Mitchell leads the Big 12 in assists (5.8) despite sharing ball-handing duties. And he's completely transformed as a shooter, making 2.3 threes per game on 49.4 percent while converting 48.4 percent of his catch-and-shoot chances and 41.8 percent of his pull-ups.

Numbers aside, the film shows a sharper scorer capable of creating his own shot via drives (73.4 percent FG at rim) and dribble jumpers, which he's knocking down at high rates.

Defense has been his initial calling card since arriving at Baylor (after transferring from Auburn). What may be the most eye-popping stat on his profile this year, though, is opposing players are turning the ball over 30.8 percent of the time when Mitchell guards them man-to-man (when they try to make a play). 

He checked in at No. 20 in our latest mock draft, a realistic projection if he avoids hitting a wall and carries this momentum into the postseason.


International prospects rising

This year's international class is looking deeper by the month, despite no Luka Doncic- or Deni Avdija-type prospect expected to go top-10. 

Since last year, our first-round projections have included Real Madrid's Usman Garuba, who was playing in Euroleague at 17 years old and continues to build a case around his special defensive tools/instincts. 

But nobody overseas has made a stronger impression this month than Josh Giddey, the 6'8", 18-year-old guard who nearly triple-doubled twice through his first five NBL games. 

On the radar since 2019 as a member of the NBA Global Academy, Giddey possesses an intriguing mix of positional size, ball-handling and passing skills, plus the IQ to optimize them for creation and playmaking.

His body still looks like a kid's, and he'll have to answer questions about his jumper. But Giddey has looked convincing in a physical league with his poise at the point and ability to make plays at his own pace. He's moved to No. 22 in our latest mock draft.

After earning Basketball Without Borders MVP honors last year, Ariel Hukporti made his debut in Lithuania last month. And he's been delivering (11.5 points, 6.5 rebounds in 21.7 minutes) with his standout athleticism and movement for a 7-foot, 250-pound center.

He's even hit a three-pointer in four of six games while flashing glimpses of one-on-one play away from the basket. 

In the same league (LKL) as Hukporti, there is Rokas Jokubaitis, who's also played 20 games in Euroleague, where he's shooting 49.6 percent overall and 36.4 percent from three. Between both leagues, he's converted at least five field goals in four of the past five games while showcasing his crafty offense and playmaking.

A 6'4" combo, Jokubaitis compensates for below-average athleticism and burst with skill versatility for scoring and passing.

In Serbia, former Gonzaga center Filip Petrusev (who chose Mega Bemax over the 2020 draft) is leading the Adriatic League in scoring with the same post game scouts saw last year, plus a newly added three-ball. At 6'11", his production and expanding offense should earn him plenty of NBA looks. 

In January, he faced off against 18-year-old prospect Roko Prkacin, who held his own, scoring 17 points inside and out. The 6'9" forward has now gone for at least 15 points in three straight while raising his three-point mark to 37.5 percent in the Adriatic League. 

With scoring versatility suited for the NBA, Prkacin ranks No. 23 on my latest big board.


Other notes

  • Texas' Greg Brown is becoming one of the most interesting, puzzling prospects in this year's draft discussion. At 6'9", he's a ridiculous leaper and highlight-reel dunker who is also averaging 1.3 threes per game. On the other hand, he's totaled 32 turnovers and two assists while fouling 6.2 times per 40 minutes.
  • Scouts are divided on Tennessee's Jaden Springer because of questions about his NBA position—whether he's a good enough playmaker to run point or if he can create and shoot well enough to score. But he's the No. 10 player on my board. I'm buying Springer's versatility to adapt and make plays from either guard spot, the way teams should have bought into Tyrese Haliburton. And I'm putting stock in his tough defense and age (18).
  • Averaging 3.2 threes per game, VCU's Nah'Shon "Bones" Hyland moved to No. 29 on my latest big board, making an impression with his deep shot-making out to the logo, plus trickery off the dribble with his footwork and improvisation.
  • Though arguably the top performer in the ACC, Pittsburgh's Justin Champagnie moved the needle with some NBA scouts in one game, when he went for 31 points, 14 boards and five blocks against Duke's projected top-10 pick, Jalen Johnson. Despite his stature as an undersized, 6'6" power forward, Champagnie's shot looks promising, as does his instincts around the basket for defensive playmaking, rebounding and finishing.
  • Suggs and Kispert are Gonzaga's top NBA prospects, but Joel Ayayi has flown under the radar, putting up big-man numbers (7.2 rebounds, 73.6 percent 2PT) at 6'5" while shooting 36.4 percent from three. He's become a sleeper to track for the second round.


Stats courtesy of Synergy Sports and Sports Reference.


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