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2021 NBA Draft Big Board: Early Look at Cade Cunningham, Jalen Green and More

The 2021 NBA draft class, headlined by Cade Cunningham and Jalen Green, is stacked with talent.

Traditionally, we’ve waited until after the draft to take a hard look at the following year’s draft, which as things stand is ... at least a year away. But given the current extended lull as the NBA works to reboot the 2019–20 season, it’s a convenient time to start looking ahead, particularly given the apparent strength of the 2021 draft class. There’s a legitimate level of excitement among those in the know surrounding the long-term potential of next year’s class, which should prove an appropriate salve after this extended period of time spent analyzing the 2020 draft, which remains relatively underwhelming in terms of high-end talent. Frankly, next season will be a pretty reasonable time to tank, with a strong top group of prospects headlined by Cade Cunningham and Jalen Green, and an appealing level of depth and potential one-and-done talent working downward.

The fact that there were no All-America events due to the coronavirus crisis served to delay NBA teams’ extended looks at these players, but dating back to last spring, I’ve spent a good chunk of the past year on the road, and have been able to see the vast majority of the available talent in a live setting. While it’s not worth reading too deeply into the specific rankings themselves, this exercise is meant to contextualize the next group of players on the NBA’s radar. As a blanket consideration, players who are currently testing the waters for the 2020 draft were excluded from this list.


1. Cade Cunningham, PG, Oklahoma State | Freshman

Height: 6'7" | Weight: 215 | Age: 18

Cunningham, indisputably, has earned his spot as the early front-runner for the top spot in next year’s draft. Gifted with an unusual intuition for winning basketball and supplementing it with high-end positional size, versatility and playmaking vision, few high school players have innately made their teammates better in the way that Cunningham did. His undefeated team at Montverde Academy had plenty of talent, to be fair, but his unique strengths have translated in every setting to date. 

Cunningham will be fully tested at Oklahoma State, without a stacked supporting cast, but it’s also a strong platform to showcase exactly what makes him great. He’s made strides as a jump shooter over the past year, and has to keep improving. His biggest area for improvement will be finishing around the rim, as he doesn’t have a ton of athletic lift and sometimes struggles in traffic, albeit that hasn’t mattered much at lower levels. 

How much his individual scoring evolves will determine whether Cunningham projects to lead a franchise as its No. 1 player, or profiles better as a No. 2 alongside a more scoring-oriented star. But right now, he’s the top dog and a player who will fully warrant the hype. For what it’s worth, there hasn’t been a better high school point guard in a long time.

2. Jalen Green, SG, NBA G League

Height: 6'5" | Weight: 180 | Age: 18

It certainly would have been helpful from a scouting perspective to evaluate Green in a college environment, but his decision to spearhead the G League’s new development program should keep his stock steady as a likely top-five pick. He’s the type of athlete who simply moves different than most humans do on a basketball court, and has the mix of skill, shooting and quick-twitch acumen to project as a potential No. 1 scoring option in the NBA in a best-case scenario. 

He still settles for too many jumpers and stands to improve his ball security and become a more aggressive downhill player. But his athletic ability should play up in a way that helps facilitate his adjustment as far as tendencies go. The flip side here is that beyond scoring the ball, Green doesn’t consistently add a ton of value yet, but he’s shown flashes as a secondary playmaker and has the tools to be a strong defender. 

There have also been periodic concerns about the fact that his level of engagement can wax and wane, although Green did appear to make some strides in that area this season. There’s a wide range of outcomes here, but Green’s high-end ceiling is substantial. He’s almost definitely going to be able to score a lot, and if the what else becomes a positive, look out.

3. Jonathan Kuminga, SF, The Patrick School | HS Senior

Height: 6'8" | Weight: 210 | Age: 17

While Kuminga, currently in the high school class of 2021, has yet to officially reclassify, the expectation around the industry has long been that he will do so and make himself eligible for the 2021 draft. Whether he decides to attend college or play professionally for a year remains to be seen, but he’s the type of talent for whom it may not matter much, gifted with an immense physical toolbox and having improved his skills markedly over the past two years. 

Kuminga is so advanced physically and tough to stop downhill that it’s sometimes hard to parse how much of his effectiveness stems from athletic dominance. His shot selection can be a mess. As an average shooter who shoots a hard, flat ball, it’s a bit unclear how he’ll be effective without the ball in his hands, but he’s big and an above-average playmaker, which helps increase the feasibility of a usage-heavy role. It’s not wild to see him succeeding as a hybrid point forward long term. 

That being said, many an NBA scout has expressed frustration with how difficult it’s been to see Kuminga play over the past year, with various injuries and off-court situations having kept him out of events like Basketball Without Borders camp. At some point, he’s going to need to play in front of people regularly to stabilize his stock. But with his natural gifts and developing perimeter skills, the upside here is obvious.

4. Evan Mobley, F/C, USC | Freshman

Height: 6'11" | Weight: 205 | Age: 18

Mobley ceded the No. 1 spot in most high school rankings this season after being surpassed by Cunningham and Green, but he remains a pretty safe bet to be a high-impact NBA player thanks to his physical tools, ball skills and shot-blocking acumen that make him an appealing prototype big. 

He’s a promising jump shooter and solid passer for his position, and as he adds strength his offensive impact should tick upward on the interior. But whether or not he fully realizes that potential has come into question a bit more over the past year, and there were moments where he looked bored and disengaged during the high school season. That’s something that could certainly change in college, where he’ll be tested more regularly. 

Mobley will also need to improve his overall physicality and turn up the consistency of his effort when the ball isn’t in his hands, to make the most of his length and manufacture as many easy points as possible, in lieu of post-up opportunities. He fancies himself as a face-up forward, but he’s also going to have to do some dirty work, and it’s imperative he improve his body to make that happen. Mobley’s NBA floor remains pretty sound as a mobile shot-blocker with tangible offensive versatility, and until further notice, he remains the top big in this group.

5. Greg Brown, F, Texas | Freshman

Height: 6'9" | Weight: 205 | Age: 18

By my estimation, Brown will be the best run-jump athlete to play college basketball since Zion Williamson, which is a pretty lofty thing to declare, full stop. But it is very much worth noting that over the past 12 months, he’s transformed himself from a dominant, transition-oriented athlete into a dominant, transition-oriented athlete who also has a real chance at playing on the wing full-time in the pros, which was not something anyone would have boldly said last spring. 

The book on him has been that he isn’t skilled enough, but Brown spent his senior year of high school experimenting with the ball in his hands, and continues to inch toward being a dangerous perimeter shooter who really needs only one or two dribbles to attack space, and who can defend multiple positions. His feel for doing all these things is still developing, but his level of comfort with the ball has improved a ton, and it doesn’t take a lot to see what he might become. 

How Texas decides to deploy him will be a key determinant in his eventual draft fate, but the Longhorns are heavy on talent up front and will likely need to let Brown spend time at the three. If that’s what happens, and he continues to improve at his current rate, a very early selection is going to be in play. Players as big and functionally explosive as this don’t come around often.

6. Daishen Nix, PG, NBA G League

Height: 6'5" | Weight: 205 | Age: 18

It would be a mistake to view Nix, a former UCLA commit, as a complementary addition to the G League’s program, as he’s an extremely gifted playmaker and tough competitor who’s simply had a less-magnified platform than many of his peers over the past couple of years. 

A native of Alaska, Nix played high school ball in Las Vegas and didn’t play on a sneaker-sponsored AAU team, which cut down on his national exposure somewhat. But his feel for the game is on par with anyone in this draft class, and he’s an unselfish, heady decision-maker who simply finds ways to win games. Nix has particularly special feet for a bigger guard, and a thicker build that should allow for some defensive versatility. Nix will have to keep improving as a jump shooter and continue to iron out his finishing against bigger bodies, but both those things have been trending in the right direction. 

With the way NBA offenses continue to trend, there should be a premium on big playmaking guards, and Nix has a chance to become a very good one in relatively short order. The debate here will surround ceiling, not floor.

7. Scottie Barnes, F, Florida State | Freshman

Height: 6'8" | Weight: 210 | Age: 18

Barnes blossomed in his lone season at Montverde Academy, where he was tasked with doing the things he does best—running the floor, rebounding, playmaking, and scrapping on the interior—and no longer asked to play as a volume-scoring forward, a role in which he felt miscast at times earlier in his career. The results were excellent, and Barnes seemed to embrace the change, disposed of some of his on-court theatrics, and became the highest-level glue guy in high school basketball. 

Florida State should be a terrific situation for him to keep doing those things, and hopefully to continue showcasing his playmaking skills as a versatile forward who legitimately falls somewhere on the Draymond Green spectrum. That designation includes a spotty jump shot, unfortunately. But Barnes does so many other things well that he has a pathway to being a uniquely useful, utilitarian player in the pros. His defensive potential and overall intangibles are off the charts, and it’s simply a matter of tying it all together.

8. Usman Garuba, F/C, Real Madrid

Height: 6'8" | Weight: 220 | Age: 18

After fully breaking into Madrid’s first team this season, Garuba is the next big-name European talent, boasting plus positional tools and movement capability at 6'8". He’s an outstanding end-to-end sprinter and plays an effective, low-maintenance style, mitigated primarily by the fact he can’t really shoot at all. 

Regardless, Garuba is a strong rebounder, plays hard, and holds particular intrigue on the defensive end, where his versatility should be a plus. Barring a massive skill uptick, he’s probably more of a limited-usage contributor on offense, but his all-around impact without necessarily needing tons of touches shapes up well. It’s exceedingly difficult to move up in Europe at the rate he has, and Garuba is on track to be a highly useful player in the NBA. 

Expect his 15.3 minutes per game to tick upward at Madrid next season. And while it’s possible he'll get leapfrogged here by some of the flashier U.S. prospects, right now Garuba feels like one of the easier positive projections in this group.

9. Jalen Johnson, F, Duke | Freshman

Height: 6'8" | Weight: 215 | Age: 18

Johnson had a strange odyssey of a senior year that began at IMG Academy, before he left the team midseason and eventually returned home to the Milwaukee area, then finished out the schedule at his original high school, Nicolet. With all that in the rearview, Johnson will be Duke’s most gifted player next season, with developing guard skills and an NBA-type frame at 6'8". 

His passing vision and defensive versatility are big selling points, and his ability to grab and go and play on the move naturally enhances transition opportunities for his team. Johnson’s jumper is still a work in progress, and his effort level can wax and wane. He’s much less effective in half-court settings, and is going to have to learn to play off the ball. Johnson has a lot of work to do offensively, and some of his appeal as an oversize playmaker is a lot more cosmetic than functional in real structured settings. But provided Duke can draw more consistency out of him next season, he’s a reasonable bet to land in the lottery given his unusual blend of skill and size.

10. Ziaire Williams, G/F, Stanford | Freshman

Height: 6'7" | Weight: 195 | Age: 18

Williams has exceptional ball skills for his size, and while he’s still putting some things together, his speed and feel on the wing point to some intriguing long-term potential. He lost a bit of valuable development time this season after transferring to Sierra Canyon, where he sat out the first half of the season due to a California transfer eligibility rule, but will be heavily featured at Stanford in the fall.

Williams is a capable shooter and fluid athlete with some playmaking ability, and his package of strengths holds long-term intrigue. He needs to pack on a lot of strength, particularly in his lower body, moving forward. Most concerning at this stage is that he’s a bit stiff in his upper half, which limits his deceptiveness in one-on-one situations and can force him to settle too often for jumpers and rely on shooting over smaller defenders. His athletic and physical development are worth monitoring closely over the next year or so. But he’s not lacking for talent, and wing-sized players with his type of ability are hard to find.

11. B.J. Boston, SG, Kentucky | Freshman

Height: 6'6" | Weight: 175 | Age: 18

Boston earned his reputation as one of the better pound-for-pound scorers in high school basketball and has an attractive blend of three-level scoring ability and toughness. He needs to add more muscle, but he adds value with his effort level defensively and has solid instincts forcing turnovers. More often than not, he was Sierra Canyon’s primary offensive catalyst, and has shown a willingness to take and make tough shots, sometimes to his detriment. 

Boston settles for too many jumpers and needs to be less of a ball-stopper, but when he’s on, he makes everything look easy. What type of role he’ll play long-term hinges on how much he can expand his game as a playmaker, given how much he seems to need the ball in his hands. He should play a sizable role for Kentucky, and if he and Terrence Clarke can figure out how to share the ball, it will be to both of their long-term benefit.

12. Jalen Suggs, G, Gonzaga | Freshman

Height: 6'4" | Weight: 195 | Age: 18

One of the best all-around athletes in this class, Suggs was also a standout football player in high school and already possesses a unique level of strength and speed. He’s more of a combo guard than a pure point, and it’ll be interesting to see how much playmaking responsibility Gonzaga hands him out of the gate. If he can successfully fit into a higher-usage lead guard role moving up a level, it should bode well for his versatility in the pros. His motor, well-roundedness and tools create a nice degree of floor in terms of defensive value, and if his perimeter shooting ends up being better than average, it’s hard not to see him directly helping a team win games. 

At the U19 World Championships last summer, he had success in a third-wheel role alongside Cade Cunningham and Tyrese Haliburton, where he was more focused on defending and making shots. That type of complementary job is a strong worst-case scenario in the NBA. Suggs should have a lengthy career in the pros, and has some room to move up from here with a good year in college.

13. Caleb Love, PG, North Carolina | Freshman

Height: 6'3" | Weight: 180 | Age: 18

Love continues to make big strides as a lead guard and has the requisite size, vision and end-to-end speed to excel in that role in the pros. He faces a bit of a tall task coming in to lead a North Carolina team likely to feature multiple bigs, where spacing might become an issue. But he’s a gifted transition player and clean shooter who simply needs to keep refining his decision-making skills to prove he can play the point long-term. Improving his handle to better change gears off the dribble is key to maximizing his above-average tools. But he’s big, fast and competes hard, and he has made strides in terms of processing what’s in front of him. 

Love projects as one of the more intriguing long-term backcourt players in this class, and he’ll have a big platform to make the leap into the lottery with consistent play. How he stacks up with recent North Carolina point guards remains to be seen.

14. Terrence Clarke, SG, Kentucky | Freshman

Height: 6'6" | Weight: 180 | Age: 18

Clarke was much more of a wild card than advertised in his final high school season, and while he has obvious size and scoring chops and can take over games on a good day, it was evident on multiple viewings that he has a lot of maturing to do to be successful at higher levels. Kentucky tends to be a good salve for those types of ailments, and if Clarke and B.J. Boston can successfully coexist as ball-dominant scorers, both will benefit in terms of draft stock. Clarke is an above-average athlete and streaky but capable jump shooter, and when he’s fully engaged in games, he’s exceedingly difficult to stop. But those moments are sometimes further between than you’d like, and he will need to begin adding value without the ball in his hands to maximize his talent. The lottery is well within reach if he starts to put it together.

15. Keon Johnson, SG, Tennessee | Freshman

Height: 6'5" | Weight: 180 | Age: 18

A terrific athlete who also excelled in baseball, Johnson has strong two-way potential with a knack for forcing turnovers, applying pressure and helping his team get into transition. He was one of the standouts last summer at USA Basketball in Colorado, playing with relentless energy and showcasing his explosiveness and knack for blowing up plays. He should be a terrific fit at Tennessee as a tone-setting piece on the wing. He was able to develop somewhat off the radar in high school, and unfortunately missed a chunk of this season with a knee injury. Johnson is still fleshing out his game on offense and is primarily a transition contributor right now, lacking a true calling-card skill. His jumper is a bit of a concern right now. But provided he shoots the ball a bit better moving forward, there’s enough here to see him excelling as an athletic, jack-of-all-trades piece long-term. His defensive potential alone will make him worth a close watch.


16. James Bouknight, SG, UConn | Sophomore

Height: 6'4" | Weight: 175 | Age: 19

Despite an impressive second-half breakout, Bouknight remained somewhat under the radar as a freshman and is set to lead UConn as it returns to a more prominent stage in the Big East. Pending continued improvement, his draft stock stands to benefit, as his feel and run-jump athleticism are on the higher end and his shooting has been trending upward. 

Bouknight is a solid defender and positional rebounder and has some immediately apparent quick-twitch movement going into the paint that bodes well for his ability to finish effectively against bigger bodies. He plays with an impressive degree of maturity as a decision-maker and an appealing level of toughness that should continue to serve him well. Bouknight’s leap this season should have been more noteworthy than it was, and if he can shore up his shot selection a bit, a full breakout and firm first-round landing spot should be in order.

17. Khristian Lander, PG, Indiana | Freshman

Height: 6'1" | Weight: 165 | Age: 17

Lander recently made official his decision to reclassify and attend Indiana this fall and should figure into next year’s draft picture in some capacity, albeit he has some things to prove first. He’s smaller and slight of build, but possesses breakneck end-to-end speed and excels in the open floor and dictating pace. Lander changes speeds and direction effectively off the dribble, which makes his high-end run-jump athleticism impressively functional for a player his age. 

The early questions here revolve around his ability to finish at the rim against bodies, his extreme left-hand dominance as a passer and scorer and the consistency of his jumper (which is capable but streaky). But he should be among the better guards in the Big Ten right away, and there’s a chance he'll break out immediately if afforded proper space to operate. Scouts will have to get over the size issue, but if he can gain some strength over the next year or so, Lander has a chance to make a quick leap.

18. Day’ron Sharpe, C, North Carolina | Freshman

Height: 6'10" | Weight: 250 | Age: 18

One of the most consistently productive bigs in high school basketball, Sharpe is a good athlete for his size with terrific hands and feet who gobbles up rebounds and has a gift for crashing the glass. He has legit size and a broad frame that projects well at center, with a sliver of hope as a jump shooter and strong passing skills that bode well for his ability to succeed long-term. With all true centers, the question has become to what end, and Sharpe will need to keep developing his skill level in the paint to take advantage of the occasional mismatch and play up to his size. 

How North Carolina distributes minutes among its bigs, with Sharpe, fellow freshman Walker Kessler and returners Garrison Brooks and Armando Bacot could become a tricky task. But the smart money is on Sharpe breaking through early, which should lead to a brief stint in college.

19. Josh Christopher, SG, Arizona State | Freshman

Height: 6'4" | Weight: 205 | Age: 18

Christopher may end up being one of the more divisive prospects in this class, boasting an undeniable knack for scoring and potent perimeter game, but an equally frustrating track record as far as shot selection and decision-making is concerned. He can too often be a ball-stopper, and it can be to his team’s detriment, which has raised some concerns over how seriously he cares about winning relative to simply putting on a show. 

Christopher will have to answer those questions at Arizona State, which should feature a strange but talented morass of scorers next season with Remy martin, Alonzo Verge and freshman Marcus Bagley all likely to need the ball. But if you catch Christopher on the right day, it’s hard not to walk away intrigued by his potential as a scorer, and there have been players with far less talent and far more concerning questions as far as approach. If Christopher can be efficient and Arizona state succeeds he’ll have a reasonable chance to solidify a first-round spot.

20. Ibou Dianko Badji, C, Barcelona

Height: 7'1" | Weight: 230 | Age: 17

By my estimation, Badji is the best shot-blocking prospect to come out of Europe in some time, gifted with unreal length and enough athleticism around the rim to put it to use. While his offensive skill set is limited, he may be impactful enough defensively to mitigate that, in the Rudy Gobert sense. 

Badji spent this season on Barcelona’s B team alongside potential 2020 first-rounder Leandro Bolmaro, so there’s been no shortage of exposure already, and whether he ends up playing more minutes in a different situation next season is worth monitoring. Regardless, if you’re going to invest in a more traditional center, it might as well be one who eats up basically everything around the rim. He’s measured with a 7'8" wingspan and 9’10” standing reach, things that no normal people, let alone basketball players, have.

21. Keyontae Johnson, F, Florida | Junior

Height: 6'5" | Weight: 230 | Age: 21

Johnson is an intriguing role player who can effectively blend lineups in spite of his size, with plus length for his height enabling him to guard bigger forwards and wings, a consistent set jumper, and a good feel for involving himself in the offense without needing plays run for him. He led the Gators in scoring despite being relatively low-usage, and the mix of efficiency and functionality he offers gives him a pathway to success in the NBA, despite the fact he’s a bit of a tweener. If he can develop his handle, he should be able to pivot between the three and the four in small lineups and give teams some optionality as far as matchups are concerned. Johnson lacks the individual creativity to excel as the lead dog, but shines within a team context, and Florida should have all its key pieces back next season and be able to put him in an optimal position once again.

22. Jaden Springer, G, Tennessee | Freshman

Height: 6'4" | Weight: 220 | Age: 17

A tough-minded combo guard who can score and defend and will be one of the younger freshmen in college basketball next season, Springer’s IMG Academy team had a bit of a frustrating season, but he was productive as the team’s only real ballhandler, playing in a role that asked a lot of him. From a maturity standpoint, he still has a ways to go, but he competes, plays a fairly composed style and has potential to play on and off the ball effectively. 

Springer has to become a better shooter moving forward, but has made a lot of progress as far as guard skills are concerned. He’s not an elite leaper, but he’s shifty for his size and has some intriguing potential as a scorer provided he continues finding ways to be effective going into the paint, where he primarily plays off two feet and doesn’t always get great extension against bigger bodies. 

He deserves to be in the mix here, and how Tennessee distributes backcourt minutes among Springer, Keon Johnson, Josiah-Jordan James and Santiago Vescovi should be worth monitoring closely.

23. David Johnson, PG, Louisville | Sophomore

Height: 6'5" | Weight: 210 | Age: 19

After missing the first chunk of his freshman year with injury, Johnson returned to flash some intriguing playmaking skills and ultimately made what should be a good decision to return to college. His mixture of size, vision and creativity on the ball pop immediately, with the caveat being that he’s presently a poor shooter, making just five of 23 attempts from three and shooting 60% from the free throw line. Without a dangerous perimeter game, his pathway to success in the NBA is much narrower, despite appealing athleticism and passing chops (his breakout performance at Duke in January is worth revisiting). Louisville will expect him to take over as the full-time point guard, and if Johnson is up to task and makes strides as a shooter, the first round is within reach.