There was some minor drama surrounding the Pistons heading into the 2021 NBA Draft, as reports indicated they were considering multiple players and taking trade calls. Would they really pass on the opportunity to select Cade Cunningham?
Nope. Detroit went chalk to open Thursday night’s draft, choosing the Oklahoma State star with the No. 1 overall pick. Houston and Cleveland also failed to surprise the fans at the Barclays Center, taking Jalen Green and Evan Mobley at No. 2 and No. 3, respectively.
The Pistons, Rockets and Cavaliers are certainly feeling good about with their picks, but a few teams may be scratching their heads in the near future when they realize who they could have landed.
Sporting News provided instant grades as the picks were announced on Thursday. Check out our 2021 NBA Draft analysis below.
NBA Draft grades 2021: Picks, analysis from Round 1
1. Detroit Pistons — Cade Cunningham, Oklahoma State
There’s a lot to love about Cunningham, including his 3-point shooting touch, which is rare in this class. There is his command of the court; he is not one of those passers who sees what isn’t there, like a Jason Kidd or Penny Hardaway, but Cunningham always sees the pass that’s available, even if it’s a difficult angle or a player on the opposite side of the court.
What should matter most to the Pistons, hopefully, is that Cunningham is a winner. He was outstanding at the FIBA U-19 World Cup in 2019. He battled through a hotly contested Big 12 regular season and got Oklahoma State to its conference tournament title game. In a draft with no obvious superstar but lots of quality prospects, it makes great sense to draft someone who has both promise and a proven track record as a competitor.
2. Houston Rockets — Jalen Green, G League Ignite
When Green signed onto the G League Ignite program, it was described as an operation that would be little better preparation than another year spent in AAU. Better coaching, for sure, but a series of meaningless exhibition games against disinterested opposition is not going to polish a prospect into a legitimate NBA competitor. Because of the pandemic, however, the G League bubble was created so the NBA’s minor league players had somewhere to complete. The Ignite were included, so they got 15 games using NBA rules against teams pursuing playoff berths and a championship.
That was great for Green, who shot a respectable 36.5 percent on 3-pointers and averaged 17.9 points. Green will enter with an awareness of NBA rules and a feel for the 24-second clock — as well as ideal size and talent to develop into a scoring wing. And for a team that needs everything, a wing who could become an All-Star is a great place to start.
3. Cleveland Cavaliers — Evan Mobley, USC
It is a measure of the change in NBA mentality that Mobley, as the draft’s best center prospect, is not automatically the presumptive No. 1 overall pick. It’s also a measure of the change that a player with Mobley’s frame (7-0, 215 pounds) would be valued so highly at the center position. When Shaquille O’Neal was chosen No. 1 overall in 2007, he was 7-1 and 293 pounds.
But the desire now is for big men who can move on the perimeter to defend against screens, and Mobley is elite in that department. He is a developing shooter with great ball skills, especially as a passer. He thinks the game like the coach’s son he is. The more I consider him, the more I wonder if I should have had him No. 1 on my big board. He will have to grow stronger— and there is the fact wings are the most important NBA position now — but a big man with Mobley’s potential makes the Cavs one of the most exciting young teams in the league.
4. Toronto Raptors — Scottie Barnes, Florida State
He is impossible not to like and a challenge to love — at this stage, anyway. Barnes offers so much: a winning background, the ball skills to function as a point guard, a commitment to his teammates, the size to overwhelm at that position or even function at times as a small-ball power forward. Barnes played in a college system at Florida State that allowed him to learn but not to flourish; he played only 25 minutes and attempted eight shots per game. It would have been nice to see him take command more often, but that’s not how FSU sets up its program.
At the U-19 World Cup in 2019, he was more comfortable in that role, and he scored in double figures four times in seven games. So the investment here is on what might be. I believe it’s a gamble worth taking. He’s a logical pick for the Raptors because they have Fred VanVleet under contract and can use Barnes to provide them with multiple playmakers. I’ve seen him listed as a forward — and that may be the plan — but he thinks the game like a point guard.
5. Orlando Magic — Jalen Suggs, Gonzaga
He is just about everything a modern NBA team wants in a point guard: exceptional size, decent length, ball handling skill, understanding of pick-and-roll play, at least a taste for defense. He’d be even more attractive if he owned a track record as an elite shooter, but there’s every indication that will come with practice. He does not fly like Jonathan Kuminga and isn’t 6-8 like Cade Cunningham, but he has that uncanny knack for positioning his body in whatever way is necessary to succeed that is difficult to quantify and commonly overlooked when analysts discuss “athleticism.”
I’ve said this before: If you want to understand his value, watch the second half of Gonzaga’s comeback victory against BYU in the West Coast Conference title game. He would not let the Zags lose and was willing — and able — to do whatever was required to prevent it. That’s going to be harder to do with the shape the Magic are in, but he’s the kind of player around whom one can build a team.
6. Oklahoma City Thunder — Josh Giddey, Adelaide 36ers
In terms of passing ability and size, there are a lot of similarities between Giddey and Cade Cunningham. Neither has that next-level vision thing, but each has a great feel for his teammates’ locations on the court and how best to use that to his team’s advantage. Giddey is absolutely excellent in operating pick-and-roll sets and exploiting the mismatches that develop. The difference is that Giddey struggles to get by defenders and is mostly reliant on using his strength and length to finish over them. And that was against the guys from Australia’s NBL, not America’s NBA. And Giddey is a meager deep shooter at this stage.
The Thunder may or may not be thinking they’re getting the next Luka Doncic, but the Mavericks star was named Euroleague MVP at 19 years old and won the championship (largely because of his performance). Giddey played for a lousy team in Australia’s NBL. It’s not the same.
7. Golden State Warriors (via Minnesota Timberwolves) — Jonathan Kuminga, G League Ignite
The Warriors could not resist a player whose ceiling is so high he’s the only one who has the vertical leap to reach it. Drafting Kuminga is like betting a three-game parlay on your favorite gambling app. It’s harder to be sure, but the rewards are greater. Kuminga is an A++ player in terms of dynamism — at least the most explosive player to enter the league since Andrew Wiggins — but with greater length. The thing about Wiggins, though, is he keeps producing stats and never wins. And that’s the question about Kuminga.
Yes, he might win the Slam Dunk Contest during his career, but what else? He has to be more than a straight-line driver and finisher at the rim to excel in this league. If he gets himself a jumpshot — and it’s not like it’s broken – he could become a high-level scoring wing. But that seems farther off with him than other prospects in this draft. Can he even get on the floor for the Warriors at full strength?
8. Orlando Magic (via Chicago Bulls) — Franz Wagner, Michigan
He may be the single best defender in the draft, and that includes his knack from rebounding from a wing position. He’s alert, aware and physically tough against the players he checks. He passes and handles the ball extremely well and finishes at the rim with such dexterity and, when it’s called for, physical force. If he were a shooter, we would have been talking about him long before this. But he’s not. That’s after just two college seasons, and we have seen many players improve their touch after this stage.
Being drafted by the Magic, a team that is not soon contending for the playoffs, means he’ll be able to get minutes as he works on it. That’s an ideal scenario for both.
9. Sacramento Kings — Davion Mitchell, Baylor
Who really loves the game but doesn’t love Davion? OK, but the Kings maybe loved him too much. This is a team that already has Tyrese Halliburton and De’Aaron Fox, the latter on a max deal. Any other team drafting Mitchell would get an A. But this team so desperately needs frontcourt toughness, which was available to them.
Mitchell demonstrated to everyone watching the 2021 NCAA Tournament that he is an extraordinary leader. He was outstanding in leading Baylor to the title, particularly with his elite on-ball defense and first-rate shooting stroke. He’s not just a winner; he’s a champion. But he’s also the Kings’ umpteenth point guard, and, as gifted as he is, probably the least gifted of them.
10. New Orleans Pelicans — Ziaire Williams, Stanford (traded to Grizzlies)
The Pels made this pick for the Grizzlies as the result of a trade. One imagines whoever it was in New Orleans that took the phone call from Memphis having to suppress the instinct to respond: “Seriously?”
Williams is a talent, but his season at Stanford was a failure in pretty much every way it could be, from the lack of production (only 10.7 points and 4.6 rebounds per game) to the lack of shooting accuracy (37.4 percent from the field, 29.1 on threes) to the mysterious conclusion of the season, when he “did not travel with the team to Las Vegas,” as 247 Sports put it. Maybe being around Ja Morant can make him better.
11. Charlotte Hornets — James Bouknight, UConn
He’s one of the first players off the board that comes with considerable risk attached. His high-above-the floor style most likely is required for him to excel, but it’s risky given the physical stature of the players he’ll oppose. Trae Young has an even slighter build, but Young’s game is close to the ground. Bouknight is, first, an above-the-rim player, and he winds up on his behind more often than a pole vaulter.
His frequent flying might become less essential as he grows into a more consistent shooter, but a guy’s got to earn his standing (and money), and it’s hard to do that without using your greatest gifts. As a result, I worry about his ability to play 82 games a year. But what he brings at his best is hard to ignore.
12. San Antonio Spurs — Joshua Primo, Alabama
How far back do we have to go to find a time when Primo made a difference to his team? He averaged eight points in 22 minutes for Alabama. I was in the gym for the Tide’s Sweet 16 game against UCLA, but, once his name started popping up on NBA Draft sites, I didn’t remember Primo being there. And no wonder: He scored six points and missed all four of his 3-pointers in just 17 minutes of an overtime game.
For the Canadian junior national team at the FIBA U19 World Cup, he averaged four points. He does have shooting skill, but he is thin and will need too much time to be able to physically handle himself. Passing on Corey Kispert feels like the strangest move.
13. Indiana Pacers — Chris Duarte, Oregon
The first time I saw him, I immediately thought: pro. He does everything so smoothly, has such great size for the shooting guard position, nice bounce and such a great feel for offensive basketball. Obviously, it’d be nicer if he became this player at 21 or 22 rather than 24, but I don’t care if he’s 61 — I want him on my team.
It will be interesting to see how he fits into the Pacers’ current lineup, which has lots of wings, but it suggests there might be some moves coming.
14. Golden State Warriors — Moses Moody, Arkansas
If Moody had returned to Arkansas for a second season, we might be talking about him in the way James Harden was discussed when he left Arizona State in 2009. That’s not to say Moody should have stuck around Fayetteville, but it leaves open the question of how long it will take for Moody to make the next step. He went from undervalued prospect to first option on a successful NCAA Tournament team as a freshman. Now, can he be a factor at the the NBA level?
He does not need to be a star to be a worthwhile pick, not at this level in the draft and not with the team that selected him. He might just be capable, though skipping a developmental step makes it a very, very long leap.
Special tribute — Terrence Clarke, Kentucky
Lovely touch by the NBA and commissioner Adam Silver to acknowledge Terrence Clarke and his tragic death at age 19. “He will forever be a part of the NBA family,” Silver said, before announcing Clarke as an NBA draft pick and welcoming his family to the podium.
15. Washington Wizards — Corey Kispert, Gonzaga
His stumbles in the late stages of the NCAA Tournament — he shot a combined 7 of 25 from distance from the Elite Eight through the title game — might have dimmed the enthusiasm for Kipsert. But the defensive attention generated against him in those game will almost never be mounted by an NBA opponent. He’ll get shots, like Danny Green did in San Antonio, because opponents will be focused on stopping Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, Kawhi Leonard and Tony Parker. (Well, not those three specifically, of course).
Kispert will have to grow into being as spirited a defender as Green, but his success will be based on delivering as a long-range shooter. He will.
16. Oklahoma City Thunder (via Boston Celtics) — Alperen Sengun, Besiktas (traded to Rockets)
The Thunder made this pick for the Rockets because of a trade, and they might have been tempted to reconsider after hearing his name. Sengun is a warrior. What separates him from accomplished young U.S. big men like Luka Garza is length, quickness in tight spaces and the ability to change ends — but mostly length. Sengun is not a high-flyer, either, but his reach allows even the smallest jump to put him well above the rim.
He put up big numbers in the Turkish Super League, where he was MVP at age 19. So many European prospects arrive having played so little, either because they’re unprepared to compete in Spain or Italy or, more likely, their teams are trying to hide them from overseas scouts. Besiktas didn’t make that mistake. They got an elite performance out of him. In time, so will the Rockets.
17. Memphis Grizzlies — Trey Murphy III, Virginia (traded to Pelicans)
The Grizzlies made this pick for the Pelicans because they exchanged selections as part of a multi-player trade. And the weird thing is, though New Orleans got the guy chosen seven spots later, it wound up with the better player. Murphy, the guy who got a year of coaching from Tony Bennett and shot 40 percent from 3-point range for his career on 191 makes in three seasons — or Ziaire Williams? Is that a trick question?
18. Oklahoma City Thunder (via Boston Celtics) — Tre Mann, Florida
He has the potential to develop into a very fine NBA point guard. He has excellent size for the position and really picked up his play as the games got bigger for the Gators last season. He was maybe one year away from playing himself into the lottery, but hey, the Thunder are the kind of team he’d wind up in that circumstance.
The only question is, why would OKC use two first-round picks on the same position? Obviously, you can deploy more than one playmaker at the same time, but it’s not like this team doesn’t have a lot of needs.
19. New York Knicks — Kai Jones, Texas (traded to Hornets)
It’s hard to find an example of a player in Kai’s mold who was drafted in a prominent position and went on to excel, which is maybe why he landed here. Everyone says the game has evolved away from big men, but in recent years when teams saw an unfinished prospect with this sort of size and A-plus level dynamism, they couldn’t resist. Apparently, they can now.
Most recent picks similar to Jones turned into, at best, functional frontcourt players their employers used sparingly while continuing to recite the “Hamilton” line: Just you wait. Jonathan Isaac missed a year to injury, but he still hasn’t hit a dozen points per game. Cody Zeller has eight years in the league and still hasn’t. Jaxson Hayes has been in the league two years and plays less than 17 minutes on average. One can love Jones’ enthusiastic approach and still be skeptical he’ll ever be more than a second-quarter energy guy.
20. Atlanta Hawks — Jalen Johnson, Duke
He departed IMG Academy while in high school and left Duke with roughly half the college season still remaining. This wasn’t the dreamiest Duke basketball season ever, but not many simply walk away from “The Brotherhood,” as Duke calls its alumni base. I cannot shake the words of the NBA personnel executive who told me about Johnson: “This guy has created issues at his last two stops. If that doesn’t give you pause, I don’t know what will.”
The Hawks have a winning culture now, and a rookie is not going to destroy that. He has an NBA body with his strength and length. But he struggles as a shooter and, as we said, has struggled with commitment.
21. New York Knicks (via Dallas Mavericks) — Keon Johnson, Tennessee (traded to Clippers)
I feel like the Knicks gave up both of the picks they were slated to make because the Thunder chose Mann. For the Clippers, this ranks among the most speculative picks in the draft because Johnson has yet to prove himself as a shooter — or, honestly, as a player. He got 26 minutes per game from Tennessee coach Rick Barnes and shot only 27 percent from 3-point range.
But he grades out as an “A” player in terms of dynamism and he excels with the ball in his hands. If there is a successful player he resembles most, it is Jazz star Donovan Mitchell, and “Spida” actually produced less as a college freshman: 7.4 points and 25 percent deep shooting in just 19 minutes per game. The difference now is that Johnson rushed into the league. Mitchell waited a year.
22. Los Angeles Lakers — Isaiah Jackson, Kentucky (traded to Pacers)
That players such as Williams and Primo went ahead of Jackson shows how much NBA teams are valuing dynamic young wings rather than dynamic young bigs. Jackson does not fit the current mold for frontcourt players. He tried only two 3-pointers at Kentucky and missed them both.
But he does have ability as a baseline shooter. And he could progress into an elite frontcourt defender. He gets off his feet so quickly and reads shooters so well. It seemed unlikely that minutes would be there early in his career in LA, as the Lakers focus on winning another title. Which is why it makes sense they would trade the pick away to the Pacers.
23. Houston Rockets (via Portland Trail Blazers) — Usman Garuba, Real Madrid
He is a relatively traditional power forward, the sort of player who would have been coveted a decade ago. He is physically powerful, especially for a 19-year-old, and he has played for Real Madrid in Spain’s ACB and for the Spain national team in the Olympics, though the minutes have been limited in both places.
He always will play hard, but he has much to improve about his shooting touch to be able to play for a successful NBA team. But the Rockets are nowhere near that, so he might get a lot of run as a rookie.
24. Houston Rockets (via Milwaukee Bucks) — Josh Christopher, Arizona State
And the run continues of players who were really not good as collegians becoming first-rounders. Is there some vast collection of failed college players who overcame that to become proficient pros? There are a few, but the list is not robust.
Christopher joined a team that was on the rise and soon it was on the decline, and this was no coincidence at all. He shot 30.5 percent on 3-pointers and attempted few of them. If he’d shot 40 percent from deep and had all the same concerns, OK. He was not close to that. It’s 185 miles from Houston to Waco. They couldn’t have gotten over there at least once to see Jared Butler?
25. Los Angeles Clippers — Quentin Grimes, Houston (traded to Knicks)
If there’s any player in the first round whose selection feels like a victory for the game, it’s Grimes. He was one of those five-star prospects at a blue-blood school in the fall of 2018, and he started his college career at Kansas with a brilliant game on national TV against Michigan State. And then it got hard. And he struggled. And when his freshman year was over, he flirted with the draft and decided he needed a fresh start.
He transferred to Houston, and two years later he was an All-American, a star on a Final Four team and a first-round pick. Good for him. Good for the Knicks, who wind up with a rugged, spot-up shooter.
26. Denver Nuggets — Nah’Shon “Bones” Hyland, VCU
The first thing that came to mind when the Nuggets selected him was this: If a baseball flies farther at altitude, does that mean “Bones” has even greater range as a shooter? Because he’s already as comfortable firing a 30-footer as some players are attempting a layup.
In a league that values shooting more than ever, a player who truly has disruptive range, like Trae Young or Stephen Curry, can make a terrific difference. Hyland will not have that sort of career, but he can be a terrific weapon for a team that knows how to score.
27. Brooklyn Nets — Cameron Thomas, LSU
A natural scorer, Thomas started getting buckets immediately upon arriving at LSU. He was encouraged to shoot, even though his percentages were not exceptional, because it helped weaken opposing defense.
It will be interesting to see how his game evolves in a situation where he either does not play much or is required to be disciplined in his shot selection. It could force him to become a more tactical player. Let’s not forget that LSU lost a significant talent in Skylar Mays from the 2019-20 team and did not slip, in large part because Thomas was such an offensive force.
28. Philadelphia 76ers — Jaden Springer, Tennessee
He’s not as tall or long as the young wings who became the surprises of this draft, but don’t be surprised if he outscores all of them as rookies. Springer is reminiscent of Buddy Hield — without the three extra years Hield spent at Oklahoma growing into dominance. Springer is an excellent shooter who hit 43.5 percent from deep as a freshman, and he excels at creating opportunities for himself. At this stage of the draft, he’s a bargain.
29. Phoenix Suns — Day’Ron Sharpe, North Carolina (traded to Knicks)
His size and quickness proved alluring to the Nets, who will receive this pick in a trade from the Suns. He is not a shooter and not a significant post scorer, but he will rebound, run and work to learn how to defend.
If college were to be a one-year stop for him, it probably would have been a good idea to pick a school that didn’t already have two experienced big men on the roster, which Carolina did. Sharpe played only 19 minutes per game, and it feels like we would know more about his potential if we’d seen more.
30. Utah Jazz — Santi Aldama, Loyola (MD) (traded to Grizzlies)
If you had this guy in your mock draft, congratulations, you win the “Best Mock Draft” trophy. A lot of people doing such work, including me, either forgot about him or underrated him in the pre-draft process. But he makes more sense than some of the bigs who went ahead of him.
He’s got the size, some outrageous ball skills and a shooting touch that registered 37 percent from 3-point range. His team was bad, but it did make a nice run at the Patriot League tournament. This might be the Grizzlies’ best pick.
|31.||Milwaukee Bucks (via Houston Rockets) — Isaiah Todd, G League Ignite (traded to Wizards)|
|32.||New York Knicks (via Detroit Pistons) — Jeremiah Robinson-Earl, Villanova (traded to Thunder)|
|33.||Orlando Magic — Jason Preston, Ohio (traded to Clippers)|
|34.||Oklahoma City Thunder — Rokas Jokubaitis, FC Barcelona (traded to Knicks)|
|35.||New Orleans Pelicans (via Cleveland Cavaliers) — Herbert Jones, Alabama|
|36.||Oklahoma City Thunder (via Minnesota Timberwolves) — Miles McBride, West Virginia (traded to Knicks)|
|37.||Detroit Pistons (via Toronto Raptors) — JT Thor, Auburn (traded to Hornets)|
|38.||Chicago Bulls (via New Orleans Pelicans) — Ayo Dosunmu, Illinois|
|39.||Sacramento Kings — Neemias Queta, Utah State|
|40.||New Orleans Pelicans (via Chicago Bulls) — Jared Butler, Baylor (traded to Jazz)|
|41.||San Antonio Spurs — Joe Wieskamp, Iowa|
|42.||Detroit Pistons (via Charlotte Hornets) — Isaiah Livers, Michigan|
|43.||New Orleans Pelicans (via Washington Wizards) — Greg Brown III, Texas (traded to Trail Blazers)|
|44.||Brooklyn Nets (via Indiana Pacers) — Kessler Edwards, Pepperdine|
|45.||Boston Celtics — Juhann Begarin, Paris Basketball|
|46.||Toronto Raptors (via Memphis Grizzlies) — Dalano Banton, Nebraska|
|47.||Toronto Raptors (via Golden State Warriors) — David Johnson, Louisville|
|48.||Atlanta Hawks (via Miami Hawks) — Sharife Cooper, Auburn|
|49.||Brooklyn Nets (via Atlanta Hawks) — Marcus Zegarowski, Creighton|
|50.||Philadelphia 76ers (via New York Knicks) — Filip Petrusev, Mega Basket|
|51.||Memphis Grizzlies (via Portland Trail Blazers) — Brandon Boston Jr., Kentucky (traded to Clippers)|
|52.||Detroit Pistons (via Los Angeles Lakers) — Luka Garza, Iowa|
|53.||New Orleans Pelicans (via Dallas Mavericks) — Charles Bassey, Western Kentucky (traded to 76ers)|
|54.||Indiana Pacers (via Milwaukee Bucks) — Sandro Mamukelashvili, Seton Hall (traded to Bucks)|
|55.||Oklahoma City Thunder (via Denver Nuggets) — Aaron Wiggins, Maryland|
|56.||Charlotte Hornets (via Los Angeles Clippers) — Scottie Lewis, Florida|
|57.||Charlotte Hornets (via Brooklyn Nets) — Balsa Koprivica, Florida State (traded to Pistons)|
|58.||New York Knicks (via Philadelphia 76ers) — Jericho Sims, Texas|
|59.||Brooklyn Nets (via Phoenix Suns) — RaiQuan Gray, Florida State|
|60.||Indiana Pacers (via Utah Jazz) — Georgios Kalaitzakis, Panathinaikos (traded to Bucks)|