The Detroit Pistons are the lucky winners of the 2021 NBA Draft lottery. Detroit cashed in on a 14 percent chance to land the No. 1 overall pick in the draft. The Rockets will select second, the Cavaliers will pick third, and the Raptors will pick at No. 4.
This year’s draft class looks particularly strong within the top four. Oklahoma State guard Cade Cunningham has established himself as the consensus top player in the draft, and projects as an oversized ball handler who can hit pull-up threes and provide stout defense both on the perimeter and in the paint. The next three players off the board are expected to be USC big man Evan Mobley, Gonzaga guard Jalen Suggs, and G League Ignite scorer Jalen Green.
The 2021 NBA Draft will be held on Thursday, July 29 at the Barclays Center in New York City. With the draft order finally set, here is our instant projection of the first round.
1. Detroit Pistons - Cade Cunningham, G, Oklahoma State
Cunningham is perfectly suited for the modern game as a 6’8 ball handling wing who can run pick-and-roll, hit pull-up threes, collapse the defense with his drives to the rim, and have a positive impact on the defensive end. The Pistons can give him the ball from day one and expect him to be the next face of their franchise.
Cunningham was projected as our top pick coming into the season, and maintained his status with a tremendous freshman year that saw him named as a consensus first team All-American. While he isn’t the most explosive natural athlete, Cunningham gets to his spots with strength and length (7-foot wingspan) and has the skill to finish from all three-levels. He answered pre-season questions about his shooting ability by hitting 40 percent of his threes, with a large percentage of them on difficult off-the-dribble attempts that mimicked the type of burden many of the NBA’s biggest stars must carry.
He’ll need to cut back on his turnovers and continue to refine his facilitating chops, but things should get easier as he finds a supporting cast with more shooting than Oklahoma State provided (the Cowboys finished No. 293 in three-point rate in DI). Cunningham’s versatile defense will also be an asset as the highest levels of the game, and only solidifies his status as the No. 1 prospect in this class. Even in a strong draft, Cunningham is the no-brainer top pick.
2. Houston Rockets - Evan Mobley, C, USC
Mobley is the rare big man prospect who combines elite rim protection and versatile pick-and-roll coverage skills on defense with plus passing and projectable shooting on offense. While he lacked an aggressive scoring mindset at USC, Mobley is the type of player who can quietly dominate a game on both ends of the floor while making life easier for all of his teammates. If the Rockets select him at No. 2 overall, they will be landing a player who would be talented enough to be the top pick in some drafts.
Mobley’s quick feet, 7’4 wingspan, and discipline to avoid fouling makes him the best defensive prospect in this class. His 8.8 percent block rate finished top-35 in DI, but his most impressive defensive moments often came on switches when he was able to stick with guards on the perimeter. Mobley lacks the bulk to match up with the NBA’s biggest behemoths in the middle (his high center of gravity is also a hinderance), but he is blessed with tremendous lateral quickness and athletic fluidity that feels like a perfect match for a league that demands its big men defend in space.
Offensively, Mobley had some awesome passing flashes and feels like the type of big who can pick apart a defense in a 4-on-3 situation if his point guard gets trapped. He’ll score on lobs early in his career, but there’s some real floor spacing potential here too down the road. If Mobley adds strength to his frame and hits his ceiling, he should be an All-NBA caliber big man who brings so much to the table on both ends while not having many major flaws in his skill set.
3. Cleveland Cavaliers - Jalen Green, G, G League Ignite
Green has basically been famous since he was a freshman in high school out of Fresno, CA who was drawing ambitious early comparisons to Kobe Bryant for his extreme explosiveness and scoring instincts. While that level of premature hype could have suffocated a lesser player, Green has mostly lived up to expectations as he bypassed college to become the big fish on the first ever G League Ignite team. Years later, Green has grown into his truly elite athletic traits and has started to turn himself into a bonafide shot-maker who can score from all over the floor.
Green feels like he was born to win an NBA dunk contest, but his outlier bounce isn’t the only thing that makes him special. Green has a lightning-quick first step that allows him to create separation against his man, and he’s started learning how to use hesitation crossovers and deceleration techniques that will only make him tougher to guard. He answered any questions about his shooting during his 15 games with the Ignite, hitting 37 percent of his threes and draining so many tough looks. For as wonderful as his scoring package is, Green still needs to make progress reading the floor and leveraging his own talent to make his teammates’ lives easier. There remain real questions defensively, as well. While Green might not be Kobe, becoming something similar to Zach LaVine would be a great outcome at this point for the Cavs. Don’t be surprised if this pick is in play for a trade.
4. Toronto Raptors - Jalen Suggs, G, Gonzaga
Suggs wasn’t quite as highly-touted as Cunningham, Mobley, or Green coming out of high school, but he now feels like the most well-known player in this draft class after a breakthrough freshman year playing for a Gonzaga team that finished one win short of a perfect season in the national championship game. The 6’3 freshman guard pushed his veteran supporting cast to the next level by supercharging their attack in transition and becoming an aggressive playmaker on both ends of the floor. He should fit nicely in the Toronto backcourt next to Fred VanVleet.
Suggs doesn’t have a signature skill, but he’s solid across the board both offensively and defensively. At the start of his career, he might be better used as an overqualified complementary guard who can impact the game in numerous ways rather than as a lead engine in the halfcourt. Suggs will be able to add juice to any transition attack, provide supplemental rim pressure as a driver, hit threes, and force turnovers. He may not have a superstar ceiling, but he’s the type of player that can turn a good team into a great one.
5. Orlando Magic - Scottie Barnes, F, Florida State
Barnes was considered a five-star prospect throughout his high school career who helped bring three gold medals to USA Basketball’s junior teams before arriving at Florida State. Barnes came off the bench for the Seminoles just like last year’s No. 4 overall pick Patrick Williams, but he remains one of the most intriguing prospects in the class after the top-four. Barnes is a huge forward at 6’9, nearly 230 pounds, and with a 7’2 wingspan, who combines an elite defensive motor with shockingly good playmaking for someone his size.
Barnes feels like a safe bet to be a very good NBA defender with terrific length, an impressive 3.4 percent steal rate, and the versatility to guard up to four positions. While Barnes doesn’t protect the rim defensively and has little vertical pop as a leaper, he does have all the makings of a change-of-pace small ball five who can play high against the pick-and-roll and switch most screens. Offensively, he finished with a 31.7 percent assist rate this season that led the ACC. Barnes always seems to know where his teammates are on the floor, and he finds a way to get them the ball. The question is how much of a benefit will his passing be if opposing NBA teams don’t respect his scoring ability. Barnes is a rough shooter — 27.5 percent from three on 40 attempts, 62.1 percent from the foul line on 66 attempts — and doesn’t yet have a ton of tricks around the rim to get a bucket in a pinch. While the scoring concerns are real, Barnes’ effort level, defense, and passing makes him the type of player you want on your side in a big game.
6. Oklahoma City Thunder - Jonathan Kuminga, F, G League Ignite
Kuminga was the No. 1 player in the high school junior class before deciding to reclassify and join Green in the G League rather than attend college. He arrived as a mystery box wing who had impressive physical tools but limited data on how he actually used them. After 13 games with the Ignite, it feels like Kuminga created more questions than answers.
Kuminga’s shooting touch looked brutal in the G League, as he hit under 40 percent from the field, under 25 percent from three, and under 65 percent from the foul line. He often appeared overwhelmed when he needed to make quick decisions with the ball that were more complicated than putting his head down for straight line drives. He didn’t showcase outlier lateral quickness to guard the perimeter, either. While Kuminga is undoubtedly rough around the edges, his combination of size, straight line speed, and strength gives him upside as a downhill attacker who can get to the foul line and mix in a poster dunk every few games. The Thunder have all the time in the world to be patient. Kuminga’s tools and positional archetype are enticing enough to gamble on over anyone else left on the board.
7. Golden State Warriors (via Timberwolves) - Jalen Johnson, F, Duke
Johnson was supposed to be Duke’s next one-and-done superstar, but he left an underwhelming team in mid-February to prepare for the draft. The talent that made Johnson a consensus top-10 recruit was on display at times during his brief college career, but Johnson still feels like one of the bigger wildcards in this class. Johnson thinks of himself as a 6’9 point-forward who can grab a rebound, push in transition, and finish above the rim himself or find a teammate. That works better on the break than in the halfcourt, where he’s not quite shifty enough to initiate offense. Johnson can make an impact on cuts and putbacks against a set defense, but he’s a shaky three-point shooter who can’t be counted on to space the floor.
Johnson is also interesting on the defensive end, where he put up an impressive six percent block rate and 3.1 percent steal rate thanks in part to a 7-foot wingspan. He can offer supplemental rim protection and get into the passing lanes while theoretically being capable of switching. The big swing factor for Johnson is how his three-point shot develops. While his game has obvious strengths and weaknesses, this feels like the right place to gamble on him for the Warriors.
8. Orlando Magic (via Bulls) - Keon Johnson, G, Tennessee
Along with Jalen Green, Tennessee freshman Keon Johnson has a case as the most explosive natural athlete in this draft class. The skinny 6’5 guard has been on a blistering developmental path since giving up baseball for basketball at the start of high school, blossoming into a no-brainer lottery pick whose ultimate outcome will likely be determined by how his dribble-pass-shoot skill set develops.
There were encouraging signs for the Vols this season, like mesmerizing defensive flashes (2.5 percent steal rate, two percent block rate) that contributed to a top-five defense in the country. Johnson also seemed to get more comfortable in his own scoring ability as the season went along, scoring 13 points or more in each of his last five games. Johnson needs to refine his three-point shot (27 percent on 48 attempts) and tighten his handle, but his ultra-quick first step and outstanding bounce around the rim can’t be taught. It would be nice if Johnson had a couple extra inches of height, or if he proved he could already thrive in transition instead of badly struggling (17 percentile, per Synergy Sports) in that area. He’ll need some time and training to develop, but Johnson’s rare gifts are worth taking a shot on for the Magic.
9. Sacramento Kings - Moses Moody, F, Arkansas
Moody brings length, perimeter defense, and projectable shooting to any team looking for a complementary wing. While the 6’6 freshman isn’t the most explosive natural athlete, he’s able to leverage his 7’1 wingspan to bother opposing scorers on one end while also shooting over the top of smaller defenders on the other. Moody’s defense should play anywhere as he continues to fill out his frame, but his offense is more of a wildcard. Moody likely isn’t going to be a high usage wing who creates for himself and others, but he can space the floor with a 36 percent mark from three-point range. For a limited athlete, Moody is also good at attacking closeouts with pump fakes and jab steps to set up his mid-range game.
If you think Moody is a safe bet to shoot it from deep, he warrants consideration as early as the fifth overall pick as the type of player who can have a positive impact on any game without needing to hold the ball for long stretches.
10. New Orleans Pelicans - James Bouknight, G, UConn
Bouknight is an indefatigable scorer who will whip around screens against a set defense until he finds an opening that will let him create an advantage. The sophomore guard started his rise into a potential lottery pick by hanging 40 points on Creighton in just his fourth game of the year, and he continued to get buckets all season.
While he’s not the type of guard who create opportunities out of thin air off the dribble, he feels like a nice fit in New Orleans as a supplemental scorer who can create chaos while Zion Williamson and Brandon Ingram have the ball. He’ll have to better from three than he did in college (29.3 percent) to live up to type of draft status. For a detailed breakdown of Bouknight, read Mark Schindler’s piece at Indy Cornrows.
11. Charlotte Hornets - Franz Wagner, F, Michigan
Wagner is a 6’9 German forward who followed in the footsteps of his older brother Moritz Wagner by choosing to play for Michigan. While the elder Wagner entered the draft as a stretch big, the younger Wagner brings more versatility to the court starting with his terrific defense. Wagner has the size to defend at the rim and quickness to switch onto guards, posting a 3.2 percent block rate and 2.3 percent steal rate for the No. 4 unit in the country. Wagner is a sharp help defender who will earn his minutes on that side of the court while his offensive skills develop.
Wagner has good indicators as a shooter — 34 percent from three-point range on 102 attempts; 83.5 percent from the foul line — but it often looked like he lacked confidence in his shot. If he can get more comfortable as a shooter, he should be able to attack closeouts at the NBA level due to his comfort putting the ball on the floor and his developing passing ability. Wagner had a brutal last game for the Wolverines — 1-of-10 shooting in an Elite Eight loss to UCLA — but he has all the makings of a solid NBA role player if his shot improves.
12. San Antonio Spurs - Jaden Springer, G, Tennessee
While Springer is typically projected to go outside of the lottery at this stage of the draft process, it feels like he could easily outplay that slot given his high school pedigree, aggressive point of attack defense, and scoring flashes. Springer was a takeover scorer at IMG Academy who rarely found easy offense on a Tennessee team that lacked spacing and creativity on that end. He was still able to manufacture looks for himself by bulldozing defenders with brute force to get near the basket.
Springer will have to learn scoring tricks around the rim and continue to develop as an outside shooter — he made 43.5 percent of his threes on only 46 attempts — but he can slot nicely into most team contexts as a combo guard who can run offense in a pinch, help get the team out in transition, and act as an off-ball scorer. As his offense develops, Springer should be immediately excellent against smaller guards on the defensive end. Springer may need a couple seasons to develop because he’s one of the youngest players in this draft — four full years younger than Baylor guard Davion Mitchell — but he’s worth betting on for San Antonio team that typically has a patient approach.
13. Indiana Pacers - Davion Mitchell, G, Baylor
Mitchell was the big winner of March Madness as he rose from a late first rounder to a lottery pick during Baylor’s run to the national championship. While he’s one of the smallest (6’1) and oldest (he’ll turn 23 before his rookie year) players to earn consideration in the first round, Mitchell’s blinding speed, aggressive individual defense, and improved three-point shot have earned him plenty of fans among NBA evaluators.
Mitchell shot just 32.4 percent from three on 105 attempts a year ago before blossoming into a 44.7 percent shooter from deep on 141 attempts this season. His 64.1 percent mark from the foul line this year feels like a red flag on the idea that he’s completely fixed his shot, but his ability to pressure the rim gives him another avenue for success on offense if the jumper isn’t falling. Mitchell has a tremendous first step that he uses to create separation and get to the basket. While not a brilliant passer, he did improve his assist rate from 22 to 27 percent this season and did well to find the Bears’ shooters on the perimeter after he broke the first line of coverage. Mitchell’s defensive versatility will be limited by his lack of size, but he should provide solid on-ball defense against smaller guards. For a Pacers team with a ton of question marks heading into the offseason, Mitchell could offer immediate depth to the backcourt with the upside to turn into something more.
14. Golden State Warriors - Josh Giddey, G, Adelaide (Australia)
Giddey is a 6’8 Australian point guard who exploded onto draft boards after a tremendous debut year in the NBL. Giddey profiles as one of the best passers in the draft thanks to his combination of size and preternatural feel that allows him to think two steps ahead of the opposing defense. While he’s unlikely to be a big-time scorer, Giddey also contributes on the glass and slowly improved his three-point shot (29.3 percent on 3.5 attempts per game) as the season went along.
Giddey has significant athletic and strength limitations and may need to be protected on the defensive end early in his career, but his size, intelligence, and growth curve (he doesn’t turn 19 years old until October) gives him a bright future. In a way, taking Giddey with this pick could help make up for the Warriors’ decision to pass on LaMelo Ball at No. 2 overall last year.
15. Washington Wizards - Kai Jones, C, Texas
Jones is a late-blooming big man who burst onto draft radars during his sophomore season because of his elite physical tools, burgeoning skill level, and ridiculous highlight-reel plays. Jones came off the bench for most of the season with the Longhorns and averaged only 8.8 points per game but his size and explosion jumped off the screen every time he took the floor. At 6’11, 220 pounds, Jones’ combination of impressive lateral quickness and vertical bounce makes him a rare athlete for a big.
While he’s currently unrefined as a defender, Jones has the ability to stick with guards on the perimeter and block shots at the rim. He’ll catch lobs on offense from day one, but he’s also showed flashes of three-point shooting — 38.2 percent on 34 attempts — and ball handling in transition. Jones is a bit of a wild card given his sudden rise and inconsistent production, but his upside is tantalizing enough to deserve looks in the top-10. He’d be a great addition to the Wizards’ front court if still available with the first pick after the lottery.
16. Oklahoma City Thunder - Ziaire Williams, F, Stanford
Williams has a case as one of the biggest boom-or-bust prospects in this class. The 6’8 wing looked like a tantalizing shot-maker coming out of Sierra Canyon High School, but his freshman year at Stanford was defined by injury and inefficiency. Despite having several great games as a shooter, Williams finished the year at 29.1 percent from three. Teams could pressure him out beyond the arc because they knew he couldn’t hurt them going to the basket due to a shaky handle and skinny frame. The Thunder are a perfect environment to give Williams the patience and long-term development he needs.
17. Memphis Grizzlies - Alperen Şengün, C, Beşiktaş (Turkey)
Şengün is already dominating one of the better professional leagues in the world at just 18 years old. The 6’10, 240 pound big man averaged 19.2 points, 9.4 rebounds, and 2.5 assists per game in the Turkish Super League on remarkable 64.6 percent shooting from the floor. Şengün has great hands and soft touch around the rim on offense, while also showing an ability to find open teammates with his passing. He isn’t a three-point shooter to this point, but he’s been stretching out his jumper and is already at 81 percent from the foul line. Şengün isn’t super quick laterally and is a bit undersized for an NBA center, putting his NBA fit into question. The team that team takes him will bet on his incredible production against grown men at such an early age and figure out his fit in today’s NBA later.
18. Oklahoma City Thunder - Usman Garuba, F, Real Madrid (Spain)
Garuba has been a rising star in international basketball over the last few years, making his debut as a 16-year-old for Real Madrid in Liga ACB. The 6’8 big man isn’t a big time scorer, but rather a defense-first role player who has the quickness, length (7’3 wingspan), strength, and feel for rotations to turn into a potential stopper on that end. While Garuba’s perimeter offensive skill is rough right now, his ability to compete in one of the better leagues in the world at such a young age is a promising sign for his future. The Thunder would have the option of throwing him into the lineup immediately, or slow playing his development to work on his shot and handle.
19. New York Knicks - Sharife Cooper, G, Auburn
Cooper is one of the great shot creators in this class, but his arrival into the draft comes with questions about his size and shooting ability. Cooper’s freshman debut at Auburn was delayed by eligibility issues, but once he got on the court he put up the highest assist rate (51.2 percent) in the country. He was a master at drawing fouls (he went 18-for-21 at the line in a win over Missouri) and showed incredible creativity as both a passer and ball handler. Fixing Cooper’s three-point stroke (22.8 percent on the year) will be a massive undertaking, and he’s likely always a defensive liability given his size (6’1, 180 pounds). There’s no denying how uniquely talented he is at creating for his teammates, though, which gives him a great opportunity to outplay this type of draft slot.
20. Atlanta Hawks - Corey Kispert, F, Gonzaga
Kispert saw his draft stock explode in his senior season playing for a powerhouse Gonzaga team that fell one game short of an undefeated season. The 6’7 wing is arguably the best shooter in this draft class, hitting better than 43 percent of his threes on high volume for the second straight season. Kispert isn’t going to create off the dribble and will have to prove himself defensively, but it’s easy to envision him slotting into a bench shooter role from day one. The Hawks would likely be elated if he was somehow still on the board at No. 21. This pick was originally set to be Baylor guard Jared Butler before Tuesday’s news that he’s yet to be cleared by the league due to a heart issue.
21. New York Knicks - Chris Duarte, G, Oregon
Duarte spent a couple years at the JUCO level before transferring into Oregon and establishing himself as one of the better three-and-D prospects in this class. The 6’6 wing hit 42.4 percent of his threes and 63.1 percent of his two-point attempts this season while shooting 81 percent at the foul line. Duarte also a sky-high 3.2 percent steal rate and 2.8 block rate while showing impressive perimeter mobility for the Ducks. He’s already 24 years old and will be the oldest player drafted in this class, but his easy projection to an NBA role makes him a worthy option in the late first.
22. Los Angeles Lakers - Cam Thomas, G, LSU
Thomas is a 6’4 guard who has never seen a field-goal attempt he didn’t like. The freshman put up big scoring numbers at LSU (23 points per game) even if his efficiency often left a lot to be desired. Thomas’ diverse package of crossovers and pull-up shooting should play in a league that is becoming more heavily tilted towards offense, but he has real questions defensively and as a passer. For a team looking for instant offense off the bench that can tolerate some ball stopping, Thomas’ one-on-one bucket getting ability is worth a chance in the late first or early second.
23. Houston Rockets - Isaiah Jackson, C, Kentucky
Jackson is a pogo-stick big man who made plays above the rim on both ends of the floor for Kentucky during his freshman season. At 6’10, Jackson is quick off the floor with tremendous vertical bounce that gives him value as a rebounder, shot blocker, and lob target. His 12.7 percent block rate ranked No. 8 in America, and he proved to be dependable on both the offensive and defensive glass. Jackson would get himself into trouble when he settled for shots away from the rim, but on an NBA team with superior spacing (it can’t get any worse than Kentucky’s crunched floor last season) he should be a vertical spacer and rim protector with potential to eventually develop his shot.
24. Houston Rockets - Tre Mann, G, Florida
Mann was a McDonald’s All-American out of high school who struggled as a freshman at Florida before re-establishing himself as a potential first-round pick during a breakout sophomore year. At 6’5, Mann is a skilled shooter off the dribble who hit 40.2 percent of his attempts from deep and 83 percent of his foul shots in 2020-21. While he’ll need to add strength to his frame and prove he can consistently make good decisions in the half court for more creation responsibilities, the versatility of his shooting and ball handling makes him an interesting gamble at this point in the first round.
25. Los Angeles Clippers - Greg Brown, F, Texas
Brown is a 6’7 forward with a 6’10 wingspan who has absolutely elite vertical bounce around the basket. Brown’s offensive skills on the perimeter are still very much a work in progress, but his three-point shot (30-of-91 on the year or 33 percent) was a little better than most expected out of high school. He has a chance to be an impact defensive forward who can contribute on the glass and score on cuts, but it feels like he’d be in a better spot if he was a little bigger and a little longer to profile as a small ball five.
26. Denver Nuggets - Joel Ayayi, G, Gonzaga
Ayayi was the best fourth option in the country playing on a Gonzaga team that started three All-Americans in Suggs, Kispert, and returning center Drew Timme. The 6’5 French guard was a perfect complementary piece playing in such a talented ecosystem, providing spot-up shooting (39 percent from three on 95 attempts) and supplemental playmaking for the second most efficient college basketball offense since 2002. Ayayi isn’t a brilliant creator off the dribble and will have to add muscle to his frame, but it feels like he can be a nice addition to a Denver backcourt that was ravaged by injuries last season.
27. Brooklyn Nets - B.J. Boston, G, Kentucky
We had Boston projected as the No. 2 overall pick in our very first mock draft for this class that dropped the day after the 2020 draft. Boston’s freshman season was a disappointment, as his lack of strength badly hindered his ability to play through contract and resulted in an ugly 44.7 true shooting percentage. The 6’7 wing still had enough flashes of shot-making and off the dribble creativity to take a flier on at this point in the first round. The team that takes will need to be patient with his development, and dedicated to building out his frame.
28. Philadelphia Sixers - Roko Prkačin, F, Cibona (Croatia)
Prkačin is a 6’9 forward with shooting potential (35 percent from deep on 160 attempts) and creativity as a ball handler in the open court. Prkačin doesn’t turn 19 years old until late November, which makes him the youngest player in this draft class. With a solid all-around skill set, good size, and impressive production playing against grown men in the Adriatic League at such a young age, Prkačin is an ideal draft-and-stash candidate at some point in the late first or early second round.
29. Phoenix Suns - Ayo Dosunmu, G, Illinois
In his third year at Illinois, Dosunmu led the program to a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament for the first time since it reached the championship game in 2005. While the Illini were upset in the round of 32, Dosunmu still had a terrific season that saw him earn first team All-American honors. The 6’5 guard will likely have to transition from the on-ball role he had in college to more of an off-ball complementary role, but he has the frame and scoring instincts to pull it off as long as his three-point shot (39.0 percent on 82 attempts) continues to come around.
30. Utah Jazz - J.T. Thor, F, Auburn
Thor is a huge, mobile forward who flashed early signs of shot-making and ball handling ability during his freshman season at Auburn. Still just 18 years old, Thor is blessed 7’3 wingspan and 9’2 standing reach that helped him post a near six percent block rate for the Tigers. His offensive skill remains a work in progress, but games like his 24-point performance against Kentucky — where he went 5-of-6 from three — showed the outline of what he could one day become. This would be a high upside swing at the end of the first round for the Jazz, and Thor’s potential to eventually become a small ball center would make him a nice developmental prospect for the organization.