Final 2021 NBA Big Board & Tiers
The final Big Board and top-100 order, tiers list and explanations are set. As a general rule, I try to get my order set about a week or two ahead of the draft to avoid over-thinking and last-minute tinkering that is, undoubtedly, influenced by what takes place elsewhere on the internet. I'm not intimately involved in the front office, so there are very few character tidbits, background research or auxiliary workouts that I'll find to raise or drop someone on the board. It's time to stick with our convictions.
The 2021 class as a whole is different than many others I've covered: much more depth at the top, a few guys I really like in the lottery and an absolute ton of guys that deserve first-round love. Unlike in the past, there isn't this sense of pure depth where I'd feel comfortable finding someone as an undrafted free agent. The pool at the bottom is more shallow, but the top is as deep as I've ever seen it. In that regard, it reminds me of 2008, where Russell Westbrook and Kevin Love were franchise game-changers available at 4 and 5. In '08, only one player selected after the 40th pick played in 200 career games: Goran Dragic.
For those who are new here, we set up our Big Board in ten tiers that really exemplify a combination of overall talent (ie upside, ceiling and floor, all that) and our overall faith in a player (how likely we believe it is they wind up performing towards their ceiling). There will be players who are consensus lottery picks who are outside our top-30. While we recognize that market value is different on these guys, this is simply a listing of how we believe their careers will turn out based on the evidence we have right now and our view of who has talent too tantalizing to pass on.
We always aim to publish our board about 8-10 days in advance of draft night. There are a few key reasons for solidifying the order at that time. First is to avoid last-minute tinkering, a major flaw in the social media era where prospects gain or lose momentum in the final days of the draft. Really, if there is late breaking news that comes up, it either shouldn't change the evaluation at all (if it does, it means your eval wasn't strong) or it should make the player completely undraftable -- a disqualifier that comes up late in terms of new information is the only acceptable dropper here. Even that doesn't hold much bearing on the on-court evaluation itself.
Second is to give ourselves time to breathe. A lot of work goes into this project, although avoiding a last-minute crunch to see one more game, analyze one more area and over-think on my own front. Setting a deadline earlier, albeit an artificial one, gives so much clarity to the process in the final days and allows us to view just the landscape and not overreact to figuring out our own preferences.
There are ten tiers, with played labeled in order from tier to overall rank. So "3.8" means third-highest tier, eighth overall on the big board. For a complete look at articles and videos on these prospects, please check out the Spreadsheet version of our Big Board.
Tier 11: Players 100 to 61
Not to say that all these players are in the same category, but there's a believed cliff that comes after the 62nd guy on our board where I would have real reservations about making a selection to draft someone and don't believe they have a better shot to never make an outright roster than to turn into a serviceable player.
Tier 10: Role Player Ceilings
This tier tends to be made up of two types of players. The first: guys who are likely to go undrafted because they are older/ have one key flaw but possess the upside to become a valuable NBA role player if put in the right situation. These are guys who likely are already self-aware and, if a team has a need for their strengths and can blanket their shortcomings, they'll flourish in the NBA.
The second type are names who are mentioned much higher but I'm relatively low on. I don't see the upside in watching them play and, for the amount of work that would go into developing them, would rather let someone else take the plunge and develop somebody who I see having role player upside.
10.60 - Isaiah Livers, Michigan - A 3-and-D prospect whose feel I respect, Livers doesn't have the speediest release in the world. While automatic in the corners, I fear a league where he doesn't have a relative size advantage might drop some of those shooting splits. Without being above 36 or 37%, it's hard to imagine him carving out and NBA role.
10.59 - Sandro Mamukelashvili, Seton Hall - A unique, unorthodox prospect, Mamu won Big East Player of the Year honors by combining really good 3-point shooting and playmaking with size and fluidity. Mamu is a strange fit as a role player on any team that might take him, though I absolutely love his feel for the game. He could stick as a pick & pop 4-man who mismatch handles, but I have real questions about where he fits in defensively that limit how frequently he'd utilize that offensive firepower.
10.58 - Joel Ayayi, Gonzaga - A name I'm sure many have much higher, Ayayi receives appeal as a do-it-all backcourt threat with great analytics testing, a long wingspan and potential to blossom outside the shared backcourt in Spokane. I don't see it with Ayayi. Don't love his stroke and have seen a lot of Gonzaga guards simmer out in the pros who fit the same mold as him. He doesn't have enough as a pick-and-roll creator from what I've seen to trust him with the ball in his hands. There's something about Ayayi's game that doesn't provide confidence, despite how well he tests out analytically, that he'll become a strong NBA player.
10.57 - Kessler Edwards, Pepperdine - Role player upside, Edwards is a known commodity on defense. He competes, is always in the right spots and uses his 7'0" wingspan to cover ground. There's a real chance he makes an NBA roster as a 3-and-D prospect. I'm lower on Edwards than most because I have a really hard time with his unorthodox jump shot. It doesn't go in at a high enough clip for me to call him a specialist, has functional shortcomings based on movement or where he's standing, and without the shot I fail to see a path to positive offensive impact.
10.56 - RaiQuan Gray, Florida State - There was a point in time when Gray was in a tier above this and, frankly, in the low-40s. But his BMI measurements and lack of growth of his jump shot raise more questions than answers. Most prospects show solid gains with their shooting pre-draft where Gray hasn't. I absolutely love the appeal of a large mismatch handler who creates for others the way Gray does. Deserving a role with the ball in your hands in the NBA is so much harder than people think. Because he struggles off-ball, Gray can't be too high on our list.
10.55 - Trendon Watford, LSU - I really like the skill and feel Watford displayed this year at LSU. In going back and reexamining his tape, I'm not sure Watford's athleticism will allow him to utilize that feel at the next level. Caught in the dilemma of 'multi-positional' vs. 'tweener', I'd feel comfortable gambling on him if I had a ton of shooting and an elite rim protecting big behind him. That's a lot to cater to a 2nd round pick, though.
10.54 - Moses Wright, Georgia Tech - Every year there is a diamond-in-the-rough big man who emerges during the year or two after the draft. Wright is my pick for that this year. He's a little undersized but can do a little bit of everything, plus has the athleticism to make up for being a tad short. I'm not sure if Wright can dominate a game at the next level, but if there's a team okay playing skill over size at the 5, Wright could be a steal.
10.53 - Aaron Henry, Michigan State - Another three-year college player, Henry's up-and-down shooting performances in college have to give pause. A great athlete and competitor who can be a shutdown wing defender, Henry's 3-point numbers have dipped each of the three years in East Lansing, all while his value increases. Sure, he's a tough bucket and a physical defender, but something about the shooting regression rubs me the wrong way.
10.52 - Joe Wieskamp, Iowa - Perhaps my relative pessimism on Wieskamp is unfounded, but I really struggled watching Iowa last year and seeing guys who could defend on an NBA court. I know Wieskamp tested really well at the combine athletically, has length and shot the ball really well from deep as consistently as anyone. The upside is to be more of a bench 3-point specialist, but seeing much more would be dependent on major strides defensively.
10.51 - Justin Champagnie, Pittsburgh - A jumper away from being a really good role player, I'm banking on overall athletic profile and how hard he plays to force his way onto a roster. If he had the shot of his older brother, he'd be a first-round lock. Champagnie will get a look based off intangibles and defensive potential alone. Fitting him in on offense, where he could be a super-small 4-man, will require improvements from his perimeter game or creative coaching.
10.50 - Daishen Nix, G-League Ignite - Shooting 38% from the field and 17% from 3 isn't going to help anybody's draft stock. For Nix, a guy who came into the G-League bubble with questions about his shooting, the performance certainly didn't help. A great body and strong frame, Nix navigates the pass-first point guard realm very well. 5.3 assists and 2.9 turnovers isn't bad while playing in a pro league. But Nix doesn't do enough in the rest of his game to offset the lack of shooting. He's physical and has a good body but really struggles at the point of attack defensively. Shooting and POA defense are two cardinal sins for guards. Can't put Nix any higher as a result.
10.49 - David Johnson, Louisville - After two years with the Cardinals, I still don't really know what to make of Johnson. His freshman year was a disaster, and while he pieced together a better effort as a sophomore, it's still hard to shake the horrors of his initial impression. Is he a guy who was ill-fitting in an off-ball role? Will he blossom more as the jumper continually gets better? Will it continually get better? I don't like to take guys I can't figure out, even if he's a big guard who shot it well this year. I get the appeal, but I'll pass.
10.48 - Jericho Sims, Texas - Now we're getting into territory of guys I really would be on for bench spots. Sims is someone I was high on far before the draft combine, keeping him in my top-60 since early January. A defensive do-it-all big who is an elite athlete and finisher, there's very little he adds offensively away from the basket. But it's easy to see his role as a screen-and-roll big who does everything on D. It's also easy to see why he's hidden: Texas has been lottery big university over the last few seasons, as Sims plays second-fiddle to legit NBA bigs. I buy the size, role, backstory and steady hand he can be for the right team.
10.47 - Mitch Ballock, Creighton - At the risk of repeating a point I've pounded home ad nauseam, so many NBA teams have started to fill out their roster with specialty role players who are just 3-point threats. Duncan Robinson was originally in this path; Matt Thomas and Garrison Matthews showed the same. For Ballock, his overlap comes in the versatility of his shooting in every spot and manner, as well as a baseline of consistency he set over four collegiate years. There will always be limitations, but teams who might value a movement shooter at the end of their bench could get more mileage out of Ballock than another prospect with higher upside.
10.46 - McKinley Wright, Colorado - Functionally speaking, undersized guards don't need to be elite athletes or great finishers if they have a reliable floater. Wright's floater game is truly elite, and with high processing speed out of the pick-and-roll, that's enough for me to believe he could find a role as a third-string or backup point guard. He has long arms and defends his ass off. The jump shot and lack of athleticism do hold him back, but I get the sense he'll be a good NBA role player who brings intangibles to the table.
Tier 9: Too Much Downside for the 1st Round
When investing draft capital and millions of dollars in human beings, at some point you have to follow your gut. You ever see a prospect and not really be able to explain why you don't buy into their game but... you just don't see it?
That's where I'm at with this tier. I've missed on guys here before: Paul Reed was in this tier a season ago. But there's a small contingent of players who, despite their clearly high ceilings, aren't guys I'd be willing to bet on at this point.
9.45 - Charles Bassey, Western Kentucky - A 6'10" monster athlete with all the raw tools you want from a big man, Bassey can turn it on: he was dominant against Alabama this year in a key game for the Hilltoppers. But on the whole, Bassey is a little inconsistent. After three years in college without a strong feeling about if he can be a reliable stretch-5, the jump shot doesn't have my trust. For a guy who physically could overwhelm his Conference-USA opponents, Bassey really shied away from contact. That worries me about him translating to the pros. Clear upside but I'd be okay not swinging on him.
9.44 - Day'Ron Sharpe, North Carolina - Many have Sharpe as a first-round talent, though I see an energy big man whose skill is currently far behind. He's big, strong and amazing on the glass. The perimeter intrigue I'm not really sure I see. Many of his assists were on hi-lo passes within Carolina's poorly-spaced offense, and for every dime he threw there was a giveaway where he failed to read the help defense. There's a chance he blossoms more in NBA spacing, but that's not a task I'd be willing to undertake.
Roy Williams gave him less than glowing reviews on the way out (hidden by coach speak, of course). The reason Sharpe stays high on boards is due to a so-called major development with his jump shot in workouts. That could be a game-changer to put him in first round talks, but we haven't seen it. Due to the lack of access we have to that film, it's impossible to evaluate the impact that has on Sharpe. So we go by what we can see. And what we can see is this: with big men being a dime a dozen these days, Sharpe isn't the guy I'd want to risk a pick on.
9.43 - Vrenz Bleijenbergh, Antwerp Giants - A long wing with fluid ball skills and a smooth 3-point shot, Bleijenbergh has his supporters on Twitter, and has parlayed that into a hot commodity in terms of draft-and-stash prospects. The young Belgian has a lot of tools offensively and could develop into an ancillary PNR creator. I don't think there's much risk to Vrenz as a prospect, but I also don't see an incredibly high ceiling. The middle of the 2nd round is pretty much the right spot for him.
9.42 - JT Thor, Auburn - I used to work for a coach who said this all the time: "I get it... but I don't." That's where I'm at with Thor. I get the appeal of someone of his size who moves so freaking well. The issue I have is that Thor doesn't really produce. Tons of flashes, but when he doesn't shoot it consistently, don't be shocked.
I struggle with thinking two sentiments are true at the same time: Sharife Cooper is such a great creator for others that he maximizes the talent around him, and JT Thor's production isn't indicative of his talent. If you believe Cooper got the most out of his group (as I do) then Thor's production won't automatically step forward. He's not built to be next to a spread PNR guard unless he's the screener. A ton of raw talent, just so much farther away than draft Twitter seems to think.
9.41 - Bones Hyland, VCU - Instant offense, deep shot-making off the bounce. Hyland put his upside on full display during the combine scrimmages and wisely shut it down after such a strong showing. That one game doesn't do enough to assuage my concerns. Hyland is high-waisted on the defensive end, and guys like that typically struggle at the point of attack. I really don't buy him as a defensive prospect.
On the other end, I worry about who he becomes if the shot doesn't fall at a high clip. His shot selection is pretty grotesque, only saved by the fact he was asked to do everything at VCU and made a bunch of the ones he took. I don't love his feel as a creator for others, and if he isn't hitting 35% of his really tough pull-ups or bombs, he becomes an inefficient offensive hub with defensive limitations. Too much risk for me earlier than the 40s.
Tier 8: Role Players w/ Clear Limitations
What's the difference between Tier 8 and Tier 10, you might ask?
General optimism, a slightly higher ceiling or floor, and wide variances that prevent them from going higher when their talent level might be in that category. It's important to remember that each draft class produces about 20-25 solid NBA players, not many more. This is a small group this year of guys who are just outside of receiving first-round grades: Tier 7 and above is generally right on the first-round borderline.
8.40 - Jason Preston, Ohio - A bit of a polarizing prospect, Preston's rare combination of size and feel make him the ultimate backup distributor with the ball in his hands: think of the backup PNR creators like Earl Watson who stuck around based on IQ. Preston worries me a bit with his defensive acumen and the lack of a jumper. Some believe in him enough to invest, and I certainly see why. There may be untapped athleticism, and with his wingspan he is a huge playmaking guard. But guys who are so far ahead with IQ and skill in college are guys I believe have less room to grow in the pros. I'd be willing to grab Preston and develop him in the middle of the second-round. Anything higher feels like a lower-ceiling return when, in my view, Preston's defensive ineptitude would keep him off the floor against most starters and turn him into more of a reserve.
8.39 - Herb Jones, Alabama - Over his first three years at Alabama, Jones made 14 3-pointers. As a senior, he made 20. A Swiss Army Knife defender who is a really good athlete, Jones is that intangibles guy who you want to bet on: hard worker, high-character leader. Those guys tend to stick and get second chances in this league. Combine that with the upward trajectory of his jump shot and maybe there's a home for Jones in this league.
The jumper isn't the only concern, though. What Jones showed at 'Bama was a propensity to create for others with the ball in his hands. He's severely left-hand dominant, though, and that adds another layer of complexity to his evaluation. At his age, the ceiling is lower than other prospects and those limitations push him clearly down despite his defensive brilliance.
8.38 - Filip Petrusev, Mega Bemax - If you watched Petrusev at Gonzaga, then watched him in Europe this season, you wouldn't believe they are the same player. Petrusev has turned himself into a stretch-5, the functional path towards NBA minutes and impact. He's still pretty thin and unathletic, but the ability to make shots is appealing.
Petrusev has flirted with a first-round grade for a while after winning MVP of the Adriatic League, averaging 23.6 points and 7.6 rebounds while shooting 41.9% from deep. To say I need a little more time to buy the jumper would be an understatement. Without it, he falls far down the board, so instead of propping him way up to a first-round grade because he shot it well this year, we'll split the difference and give him a high role player grade. There isn't enough upside beyond that to investigate and risk it further.
8.37 - Trey Murphy III, Virginia - This may come as a surprise to many, but I think Murphy caps out as a second-round prospect. Part of the reason for that is the supreme limitation he has in creating anything off the bounce. Zero evidence of pull-up jumpers, or attacking closeouts to get to the rim. There's a lot to like about his defensive aptitude, 50-40-90 season at Virginia and character. He's a great kid with a hell of a work ethic.
Going back and watching him play some more, I really struggle to see him dribbling the basketball in a playoff series. I wouldn't spend a first on him, though think he provides value as a 3-and-D wing in the second round.
8.36 - Jaden Springer, Tennessee - The first two guys in this tier are here because there's a lack of trust in their jump shot backed up by statistical merit. With Springer, there's a lack of trust in his jump shot in spite of statistical proof he's fine. Springer shot over 44% from 3 at Tennessee, but on very low volume. His form is a bit slow and doesn't appear multi-functional to me. There are questions about being a two-foot leaper as well as having a slow first step at Tennessee, despite the evidence he was quicker in high school.
I'll be honest, I've struggled to evaluate Springer. He's super young and has time to grow. For his age, his strength and frame are fantastic. More of an on-ball creator than an off-ball scorer, Springer isn't a pure point despite good passing instincts. He's so much of a good player in important categories but a tough guy to peg in terms of fit on an NBA team. His saving grace is really impactful defense, which raises his floor towards role player status. Until I can logically figure out who and what he is, he'll stay outside the first-round tier.
I'm a firm believer that there's nothing wrong with admitting "he might be a good player, but he's not for me and how I'd want to build out a team." Springer's that guy for me.
Tier 7: High Variance Picks
This is where a lot of the evals start to get tough in differentiating between talent. I tend to go with the tiered approach as a means of submerging any itches I have to let market value seep into this discussion. There are clear first-round talents and major upside players here. But I'm steadfast in my belief that a clearly-identifiable role player is more valuable than a 'home run or strikeout' prospect outside the lottery. At the right spot and at the right time, these guys become worth swinging on.
Unfortunately for this tier, there are a lot of role players who fit the safer description in this draft class. That pushes these guys down almost entirely out of the 20s.
In evaluating upside on the boom-or-bust potential, there needs to be a proper valuation of athleticism vs. skill: natural vs. learned traits. Within this tier there are some who are really high on athletic traits but drop due to the sheer amount they have to learn. Others are here because there's a wide variance between their NBA roles... they could be impactful and play heavy minutes or just as easily be out of the league in two years.
7.35 - Neemias Queta, Utah State - Of all the big men being talked about in the second round, Queta has the most modern NBA game. A solid facilitator away from the basket, there's a really good passer hidden in the Portuguese big. I've nicknamed Queta "Mr. Chasedown Block" due to the often underrated mobility he possesses.
One of the reasons I'm high on Queta here is because he was used in a very different way at Utah State. He's piqued my interested because he showed flashes (short roll playmaking, top of the key facilitation, switchable glimpses) while existing in a system predominantly build around letting him dominate in college (tons of post-ups, drop coverage and zones to avoid foul trouble). If he doesn't show those flashes in year three at Utah State, he's likely down in the 50s and 60s on my board. But I'm really intrigued in the latent skill with this seven-footer. There's a wide variance because they could be a mirage. On the chance they aren't I'd elevate Queta above the other bigs knocking on the door of the first -- even without a jump shot.
7.34 - Rokas Jokubaitis, Zalgiris - A high-feel wing, Jokubaitis is skilled with the ball in his hands and shoots it pretty well (as any Lithuanian seems to). I'm still not sure if he's better served in an on-ball or off-ball role, but the hybrid ability to do both is valuable, and part of the reason he's this high on my board. The variance for him is whether he'll come over and when. Joku just signed a deal with Barcelona, signaling a desire to remain in Europe for the time being. For a patient franchise with several fits, there's little risk to Rokas. But I'm thinking twice if I believe there are quality NBA players still on the board.
7.33 - Greg Brown, Texas - Do you know how unlike me it is to put a freak athlete with little-to-no feel above a player like Jokubaitis?
Brown might be the best athlete in this year's draft class, and that's saying a lot. the way he moves at his size and runs the floor is insane. He also posted some of the lowest assist rates I've ever seen from a one-and-done prospect. The jump shot is funky but goes in a solid amount, and it's easy to envision him becoming a plus defender due to his natural tools. Think of Brown like a giant ball of clay. He's still so raw that you can mold him into whatever you want. I'm a bit of an optimist when it comes to believing in how NBA teams can teach from scratch. Patience is required, but there's enough flashes for me to see him as a good low-risk investment early in the second. Lottery upside, clear bust downside.
7.32 - Quentin Grimes, Houston - Mad respect to Grimes for rebuilding his shot and his confidence at Houston after failing to live up to massive expectations at Kansas. Early in his career, Grimes was seen as a 6'5" facilitating guard. The lack of speed caught up to him and now he has transitioned to wing full-time, bringing with him a great feel for the game. Strong performances at the combine backed up what I'd been saying for a while: Grimes is knocking on the door of the first round as a 3-and-D prospect.
So why does Grimes have a high variance? Part of it is that he's a tad undersized to be a bigger wing, providing limitations of switchability at the next level. But the majority of it centers around the complimentary nature of his game. It's easy to envision him providing solid impact but continually getting passed over for younger, sexier players (think Lance Thomas). I really like Grimes, but the floor is lower than his performance at the combine would lead you to believe.
7.31 - BJ Boston, Kentucky - Right now, Boston is super wiry and skinny. His overall shot-making, size and athleticism allowed him to overpower kids in high school and on the AAU circuit. It caught up to him at Kentucky in the SEC with a ton of size and strength. That'll mean there's a long-term curve ahead for Boston to maximize his offensive value. Add to it some struggles to separate off the bounce with his first step and there are concerns much more glaring than the shot-making.
There's a lot to believe in with Boston, though. Kentucky guards typically fit better in the NBA than in Calipari's system. Boston looks really comfortable in the mid-range, a sign he could be a great three-level scorer if the 3-point range becomes consistent. He may not be a primary creator at any point in his career due to that first step; envisioning him in a pick-your-spots aggressive scorer like Jeremy Lamb is certainly in the cards. I'd feel comfortable taking him in the late-first or early-second on a team that won't loft the unrealistic expectations of turning into a high-usage self-creator upon him.
7.30 - Josh Christopher, Arizona State - Christopher is this year's reincarnated version of Kevin Porter Jr. That level of offensive scoring punch is certainly present if Christopher figures it out. But that's a big 'if'. Everything he does is off the dribble and in isolation, a style of play that really doesn't appeal to me. His natural gifts are obscene, and if my prior statement about trusting NBA development teams with a ball of clay is legit, then Christopher has to be a guy I'd be fine investing in. There's 20 point per game upside and JR Giddens-like downside. I don't know if I'd hand out a four-year contract to somebody with that range of outcomes.
Mitchell has some clear strengths, centered on his on-ball defense. He's so imposing away from the basket and could be cut from that Patrick Beverley, Jevon Carter type of mold. He's also incredibly fast with an insane change of speed, especially with the ball in his hands. The hesitation dribble and ability to go past guys in straight lines is admirable.
But Mitchell is very simplistic as a finisher, relying on his right hand and has a shallow bag of tricks when he gets past his man. I worry about his impact in a league with more size and athleticism. He's not a great playmaker and certainly more of an off-ball threat than a pure point. Mitchell has turned himself into a legitimate 3-point threat, but his early career struggles are notable. There's real bust potential here, especially with the expectations heaped upon him. Despite the fact he's older and a really good on-ball defender, the floor is lower than is getting mentioned.
Any time a player only does things in small doses in college, there has to be a little concern about whether it will fully translate to a large role in the NBA. Primo isn't a fantastic above-the-rim athlete by any means, and Alabama's offensive system is already hypercharged with shooting that moving to the NBA won't provide a bump of spacing to get more room at the hoop for finishes. It's a minor detail for Primo, but because he doesn't clearly project as a good finisher in the half-court, there's risk involved with diving head-first into his shot-making upside.
Offensively, Jones makes shots at a solid clip from 3 and is incredibly mobile in the full-court. I've long thought he projects best as a 5, where his relative speed advantage allows him to get into the lane with ease. Play him at the 4 and he might be fine. The real test positionally for Jones is what he does best on defense. He can always be a smaller, switchable 5-man, but will the team drafting him want to make him more of a dropped-back rim protector or a hyper-sized 4-man?
âIt cannot be stated enough: Jones is still very raw. He's young enough and brimming with tantalizing upside that he tops this tier of high-variance guys, and I can certainly defend taking him in the lottery. I'm just not as optimistic that improvements and polish on both ends will compliment each other in a tidy box and clear role.
With that reward also comes a lot of risk. Mann is a solid playmaker but not necessarily a spectacular one. He's got a small wingspan, isn't a great athlete in the traditional sense and might struggle to finish near the rim. He'll have defensive concerns in ways that, at 6'4" with subpar quickness, might not be great at the point of attack.
All that does is put more pressure on his offense to be what carries him and earns his minutes. As a role player, Mann is an acquired taste. To me, he's either an offensive creator in a high-usage role or he's a break glass in case of emergency guy. High risk, high reward.
Tier 6: First-Round Talent Role Players
It bears repeating: I'll always believe that hitting singles and doubles outside the top tiers is more important than swinging for the fences. Any team, rebuilding or competing, can use impactful role players who make a team better. They aren't reserved exclusively for teams who already have their starring cast in place.
Four names stand out to me as guys with, at the very least, role player talent to be solid, sturdy, serviceable pros for years to come. The rankings within the tier are a reflection of upside beyond that in my eyes, as well as the overall impact and scarcity of the traits they bring to the table. Rarity of skills and need for a certain type of player always factors into evaluating a prospect against another.
6.25 - Jeremiah Robinson-Earl, Villanova
JRE is the captain of the all-intangibles team. He plays hard, is a phenomenal kid who is well-educated and has an NBA pedigree. If there's anyone in this class who could buy into the Jared Dudley role of "I may never score but I'll help my team win games", it's Robinson-Earl. He's a bit of a tweener, though the right team who needs a chess piece in the postseason for the Jazz vs. Clippers dilemma this year (drag out a stiff 5 by going small, or counter that move) would be wise to look at JRE.
At the end of the day, I believe in JRE's fundamental soundness, how dialed in he is on every possession defensively and buy the jump shot will become at least league average from the corners where he can play off-ball. Villanova is 'Role Player University' and very few of these guys strike out in the league.
6.24 - Franz Wagner, Michigan
With quick lateral movements and a nearly seven-foot wingspan, Wagner's defensive ability is pretty high. He's smart with angles and does a lot of the little things well. Add to it he's a great positional defender with an ability to cover the mistakes of others and Wagner definitely has a home with an NBA team. He's long, switchable and smart on defense. That in itself is coveted.
Where I'm most pessimistic with Wagner is on the offensive end. His shooting stroke is low and a bit slow, not capitalizing on the length he possesses. It doesn't go in at an alarmingly high rate, so I push back on the notion that he's some safe 3-and-D prospect. Wagner's IQ off the bounce doesn't translate functionally to me, nor does his finishing. Wagner is severely right-hand dominant, and Juwan Howard did an unbelievable job of constructing an offense that only utilized him going to his right. Those severe limitations always scare me from taking players too early, especially if they aren't a primary shot-creator. Solid player but not somebody I'd take in the lottery.
6.23 - Chris Duarte, Oregon
What Duarte does well is open up the offense for others. He's good off screens, always a threat when spotted up, is a vaunted enough pull-up scorer to make teams pay that run him off the line and is an underrated finisher at the rim. At 24, you know what you're getting, and can't be overly optimistic about him suddenly becoming a lock-down defender. That said, the shooting he brings to the table makes him a really safe and secure role player. I'm not of the frame of mind that he'll be logging 30 minutes a game regularly in his career, so I'll keep him firmly in this tier instead of a higher one for sure-thing role players.
6.22 - Ayo Dosunmu, Illinois
Dosunmu's lack of love on most boards likely stems from his age, lack of pure shooting polish and the unknown about what his overall best trait is. He's a good defender but not seen as a lockdown guy. He's a good shooter but has little off-ball volume to his credit. He's a solid PNR scorer and passer but not overwhelming by any means.
Here's the thing with Dosunmu: if he improves his scoring and self-creation, there's a little Donovan Mitchell to his offensive impact. I'm not convinced he gets there because it requires another leap for his pull-up shooting (he's already made a large one at Illinois, so he may have plateaued a bit). Regardless, Dosunmu's floor is pretty high as a winning player who will stick in this league. He tops this role player tier because of the self-creation flashes and upside that matter.
Tier 5: High-Upside Swings, Downside Worth Considering
Tier 5 is a tough place to be, and is indicative of the unique nature of this class. Outside that top tier of prospects that make the 2021 NBA Draft so unique, there are a lot of prospects who have high-caliber upside and high strikeout potential. The group here has what I would consider either a higher likelihood of reaching their ceiling than those in Tier 7 or a higher floor that makes them playable even if they don't pan out as stars.
Think about evaluating baseball players for a second. I've been talking a lot about taking singles and doubles over home runs and strikeout potential. In Tier 6, those are guys who consistently hit .285 and have limited power. Tier 5 might be best surmised as hitting .260 at worst. Every guy in this tier I believe will sign a contract beyond their first, several of whom will become legitimate franchise game-changers. But there's likely one of them, at least, who will supremely disappoint. That doesn't mean, given the information we have now, that they aren't worth swinging on.
But there's a ton of risk involved, and for that reason I'm not really that certain which will wind up making it work. Pretty much all of them have a "one major flaw" that, if fixed, turns them into a guy we are shocked wasn't taken higher.
Scattered within this tier are a few guys who don't quite have the high upside, but are role players closer to Tier 4 but have a little downside worth considering. Less alpha potential but could either be a starter or a guy who is easily replaced.
5.21 - Josh Giddey, Adelaide 36ers
Giddey had a ton of momentum in May, much of that has now halted. It allows us to view Giddey in a vacuum a little more clearly. Statistically impactful in a professional league, Giddey has unbelievable size for someone with lead guard skills. Put the rock in his hands and he creates amazing plays for others. Every pass is accurate, he does it with both hands, really creates out of the pick-and-roll and destroys any defender who isn't in perfect positioning.
The NBA can be a different animal, especially in the playoffs. Guys who struggle to shoot from 3-point range off the bounce will see defenses continually hide underneath the screen. As we start to evaluate a few more lead guard prospects in these higher tiers, and there are guys who require the ball in their hands to be impactful, the primary requirement on my evaluation tool is answering whether they can shoot from 3-point range off the bounce.
While Giddey's improvement here was notable as the season went on, his form is stiff, slow and not fluid enough to read and react to when teams go underneath screens. While he's a fantastic playmaker for others, I'm not sure if he's a good enough scorer to give me confidence and upside he'll persevere regardless. It just so happens that the missing skill for Giddey (shooting) also hinders his off-ball impact. A smart cutter, that can only get you so far in the half-court.
Without improved shooting, Giddey projects more like a Tomas Satoransky type of player, a big playmaker who isn't bound by one position. But late-game situations will see him played off the floor without that jumper. Mechanically-speaking, I'm not as high on Giddey figuring it out as others are.
5.20 - Isaiah Todd, G-League Ignite
I'm a firm believer that Isaiah Todd is a top-notch offensive swing worth taking in this draft. Stretch bigs have a role in the modern NBA, where utility frontcourt shooters like Nicolo Melli, Nemanja Bjelicia and Ersan Ilyasova all find consistent roles in the NBA. Being tall and able to consistently stretch a defense out to 3-point range is a skill that, at its very base, has role player downside.
Todd is so much more than that. His comfort in the mid-post isolations, scoring with his back to the basket and the few glimpses he's shown of scoring off the bounce are all incredibly functional as an NBA 4-man. They're also ceiling-raisers, where Todd might be able to develop those traits enough to become a scoring pillar for some team. Similarly to Prkacin, Todd could be a do-it-all guy without a major strength or signature spot. Or he could just be a pick-and-pop specialist.
I see a good deal of versatility to his offensive production. At the 4, he's mismatching guys inside when his coach wants him to, and spacing to the corners otherwise. At the 5, he'll take stiffer bigs off the bounce from the top of the key, thwart Drop coverage with his pops and sprint the floor to score in transition.
It's worth remembering that Todd might have sacrificed the most within the G-League Ignite group. Green and Kuminga got theirs, Nix was the table-setter. But Todd wasn't afforded the volume to produce in ways he's most comfortable and that might demonstrate his ceiling. It's akin to taking a guy from Kentucky who fills a specialty role but has so much more room to blossom in the NBA. Shooters like Devin Booker, Immanuel Quickley and Jamal Murray have all outperformed at the next level. Todd will do so in different areas, but the premise is the same.
Defensively, Todd will have his challenges. That's why he doesn't propel himself much high on this board. His offensive floor is super high in my opinion; I'd be willing to swing on him just outside the lottery.
5.19 - Isaiah Jackson, Kentucky
Without beating a dead horse for the millionth time, there are a couple of necessities (usually) in drafting a big man in the lottery or early parts of the first-round: rim protection, multiple PNR coverages on defense, PNR finishing and upside to score/ create away from the basket. Jackson likely will check three of the four boxes, with some latent upside to score away from it. I'm not overwhelmingly sold on his passing or face-up game ever developing.
There's a caveat with the PNR coverages, though: while Jackson's mobility and athleticism allows him to project in Drop and switch coverages, his angles and precision on both need some work. He's pretty raw as a big man, with really high lob finishing upside, up-tempo mobility and terrific shot blocking instincts. Add the polish and he'll be a solid big man cut in the same cloth as a Jarrett Allen or Robert Williams.
To me, that's Jackson's ceiling, and it places him squarely in the middle of this tier as a result. I'm a little more skittish about taking bigs super early in this range; if you're gonna take a high-upside pick, either make it a skill position on the perimeter or a high-upside scorer in the frontcourt. It's so easy to get caught in-between, with guys like Timelord, Jarrett Allen or Richaun Holmes, where they perform well enough to eaarn a good amount of money on their next deal but likely aren't that much better than a replacement-level player. Scarcity of the position and traits in question matter.
5.18 - Deuce McBride, West Virginia
I've long been a Deuce McBride fan, championing him as a top-20 pick since Thanksgiving. He is certainly one of the best on-ball defenders in this draft class, if not the best. A winner and hard worker out of the Bob Huggins school of hard knocks, McBride features a ton of offensive potential due to the fact he was a high-level quarterback in high school and has only in the last few years began to play hoops year round.
While I certainly advocate for getting in on the ground floor with McBride, he isn't without his flaws. The 40% catch-and-shoot numbers are great for a hybrid backcourt role, but putting the ball in his hands as a lead creator might produce mixed results. He's a very good pull-up shooter who is comfortable to 3, but doesn't involve teammates as much as you'd like and doesn't get to the rim a ton. The first point can be taught, the second is a worrisome underlying trait. For someone as athletic as McBride is on defense, he harnesses that athleticism on offense.
I'm high on McBride because I think, at worst, he turns into a Marcus Smart type of player: he's wired for that and certainly capable on defense. The shot-making has to translate and there are continued steps to get him going with the ball in his hands consistently. He projects to me as a really good third guard on a championship-caliber team.
5.17 - Cam Thomas, LSU
Cameron Thomas is a professional scorer. Wilder things have happened than Thomas emerging as the best bucket-getter in this class. After all, he is the EYBL's greatest scorer ever and set records at Oak Hill in the scoring department. While there isn't a shot Thomas can't make, there are also no shots he doesn't want to take. Throughout the year, despite his prolific jumper, this was the factor that always held him back: a lack of interest in defense and making plays for others. He's capable in both areas, so that isn't the issue. The way he's handled the pre-draft process is indicative of his mentality and attitude: he believes he's a top talent and does little to work to convince others that he is. He constantly needs prodding, and his mother takes an active role in getting him to follow through on basketball workouts. Nothing against moms, it's just a rough sign for a league so built on necessary improvement and desire.
On the court, Thomas is a little dependent on his jumper and loves isolations. He has a skill I covet in go-to or isolation scorers: he gets to the free throw line a ton. There's a little Paul Pierce to his shot, where the timing is off from defenders because it's a little slower than normal. He uses that to lean in and create contact, as well as embellishing contact near the hoop. Thomas is a capable passer who could easily put together more assists and prove deserving of a large offensive role, even in a starting unit.
My major worry is the defensive end. With all the talents in the world, his scoring isn't worth much if he gives it back on the other end. It's hard to know how much that will change at the next level. I like the competitiveness at times but wish it were more consistent. I want to put him top-15 and have him ahead of the next two guys, but I just can't bring myself to do so.
5.16 - Corey Kispert, Gonzaga
A four-year player at Gonzaga, there's little in the way of uncertainty when it comes to projecting Kispert's game. He's a strong-framed 3-point shooting threat with deep range, a good feel for how to get open when spotting up, the ability to stay hot for long bunches and underrated finishing chops when chased off the line.
Quite frankly, there may not be a safer bet in this draft class. We've seen the impact having a really good 3-point shooter can have on an offense, and older proven guys are getting taken earlier in drafts as a result: just look at Cam Johnson for the Phoenix Suns currently playing in the NBA Finals.
A guy like Johnson, or Doug McDermott or Joe Harris, is a pretty good comparison fo Kispert. He'll never be your best defender but with his strong frame and size can play or guard multiple positions. He makes shots in functional ways and adding a movement shooter who can play heavy minutes is important for almost any offense.
So why is Kispert stuck in the middle of the tier with high-variance prospects? It's more about the opportunity cost on taking Kispert: it's hard to vault him into Tier 4 of guys I believe will be elite role players because he does so little off the bounce, and valuing who Kispert is over the eight others in Tier 5 lead me to believe at least one or two will leapfrog him in terms of production.
âThere are a couple of guys who I'm optimistic enough will figure it out to place them above Kispert, therefore pushing the wing down into a mini-tier of his own within Tier 5...
5.15 - Sharife Cooper, Auburn
Whenever I write, I spend a fair amount of time thinking about biases and working hard to mitigate them when forming a central thesis. And as I'm evaluating Cooper, I can't help but wonder if I'm experiencing a cousin of recency bias or if I'm dead on the money with how I'm evaluating for the modern NBA.
After watching these 2021 NBA Playoffs where Trae Young and Chris Paul tore defenses to shreds, finding a pick-and-roll maestro who, despite being undersized, is the ideal combination of flawless playmaking and scoring threat at the 8-foot mark really appeals to me. It's a winning brand of basketball against Drop coverage, the perfect foil for modern bigs and rim protection techniques. All that is required is command of the basketball to involve anyone else when they're open and to successfully master the tricks of staying a half-step ahead of your opponent. So much harder than it sounds.
Sharife Cooper is definitely undersized (side note: does anyone know how tall Cooper actually is after that confusing combine measurement?) but he has all the shift and tricks of the trade to warrant comparisons to Young and CP3 in minor ways. He's shifty, has an unbelievable handle so he can involve his teammates as soon as they're open, always has his eyes up, plays with his own pace and shift and gets to the free throw line a ton. He's already fairly advanced with his snaking and hostage dribbles, and creates so much for his team out of high pick-and-rolls.
All the tricks he's learned, and all the great passes he makes when defenders collapse on him, are only relevant if he can get his primary defender on his back. As someone who shot beneath 30% from 3 this season and has a somewhat glaring mechanical flaw in his jumper (he leans back a ton), the prospects of him reaching that elite company is not dependent on him acquiring the seasoning but on developing a jump shot too.
Gone are the days of worrying about point guards who are too small on defense if they are such productive offensive engines, and Cooper certainly proved he can be that in his limited time at Auburn. While questions of his jumper are of serious concern, he's really a 3-pointer away from being the closest thing we could find to "the next Trae Young".
âI've struggled mightily with where to slot Cooper on my board. The cardinal rule I've set for myself of not trusting lead guards who can't shoot off the bounce is pretty much getting thrown out of the window. Not due to optimism about Cooper's shot per se, but in understanding how complete of an offensive hub he becomes if the jumper arrives. For that reason, and in belief that at his worst he's a fun version of Ish Smith, Cooper vaults into the top-15 and ahead of a safer option like Kispert.
5.14 - Ziaire Williams, Stanford
There's no beating around the bush here: Ziaire Williams had a bad year at Stanford. Hyped coming in as a really long, fluid scorer off the bounce like Paul George, Williams had far more turnovers than assists, shot below 30% from 3 and was moved to the second unit on a mid-tier Pac-12 team.
Even in the lack of consistent production, I saw enough flashes of shot-making from Williams that simply cannot be taught at his size. The violence of his jab-and-go moves, the smooth nature and high release of his jumper, the amount of space he can create off step-backs due to his size (he measured at 6'10" during the combine)... traits that really aren't able to be given to most. That alone makes Williams worthy of a first-round selection, especially in a draft class (and an NBA) devoid of young wing shooters.
From there, we combat some of the constraints that held Ziaire back as a freshman. First comes the COVID year, which harmed every freshman in the country, not just Williams. The lack of a summer session, consistent preseason and the stop-start nature of athletics hindered the preparation of anybody joining college basketball for the first time. That was especially the case for Williams, who chose to go to college in California, a state that had among the most strict COVID-19 restrictions. Stanford was displaced from a weight room as a result, often resorting to makeshift strength and conditioning sessions within their hotel on road trips. It was a lot to throw at a youngster who desperately needed consistency in the weight room to offset his slender frame.
There's little doubt that the COVID season set back not just Williams' perception as a prospect but his development as a whole. Stanford is a motion ball screen offense that doesn't really tailor-make guard skills that translate to the league. All of these excuses that can be built for Williams shouldn't dismiss the fact he didn't produce when the lights were on. They simply don't nosedive him down my board in the way other poor performers might.
Positional scarcity really does matter when deciding who to take a risk on. Why take the risk on a player who, if you hit, would now be like 15 or 16 other guys in the league? When you take a risk, you do so on a unique player who becomes a talent and trump card that nobody else can boast. I see similarities to Paul George in Ziaire's comfort and reliance with his jumper, or as a floor more like a Rodney Hood. Big, long self-creators on the wings with range to 3 and the finesse of a guard are really rare to come by. Combine that with a belief that Williams' scoring upside can be salvaged and I'm fully bought into this experiment. Even if I'm wrong, I'll sleep at night knowing his background and upside are the right combination to swing for the fences on.
5.13 - Jalen Johnson, Duke
Any exercise in rankings is a deeply personal one: the honest feedback you give has to make sense and be justifiable internally. Part of that means you have to be able to project how you see a player fitting, developing and how it jives with the type of systems you would want to see in the NBA. You have to envision the development plan to either turn them into the best version of themselves or find ways to mitigate some of their shortcomings so their floor is on par with the low-ceiling guy you're bypassing (in this case, that's Kispert).
I have absolutely no doubts that there's a top-seven talent lying somewhere in Jalen Johnson's portfolio. At 6'9" with good athleticism, great passing vision, solid scoring off the bounce and a few highlight reel slams to his credit, the offensive upside is high for Johnson. When he was at his best this year he was sensational. In games against Pittsburgh (24 points, 16 boards, 7 assists, 4 blocks, 2 steals in 33 minutes) and Coppin State (19 points, 19 rebounds, 5 assists, 4 blocks on 8-8 shooting) were two of the signature performances of any prospect this year and showed some of the most brilliant flashes you could see.
Unfortunately, Johnson suffered some injuries and battled inconsistency throughout the year. He'd turn in some stinkers, like having 9 points with 0 assists and 6 turnovers against Louisville. Johnson slid down the bench a bit, left Duke (raising some character and maturity questions) and the Blue Devils went on a mini-run after he left. It's really hard from the outside to decipher what is injury, what is legitimate reasons for departure and what should be a red flag.
Instead, we'll stick to the film and what we can evaluate. The film reveals a prospect so dominant in the open court but so flawed in the half-court. Sure, Johnson shot 44% from 3 and projects as a solid frontcourt shooter (though over 40% seems like a stretch). But he really struggled to separate 1v1, which hampers his ability to use the passing that makes him so special. He's just not polished enough of a scorer to merit much higher consideration as an alpha, so if he isn't getting past his man, he'll do little to make help defenses collapse.
Like I said at the top, I have a plan and see a path forward to maximize Johnson's upside to a certain extent. Utilizing him in one of three ways would get him unlocked. The first: getting downhill of handoffs in the middle of the floor. Look at what the Chicago Bulls did for Patrick Williams this year in Chicago, playing him in the slots a lot and having him get a head of steam before taking his first bounce. Williams does it more like a scorer, Johnson would be as a creator.
Second would be in a Pascal Siakam-like rebound-and-run role, where the entire early offense is built around him and thus maximizes his offensive potential. Third would be akin to Zion in New Orleans, and I'm not sure Johnson's overall offensive output and efficiency at the rim really merits the frequency of Zion's role, but utilizing blade cuts or other wonky handoffs out of the corner masks his slow first step. I just can't get those Coppin State and Pittsburgh games out of my head and really believe the upside is worth the risk when it comes to Johnson.
Tier 4: The Safest, High-Value Role Players
The best way to illustrate this tier is to describe who was in it a season ago. For the 2020 draft, the guys who I believed wouldn't fail as role players: Onyeka Okongwu, Theo Maledon and Saddiq Bey. Okongwu turned heads with his unbelievable defensive performances as a rookie in Atlanta's deep playoff run. Maledon started as a steady off-ball guard next to Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. Bey was named First-Team All-Rookie as a 3-and-D threat primed for instant impact and long-term success.
None of those guys really scream 'All-Star' at you. But all of them can easily play 25-30 minutes or more on a contending team in a complimentary role and nobody would bat an eye.
Those are the guys we're looking for here: the elite role players who I'd go out on a limb for and believe they'll pretty certainly be playing 26 minutes or more on good NBA teams. While last year's class had four guys (the aforementioned three and Isaiah Joe, who may take a year or so to develop due to his frame), this year only sees two earn the designation as 'Coach Spins low risk, high reward star role players'.
4.12 - Moses Moody, Arkansas
You can't teach length...
A stereotypical 3-and-D wing, Moses Moody combines the fluidity of a thin 6'6" shooter with the length of a Kevin Durant. It allows him to be impactful on almost every possession, regardless of his athleticism or lateral quickness being a half-step behind most of his wing counterparts.
Offensively, Moody has a smooth and rhythmic release that he gets off even against late contests because, well, he's so damn long. With deep range and movement potential, Moody can easily become one of the best shooters in this draft class.
Defensively, Moody's length bothers perimeter shooters, either on closeouts or in isolation. He does a good job moving his feet to keep others in front of him and really works hard to play angles to his advantage. I don't think Moody is a lockdown defender, but his length can bother guys, especially if he has a size advantage.
A team with a frontcourt creator would be wise to get Moody to play the 2 and in small lineups the 3. That would allow his length to overwhelm his opponent in suffocating ways.
âLook, Moody doesn't have this awe-inspiring ceiling for finishing or self-creation, and he's certainly not the fastest guy in the group. But there's a legitimate ceiling in which he becomes one of the more impactful two-way wings in the game. I don't think taking him in the top-ten is a reach, and because his complimentary scoring role fits next to almost any player or group, he'll be successful wherever he ends up.
4.11 - Jared Butler, Baylor
I love Jared Butler. Full stop. As a personality and teammate, as a player... he's been one of my favorite guys even before the season began. A year ago, Butler flirted with coming out after his sophomore year but decided to go back to school and chase improvement there. At the time, he projected as a George Hill type of combo guard: solid defensively, a better shooter than creator but someone who can play the point and facilitate if you need him to. The handle was fine, but we didn't know how Butler would be in the lead role, at creating his own shot or how he'd make up for the lack of vertical athleticism.
Butler came back to school, won a National Championship, became a First-Team All-American and solidified his improvement in every single aforementioned category. He now has the best handle in this year's draft class, and his eyes are routinely up and scanning broken plays to find open teammates at the rim. He's good for one or two buckets a game that way. He improved his athleticism and started dunking in-game, one of the few times a guy has looked more spry from sophomore to junior years.
Most importantly, Butler became an offensive hub for Baylor. His self-creation in isolations and out of ball screens was insane; he became college basketball's most consistent step-back scorer. All this while keeping his catch-and-shoot impact high and at elite levels -- he was over 50% on spot-up jumpers this year. Wild levels of offensive production, all while being a pretty good point of attack defender.
For the life of me, I will never understand why Mitchell gets mentioned ahead of Butler. He's now playing like George Hill with a starting lead guard, not a third guard off the bench or more auxiliary role. He's the perfect role player fit next to a frontcourt facilitator and, dare I say it, has latent upside to be a really elite shooter. Role player downside/ floor with mid-level starting guard upside -- and that puts him knocking on the door of All-Star status. He's a lock for the top spot below Tier 3.
There's nothing loud about Butler's personality or his game, he just overall produces. A winner and a leader, I am hoping so hard that this kid gets the shot to play. He's incredible to watch improve and I don't think he's done yet.
Tier 3: Fringe All-Stars/ Good 3rd Options
Earlier this spring, I wrote a long, detailed piece on team-building in the NBA that's premise was on finding three pillars for an organization. Sometimes that means finding three star players. Other times, it's two stars and a legitimate identity (shooting, defense, experience, etc.).
Tier 3 is a complicated tier in most drafts, because finding a third option for your team is really all about fit. The grouping is filled with guys who have All-Star potential in my eyes, as well as a really high likelihood of them either reaching that potential or being at worst a starting-caliber player. They elevate themselves from Tier 4 by being high-ceiling guys and from Tier 5 by having a better chance of not hitting their floor.
This year's collection are interesting guys because, in a vacuum, I love the talents of both. But an understated part of them becoming the right pillar and reaching All-Star potential will be the fits they find themselves in. Both players in Tier 3 require beneficial surroundings, development plans and on-court schematics to maximize who they are. That makes early impact fairly important, as it would prove to their organization that they're a guy worth building around.
3.10 - Alperen Sengun, Beskitas
Sengun will some day be an interesting study in draft circles. He'll either be proof that production in professional leagues as a teenager is nearly always indicative of NBA success and a great barometer that makes drafting international or G-League prospects simple. Or he'll be the exception to the rule, proof that fit, athleticism and blending into the modern game is much more important than production.
I'm betting on Sengun to succeed. The guy won an MVP award in a professional league filled with former NBA guys when he was 18 years old, and 17 for some of it. The insane statistical output he put forth, combined with an asinine level of polish for a teenage big man are only seen by Nikola Jokic. He's a really strong-bodied big man who makes up for his lack of size (he's only 6'10") with the strength to withstand physical force, dish out some of his own and the pristine footwork that usually accompanies a much older player. Play one-on-one on the block with Sengun and he'll throw you in the spin cycle.
That's the biggest reason detractors are not sold on Sengun: so much of his offense comes in the post. He's a bit of a throwback player. While he's strong, he's not the physical force that a guy like Joel Embiid, Enes Kanter or Shaquille O'Neal play like. As a true 5 in a league where he won't have a comparative size or strength advantage, there have been questions about where he produces offensively.
To me, those same critics are underrating the mobility Sengun has also showed. He's good in functional ways for big men: short roll creation, screening, solid pick & pop upside as he gets used to shooting at range. I believe strongly in Sengun's screening in particular. Against switching teams (or against teams that struggle to fight through screens) his post-up prowess becomes so much more valuable. While guys like Kanter park themselves on the block and demand a post-up, Sengun's mobility in handoffs and quickly setting screens catches defenses off-guard, forces switches and allows him to operate inside. From there, he's just as good at passing and creating for others as he is scoring one-on-one. A real offensive hub.
I don't have a ton of doubt that Sengun can become a starter and a legitimate offensive option; his best role is out of the same vein as a Jonas Valanciunas or a Jusuf Nurkic: best as a third option who is surrounded by shooting. The issues are more on the defensive end for Sengun. the question isn't whether he'll be a plus defender. It's whether he can offensively impact the game enough to stay on the floor against anyone and be a better option for a team than a simple defensive-minded, screen-and-roll big.
Based on the film in Turkey, I like the upside for pick-and-roll defense in drop coverage. Sengun makes a conscious decision to wall up and establish verticality. He'll certainly be more about positioning than athleticism, so the polish that comes from learning in the NBA after a couple years can mask some of his deficiencies. The floor for Sengun's defense is pretty low, but there is a good chance he'll be at least mediocre enough to withstand getting targeted.
While I'm usually not an advocate for taking bigs early (especially ones who aren't versatile defensively or proven 3-point threats), Sengun is the exception to the rule. He is so productive as a teenager that I'd never really forgive myself for blowing an evaluation layup if he pans out: guys who produced in European pro leagues at his age simply haven't missed when they make the NBA.
3.9 - James Bouknight, Connecticut
As I've gone back and watched more Bouknight film, two things have stood out to me: first, the amount of lift he gets on his layup attempts is special. One of the few guys who has that extra gear to go to while they're already in air, it's hard for me to see those guys failing completely at the NBA level. They look like they belong.
Second is the amount of polish and forethought in his scoring arsenal. Watching a lot of clips shows the overall bag; watching games in succession shows his ability to anticipate how what he just pulled out of his bag will open up something else. There's a great deal of forethought as a scorer where I feel really comfortable with him as more than just a gunner off-the-bounce.
Bouknight is one of the best scorers in this draft class; there's a top-tier of scoring potential that features Jalen Green, Cade Cunningham, Cam Thomas and Bouknight because of what they've already shown. Carrying a limp Huskies offense in the Big East, Bouknight did a little bit of everything for his college team, creating a ton with the ball in his hands. He's able to absolutely drill shots off the bounce.
It's hard to discern which bad habits Bouknight showed at UConn were caused by the longest of long leashes he was given offensively and which are indicative of a guy who is so shoot-first that he misses open teammates. I don't love his shot selection at all. He's probably a better shooter than he showed off-ball (and worse than the reports coming out of his pro day) but it's hard to value his off-ball impact when he never got to play off-ball at Connecticut. At the very least, his jumper is projectable and catch-and-shoot impact is the easiest thing to fix for a player who is statistically strong off the bounce and from the free throw line.
âWhen it comes to projecting where he fits, Bouknight has the size to play either backcourt position. To me, he's best as a scoring-minded 2-guard and may wind up being someone who makes us look foolish for not having him higher. All the signs are there of a special prospect scoring the ball. We'll see if the rest of his game catches up quickly.
3.8 - Keon Johnson, Tennessee
Recently, I wrote a long and detailed piece about Keon Johnson's projected development into a lead offensive option and how his college experience and weaknesses mirror that of Jaylen Brown at California. The gist is this: Johnson wasn't surrounded by good spacing or a system that maximized how he plays, and the worries about his 3-point range are a little overblown.
Long-term, Johnson is really a 3-point shot away from being a freakish three-level scorer. At the rim, his explosive athleticism stands out and unlocks monstrous dunks as well as hangtime finishes. He's already a smooth pull-up scorer, although the lack of trust in his shot going left is a little concerning. When I see pull-up mechanics as smooth and consistent as Keon's in the mid-range, I get really excited for his potential and think the deep ball will come soon enough.
Keon's offensive ceiling will only be reached if he continues to get better step by step: adding a little more hip movement and shiftiness when attacking, projecting his range to 3 and working on his consistency going left. But these are easily identifiable traits he's already begun to improve. The high release on his jump shot and consistent mechanics are already aesthetically pleasing.
Think of Johnson's ceiling like that of a Jaylen Brown while also possessing some of the best on-ball defense in this draft class. Johnson's athleticism isn't just vertical; he's super quick laterally and keeps guys in front. He frequently shuts off driving lanes, does so without fouling and has been a solid help defender as well. He should be able to guard 1 thru 3 with his frame. The floor is pretty high due to his defense and finishing.
As a guy who usually doesn't love non-shooting backcourt, putting Johnson at 8 shows my faith in him not only developing the trey but becoming a legit All-Star-caliber player. He's not a pure point, a shooting guard, a wing... he's just a good basketball player with outstanding potential. That shouldn't be overlooked.
Tier 2: Just Outside the Elite Prospects
Getting into our top-two tiers, this draft class starts to really show what makes it special: seven names in these groups with a ton of upside. More than anything, we have seven guys who I'm pretty confident can or will be All-Star talents, with truly elite potential as MVP-caliber types.
The rankings are, in essence, a reflection of how much faith I have in each guy reaching All-Star status. For reference, last year both Anthony Edwards and James Wiseman (the top two prospects on our big board) were in Tier 2, and in 2019 it was Darius Garland, RJ Barrett and Ja Morant. There either has to be a large amount of offensive upside to become one of those three pillars or being an absolute stud on the defensive side. You'll see the dichotomy of those prospects here within this tier.
2.7 - Usman Garuba, Real Madrid
Ladies and gentlemen, meet the closest thing we've seen to a reincarnated Draymond Green...
Usman Garuba stands above the rest because of his insane defensive potential. With a 7'2" wingspan, locomotive athleticism and an IQ that is already elite, Garuba takes my award for best defensive prospect in this class (yes, ahead of Evan Mobley). While some struggle to figure out exactly what position Garuba plays (is he a 4 or a 5) the overall ability to impact the game at either spot exists. Remember, those same critiques were lofted about Draymond once upon a time.
Garuba is an incredibly impactful rim protector. Not because of his size, standing reach, verticality or shot blocking prowess, but due to immensely spectacular timing. He knows exactly when to leave his feet and is always lurking from the weak side. No player I've scouted over the last few years has a better feel for when plays break down and rushes in to provide emergency help. It happens time and time again.
Play him as a small-ball 5 and you get all the positive traits of rim protection while deploying a switchable PNR option. Garuba does incredibly well on slashing wings, and showed glimpses of success against smaller guards. His long go-go-gadget arms swat shots on jump shooters, and his lateral quickness is something to behold for his size. Play him at the 4 and he'll be just fine. I truly believe Garuba is an elite defensive prospect, and that alone gives him such high potential.
For most, offense is really drastically different. A low-volume scorer, Garuba seems unwilling to score or take a lot of shots. That has colored a visual of him as incapable, even as a role playing scorer. Inconsistent shooting mechanics take away from the perimeter feel, and the size or belief some have that he isn't a 5 prevent him from being seen as a screen-and-roll finisher.
In the optimal usage and right team, Garuba is an impactful smaller 5. He's shot well over 40% from 3 since May 20th (yes, a small sample) and 34.4% overall in the ACB season. He's really improving, whether as a 4 or a 5. He can space to the corners as either, but as a 5 he sprinkles with it really good PNR finishing. That trait unlocks what I believe is his best offensive skill: short roll playmaking. Garuba is a terrific passer at the nail and would be excellent in the same role Draymond played with the Warriors.
No, Garuba likely will never be a top-3 or even top-4 scoring threat on a team. But if knocks down 3-pointers on low volume and can be a great PNR partner with a strong shooting lead-guard, he has all the offensive utility to play heavy minutes that allow him to be a defensive juggernaut. He's a winning basketball player who has success as a teenager in professional leagues; if we are to herald Sengun for that fact, we have to for Garuba as well. Garuba's impact is just less apparent to the naked eye.
2.6 - Jonathan Kuminga, G-League Ignite
I really don't get the overall pessimism surrounding Kuminga on draft Twitter. I think the perception is that he's a mid-range scoring wing who plays in isolation, doesn't shoot it from 3, plays minimal defense and isn't someone who creates for others. If that description is, at its floor for an 18-year-old, more of a Rudy Gay type of projection, I still think that's a pretty solid floor.
But I'm willing to buy into the flashes of what I saw from Kuminga's offense to potentially become an alpha. He's much better off his first step in face-up situations than given credit for. The patient work in the mid-post, combined with his knack for getting to the free throw line, are elite postseason traits. Yes, the jumper needs some work and refinement, but it isn't irreparably broken. We aren't talking about Michael Kidd-Gilchrist or Ben Simmons here. He's a willing shooter who likely has been tinkered with far too much.
In one of the few times I'll cite "sources" that I know, I will say that a few high school contacts I know who were around Kuminga prior to his time with the Ignite mention how much he wants to be a winner and is willing to work hard. He's still very, very raw: he's an international kid who is still far earlier in his development than many other guys, let alone those who played against professional competition in the G-League bubble last year.
I'm willing to be patient on a guy like Kuminga because, if the shot comes around, he's a three-level scorer with an unbelievable frame and solid defensive potential. I think judging him off his defense right now is a fool's errand. He was thrown into a pro league before he was ready. It certainly revealed what he needs to work on and where he falls short, but doesn't indicate a lack of long-term ability.
I came away from the G-League bubble impressed with Kuminga despite his lack of numbers. He'll be the one guy who, a year or two into his career, likely has many coming out of the woodwork to call him a bust because he isn't producing as quickly as other top guys in this class. But be patient with Kuminga and there's a legitimate alpha scorer with great frame and defensive potential in there.
2.5 - Scottie Barnes, Florida State
In a vacuum, a 6'9" super athlete with a 7'2" wingspan and all the skills of a pass-first point guard who can defend 1 thru 5 is enough to be considered an elite prospect. The rarity of the combination of traits he possesses cannot be lost when evaluating prospects in this class. The absence of a jump shot, which is a massive swing skill that matters a ton for on-ball creation, hinders the view of him by many who see Mobley as a safer bet because his jump shot is more advanced.
Add the jump shot and he's a monster, a high-ceiling beast who belongs in the top tier. Worries about the translation of his mechanics, at least off-the-dribble, limit that upside and keep him in Tier 2 due to the risk, and place him just behind our top guy in Tier 2 who is a lot more safe of a role projection and offensive translation to the league. Just to level with you: there was serious consideration given to having Barnes at 4.
Some of the framing of Barnes as a prospect in terms of player comparisons really irks me. They're far more damaging due to clear limitations of the names he's likened to and don't highlight the special athleticism that would allow him to supersede those comps. We hear Barnes thrown around with Draymond Green (really don't get that one) and Ben Simmons. Barnes hustles like Draymond and is a good passer without the shooting, but he's so much more of an athlete and imposing force with the ball in his hands as a scorer. Simmons' comparisons, at least of late, set someone up for failure due to the low regard for Ben's offensive impact since he's so passive. Go back and watch Barnes play at Montverde with Cade Cunningham and you'll see someone who certainly isn't deferential.
Instead, let's reframe the debate and look at Barnes without a jumper more in the role of Giannis Antetokounmpo. The physical power and athleticism Barnes has is imposing in a way Giannis's has been. A guy who won two MVP awards based on his elite length and handle combinations, really strong playmaking for others and ability to thrive in the open floor, Giannis is great on both ends and so statistically productive.
In order for Barnes to get there, he'll need a few more quick finishes and functional moves in isolation as a handler. But his big hands, good handle overall and burst are elite. The biggest difference between the two: Giannis is an elite rebounder who routinely is among league leaders in the category. Barnes wasn't productive on the glass in college, though there's a statistical explanation: Barnes played in a full-time switching scheme and was the team's point guard, meaning most of his assignments kept him farther from the hoop.
Barnes has some development ahead of him, though perhaps only Jalen Green can rival the physical tools of Scottie in this class. If he can follow the same development plan as a guy like Giannis and build brick by brick while he finds out what his jumper looks like, he's the type of do-it-all game-changing prospect I wouldn't want to miss.
2.4 - Evan Mobley, USC
Alright... here's the major ranking in the top tier that differs from consensus. I had Mobley 4th on my board for the longest time and don't have him in that top tier of superstar talents but more as a guy in that All-Star but not every year All-Star tier. I genuinely don't believe this is a slanderous take on Mobley, just indicative of the confidence in and high evaluation of the three guys who are above him.
Part of my evaluation of Mobley is that he's more anchored to the 5 spot than other pundits have him. After going back and watching 12 Mobley games since July 1st and seeing how he fared with his brother (also a big man) it became clear to me that Evan isn't the face-up 4 option that many think he is or could become. He's more of a controlled driver when he meets resistance and only uses his long gait in straight lines against other bigs who are stiff. The jumper doesn't blow me away; he shot 30% this year, though mechanically his release time changes in relativity to his jump. That's a feel issue that can be repped through but concerns me when space and time shrink against elite defenders. They're concerns that would really make me hesitate to play him at the 4 offensively without pairing him with a stretch-5.
Because of that more constrained view of Mobley's position, he moves down a tad in comparison to the explosive upside of others in this draft. That doesn't mean Mobley is a poor prospect; he'd likely go 1st overall last year and 2nd in 2019 behind Zion... I'm still very high on Mobley because his floor as a 5-man is pretty damn high.
Let's continue momentarily with offense. The pick-and-roll finishing skills are really high-level. Dexterity, great hands, uses both at the rim, lob catcher or scorer off one bounce... he pairs well with any type of guard. I'm really high on the playmaking in the middle of the floor to believe he'll be either a good creator off the short roll or attacking closeouts as a pick & pop threat. If he adds the jumper and can stretch defenses out, he's a pretty complete 5-man. I don't buy his post-up game and think he's subpar in isolation settings, but he's functional in every movement category for a big.
All that upside as a scorer is the fluff that surrounds his best traits: defensive versatility. He can guard both frontcourt spots, albeit he's best as a rim protector at the 5. Great in any type of PNR scheme, the combination of fluidity, length and polish is rare for a college freshman. Mobley's angles in the two-man game are already so advanced it's ridiculous. To play the pros and cons game, that could mean there's less ceiling left for him to hit in comparison to other bigs. It could also mean that, if he gets better and works with the right coach, he'll become an elite defensive big whose impact (in different ways) is on par with Rudy Gobert.
Putting Mobley at 4 isn't meant to be a slap in the face, just a belief so strongly in the three guys ahead of him. It's a guard's league, and due to my lack of envisioning Mobley as an offensive hub and more an elite finisher/ secondary option next to a lead guard, it would feel counterintuitive for me to take him over one of those elite guards. High upside defensively, high floor on both ends... Mobley is on par with some of the great prospects we've seen over the last two years.
Tier 1: Franchise Player Alphas
Man, it feels good to be back.
Last year, there were no players who earned a Tier 1 grade in my book. In 2019, only one (Zion) got the designation. It's a tier that is exceptionally rare and reserved for guys I am incredibly sold on.
This year's class is special at the top. Three guys earned this designation, while two or three others are knocking on the door. What's great in this class is that all three are alpha handlers who will play with the ball in their hands but all are wildly different in how and where they impact the game. There's one guy who is a considerable amount higher than the others, but a group of two more who I have supreme faith in.
1.3 - Jalen Suggs, Gonzaga
I'm not really sure how to quantify the 'it' factor into a prospect evaluation. Some guys are simply special, showing up in big-time moments and willing their teams to victory.
As a prospect, Jalen Suggs is clearly a top-six talent in this class. He's a really good athlete, has fantastic vision, projects well as a scorer and is a great quick-twitch defender who can hound guys on-ball or make impactful plays off it. Go back and watch the WCC Championship game against BYU and the Final Four game with UCLA and you see a player who propels his teams to wins whenever they need him. That takeover gene, the recognition and capability, elevate Suggs into a higher category in my book than some of the other great prospects in this class.
Suggs isn't without areas he has to improve. He's not the most consistent 3-point shooter or pull-up guy off the bounce. He could tighten his handle a bit. And he's a bit of a charge candidate because he attacks the rim so damn hard on almost every drive. Improving deceleration, ball handle and ability from 3 make him a complete prospect.
By my measure, Suggs was slightly harmed at Gonzaga by not playing in an offense built around him. The ball screen reads he was asked to make meant there was a big man stationed in the lane or fewer spot-up shooters stationary on the perimeter. Put him more in a spread pick-and-roll where he's the engine and not within a motion setting and he'll pop. There isn't a pass he can't make, and he's so good at playing with pace when attacking the rim that he's a bonafide stud.
A high-volume PNR creator, the consistent shot off the bounce would force defenses to play him above the line. Once he gets that every time, nobody will be able to go under screens. That way, he gets his man on his back, which unlocks his playmaking reads as he adds polish to his game.
That polish is somewhat important for a PNR playmaker. Suggs has a solid amount for a college freshman, but can add so much more. When you think of where he's at in his development trajectory, the sky is the limit. He's a former Mr. Minnesota football quarterback in high school; playing two sports limits the time he spends honing in on his craft in hoops. I'm willing to bet on a winner who is farther from his ceiling than we all might imagine -- that's indicative of how high the ceiling is, not how raw or poor he is right now.
Defensively, Suggs is the type of competitor that rarely takes a play off. He gets into the ball and has the frame to guard 1 or 2 positions. He's tremendous off-ball, shooting into passing lanes for steals so he can play in transition and is a pretty solid rebounding lead guard.
As a rule, we're investing in people as much as we are talking about talent in a vacuum. Drafting good people, and winning personalities, needs to be involved in this discussion. That's why I put Suggs as high as I do: he's just too hard of a worker and has the intangibles that make it hard to envision him failing at becoming one of the best in the game. Plus, he has "it".
1.2 - Jalen Green, G-League Ignite
At the intersection of elite athleticism and crazy shot-making stands Jalen Green, the player with the highest offensive ceiling in this class. Quite literally, there doesn't appear to be a shot or shot type that Green isn't capable of making. He's probably the most athletic in this class in two important categories: acceleration/ first step and vertical pop. The combination allows him to be one of the best guard finishers I've ever scouted. He has hangtime to adjust mid-air, breathtaking dunks in ways others cannot even come close to and the ability to get downhill so quickly he'll get high percentage looks frequently.
From a shot-making standpoint, Green is a tough bucket. I was skeptical about his shot coming into the G-League bubble and the scouting season, but he made more than 36% from 3 on high volume and quickly erased my doubts. A severe amount of room gets created between he and his defender in isolations with the long legs and quick burst. Step-backs become a high-quality look for him, and he knows them down with regularity.
The combination of those two traits make him a potential offensive hub. Play him too sagged back and he will drill shots. Play too tight in anticipation of the jumper and he'll blow past you to the rim.
By all accounts, Green received rave reviews as a special prospect and hard worker from Brian Shaw, his coach in the G-League bubble who has been around greatness before. It's the type of endorsement that allows me to embrace his improvement areas and see him getting to consistent All-Star levels.
Most notably, Green is a little shot-heavy, both in terms of the willingness to pass and the qualms with which of his attempts he takes. Green is a capable passer, just more of a score-first guy. That isn't necessarily a negative, it just changes the ways he's guarded in the half-court until he proves himself a willing playmaker. He's also reliant on step-backs or tough jumpers. While an elite skill, sometimes I'd long to see him take the easier route. In evaluating his shot-making and his finishing, the finishing stands out as more of an elite skill in comparison to others. Taking a ton of jumpers hinders the usage of his best trait, though it doesn't make him an ineffective player.
Green's defense is fine; the athletic tools should make him at least borderline there. Such high offensive potential is really what the draft is all about: finding guys whose shot-making ability would be worth a franchise building around completely. Green has that potential.
âI recently moved Green above Suggs on my board after keeping him in the 3-spot for months. I've thought more about Green's flaws and really don't see them hindering him as a prospect. They may knock him down from elite scorer to really good one, but there's far too much upside here not to put in the 2-spot.
1.1 - Cade Cunningham, Oklahoma State
Video evidence is always far more compelling than my words. So before I write too gushingly about the guy I believe is the clear top prospect, I figure a few videos might be really impactful in illustrating the level of skill Cade possesses.
Skill level is through the roof for a wing handler with a 7'0" wingspan. He can score or create in literally every position on the floor: out of the post, isolations atop the key, elbows, off ball screens, in transition, spotting up or running as a movement shooter. He flashed ability in every category while shooting 40% from 3 and anchoring an offense where he was literally the engine on every possession and the focal point of every defensive game plan.
Defensively, Cade brings his super advanced feel and IQ from offense and uses it to anticipate plays, staying a step ahead of the other team. Guarding 1 thru 4, Cade is a switchy wing defender who fits really well in this league's modern schematics. He's a plus defender who will be pretty good as his body and frame fill out.
The aforementioned IQ and feel are elite traits from Cunningham. He's an alpha who plays with the ball in his hands, then waits until the second-half to understand how he's being played and what that means for creating for his team. If he needs to score late, he'll do it. If he needs to create, he'll do it. Cunningham is just a guy who makes the right play and right read. He does it so consistently, and so often, that he's almost undeniably able to translate his role from Oklahoma State to the NBA.
In fact, I'd be willing to bet his passing and finishing metrics both see an uptick in the league. A good finisher, think of Cade's lack of shooting he was surrounded with as a detriment to his more grounded and patient style of interior scoring. That shooting clearly would increase his assist numbers, but helps him as a scorer in more ways than that.
The big worry about Cade coming into his year at Oklahoma State was the consistency of his 3-point shooting. Going over 40% on high volume smashes that worry. He's just... already so good, and you bet on guys with size and playmaking/ scoring balance. His feel is elite and at this point, I'm very comfortable in putting Cade a half-step above Green and anyone else on his heels.
7/20/2021 05:14:36 pm
Great write-up. I really enjoyed this. Thank you for the incredible insight.
7/20/2021 06:16:34 pm
Enjoyed your analysis throughout the draft process. Thank you!
7/21/2021 08:02:12 pm
Amazing read. I love how thoroughly you explain your thought process
7/23/2021 01:22:00 pm
Good read, cheers
7/26/2021 05:31:58 pm
Great read! However it does seem like you have never seen Begarin or Aldama play - or perhaps you just haven't seen enough of them to be able to do a thorough enough evaluation of them. I'm confident that if you did, you wouldn't have guys like Raiquan Gray, Ayayi, Edwards and Watford ranked over them..
7/29/2021 08:04:53 am
Hi Jeremy (I assume it's you with all the Aldama feedback)...
7/29/2021 02:01:52 pm
Hi Spins, thanks for the response. Yes, it's me haha. I guess with Aldama I wasn't sure if the no. 80 ranking was up to date or not, since I think you said you stopped doing any more tinkering with your rankings on like 7/23 but you posted the Aldama scouting report video on 7/27. So wasn't sure if you wait to adjust your ranking and give a player a more accurate ranking until after you've done enough research/evaluating of them in order to put out your scouting report video on the player - in which case perhaps Aldama's no. 80 ranking might be off since you did your final rankings before Aldama video was posted.
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Adam Spinella, Head Boys Basketball Coach at Boys' Latin School (MD)