As the 2021 draft has come into greater focus and teams assess the quality of the first round going into various trade deadlines over the next few weeks, the question of depth becomes more and more relevant. If there’s an overarching theme with this class right now, it’s that it’s top-heavy: The NBA seems comfortable with the available top options, and most teams can at least sketch out a viable 10–12 prospects at the top of the draft. Based on everything I’ve gathered, that seems to be where the makings of a consensus end.
There are still two months of college basketball left, giving the top domestic-based players a lot more time to state their cases. For a wider look at this class, I’ll have an updated Big Board later this month. For now, let’s take a look at some of the more intriguing names in college basketball right now, and a range of prospects who warrant closer examination.
For the latest projections, see our most recent mock draft.
Sharife Cooper, Auburn | Freshman
After an extended NCAA eligibility review, Cooper made his debut for Auburn in January and injected some life into the college landscape with his exciting style of play. He’s a creative passer, uniquely shifty with the ball, and has been an immediate game-changer for his team. Through seven games, Cooper is averaging 21.3 points and 8.1 assists, but has also shot just 47% on twos, and he’s a rather miserable 6-for-32 from three-point range, mitigated to an extent by the fact he’s getting to the foul line at a prodigious rate. Auburn self-imposed a postseason ban, it's 4–3 since Cooper was cleared.
Those numbers are enough to place him squarely in the one-and-done picture, and it seems likely he’ll end up in the draft at this point. But Cooper is already a pretty divisive prospect in NBA circles, which you might expect from a player with such pointed strengths and weaknesses, particularly a point guard generously listed at 6' 1”, 180. There’s a very high bar to clear to stick in the NBA at that size to begin with. There are plenty of exceptions to the rule, of course, but it’s challenging to come up with a meaningful list of 6-foot guards who have made it in the league without also being dangerous jump shooters. Those who have—think the T.J. McConnells of the world—tend to bring something to the table defensively, and are pretty much exclusively backups with situational value. Rajon Rondo and Dennis Schroder have both been average to below-average jump shooters for most of their careers, and each has been able to lean on serious plus wingspans.
Frankly, Cooper is not going to win the physical tools battle. There are times he looks disinterested defensively, and he’s going to get picked on. His pathway to NBA success will require his offensive value to cover for what he’s likely giving up. The good news is he’s got a special knack for getting into the paint and has the chops to use those drives to set up the threat of the pass. I wouldn’t expect him to be a prolific finisher at his size, and while he’s shown some variance in the paint using runners and floaters, he’s only shooting 45.5% around the basket, according to Synergy data. But his ability to drive and kick while keeping his dribble alive and bending defenses is going to be the key selling point, and the rest of his game revolves around that strength translating. Cooper could be a better decision-maker and a tad less reckless at times. His assists and turnovers are both inflated by the fact that Auburn has no other legitimate ballhandlers. Fellow freshman Justin Powell has been out with a head injury, and how his return changes the backcourt dynamic should be of interest.
The major thing to watch for the rest of the way here is going to be the shooting—until Cooper starts to make threes on a more consistent basis, some teams will be unconvinced. He has not been particularly good shooting off the catch or dribble, but it does help that he’s shooting 80% from the foul line on volume, and it’s only a seven-game sample. If Cooper can’t at least use the threat of his shot to force defenders to play him honest at the next level, the margin for error is going to be extremely thin. Clearly, he’s good enough that point guard-needy teams will search for reasons to believe he’ll eventually shoot. If his production keeps up and those percentages normalize a bit, this will start to make more sense but he’s not walking into a lottery selection as things stand. Some of the lofty comparisons that have been thrown out there are a tad unfair. Cooper has certainly looked like a first-rounder on his good days, but it’s hard to assert much else at this stage given the range and depth of concerns.
Justin Champagnie, Pittsburgh | Sophomore
I wrote a bit about Champagnie’s impact in the context of the college basketball landscape last week, and won’t over-expound on him here, but frankly, if you look at what he’s done this season from an NBA perspective, his incredible production screams first-round pick. The league is more forgiving than ever for players in Champagnie’s mold, who might once have been classified as tweeners in a negative sense but can take on additional value as cogs in small-ball lineups, with less risk of being bullied or posted by opposing bigs. He’s averaging 20.1 points, 12. 1 rebounds, 1.5 steals and 1.5 blocks in nearly 34 minutes per game, and he’s shooting 40% from three-point range, all of which is patently absurd for a 6' 6" four-man.
NBA teams have begun taking Champagnie seriously as a potential first-rounder—they have to, really—and there’s no reason to think he can’t continue doing what he’s doing. Champagnie can put up those types of numbers without needing plays run for him, looks comfortable shooting from distance, can attack closeouts when needed and has the type of explosive lift off the floor that points to his rebounding chops translating. Nobody has figured out how to stop him, which speaks to his effort and instincts reading and corralling misses off the rim. Defensively, he does take some plays off, but given what’s being asked of him, he gets a slight pass. He plays hard and has shown solid instincts blocking shots off rotations using his length and timing.
Champagnie has been doing this while wearing a leg brace after missing about a month last season with an LCL injury. He’s trending toward the first round in a real way. It helps greatly that he’s the same age or younger than many college freshmen, and won’t turn 20 until June. His emergence is more than a blip on the radar.
Jared Butler, Baylor | Junior
Davion Mitchell, Baylor | Junior
Out of convenience, let’s group the Baylor guards together: Butler and Mitchell were good last year but have meaningfully elevated their respective play, and the Bears are undefeated as a direct result. Butler was on the first-round cusp last season and opted to return to school, where he’s built up an even more convincing case for himself. Now shooting 45.2% from three, having upped his assist rate by nearly 10 points, and making an impact on the defensive end with timely steals, he’s been one of the best guards in college basketball and is in line for more credit from the NBA. Butler uses his strong build and crafty handle to break down defenses and is a decisive driver and willing passer. Defenders have to respect his shot, and he does an exceptional job of picking his spots. The combo role he plays now should be somewhat similar to what he’ll be asked to do in the pros, and he doesn’t turn 21 until August. Butler sure looks like a first-round pick from my perspective.
Mitchell’s emergence as a reliable offensive threat has been the bigger surprise, and while he boasts more of a second-round type skill set as a smaller, defense-first piece, he’s certainly turned heads in a real way. He’s been remarkably efficient for a player once viewed as highly streaky, now up to 58% on twos, 47.2% from three and 73.5% from the foul line, increasing all three from last year’s underwhelming 46.7/32.4/66.2 percent slash. Mitchell’s aggressive on-ball defense has always been a calling card. The improvements he’s made on the other end should give him a pathway onto an NBA bench in the future. There’s probably never going to be another Patrick Beverley, but teams continue to search for pit bull-type guards in that mold. The 22-year-old Mitchell has played his way squarely into draftability, although more likely in the second round.
Keon Johnson, Tennessee | Freshman
Jaden Springer, Tennessee | Freshman
There’s a degree of skepticism around the NBA when it comes to Tennessee’s pair of five-star recruits, who have received plenty of hype but have yet to build fully convincing cases for early-draft consideration. To their credit, Johnson and Springer have more often than not been positives in their somewhat limited minutes and are playing valuable roles on a deep, talented team. But it would be wise just to temper the lofty expectations right now, as both players come with legitimate concerns as far as their NBA readiness and tend to be viewed more as long-term prospects. Either or both could certainly end up in the first round, but that’s kind of the nature of this draft class, which is viewed by many scouts as top heavy, with about 10–12 players having separated themselves, and the rest being very much up for grabs.
Johnson is a live wire defensively. He’s a stellar athlete, and has some intriguing upside as a two-way contributor who can slash and defend on the ball. But he’s undersized for a wing and has struggled to make any type of consistent impact as a scorer, managing double figures just four times in 15 games, making just five of 22 attempts from three-point range and shooting 65% from the line. That was the book on Johnson in high school and has proven mostly correct. He’s displayed appealing levels of feel and toughness, and due to his tenacious disposition, he’s an easy player to like—he was No. 11 on our board coming into the season, the thought being that he’d take a leap as a shooter.
Placing Johnson that high or higher was probably overselling it, and he’s clearly further away offensively than most expected on that end. His defense and quick-twitch tools are still plenty impressive, but that’s typically not enough to get you drafted in the lottery without serious positional size and strength. His stock is in flux right now, and there are some scouts who think he’d be better off developing in college next season, when he can polish his on-ball skills and catch-and-shoot play and see additional minutes.
While Springer’s statistical case is more convincing, the film isn’t quite as kind to him. His NBA fit is a little bit tricky, as a guard with more bully-ball tendencies than true creative chops. Springer is officially listed at 6’ 4”, but is functionally a bit shorter, and has always benefitted from being bigger and stronger than players his age (that said, he won’t turn 19 until September, which is a good thing). That size advantage manifests heavily in his style of play, which relies on two-footed finishes, creating contact and using jump stops in traffic, and makes Springer more of a below-the-rim threat. It helps him stay balanced and square to the rim, but it also makes it tough for him to get extension around the basket against length, and many of his drives end up stopping short. He’s been extremely efficient thus far with the opportunities he’s gotten, but some scouts question how many of his decisions to drive or shoot are pre-ordained.
Springer’s nature has always been more to score than create for others in a meaningful sense, so his best chance of success in the NBA stems from his ability to stay in front of bigger guys defensively, as well as how much he can expand his scoring in a complementary sense. Part of that will involve convincing teams he’ll be a reliable shooter. Springer’s made 9-of-16 threes this season, but they’ve all been assisted, his mechanics are a tad arduous, and he’s purely a threat off the catch. It’s certainly not to say that he’s incapable—and he’s still so young that you can see his game evolving in unexpected directions—but there’s a lack of certainty to his skill set, and questions surrounding what he presently does at a high enough level. As with Johnson, a lot of scouts still feel like they need to see more.
Bennedict Mathurin, Arizona | Freshman
Mathurin hasn’t done quite enough to be a surefire one-and-done, but he’s begun to grow into a bigger role at Arizona, he’s been supremely efficient as an 18-year-old, and he at least deserves a place in the draft conversation. A product of the NBA’s Global Academy, Mathurin has impressed in past settings with his athleticism and shooting, and he’s now up to 58.5% on twos, 43.9% from three and 85% from the line. He’s a bit stiff athletically. He’s not flashy, and adds very little as a playmaker and creator—nearly all of his threes have been assisted—but Mathurin’s tools and basic strength as a comfortable catch-and-shoot threat bode well. He’s someone to watch closely over the next month.
David Duke, Providence | Junior
Duke has been on the NBA radar for a couple of years and has finally showed signs of putting his game together, albeit with some major flaws. He’s got an easy eye-test frame with legit size and length. He’s a quality playmaker in transition, has proven competent catching and shooting, and works hard defensively using his plus tools. But he struggles to finish around the basket, particularly for a big guard, and frequently ends up settling for mid-range shots or getting cut off on drives. Duke’s overall efficiency leaves something to be desired. On a good day, he can look like a first-round talent. He’s been inconsistent, but those types of games have come with more frequency this season. Whether or not he can flip his improved game into a top 40 selection remains to be seen. Given the load he carries for Providence, teams will likely be curious as to what he’s capable of when surrounded by better players.
Isaiah Livers, Michigan | Senior
Everything appears to be clicking for Livers at the moment, and after injuries and inconsistent play plagued his last couple of seasons, he’s re-emerged as a draftable prospect, making 44% of his threes and filling in as a capable supporting player and major puzzle piece for Michigan. Livers’s value is predicated on catching and shooting, and he does that quite well, with his shot selection on whole having improved. Nearly all of his threes have been assisted, but he’s shown basic ability to attack closeouts, he’s worked himself into better shape, and he’s a nonzero defender capable of making heady plays around the ball. Livers is still a bit too heavyset to reliably defend wings moving forward, but in a floor-spacing bench role, it’s easy to see how his game might translate. The 22-year-old looks like a worthy second-round option, with teams constantly in search of shooting.
Carlik Jones, Louisville | Senior
Jones has pretty clearly been the most impactful transfer in college hoops this season, arriving from Radford without missing a beat and settling in as one of the best floor leaders in the country. His overall efficiency leaves something to be desired, and he’s run a bit cold of late, but Jones’s approach to the game, leadership and moxie all stand out and give him a chance at a solid NBA career as a backup guard. He excels at keeping his dribble and staying poised while navigating traffic, limits turnovers extremely well, and plays an unselfish style with the ball in his hands. He’s a crafty scorer in the paint and comfortable in the midrange, allowing him to improvise effectively. Jones isn’t overly big or athletic, and he’s already 23, so the upside isn’t the selling point here. How teams ultimately feel about his shooting will be key: He made major improvements and shot 40% from three at Radford last season, and he’s shooting 83% from the foul line right now, but just 31% from long distance. Jones figures to be in the mix for a two-way deal at worst, and should have a legit shot at the second round.