The worst-kept secret in the NBA right now was subtly acknowledged in the most talked about deal of the 2020 trade deadline. When the Golden State Warriors sent D’Angelo Russell to Minnesota, they insisted on taking the Timberwolves’ first-round draft pick in 2021 (top-three protected) rather than a pick this year.
That might be because front offices around the league are coming to realize the 2020 draft isn’t particularly exciting. With the necessary caveat that even the weakest drafts still yield a number of high-end starters and usually at least one or two stars, the talent available at the top of this year’s class certainly feels a cut below the last several years. There remains no consensus No. 1 pick, with Anthony Edwards, LaMelo Ball, and James Wiseman all vying for the honor.
Edwards is scoring at below-average efficiency for a Georgia team that’s only one game over .500. Ball ended his season in Australia shooting 38.9 percent from the field and 27.9 percent from three-point range. Wiseman’s archetype is devalued in today’s game, and his physical tools aren’t quite as elite as they were hyped to be out of high school. Teams would feel a lot more comfortable taking any of these players outside the top three than at No. 1.
The Warriors’ request for a first-rounder a year from now went beyond just an uninspiring 2020 draft, though. At the moment, the 2021 NBA Draft looks like it’s shaping up to be something special. Teams looking to reset with a youth movement would be wise to start focusing on 2021 right now.
The 2021 draft looks really promising for a few different reasons
There’s a few things scouts are looking for when assessing how strong a draft is. Here’s a short list:
- Elite talent at the top
- Potential all-star talent that goes deep into the lottery
- Versatile athletes that fit into how the league wants to play today, and going forward.
It sure feels like the 2021 draft checks every box right now. A lot can change in the next 16.5 months, but those who have kept a close eye on the American prep scene and a couple young international pros are already seeing the signs of a very good class.
Cade Cunningham is the top prospect
Cunningham, a Texas native, might be ranked No. 3 in ESPN’s high school recruiting rankings, but there should be no debate that he currently looks like the biggest prize available in 2021. If Cunningham — who is committed to Oklahoma State — plays as well in college as his biggest supporters suspect, he might not be far behind where Luka Doncic and Zion Williamson stood as prospects before entering the draft.
Cunningham is a 6’7, 215-pound point guard currently playing his high school ball for a historically loaded Montverde team, the same school that produced Russell, Ben Simmons, and R.J. Barrett. As NBA teams have moved away from traditional point guards in favor of oversized offensive initiators, Cunningham feels like an ideal prospect for the modern era.
Cunningham is in complete control of the game with the ball in his hands. He initiates offense out of the pick-and-roll with great poise and tremendous vision, knowing he has the passing ability to find teammates if defenses collapse on him and the strength and touch to score if they don’t. His numbers as a rising senior on Nike’s EYBL circuit were absolutely dominant: 23.8 points, seven rebounds, 5.7 assists, 1.3 steals, and 1.2 blocks per game on 35 percent shooting from deep, good for a 65.9 true shooting percentage with the best box score plus-minus in the league.
Cunningham still has lots of room to grow as an outside shooter. He could be more aggressive as a scorer. But the team that lands him will give him the ball from day one and hope to have the league’s next great offensive initiator for the rest of this decade.
Evan Mobley and Jalen Green are also hyped prospects
Mobley and Green are Nos. 1 and 2 in ESPN’s high school rankings. Both have been wildly hyped throughout their high school careers because of freaky traits that simply can’t be taught.
For Mobley, it’s his rare agility at his size. A 7’ center, Mobley zooms around the court with incredible fluidity on both ends. It is almost impossible for a player with this type of size and length to move so well and get off the ground so quickly. Mobley is already there, and it serves as the foundation of what makes him a tantalizing long-term prospect. He’s committed to USC, where his brother Isaiah plays and where his dad is an assistant coach.
The term “elite athleticism” gets thrown around too much in draft evaluation, but it fits for Green. A 6’5 shooting guard out of Fresno, Green earned acclaim early in his high school career as a ridiculous leaper who also put up big scoring numbers. He has become a skilled pull-up shooter and developing passer while his thin frame continues to fill out.
Scouts are hoping Green can one day be a primary scorer who puts immense pressure on the rim with his driving while still being able to pull-up for a jump shot.
The American high school ranks are deep beyond the top three
While Cunningham feels like the front-runner to go No. 1, there’s no guarantee Mobley and Green eventually go second and third behind him. That’s because what makes the high school class of 2020 captivating is the depth within the five-star players.
There are some truly standout players with fascinating skill sets in this class. A quick primer:
- Jaden Springer: A strong, long 6’5 guard who can play on or off the ball, Springer plays with great intensity on both ends of the court, thrives attacking the rim, and has shown promising signs of a pull-up game. He’s committed to Tennessee.
Jaden Springer sets up the ball screen with the sharp cross then hits Barnes with the unbelievably filthy behind the back. No chance he wasn't hitting the pull-up after that pic.twitter.com/mwovbq3xxc— Max Carlin (@maxacarlin) January 8, 2020
- Jalen Johnson: A versatile 6’9 forward, Johnson is a nightly triple-double threat who hits the glass hard and loves to find open teammates as a passer. He’s one of the best transition players in the class. He needs to improve as a shooter. He’s committed to Duke.
- Scottie Barnes: A strong, long, and intelligent 6’8 forward, Barnes is one of the best defenders in the class and can give any lineup some unique flexibility as a small ball center. Shooting remains his biggest weakness. He’s committed to Florida State.
Scottie Barnes has become an incredible all around basketball player. Amazing IQ, defensive versatility, length, strength & physicality. I think FIBA U19 really helped him. Spent last week guarding Hunter Dickinson(7’1 250lbs) & this week guarding Sharife Cooper. pic.twitter.com/IanjOQNB6Q— Ross Homan (@Ross_homan1) December 23, 2019
- Ziaire Williams: A 6’9 wing who can attack the basket and hit a catch-and-shoot jumper, Williams was one of the EYBL’s leading scorers at 21.7 points per game while hitting 88 percent of his free throws.
- B.J. Boston: Williams’ high school teammate on Sierra Canyon, Boston is a skinny 6’6 wing with developed ball handling ability and a solid shooting stroke. He’s committed to Kentucky.
BJ Boston with the handle + touch on tough layup. Wheeeww. pic.twitter.com/5bHOMdiLh9— Max Carlin (@maxacarlin) January 4, 2020
- Terrence Clarke: An attacking 6’7 wing, Clarke is a determined scorer who reclassified after being considered the top prospect in the high school class of 2021. He’s committed to Kentucky.
- Jalen Suggs: A former top quarterback recruit, Suggs is a 6’4 point guard with impressive feel for the game and the strength to absorb contact. He’s committed to Gonzaga.
- Greg Brown: A 6’8 wing loaded with quick-twitch athleticism, Brown is a great defender who doesn’t need the ball to contribute. His offense remains a major work in progress.
Add in a wing like Tennessee commit Keon Johnson, a scoring guard in North Carolina commit Caleb Love, an explosive big man in Michigan State commit Isaiah Jackson, and a potential 3-and-D guard in Arkansas commit Moses Moody, and you have the makings of a loaded, deep class.
There will be an international presence, too
Usman Garuba looks like the top international prospect right now. The 6’8 big man is currently holding down a rotation spot for Real Madrid in the ACB league at 17 years old. He’s showed impressive physicality and defensive instincts while his shooting and passing skills are just scratching the surface. Garuba’s versatility as a small ball center will be intriguing in a league that continues to downsize.
Some impressive moments for 17-year-old Real Madrid product Usman Garuba in a win over Joventut. Started his first career ACB game, knocked down a corner 3 and showed some of his defensive versatility at 6-8. More on Garuba's game and background: https://t.co/nq7aLWwTLq pic.twitter.com/e5MvJ21f0l— Mike Schmitz (@Mike_Schmitz) September 28, 2019
Roko Prkacin is another potential lottery pick. A 6’8 scoring wing from Croatia, Prkacin has starred in FIBA youth competitions with a complete offensive package that allows him to attack the rim, pull-up from three, and find teammates as a passer.
6-8, 210, 7-0 wingspan with an NBA frame, excellent vision, defensive instincts, and a killer mentality. 15-year-old Croatian forward Roko Prkacin had himself a coming out partin in Novi Sad at the U16 Euros. https://t.co/jV7wL8vFPk pic.twitter.com/IBaHErdZlF— Mike Schmitz (@Mike_Schmitz) August 23, 2018
There’s also Ibou Badji, a 7’1 center with a reported 7’9 wingspan who averaged more than three blocks per game playing for Senegal in the 2019 U19 FIBA World Cup. More prospects will join them as the 2021 draft draws closer.
More will join them, too
Jonathan Kuminga is currently the No. 1 prospect in the 2021 high school class, but there are rumors he could reclassify to play college ball next year. If it happens, he could be a potential top-five pick as an athletic 6’8 forward with aggressive scoring instincts and an impressive feel for the game. He’s ready physically for the next level.
These are only the potential one-and-dones. There will be college veterans who make an attempt to crash the lottery, too. It’s just too difficult to project them now before we know who is entering the 2020 draft and who is staying in school.
The 2022 and 2023 classes should be deep and talented as well with Emoni Bates, Victor Wembanyama, Paolo Banchero, and A.J. Griffin profiling as the top prospects. One of those drafts will likely be the “double draft” that features the final one-and-done class and the first preps-to-pros class, assuming the NBA abolishes the age limit as is rumored to happen.
The 2020 NBA Draft might not be all that exciting, but there are many great long-term prospects in the basketball pipeline from all over the world. NBA teams better start scouting and planning now.