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NBA mock draft 2021: Meet the prospects who can rise in March Madness

These are the players NBA fans should be watching in the NCAA tournament.

The 2021 NCAA tournament is here, and so is the final opportunity for college basketball’s best and brightest to leave a lasting impression on NBA scouts and GMs in a competitive environment. While the projected first round includes plenty of players who won’t be part of the tournament because they played in the G League, overseas, or for a college team that didn’t qualify, the players who will be competing in the big dance are about to enter the biggest spotlight of their young careers.

It seems like a player shoots up NBA draft boards with a big performance every year. De’Andre Hunter’s rise into the No. 4 overall pick in the 2019 NBA Draft stands out after he helped lead Virginia to a national championship. Donte DiVincenzo also saw his stock soar to eventually become the No. 17 overall pick in the 2018 draft after being named Most Outstanding Player of Villanova’s national title run.

There’s plenty of money to be made in March, and this season should be no different. With that in mind, here’s a look at our projection of the first round of the draft as it stands entering the tournament.

Selections were made with a greater emphasis on best available player than fit, though fit was factored into some picks. Of the 30 projected first round picks, 15 players will be competing in the NCAA tournament. 15 are playing in the NCAA tournament.

Here’s a table with our projected picks, followed by analysis of the biggest themes in this year’s class below.

2021 NBA mock draft

Pick Team Player From Position Age
Pick Team Player From Position Age
1 Minnesota Timberwolves Cade Cunningham Oklahoma State Guard Freshman
2 Detroit Pistons Evan Mobley USC Big Freshman
3 Houston Rockets Jalen Suggs Gonzaga Guard Freshman
4 Orlando Magic Jalen Green G League Ignite Guard Freshman
5 Cleveland Cavaliers Jonathan Kuminga G League Ignite Wing Freshman
6 Washington Wizards Moses Moody Arkansas Wing Freshman
7 Sacramento Kings Keon Johnson Tennessee Wing Freshman
8 New Orleans Pelicans Ziaire Williams Stanford Wing Freshman
9 Oklahoma City Thunder Jaden Springer Tennessee Guard Freshman
10 Indiana Pacers Franz Wagner Michigan Wing Sophomore
11 Chicago Bulls Jalen Johnson Duke Wing Freshman
12 Toronto Raptors Scottie Barnes Florida State Wing Freshman
13 Golden State Warriors Kai Jones Texas Big Sophomore
14 Memphis Grizzlies Corey Kispert Gonzaga Wing Senior
15 Atlanta Hawks James Bouknight UConn Guard Sophomore
16 New York Knicks Sharife Cooper Auburn Guard Freshman
17 Charlotte Hornets Usman Garuba Spain Big Born 2002
18 Boston Celtics Greg Brown Texas Big/Wing Freshman
19 Oklahoma City Thunder Josh Giddey Australia Guard Born 2002
20 New York Knicks BJ Boston Kentucky Wing Freshman
21 San Antonio Spurs Alperen Sengun Turkey Big Born 2002
22 Houston Rockets Ariel Hukporti Germany Big Born 2002
23 Denver Nuggets Roko Prkacin Croatia Wing Born 2002
24 Milwaukee Buks Tre Mann Florida Guard Freshman
25 Los Angeles Clippers Ayo Donsumu Illinois Guard Junior
26 Los Angeles Lakers Daishen Nix G League Ignite Guard Freshman
27 Brooklyn Nets Kessler Edwards Pepperdine Wing Junior
28 Philadelphia 76ers Jared Butler Baylor Guard Junior
29 Phoenix Suns Josh Christopher Arizona State Guard/Wing Freshman
30 Utah Jazz Bennedict Mathurin Arizona Wing Freshman

Here some takeaways from the board with a focus on players competing in the NCAA tournament.

Cade Cunningham and Evan Mobley make this draft special at the top

There’s a consensus opinion forming ahead of the NCAA tournament that the top-five of this draft looks historically strong. While that’s certainly a possibility, we’ll limit our greatest enthusiasm to the top-two prospects available: Oklahoma State guard Cade Cunningham and USC big man Evan Mobley.

Cunningham would be in contention to be the No. 1 overall pick in any draft as the type of oversized primary creator every team covets. At 6’8, Cunningham has great vision in the pick-and-roll as a passer and and the strength and touch to finish as a scorer. His shooting was supposed to be a question mark coming into college, but he’s responded by making 41.2 percent of his attempts on high-volume and a steady diet of tough pull-ups. Cunningham is also a great defensive prospect compared to other primary creators, having the ability to stick or switch onto big forwards at the other end while handling the ball on offense.

Cunningham went off for 25 points, eight rebounds, and five assists on 7-of-16 shooting from the field and 4-of-10 from shooting three-point range to lead Oklahoma State to a win over South region No. 1 seed Baylor in the Big 12 tournament semifinals. It felt like a defining performance against a powerful opponent to give Baylor only their second loss of the season.

Mobley is an outrageous talent in his own right who feels a little under-appreciated playing for USC. The 7-foot big man is an elite defensive prospect with quick feet, long arms, and a great feel for when to attack the ball as a shot blocker. Offensively, Mobley is a high-level passer who makes quick decisions with the ball and should provide major value as a release value in the pick-and-roll. While he’s not wired to put up big scoring numbers, Mobley has flashed three-point range on his jump shot (11-of-35 on the year) and should be more comfortable scoring at the rim as he gets stronger. Mobley doesn’t look like the low post behemoths of prior generations, but he has a wonderful skill set for the modern game and is just starting to tap into his long-term potential.

Mobley put all of his talent on display during a 26-point, nine-rebound performance in the Pac-12 tournament semifinals.

Cunningham is the no-brainer first pick because of his positional value and the team building avenues he unlocks. Mobley is a hell of a consolation prize, though.

Jalen Suggs can lock in his No. 3 status during the NCAA tournament

We almost included Suggs under that first subhead. The Gonzaga freshman might not have the upside of Cunningham and Mobley, but he could be a multiple-time All-Star in the right setting who brings so much to the table without any glaring weaknesses in his skill set.

Suggs is a 6’3 guard who has helped power Gonzaga’s undefeated start from the first game of the season. He’s a deadly transition threat, throwing outlet passes to teammates after rebounds and showing speed and finishing craft when he has the ball himself in the open floor. He’s proven he’s a quality shooter (35.4 percent from deep 79 attempts) from three-point range in the half-court, and grades out as ‘very good’ (76th percentile) in his pick-and-roll ball handling opportunities, per Synergy Sports. Suggs is also a smart defender who makes quick rotations but is limited on switches because of his size.

Questions about whether Suggs is best suited as a primary creator or more of a combo guard role is the only thing holding him back from joining the top-two in the elite tier. While Jalen Green and Jonathan Kuminga are legit challengers for the No. 3 pick, Suggs should be able to wrap up the spot with a standout tournament run for the heavily favored Zags.

Moses Moody should be rising

What’s not to love about Moses Moody? The Arkansas freshman has been on-fire over the last month and has a clear role projection into the NBA. A 6’6 wing with a 7’1 wingspan, Moody fits the 3-and-D mold to a tee while providing more juice as an individual scorer than many in the archetype. His recent run has included a 24-point performance against No. 2 seed Alabama, and 28 points each against South Carolina, Texas A&M and LSU where he combined to go 13-for-27 from deep over the three games.

Moody enters the NCAA tournament hitting 38 percent of his threes on high volume (145 attempts) while also making nearly 82 percent of his free throws. Those are some wonderful shooting indicators for a player whose biggest impact could be felt on the defensive end early in his career. Moody enters the field coming off a 28-point performance against LSU in the SEC tournament:

Players with the 3-and-D label often face questions about their upside, but the success of Mikal Bridges this year in Phoenix helps show just how valuable these players can be. Moody feels like he can fit into any lineup and be successful. If he slips much further than No. 6 where we have him today, it’s likely he’ll be a more valuable contributor than several players drafted before him.

Keon Johnson and Jaden Springer can blow up in March Madness

Tennessee has felt a little underwhelming as a team all season, but as they enter the NCAA tournament as a No. 5 seed, its two star freshmen have the opportunity to fly up draft boards. Keon Johnson can lock himself into the top-10 with a big tournament run, with the potential to rise as high as No. 6. Springer has been less highly-touted in NBA circles throughout the year, but freshman could shed to sleeper status by showing out on the biggest stage.

Johnson is a late bloomer who has emerged as a lottery pick because of his tremendous physical gifts and impressive feel for the game. The 6’5 guard might be the most impressive athlete in the class, showcasing immense lateral quickness and vertical explosion around the rim. He’s already able to impact the game offensively as a cutter without the ball in the hands, and his shooting and dribbling ability appear to be improving as a great rate. Johnson could be a standout defender against guards in the NBA even with questions about his frame (he’s listed at 186 pounds). A couple more big tournament performances should have NBA folks feeling like he’s just scratching the surface.

Springer has been battle-tested in big games throughout his high school career before enjoying a solid freshman season with the Vols. The 6’3 guard is a bulldozer going to the rim, able to create space with strength and counters when he gets into the paint. Like Johnson, he’s also a tough defender who has been a big part of a top-five unit in the country. There will be questions on if he’s better suited for an on- or off-ball role, and if his three-point shooting (44 percent from three on 45 attempts) holds up, but his combination of youth (he’s one of the youngest freshmen in this class), competitiveness, and two-way projection is worth betting on in the lottery.

If Tennessee plays Oklahoma State and Cade Cunningham in the round of 32, it will be the best prospect matchup in college basketball all season.

Franz Wagner and Scottie Barnes don’t need to be takeover scorers to rise

Scouts will be hoping for a matchup between No. 1 seed Michigan and No. 4 seed Florida State in the Sweet 16 of the East region to see their big wings square-off. Both Wolverines forward Franz Wagner and FSU’s Scottie Barnes stand at 6’9 and project as defense-first prospects who bring unique skill sets to the position. Neither player will be expected to be a 20 point per game scorer in the NBA, but each owns a fascinating package of skills worthy of being selected in the lottery.

Wagner is an intriguing defensive prospect who has posted an impressive 3.4 percent block rate and 2.6 percent steal rate this season. He’s shown an ability to space the floor by making 38.4 percent of his 86 attempts from three-point range, and his career 84 percent mark from the foul line should give teams confidence in his shooting projection moving forward. Wagner has also looked good in his reps as a pick-and-roll ball handler this year, scoring in the 76th percentile on plays that take up nearly a quarter of his total opportunities.

Barnes is a 6’9, 230-pound freshman who was listed as Florida State’s point guard to begin the year. He struggles to shoot from the perimeter (30 percent on 37 attempts) and doesn’t have great vertical pop around the basket, but his versatile defense and advanced passing for his size gives him a clear path to upside. With a 7’2 wingspan, Barnes can harass ball handlers and matchup with many bigs to give great utility as a pick-and-roll defender. Offensively, can add value as a release value in the pick-and-roll. You don’t see players this big who are this comfortable slinging dimes very often.

While Barnes is a freshman and Wagner is a sophomore, Wagner is actually younger by nearly a month.

Kai Jones’ flash plays are so tantalizing

Jones feels like the biggest riser of the college season, going from a sparsely used freshman to a breakout sophomore for a surging Texas team that starts its tournament run as a No. 3 seed. At 6’11, 220 pounds, Jones has a tantalizing package of skills that would play well in today’s league if it all comes together.

Jones is the sixth leading scorer on his own team averaging 8.8 points per game, but it’s his flash plays that are so enticing. Just watch this step-back three.

Or this acrobatic finish.

Or this transition finishing:

His defense has been good, too. A few more wild highlights like this and Jones

Ayo Dosumnu’s NBA draft stock can rise in the NCAA tournament. Same with Florida guard Tre Mann

While Dosunmu and Mann have little in common other than both being ball handlers, we’ll list them together as players who could really help their draft stock with an impressive showing in the tournament.

Dosunmu is a 6’5 guard who has been the driving force behind Illinois’ resurgence this year. He’s made strides as a pick-and-roll handler (69th percentile on 35 percent of his possessions) and three-point shooter, where he’s hitting 40 percent on three attempts per game. While not the most gifted natural athlete, Dosunmu has a great frame and relentless work ethic that should impress NBA GMs at the end of the first round. He’s going to have a big spotlight on him if he can lead the Illini to the Final Four for the first time since 2005. Read our feature on Dosunmu for more on his rise up the basketball ranks.

Mann has blossomed into a dynamite pull-up shooter from three-point range as a sophomore at Florida. Few players in America are better at creating a quality look from deep all by themselves.

No. 7 seed Florida has to get past No. 10 seed Virginia Tech in the first round before they start thinking about a deep run, but a potential matchup against a great Ohio State defense in the round of 32 could give Mann a big platform to showcase his shooting. The 6’5 guard isn’t going to win near the basket with strength, but he’s a capable playmaker and has the type of signature skill that should sell itself well come draft time.

12 other NBA draft prospects who can help themselves in March Madness

Here are a few more players NBA teams should be closely monitoring during their run in the NCAA tournament:

  • Jared Butler, G, Baylor
  • Davion Mitchell, G, Baylor
  • Terrence Shannon Jr., G, Texas Tech
  • Chris Duarte, G, Oregon
  • Ron Harper Jr., F, Rutgers
  • Joel Ayayi, G, Gonzaga
  • Jay Huff, C, Virginia
  • Cam Thomas, G, LSU
  • Miles McBride, G, West Virginia
  • Herb Jones, F, Alabama
  • Ochai Agbaji, G, Kansas
  • McKinley Wright IV, G, Colorado

Who are we missing? Have questions about your favorite team or prospect? Drop us a line in the comments below.

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