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10 Parting Thoughts From the 2021 NBA Draft

An inside look at draft night's broader storylines and surprise picks, as well as a few back-room rumors and nuggets of insight from SI's draft expert.
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Well, the 2021 draft is over. This writer is in dire need of a vacation. But let’s take a final moment here to dive into some of the night’s bigger storylines, surprise picks, things I liked and didn’t like, and much more. This post-draft info-dump column has become an annual tradition. And I’m out of gas on clever introductions.

If you’ve followed along with our draft coverage all season, know that it’s much appreciated. Here’s the inside scoop on some of what went down Thursday night.

1. After scanning back through all of Thursday’s events, there are a couple broad takeaways worth mentioning. First, this draft stands as a reminder of how little consensus there often is around the NBA when it comes to talent evaluation. There were a number of first-round picks where teams simply went to their boards and made selections that didn’t necessarily align with public perceptions of what that player’s range was. But stuff that seems weird on the surface can still be normal procedure behind the scenes. People generally bash picks for two reasons: because they don’t like the player relative to their draft slot, or at all in general (which is fair), or because they have no idea what the reasoning was behind the scenes (which, to be completely fair, is much more oblique and harder to understand without inside context.)

The other thing is you can kind of see where the NBA is going. Teams generally placed a ton of value on players with size and skill. It’s increasingly less about running and jumping and more about versatility, feel, and in most cases, the ability to accentuate better talent. (It also really helps if you can shoot). Some of the first-rounders who benefitted from that: Cade Cunningham (who was not the No. 1 prospect for everyone, but fits that mold perfectly), Scottie Barnes (more on him in a second), Josh Giddey (ditto), Franz Wagner, Ziaire Williams, Chris Duarte, Tre Mann, Jalen Johnson, Quentin Grimes and surprise No. 30 pick Santi Aldama.

There were only a handful of true bigs taken in the first round, and most of those ones drafted in the second came after No. 50. The value spectrum shifted in a real way, although to be fair, there was also a very thin group of centers available. But the “find a bunch of 6'8" guys who fit real roles and figure it out later” strategy has become much more popular for good reason. The success of teams like the Suns and Bucks who are constructed in that way doesn’t hurt.

Scottie Barnes (Florida State) poses with NBA commissioner Adam Silver after being selected as the number four overall pick by the Toronto Raptors in the first round of the 2021 NBA Draft

2. Toronto’s selection of Scottie Barnes over Jalen Suggs was not what was widely projected, but it shouldn’t have been a total stunner given the way things were trending going into Thursday. Nobody was exactly sure what the Raptors were doing, but the level of certainty around the NBA that Barnes would end up on the Magic likely contributed to the lack of dialogue surrounding the fact that Toronto had to make a legitimate choice at No. 4.

This, of course, is a highly defensible pick for the Raptors (although I prefer Suggs to Barnes in a vacuum). Barnes’s toughness, length, and feel are right in line with what Toronto has historically coveted in their draft picks. What his arrival means for Pascal Siakam, who’s frequently come up in trade chatter, is up for interpretation. But he’s a legitimate future piece for them, and if he starts to shoot it better, his upside is pretty real. He just isn’t going to score a ton.

As for why they may have passed on Suggs: as I reported earlier in the week, word circulated around the NBA that his workout with Toronto didn’t go well. Obviously, the Raptors didn’t base their decision entirely off of that. It may not have mattered at all. Their front office is one of the trickier to get a read on around the league, but this pick was always viewed as between Barnes and Suggs. It was somewhat unexpected, but certainly not weird.

As a side note, Toronto’s decision still led to a nice coup for Orlando, who walked away with him and Franz Wagner, who was a favored option at No. 8. The Magic have a fascinating, defensive-minded foundation, particularly if Suggs taps into his potential as a lead playmaker. The idea of three-man frontcourts featuring Wagner, Chuma Okeke and a (hopefully) healthy Jonathan Isaac is pretty enticing.

3. As for the thing nearly everyone was surprised by: the Thunder went bold at No. 6 and grabbed Josh Giddey. As I understand things, that decision came after Oklahoma City made very serious attempts to package a number of their future picks to move up in the draft, and were engaged with Cleveland at No. 3. Those talks ultimately fell apart. After deciding to stay put, the player Sam Presti ultimately landed on was Giddey. 

The Australian guard held a secret workout for the Thunder last week in Los Angeles, attended by Presti and other high-ranking members of the front office, and run by OKC head coach Mark Daigneault, according to a source with knowledge of the circumstances. They met with him afterward and showed real interest, but never tipped their hand. Giddey himself had no idea they were taking him until the call came during the draft. If Oklahoma City had passed, I’m told the Warriors were likely to select him at No. 7.

Giddey gives the Thunder a unique piece to build around moving forward, with terrific size and a knack for creative passing. He was excellent as an 18-year-old playing in the NBL this season, with a mature, low-maintenance approach to the game. He enjoys making teammates better and has plenty of experience playing alongside older guys. In my various opportunities to watch the NBA’s Global Academy team over the years, Giddey frequently stood out as the top player at those events. So while the pick was unexpected, there was no mystery about Giddey at all. A number of lottery teams were deeply intrigued, and a huge cohort of league executives traveled to Las Vegas earlier this month to watch him train with the Australian national team. Giddey didn’t make the final Olympic roster, but is viewed as a star-in-waiting for the Boomers. OKC will hope for the same. 

Presti kept his intentions under lock and key as usual, and a large chunk of the league had grown somewhat convinced in recent days that OKC preferred James Bouknight at No. 6. Moral of the story: it’s probably best to take anything you hear about whom the Thunder are drafting with a grain of salt.

4. The Grizzlies had one of the more fascinating drafts, making two outside-the-box first-round selections in Ziaire Williams (No. 10) and Santi Aldama (No. 30). Memphis has drafted well in recent years and gets the benefit of the doubt—they’re certainly willing to be bold and buck perceived consensus—but their moves did raise some eyebrows among rival teams.

By the time Memphis acquired No. 10 from New Orleans over the weekend leading up to draft night, it had become a common belief around the league that the Grizzlies had their eyes on two players: Franz Wagner and Josh Giddey. Sources said Memphis made efforts to move up the board again in the days that followed, targeting the Warriors’ pick at No. 7 and the Cavs at No. 3. As I understand it, those talks never got particularly far, and the Grizzlies came to realize they were staying put.

Giddey and Wagner came off the board at No. 6 and No. 8, and the top player on their board at that point was Williams—who was not the desired target when they made the trade, sources said. The Grizzlies stuck to their rankings and made the pick anyway. There was some sense before the draft that he was a player Memphis genuinely liked, and that he may not have made it to No. 17 had they stayed put. His upside could certainly justify the risk, but teams were all over the board on him, and his history of inconsistency dating back to high school was too significant for some to buy all the way in. Williams also had serious interest from the Magic, and was in the mix for their pick at No. 8. I’m told he was the only player to work out for Orlando twice.

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Memphis then moved to grab No. 30 from the Jazz and picked Aldama, who was rumored to have a guarantee from Oklahoma City in the second round, and shocked a vast majority of the NBA when he snuck into the first. He was excellent last season at Loyola-Maryland, and his production and age made him a favorite of analytical models, but played a brief slate of games at an extremely low college level in the Patriot League. Still, the 20-year-old Spaniard became a deep-cut sleeper, and multiple teams were in the market for him, per a source with knowledge of the situation. His decision not to attend the NBA’s G League Elite Camp was a strategic shutdown, I’m told, designed to steer him specifically to teams that had shown the most interest. The Grizzlies were high on Aldama, obviously, and were thought to have been concerned about the Thunder selecting him in the 30s. Memphis wanted him badly enough to make a move and grab him.

5. Perhaps the most surprising lottery pick (and certainly the sneakiest one) was San Antonio’s selection of Josh Primo at No. 12. I think the key thing to remember here is that how public discourse rates a prospect in the draft cycle often differs drastically from how teams value the players. The Spurs’ decision here is a great example of that.

For context, I had Primo going at No. 20 to Atlanta in my final mock. Per sources, Primo was believed to be one of the players the Hawks were targeting in trade-up scenarios. I viewed him as a first-round lock, but the interest in him was much hotter than it seemed based on public mock drafts and whatever information had trickled out on the matter. Per sources, the Hornets (who opted for James Bouknight, after he slid) and Thunder (who could have taken Primo at No. 16 or 18) were also quite interested. The Spurs also loved Primo and were intent on landing him.

The market for Primo was so silent that many rival teams even had no idea he was in play that high. But as I understand it, San Antonio felt there wasn’t a clear opportunity to trade back and completely ensure Primo was still available. When in doubt, you just take the guy you like the most on the board. Like many around the league, the Spurs felt there was a good deal of untapped upside hidden by his role at Alabama. He’s was the youngest player drafted (he turns 19 in December) and in the past couple years has grown to 6'6” while maintaining his coordination and guard skills.

If you’re willing to overlook the lack of college production and project out, he’s clearly a top 20 prospect. With a larger role at Alabama next season, Primo could have been a consensus lottery pick in 2022. The Spurs have the runway to be patient with him. It may have seemed weird in the moment, but situations like this are also why the draft is always fascinating.

6. Personal aside: I’m weirdly intrigued by whatever it is the Hornets are building right now. Charlotte made two of my favorite picks in the first round, grabbing James Bouknight after he slipped, and trading back in to select Kai Jones at No. 19. Jones worked out for Charlotte twice, sources said, and they were likely to select Jones at No. 11 had Bouknight not been there. They’re building a potentially exciting, uptempo team around LaMelo Ball, and the pieces actually do seem to fit well in concept. Bouknight will provide scoring punch, and could emerge as a second star next to Ball. Jones is a nice fit next to P.J. Washington and Miles Bridges in the frontcourt. Charlotte is skyrocketing up next season’s League Pass rankings.

Jalen Green #4 of Team Ignite handles the ball during the game against the Raptors 905 during the NBA G League Playoffs on March 8, 2021 at AdventHealth Arena in Orlando, Florida.

7. The Rockets had a genuinely interesting draft, ultimately picking four players in the first round as their youth movement continues. Houston took Jalen Green (as expected), dealt future protected firsts (originally belonging to Washington and Detroit) to Oklahoma City to draft Alperen Sengün, then made a surprising choice to use both their picks in the 20s and took Usman Garuba and Josh Christopher.

Houston now boasts one of the weirder, most experimental-looking young rosters in the league. It appears Houston has little intention of being a playoff team in the short term, and will use next season to develop the rookies, along with talented returners Kevin Porter Jr. and Jae’Sean Tate. John Wall and Christian Wood are still on the roster, which doesn’t necessarily fit the timeline (read: they may not necessarily be pleased if the Rockets are as bad as they could potentially be). But this is kind of fascinating, objectively.

Excluding Wall from this conversation, the Rockets now have an interesting mishmash of young bucket-getters (Porter, Green and Christopher), a budding post-centric big (Sengün), two tough, defensive-oriented forwards (Garuba and Tate) and a versatile rim protector (Wood). Green, the No. 2 pick, is the most promising piece of the puzzle. It’s entirely unclear if the team will shoot well enough or share the ball well, but Houston really just needs a couple of these guys to hit in a major way.

It can be tough to develop so many players at once, particularly when so many of them need the ball, but the Rockets aren’t really at a point where they can worry about that. Another high lottery pick is likely in store next year. This might take a while, but there’s time to experiment now: they don’t owe any firsts to the Thunder until 2024.

8. The Kings’ selection of Davion Mitchell at No. 9 was viewed as a bit confusing by other teams, given the fact Sacramento is building around two young guards already. Mitchell was more of a win-now pick, which affirms that the Kings are pushing for increased relevance. He’ll enhance one of the worst defensive teams in the league right away, but also may not step into that valuable of a role unless Sacramento opts for smaller, three-guard lineups with De’Aaron Fox and Tyrese Haliburton. Mitchell has a great story and worked for every inch of his status as a lottery pick, but there was still a degree of skepticism over where his upside lies, given he’s an older prospect who bloomed late. We’ll see how this turns out for the Kings, whose heavily rumored interest in Sengün was evidently overcooked.

9. Teams dealt with COVID-related limitations on live scouting throughout this draft cycle. Naturally, this became an especially important year to participate in the draft combine. Teams really took the scrimmages seriously as an eval setting. The five best players at the combine all reaped massive benefits from showing up. Josh Primo, Josh Christopher, Quentin Grimes and Bones Hyland were all stellar in Chicago, and played their way into the first round. Another standout, Jason Preston (one of my personal favorites), was thought to be strongly in the mix for the Clippers at No. 25, before they moved up to grab a slipping Keon Johnson instead. It turned out L.A. loved Preston enough to trade back in and take him at No. 33.

Conversely, some of the players teams were hoping to see play in combine scrimmages fell into the late first, the second round, or out of the draft entirely. Cam Thomas and Day’Ron Sharpe skipped the combine completely and went at No. 27 and No. 29 to the Nets. The 76ers’ pick at No. 28, Jaden Springer, didn’t play at the combine and was leapfrogged by shooting guards Primo, Christopher, Grimes and Hyland. Herbert Jones went at No. 35 to New Orleans, Miles McBride at No. 36 to New York, J.T. Thor at No. 37 to Charlotte and Ayo Dosunmu at No. 38 to Chicago. All four players could have snuck into the late first, conceivably, with strong showings.

Sharife Cooper (whose chances at ever landing in the first round were widely overblown) fell all the way to Atlanta at No. 48. B.J. Boston dropped to No. 51, where the Clippers moved in to grab him. And Joel Ayayi, who some scouts (myself included) viewed as a late first-round talent, went undrafted after skipping the combine entirely. Ayayi fell to the point where he opted to go undrafted, and took a two-way with the Lakers. He took a conservative approach to scheduling team workouts, sources said, which backfired as the 25-45 range unfolded. Access to players mattered even more than usual this time around. We’ll see what the next year holds in terms of COVID-related hurdles, but this could be a trend, not a blip.

10. More picks and team fits I liked: Trey Murphy to the Pelicans at No. 17, Grimes to the Knicks (25), Hyland to the Nuggets (26), Sharpe to the Nets (29), Preston to the Clippers (33), Joe Wieskamp to the Spurs (41), Kessler Edwards to Brooklyn (44), and Dalano Banton to the Raptors (46, making him the first Canadian ever drafted by Toronto). Many of those guys might help their teams sooner rather than later.

See you at Summer League.

More NBA Coverage:

Biggest Winners and Losers From the Draft
• 2021 NBA Draft Grades
Grading the Russell Westbrook-Lakers Trade
NBA Free Agency Rankings