If the 2021 NBA Draft looks fairly strong, it’s because of prospects 2-4.
Cade Cunningham would be a fairly average No. 1 pick. Which is no slight. No. 1 picks tend to be pretty darned good.
However, after that, I see a steep drop. Of course, there will be finds. So, it’s worth assessing deeper into the draft.
How this works:
Draft for need or take the best player available?
It’s the question as old as drafts themselves. Personally, I favor the middle-of-the-road approach – the tier system. I judge prospects on three attributes:
Obviously, assessing those attributes is not easy. It’s really hard.
That’s why I don’t like taking the best prospect – based on all three criteria – available. It’s just too difficult to split hairs between players with so many variables.
But overly considering fit is problematic for the same reason. Rosters churn, and it’s foolish to pass on a clearly better prospect – in the cases that becomes clear – just because he doesn’t fit the current version of the team.
So how does the tier system work?
Divide players into tiers based on their value regardless of fit. Don’t worry about differentiating prospects with nearly identical values. Find natural cutoffs.
Then, within each tier, rank the players based on fit for the specific drafting team.
Theoretically, a draft could have anywhere between 1 and 60 tiers. A 1-tier draft would mean every prospect – from the top pick to Mr. Irrelevant – holds the same value. A 60-tier draft would mean every prospect is clearly distinguishable based on value. Obviously, neither is likely.
The size of tiers should be organic, and therefore, the number of tiers is also organic. Naturally, tiers tend to be smaller near the top of the draft, where lines between players are sharper.
Within each tier, I rank players as if the drafting teams had empty rosters. Obviously, actual NBA teams would need to consider other information when assessing fit of players within a tier.
Here are the 10 tiers that cover the first round of the 2021 NBA draft:
1. Cade Cunningham, point guard/wing, Oklahoma State
The consensus top player in this draft, Cunningham lacks the explosive athleticism to rate among the very best prospects of recent years. But he checks enough boxes to warrant going No. 1. He’s a knockdown shooter. He sees the court well, and he’s strong enough to make every pass. Big (6-foot-8) and physical, he navigates the court well enough to overcome his inability to create space through quickness/burst. The (limited) ways he struggled at Oklahoma State – turnovers, poor mid-range shooting – were directly tied to the massive defensive attention he received. His size is a plus defensively.
2. Jalen Green, shooting guard, G League Ignite
Green is an electric athlete and smooth shooter, a highly intriguing combination. He can detonate to the rim or dribble into lightning-quick pull-up jumpers. His passing has improved, though nobody will mistake him for a point guard. His defense remains unimpressive, and his slight frame limits his upside on that end.
3. Evan Mobley, big, USC
Only special centers should be drafted this high, and Mobley might qualify. He could be the rare center whose game completely holds up deep into the playoffs. A 7-footer with a 7-foot-4 wingspan and nice hops, he protects the rim well and moves so fluidly in space. Defensive rebounding and post defense must improve, though they should as he gets stronger. Offensively, he’s best screening, rolling and finishing above the rim. His ball-handling unlocks a higher ceiling. Mobley has also shown tantalizing flashes as a passer and outside shooter.
4. Jalen Suggs, point guard, Gonzaga
Suggs imposes his will on games with his athleticism and tenacity. He plays with such force on both ends of the floor, attacking as a driver and distributor and hounding opponents defensively. He plays hardnosed defense, often gambling for steals (usually productively). That fuels his excellent transition game. His competitiveness shines.
5. Scottie Barnes, forward, Florida State
Barnes hounds opponents on and off the ball defensively. At 6-foot-9, long and built, he guards every position and communicates so well. His intensity is contagious. However, his choppy jumper could be a flaw that undermines everything. His driving and passing will get him only so far if he can’t shoot 3s.
6. Jonathan Kuminga, forward, G League Ignite
Kuminga is extremely raw. Which is OK, considering he’s just 18 and incredibly athletic. At least in the short term, he’d be well-served moving closer to power forward than small forward on the positional spectrum. His unadvanced ball skills wouldn’t be such a liability at power forward. At 6-foot-8, he has the strength to hold up inside.
7. James Bouknight, shooting guard, Connecticut
Bouknight passed many eye tests by making difficult shots and finishing way above the rim. But his efficiency on jumpers was poor, and he had had more turnovers than assists. Maybe his wild shot selection was a product of his situation. Still, Bouknight will need work fitting into a good NBA offense. He’s not much of an off-ball threat. But his drives and pull-ups are tantalizing – a quick burst, shiftiness as heads to the rim then either a compact pull-up or athletic finish. He’s an inconsistent defender.
8. Josh Giddey, point forward, Adelaide (Australia)
Giddey is a phenomenal passer, including using his handle to create angles. At 6-foot-8, he really sees the court. He’s an aggressive driver. But his jumper needs major work. He could be overwhelmed as a ballhandler and individual defender in the NBA until he gets stronger. However, just 18, he should fill out more. His rebounding and team defense indicate his basketball intelligence will translate into other facets of his game once he becomes more athletically capable.
9. Franz Wagner, forward, Michigan
Wagner’s defensive anticipation stands out, though top NBA athletes will test him. He can handle and pass as a secondary creator, though he lacks the explosiveness to run the offense. His 3-pointer will be a swing skill. His efficiency at Michigan was merely OK, but he looks like he should shoot better.
10. Moses Moody, wing, Arkansas
Moody fits the 3-and-D mold – including the implication the rest of his game is limited. He’s a good spot-up 3-point shooter. He’s a smart defender who moves his feet well and has good length. But he’s not going to create much offensively, though he can at least get into the mid-range and sometimes use his craft to draw fouls as he gets closer to the rim.
11. Alperen Sengun, center, Besiktas (Turkey)
Sengun won MVP of Turkey’s top league at just 18. But it’s unclear how Sengun’s old-school game will translate. He was a fantastic interior scorer – shooting efficiently on post-ups, rolls, drives, offensive rebounds. However, the 6-foot-10 Sengun will face greater length and athleticism in the NBA. Encouragingly, he’s a willing – though overly ambitious – passer and has potential as an outside shooter. Discouragingly, he has so many bad habits defensively. Even if he cleans those up, he looks like neither a rim protector nor someone quick enough to defend many power forwards.
12. Jalen Johnson, forward, Duke
Johnson leaving Duke during the season raises concerns, though it’s tough to tell whether they’re overblown. His athleticism shines in transition. He glides across the court, finishes above the rim and makes good decisions as a passer. But he struggles in the halfcourt, where he doesn’t have enough craft as a ballhandler or touch as a shooter. His defense is more versatile than stout.
13. Keon Johnson, shooting guard, Tennessee
Johnson has eye-popping athleticism and plays with a high motor. He glues to his man defensively. He has shown flashes as mid-range shooter and passer. But he must expand his range and tighten his handle. Or maybe the 6-foot-5 19-year-old could play as a small-ball four once he gets stronger.
14. Jared Butler, point guard, Baylor
Butler was flagged medically in the pre-draft process though ultimately cleared. He’s a smooth shooter and ball-handler, though he lacks explosiveness. He makes the right reads as a passer but doesn’t tilt the defense enough to be a top playmaker. His defense is more sound than harassing on the ball, and at 6-foot-2, he’ll struggle to guard multiple positions.
15. Davion Mitchell, point guard, Baylor
Mitchell is a pesky, physical on-ball defender. He has expanded his offense, getting more creative in his moves and sharpening his court vision, as a 22-year-old. His 3-pointer has also improved, though not to the point it’s reliable. He must draw more fouls at the next level to score efficiently. Mitchell’s track record of growth and fiery attitude are commendable, but the 6-foot-2 guard will face real challenges translating to the next level.
16. Trey Murphy, forward, Virginia
Murphy is a 3-and-D player who can guard multiple positions. His 3-pointer is less versatile, as he was good with his feet set but not as reliable on the move or off the dribble. He’s not an offensive creator, for himself or others. But he can finish above the rim if set up on a cut. His rebounding would be an issue at power forward, though that’s where he’d create the most matchup advantages.
17. Usman Garuba, big, Real Madrid
Garuba was already a good defender in Europe’s top league as a teenager. He protected the rim and guarded on the perimeter, using his smarts to make hustle plays everywhere. He can put the ball on the floor after grabbing rebounds, and he can pass in the halfcourt. But his offense – especially shooting – is undeveloped. He’ll probably have to play center, though he’s just 6-foot-8.
18. Ziaire Williams, wing, Stanford
His combination of size (6-foot-8), athletic fluidity and ball skills is rare. But he struggled in his lone season at Stanford. Maybe that was a product of this year’s unique challenges. The 19-year-old could also improve significantly – as a defender, as a driver – as he gains mass. But his struggles, particularly as a shooter and decisionmaker, are concerning.
19. Nah’Shon “Bones” Hyland, guard, Virginia Commonwealth
Hyland is an awesome 3-point shooter who can pull from deep. His range helps him blow by defenders and get to the basket, where he’s a creative finisher. However, Hyland often has tunnel vision, looking for only his own shot. At 6-foot-3, even with a 6-foot-9 wingspan, he’s a limited defender due to his rail-thin frame. So, Hyland must either get significantly stronger, improve his passing to play point guard himself or play next to a bigger point guard, which limits Hyland’s fits.
20. Josh Primo, shooting guard, Alabama
Primo is a good 3-point shooter and just 18. It’s possible to see how the rest of his game will round out, but it’ll take time. His offensive moves are too simplistic, especially given his lack of explosiveness. He has shown disappointingly little as a passer. His defensive competitiveness is encouraging.
21. Chris Duarte, shooting guard, Oregon
Duarte enters the NBA relatively polished. He better be. He’s already 24. Duarte is a good 3-point shooter. He can handle the ball and pass, too. He’s a sound defender. But his lack of speed limits him on both ends.
22. Jaden Springer, guard, Tennessee
Springer is a tenacious defender. He struggles to gain separation through either burst or creative ball-handling, and he plays below the rim. But he compensates by being so decisive, being comfortable amid contact and finding creative passing angles. He shoots efficiently on 3-pointers, but he must accelerate his motion to get more off. Just 18, he has more time than most to improve.
23. Corey Kispert, wing, Gonzaga
Kispert is an excellent 3-point shooter who launches in any setting. He gets open looks by running in transition and relocating within the halfcourt. But is he more than a specialist? His athleticism and ball-handling significantly limit him. Though he competes defensively, especially against bigger players, he is slow on that end.
24. Cameron Thomas, shooting guard, LSU
Thomas is score-first, score-second and score-third. He hunts pull-ups from beyond the arc and in the mid-range – and makes plenty, including difficult ones. Self-created offense is a premium skill, and Thomas has it. But his shot selection is troublesome, too often settling for tough jumpers. He does a good job drawing fouls along the way (then making free throws), but he too rarely gets all the way to the rim. His passing is poor, and his defense is worse.
25. Isaiah Jackson, center, Kentucky
An exceptionally athletic big, Jackson fouls too much. But that’s because he’s trying – and often succeeding – to block everything inside and out. He can move on the perimeter, a mobility that also helps him rim run offensively. He even shows potential as a mid-range shooter, though he takes too many jumpers. His effectiveness should improve as he fills out, but he also needs work on his awareness.
26. JT Thor, big, Auburn
At 6-foot-9 with a 7-foot-3 wingspan and plus athleticism, Thorn can both protect the rim and hold his own the perimeter defensively. He gambles too much, though does so without fouling. His 3-point shot is projectable, though not yet good. The 18-year-old must develop better offensive feel and get stronger.
27. Josh Christopher, shooting guard, Arizona State
Christopher is a powerful athlete with a nice bag of moves. He carries an obvious upside. But he must iron out his 3-point shooting and clean up his defense.
28. Tre Mann, shooting guard, Florida
Mann is a dynamic self-creator off the dribble. He’s mainly looking to get off his own jumper, which he does pretty efficiently. But he’d generate more faith if he better channeled his athleticism into getting to the rim, creating openings for teammates and/or defending.
29. Sharife Cooper, point guard, Auburn
Cooper is a maestro attacking with the ball. His accelerations get teammates open (leading to his slick, though sometimes too aggressive, passes) and draw fouls (leading to his efficient free throws). But he’s just 6-foot-1 and doesn’t shoot well from distance. That’s a tough combination to overcome.
30. Joe Wieskamp, wing, Iowa
Wieskamp’s calling card is 3-point shooting. He can spot up and come around screens, giving him high-end role-player potential. He tested very well athletically at the combine – a surprise given how exploitable he was defensively at Iowa. He must improve his flexibility for those testing numbers to reflect actual ability. But the possibility clearly exists.
31. Miles McBride, point guard, West Virginia
McBride is a dogged defender, though just 6-foot-2. He gains enough separation to get up pull-up jumpers from mid-range and beyond the arc. But he’s not explosive enough to get to the rim often. He makes solid passes. However, sometimes it seems he has decided to shoot or pass beforehand rather than reading the defense as he goes.
32. Kai Jones, center, Texas
Highly athletic, Jones is great in transition. He creates his own opportunities with a perimeter defense that belies his 6-foot-10 frame. He has even shown advanced moves off the dribble and glimpses of outside shooting. But he struggles to make his presence felt defensively.