Which Upcoming NBA Draft Class Has Better Talent, 2021 or 2022?April 28, 2021
A break in action scouting the 2021 NBA draft has created time for evaluators to catch up on the prospects eligible in 2022.
Oklahoma State's Cade Cunningham, USC's Evan Mobley, Gonzaga's Jalen Suggs and G League Ignite's Jalen Green have been fueling most of the hype behind this year's class. And next year's already feels equally promising, mostly due to similar star power among incoming freshmen.
Could there be more stars entering the league in 2022 than 2021? It's worth looking ahead to see how the current high school seniors and international 17-year-olds stack up with next season's NBA rookies.
No. 1 favorites: Cade Cunningham vs. Paolo Banchero
Next year's draft has multiple quality No. 1 overall candidates, but there isn't a consensus answer for who's the favorite like there was heading into this past college season.
Cunningham was the consensus No. 1 before arriving at Oklahoma State and he's still considered the best bet to go first on July 29. Gonzaga-bound Chet Holmgren has received the most attention among high school players and he's certainly a strong candidate to rise above the 2022 field. Jaden Hardy, who hasn't committed anywhere and seems most likely to join the G League Ignite, also possesses the talent and skill for NBA superstardom.
But the most complete package of physical tools, athleticism, versatility and upside is headed to Duke. Paolo Banchero right now feels like the easiest to compare to Cunningham, a 6'8" ball-handler, isolation scorer, terrific passer and advanced shooter.
Most frequently listed at 6'9", 235 pounds, Banchero has developed a toned body that already looks like it belongs to an NBA power forward. He's more explosive than Cunningham, who only shot 46.1 percent inside the arc this season.
They're different player types and mismatches in their own ways, with Cunningham more of a jumbo creator and guard and Banchero trending toward a face-up, playmaking 4.
Cunningham is clearly sharper around the perimeter when it comes to ball-handling, passing and shooting. Banchero is the tougher cover when catching from the elbows and short corners, where he can rip through, absorb contact and finish from different angles.
Still, it's the increasing flashes of coast-to-coast takes, pull-up threes and off-balance jumpers (for a player with his size and strength) that hint at enormous scoring versatility and upside. Last month at the Grind Session in Phoenix, he averaged 32.5 points, looking more comfortable bringing the ball up and working off the dribble like Cunningham.
He still won't be used next year at Duke the way Cunningham was at Oklahoma State, where he often operated as a point guard and pick-and-roll ball-handler. Banchero's play-type distribution figures to closer mirror Zion Williamson's during his one-and-done season, when he was most active in transition, the post, cutting, crashing the glass and attacking closeouts.
But Banchero has clearly been working on expanding his offensive repertoire to be able to grab-and-go, score isolated away from the basket and separate in the mid-range.
Long-term edge: Cunningham
Battle of Unicorns: Evan Mobley vs. Chet Holmgren
Holmgren figures to start at No. 1 on some draft boards next season. It's understandable. For me, his 195-pound frame at 7'1" creates a little too much risk for a first pick, especially when Banchero is jacked and athletic with an advanced, well-rounded skill set.
At this early stage of the evaluation process, I consider Holmgren the 1B to Banchero's 1A, the way some believe Mobley is to Cunningham.
Mobley has similar questions to answer about his slender frame for post play, rebounding and holding his own inside. But both he and Holmgen compensate for a lack of strength with unusual fluidity and skill, offensively away from the basket and timing-wise in rim protection.
Holmgren is more polished with his one-on-one handles and shot-creation. He'll hit pull-up threes off ball screens and transition or shake into fallaway jumpers from the post. He'll play-make and pass off the dribble like a guard.
Mobley was more of a finishing target rolling and cutting. His jumper isn't where Holmgren's is, but he still shows nice touch in the mid-range. He's not as shifty catching away from the basket, but he's coordinated attacking in straight lines and he's developed an impressive runner package.
Defensively, it's easier to picture Mobley switching and guarding wings in space. Holmgren's shot-blocking instincts are spectacular—the question is whether he has the body to hold ground in the post and anchor a defense, or if he'll be more of a weak-side shot-blocker while guarding 4s.
Comparing the two, Mobley seems a little safer with Holmgren possessing more upside tied to his height and guard skills, plus unteachable defensive timing with his mobility and length.
Long-term edge: Holmgren
Scoring guards: Jaden Hardy vs. Jalen Green
Both the 2021 and 2022 classes will produce explosive scoring guards.
Scouts assume Hardy will follow Green down the G League path before his draft. Green's success with Ignite should give a player like Hardy confidence (not that he needed any) that he could also put up big numbers against former/current pros and recent draft picks in that setting.
At the same age, Hardy is more dangerous around the perimeter with his shot-making and range. Green packs more quickness and bounce, though he's moved up to No. 2 on my 2021 board after showing clear improvement with his ball-handling, footwork and jumper.
Hardy can be more of a threatening bad-shot shooter against tight defense. There is a microwave zone he's capable of entering when the rim suddenly appears to expand and low-percentage shots start falling in flurries.
At the high school level, scoring came so easy to both that they unsurprisingly got reckless with their shot selection and decision-making.
The legitimacy of Green's strong shooting in the bubble represents an X-factor in determining who's the more attractive prospect. Either way, they both seem relatively close as prospects and projected top-five picks.
Long-term edge: Hardy
Point guards: Jalen Suggs vs. Kennedy Chandler
Though Suggs was still a projected lottery pick entering the season, he improved his stock at Gonzaga by winning games, hitting teammates and making an obvious defensive impact.
Chandler is my top point guard prospect for 2022, and like Suggs did, he'll start in my No. 7-14 range until I see him at Tennessee. He also has a chance to rise if we learn his lack of size (6'1") isn't too concerning.
He recently led Sunrise Christian to the Geico National Championship game, showcasing his signature floor-general qualities. He plays with poise, balance and change of pace while possessing a terrific skill level and IQ for making pull-ups and passing reads.
Chandler doesn't possess Suggs' athleticism or tools, but he similarly competes defensively, and he appears even more polished in terms of running offense, handling the ball and shooting.
Having already seen Suggs run through tough opponents to help Gonzaga make the NCAA national championship, I'd have more confidence in choosing him long term in a vacuum. But I could also see Chandler similarly becoming a favorite among scouts and fans, who could eventually be willing to overlook his lack of height and strength for his skill and intangibles.
Long-term edge: Suggs
2022 Mid-Lottery feels stronger than 2021's
While there is excitement surrounding the projected top picks of the 2021 draft, landing in the mid-to-late lottery range will feel disappointing for NBA teams.
Outside of Cunningham, Green, Mobley and Suggs, the top options on my board include Ignite's Jonathan Kuminga, Tennessee Keon Johnson, Duke's Jalen Johnson's, Florida State's Scottie Barnes, Michigan's Franz Wagner and Arkansas' Moses Moody. But excluding Moody, there are concerns with the other players' shooting. And other than Kuminga, they all have trouble creating.
It feels like there is more upside tied to current high school seniors in the same projected tier for 2022.
Jabari Smith (Auburn) is a 6'8" combo forward with budding scoring skills from triple-threat position. At one point last year, I thought Duke-bound A.J. Griffin possessed No. 1 overall potential based on his strong physical profile (6'7", 220lbs) and perimeter scoring. Patrick Baldwin Jr. (undecided) is a highly-skilled shooter at 6'10". Future Michigan forward Caleb Houstan is your prototypical three-and-D wing with 6'8" size.
UCLA-bound Peyton Watson, who just played his first game of the season in April due to the pandemic, really pops for his 6'8" size and athleticism for a wing. Kendall Brown, another athletic 6'8" wing, will make noise at Baylor with his transition game and defensive playmaking. Florida State-bound Matthew Cleveland wowed last month against Oak Hill (30 points) that showcased his natural ability to score with instincts and feel over skill.
International names to watch
Real Madrid's Usman Garuba started the season viewed as the top international prospect and a late-lottery to mid-first-round pick. His draft range hasn't changed, but he's no longer a lock to be the first player selected from overseas.
Australia's Josh Giddey is in the conversation, given his across-the-board production, 6'8" size for an elite passer and flashes of shooting. Turkish big man Alperen Sengun is putting up historic numbers in Turkey and figures to also draw lottery consideration for his offensive skill around the key. Croatia's Roko Prkacin, a stretch 4 and versatile scorer who recently went for 38 points in a game, has delivered after starting the season viewed as a potential first-rounder.
And none of their ceilings reach Congolese big man Yannick Nzosa's. At 17 years old (eligible for 2022 draft), he's been receiving regular minutes in the Spanish ACB, looking more comfortable with the ball and similarly active/mobile on defense as we've seen in the past.
At 7'0", his movement is off the charts in terms of covering ground and recovering. Another jump next season with his ball-handling and touch could elevate Nzosa into 2022's top-10 discussion.
Otherwise, we've been monitoring Dominican guard Jean Montero. He hasn't played much in the Spanish ACB, and he shot just 26.2 percent in four games at the Adidas Next Generation Tournament in December. But there is enough evidence of Montero's scoring potential off his shiftiness, creativity and shot-making.
Colleges and the G League Ignite have been trying to land France's 6'7" shot-making wing Ousmane Dieng. And Serbian big Nikola Jovic, MVP of the ANGT who's averaging 11.7 points on 40.0 percent from three in the Adriatic League, figures to produce his way into the 2022 first-round mix.
Neither the 2021 nor 2022 draft appears to have a Luka Doncic-type franchise game-changer. But both should have a handful of promising names poised for long NBA careers.
It's always difficult to predict the breakout prospects who are poised to rise up draft boards. This year the returning players to improve their stock the most were Gonzaga's Corey Kispert, Baylor's Davion Mitchell, Texas' Kai Jones, Michigan's Franz Wagner, Connecticut's James Bouknight, Illinois' Ayo Dosunmu and Oregon's Chris Duarte.
Late lottery sounds like a best-case outcome for anyone in this group. And given how many prospects have already put their names in the 2021 draft, it's also tough to picture any projected returner cracking 2022's top 10.
Over the past month, not many can't-miss NBA prospect names have announced they'll be back, though it's worth noting many entered while preserving their NCAA eligibility.
So far, the top prospects on my board expected back include Arizona's Bennedict Mathurin, Marshall's Taevion Kinsey, Auburn's Allen Flanigan, Purdue's Jaden Ivey, Indiana's Trayce Jackson-Davis and St. John's Julian Champagnie.
We're waiting on decisions from potential 2022 first-round prospects Alabama's Josh Primo and Jahvon Quinerly, Auburn's JT Thor, Arizona State's Marcus Bagley, Pittsburgh's Justin Champagnie, Texas Tech's Terrence Shannon Jr., Virginia's Trey Murphy III and Wichita State's Tyson Etienne.
2021 vs. 2022
NBA teams should feel confident about the upcoming two draft classes.
Cunningham comes off as a strong No. 1 and there isn't too much to worry about with Mobley, Green and Suggs. Having not seen Holmgren against college-level athletes or Banchero fully unleashed with his expanded skill set, it's tougher to take either over Cunningham right now.
But overall, I'm seeing more potential stars from the 2022 class other than Banchero, Holmgren and Hardy. Right now, I'd rather gamble on the group of Smith, Griffin, Baldwin, Kennedy, Nzosa, Watson (and any unexpected breakout prospects) over Keon Johnson, Jalen Johnson, Scottie Barnes, Franz Wagner and Moses Moody.