The first three picks of the 2021 NBA draft went as planned: Cade Cunningham to the Detroit Pistons, Jalen Green to the Houston Rockets and Evan Mobley to the Cleveland Cavaliers. But then, starting with the fourth pick, chaos ensued, with intriguing selections and draft-night trades taking over the spotlight.
The Toronto Raptors surprised many by selecting Florida State’s Scottie Barnes with the No. 4 pick, and the Oklahoma City Thunder used their high lottery pick, No. 6, to make the first international selection of the draft, selecting Australia’s Josh Giddey.
Then, the blockbuster: The Los Angeles Lakers added former MVP Russell Westbrook to their roster in exchange for Kyle Kuzma, Montrezl Harrell and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, along with future draft picks.
Which teams get an A grade? Who impressed most with their deal-making? Which teams underwhelmed with their selections? Our NBA experts answer all the biggest questions — and make bold predictions — coming out of the 2021 NBA draft.
What lottery pick fit do you immediately like?
Kevin Pelton: Jalen Suggs in Orlando. More than anything, the Magic are starved for the perimeter star they haven’t had since Hedo Turkoglu and Jameer Nelson. Orlando has some interesting young guards in former No. 1 pick Markelle Fultz and 2020 first-round picks Cole Anthony and RJ Hampton, but none have as much upside as Suggs to become the kind of dominant playmaker contending teams usually have.
Ohm Youngmisuk: Cade Cunningham. It’s been a long, long wait for Detroit to get an exciting and elite playmaker like Cunningham. It’s been 27 years since the Pistons had a franchise star to build around like they last did when they took Grant Hill third overall in 1994. Like Hill, Cunningham comes into the league as a 6-foot-8 player with point guard skills who can defend multiple positions and take over games. He might not be as explosive as Hill, but he should bring excitement back to Detroit, which is growing a core of young prospects.
Jonathan Givony: I love that Orlando took advantage of Jalen Suggs’ surprising slide, but in getting Franz Wagner, they have two of the best defenders in this draft. Wagner can make teammates better without needing the ball or requiring plays to be called for him. He’s a high-level off-ball defender blessed with elite instincts in protecting the rim, closing out on shooters or digging down on the post and mucking up opposing offenses. There’s a simplicity to his game on both ends of the floor, as he keeps the offense flowing with intelligent touch passes, bounce passes to the post or by pushing ahead in transition off the defensive glass. With Wagner and Jonathan Isaac as the forwards along with Suggs and Markelle Fultz in the backcourt, the Magic could have one of the better defensive units in the NBA.
What team gets an “A” grade from this draft?
Bobby Marks: It would have been easy for the Golden State Warriors to trade either one of their lottery picks for much-needed bench help. Instead, they took a player in Jonathan Kuminga who could turn out to be the best player in a loaded draft. Moses Moody has top 10 potential, and Golden State picked him up at 14. Because Kuminga is more of a development project, expect the established Moody to see more playing time in 2021-22. One thing to remember is that the Warriors have limited financial flexibility due to the contracts of Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and Andrew Wiggins. Kuminga and Moody are on four-year contracts that total $42 million in combined salary.
Myron Medcalf: The Detroit Pistons. This is an NBA draft full of high-ceiling guys but few guarantees. You could even put most of the players in the top-five in that category. Not Cade Cunningham. He’s a 6-foot-8, savvy playmaker who is ready to compete and excel in the NBA right now. He made 40 percent of his 3-pointers last season as a do-it-all player for Oklahoma State. Cunningham has the makings of a young star who will have a long and fruitful NBA career. And second-round pick Isaiah Livers is an intriguing prospect.
Andrew Lopez: The Houston Rockets finished with the worst record in the league last season and needed an influx of talent right away. Mission accomplished. The Rockets landed Jalen Green with the No. 2 pick, and he can be the star the team needs to get back into contention sooner rather than later. They also picked up a pair of standout big men from overseas at No. 16 and No. 23 with Turkey’s Alperen Sengun and Spain’s Usman Garuba. And with their final first-round pick, they picked up Arizona State’s Josh Christopher. On a team that needed talent, the Rockets found some at each pick.
What team underwhelmed with their draft selection(s)?
Bobby Marks: The New York Knicks. I mentioned during the draft that New York was going to get two players at 19 and 21 that would have been selected in the lottery (possibly Jalen Johnson and Cam Thomas) last year. Unfortunately, the Knicks would trade the 19th pick to Charlotte for a future protected first and move four spots back from 21 to 25 (they would select guard Quentin Grimes) in a trade with the Clippers. The Knicks should get high marks for the selection of Rokas Jokubaitis, Jericho Sims and Miles McBride in the second round. The real work for New York now starts in the offseason. The Knicks are sitting in the pole position with a projected $50 million in cap space.
Tim Bontemps: The San Antonio Spurs stretched a bit to take Josh Primo with the 12th overall selection. Now, this could certainly work out just fine in the long-term — remember, it was only a few years ago that the Phoenix Suns were derided for taking Cam Johnson 11th overall, and he was just a key player for the Suns in the NBA Finals. Primo is an interesting prospect and the youngest player in the draft. But he was ranked 26th by ESPN coming into the draft, meaning the onus is on the Spurs to prove this selection will work out for them in time.
Royce Young: The 76ers. For as much building buzz as there was going into the night that the Sixers may make a splash move, it ended up going pretty chalk. It’s not necessarily a bad thing that they played it patiently and didn’t bite on what was surely many Ben Simmons offers, but they stayed with their lone first-rounder at No. 28 — Jaden Springer — and did some light shopping in the second round.
Which non-lottery pick will make an immediate impact for next season?
Givony: Alperen Sengun has a chance to be rookie of the year next season, or at least put up the type of numbers that will put him firmly in the conversation. Sengun was the most productive 18-year-old prospect in European basketball history, winning MVP of the strong Turkish league by scoring with incredible efficiency and being a playmaker defensively, while inhaling rebounds and making an impact as a passer. Sengun will likely walk into 25-30 minutes per game for Houston, and there’s no reason to think he won’t put up big numbers, even if that will likely come mostly in losing efforts with an overmatched Houston team.
Medcalf: I think the Brooklyn Nets got a steal with Cameron Thomas at No. 27. He averaged 23.0 PPG at LSU, and he’s a pure scorer at any level. Sure, he’ll have to wait his turn on a team with James Harden, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant. But injuries have plagued this team over the last two seasons, which has opened the door for young players to get opportunities. In that swift, high-scoring offense, Thomas will fit right in.
Lopez: The Pelicans traded down seven spots in the first round and were still able to land one of their primary targets in Virginia wing Trey Murphy III. The 6-foot-9 and 206-pound Murphy — who is actually three weeks older than Pelicans star Zion Williamson — provides an immediate need for the Pelicans with his shooting. Murphy shot 50.3% overall, 43.3% from 3 and 92.7% from the line for the Cavaliers last season, and he’s also solid defensively. He should find minutes right away.
Which draft-night trade impressed you the most?
Youngmisuk: The Lakers-Wizards blockbuster. Rob Pelinka adds a playmaking third star to help LeBron James and Anthony Davis, and Russell Westbrook brings much-needed intensity and relentless drive that the Lakers lacked last season. Frank Vogel will have to figure out how to make the trio work, as Los Angeles still needs to add shooters and perimeter defenders. For the Wizards, the Westbrook era only lasted one year. They were able to add defense and future cap space around Bradley Beal with Montrezl Harrell, Kyle Kuzma and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. Plus, they traded the Lakers’ No. 22 pick for Indiana point guard Aaron Holiday.
Marks: I like what the Charlotte Hornets did before and during the draft. They addressed a glaring need at center when they acquired veteran Mason Plumlee from the Pistons. The Hornets were projected to have $22 million in cap room and used $8.8 million of that on Plumlee, leaving them with $14 million in free agency to upgrade their bench. The trade with New York for the No. 19 pick, an uncharacteristic move for their generally conservative front office, got them a player in Kai Jones that had lottery potential and fills a need. And selecting James Bouknight was not a trade, but the guard is an insurance policy for the likely departure of free agent Malik Monk.
Bontemps: The Washington Wizards not only moved Russell Westbrook without having to give up a first-round pick, or take on bad money, but also netted a first-rounder in the deal. Just terrific work by general manager Tommy Sheppard, who turned arguably the worst contract in the league right now, John Wall, into long-term flexibility — and did so without being at a draft-pick deficit. On the other hand for the Lakers, let’s just say I don’t think this is going to work out, as Westbrook heads to his fourth team in as many seasons.
Which second-round pick will most likely be an All-Star first?
Givony: Sharife Cooper had a historic season, becoming the second freshman in the past 30 years — along with Trae Young — to average over 20 points and 8 rebounds. Cooper has a chance to exceed his draft slot significantly, as he’s one of the best ball-handlers in this draft, has a blazingly fast first step and simply gets anywhere he wants on the floor. Cooper’s size did not prevent him from leading college basketball in points created per game (40), showing a strong ability to create offense against high-level defenders. Cooper will remain in his hometown of Atlanta, where he’ll likely see playing time in the G League, waiting for his opportunity to prove NBA teams wrong.
Medcalf: The Milwaukee Bucks just won the NBA title with Jrue Holiday, a 6-foot-3 defensive tyrant who made 39 percent of his 3-pointers this season. Jared Butler, a 6-foot-3 guard who will turn 21 next month, led Baylor to a national title last season after making 42 percent of his 3-pointers. If he can develop into a more consistent defender — Baylor’s opponents committed turnovers on one-fourth of their possessions with Butler on the floor — and maintain his shooting stroke, he can become a high-level NBA player.
Young: Second-rounders are immensely difficult to project, but 31st overall pick Isaiah Todd is a decent one to bet on. He played for the G-League Ignite last season and was one of the top high school prospects in 2020. He slipped back into the second round, but on many boards was slotted as a first-rounder with his unique combination of size and skill. He’s stepping into a situation in Washington that is desperate for frontcourt depth, and though he’s a project-type pick, he could get an early opportunity to develop.
What surprised you most from this draft?
Pelton: Josh Primo being the first SEC guard selected. He was behind three others — Tennessee’s Keon Johnson, Arkansas’ Moses Moody and Auburn’s Sharife Cooper — in ESPN’s Top 100 and only one spot ahead of a fourth in LSU’s Cameron Thomas. I thought I was high on Primo, who finished 14th in my consensus projections. Yet the San Antonio Spurs were evidently higher, taking him at No. 12.
Lopez: Didn’t think the NCAA tournament’s most outstanding player would slide that far into the second round, but that’s what happened when Jared Butler fell to No. 40 overall, where he was picked by Utah by way of Memphis and New Orleans. Butler had a medical issue flagged at the NBA Combine but was ultimately cleared by a medical panel. Still, his college resume speaks for itself: third-team All-American in 2020 and a consensus first-team All-American in 2021 as he led the Bears to a national championship.
Bontemps: Jalen Suggs falling outside of the top four selections. I know going from fourth to fifth doesn’t seem like a huge drop, but heading into the NBA Draft Lottery a month ago it felt like there was a clear consensus at the top of this draft: Cade Cunningham, Jalen Green, Evan Mobley and Suggs. To see Suggs sitting there for the Toronto Raptors and then being passed over in favor of Florida State forward Scottie Barnes definitely was a surprise. That said, Suggs finds himself in a situation with the Orlando Magic where he will be given the keys to the Magic Kingdom from day one and will be the immediate face of the franchise — as he showed he’s capable of handling with his spectacular silver suit Thursday night.
Who will end up as the 2022 NBA Rookie of the Year?
Pelton: Both Cade Cunningham and Jalen Green should be well-positioned to compete for Rookie of the Year, but I’d give the slight edge to Cunningham. He’s in position to have success with the ball in his hands on a team that should be more competitive than Green’s Rockets.
Youngmisuk: Jalen Green. Green already got a little taste of playing against men in the G-League and that should help his transition to the pros more than some of his college counterparts. He also should have plenty of opportunities to score. Even with John Wall and Kevin Porter Jr. in the backcourt, Green’s explosiveness and scoring ability should shine.
Young: Jalen Suggs. With the Magic in a full-on rebuild, Suggs will get the keys to the car almost immediately and have the opportunity to establish himself early in the season. Suggs is an intense competitor and a culture setter. He will enter the Magic franchise with an eye to flip the script. The same is true, of course, for Cade Cunningham in Detroit, but with a knack for big plays, Suggs could produce the kind of moments that build award hype.