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Who Will Emerge as the Best From 2021 NBA Draft Class?

The top of this year's rookie class will forever be linked, but which prospect will have the greatest career?

LAS VEGAS – The crowd thickened by the minute, growing to nearly 9,000 by the opening tip. They were there to see Cade Cunningham. Or Jalen Green. Or Cade Cunningham vs. Jalen Green, which is what Tuesday night’s nationally televised showcase—officially Pistons vs. Rockets—was really about. ESPN promoted it. The NBA leaned into it. Officially, it was a meaningless matchup between two teenagers with long careers ahead of them. Unofficially—for star-starved fan bases in Detroit and Houston, at least—it was a chance to see how the top two picks in the draft measured up.

And they did—both of them. Cunningham, after struggling in his summer league opener, scored 20 points. He knocked down four threes. He picked off three steals. Green, facing a trapping defense for parts of the game, scored 25. He made 54.5% of his shots. He made 60% of his threes. A day later, Evan Mobley, the third pick, scored 14 points against Orlando. He grabbed seven rebounds. He handed out six assists.

“I could have been a lot better defensively,” Cunningham said.

Said Green, “I was trying to get my teammates involved, not make it a one-on-one battle with me and Cade.”

“I feel like [the Cavs] really love my playmaking ability,” Mobley said. “I showed that in my college career and I think they really trust me with that.”

Three players, one goal: winning. Detroit has not won a playoff series since 2008. Houston went on a 20-game losing streak after James Harden left town. Cleveland has only been relevant when LeBron James wears the uniform. It will take greatness from each to restore all three franchises to viability.

But who will be the greatest?

Understand: This was not a draft with an obvious hierarchy at the top. Cunningham emerged as the top pick, but only after a spirited debate among the Pistons’ top basketball executives (Cunningham’s workout in Detroit, sources told SI, was … not great). Houston was giddy when Green fell to them. The Cavs couldn’t be happier to have Mobley, a Chris Bosh–like big man who will fit well in an offense that wants to play through them.

To NBA execs, this doesn’t feel like, say, the 2011 draft, when Kyrie Irving went No. 1 and you needed to look down eight spots (Kemba Walker) to find the next All-Star.

Projecting who emerges as the best of this class—with a nod to Scottie Barnes and Jalen Suggs, two rising talents themselves—is far more difficult.

Will it be Cunningham? There’s a lot to like about the 6' 8", 220-pound forward. He’s big. He’s strong. He’s physical. He communicates. “He’s a great leader at his age,” says second-year forward Saddiq Bey. Cunningham’s ability to be effective, one assistant coach said, is how he uses his body. As a pick-and-roll ballhandler, Cunningham will have to learn to put defenders on his hip (Luka Dončić, Devin Booker and Khris Middleton are wing players who excel at that) to effectively create two-on-one situations in the half-court. “He develops that,” says the assistant, “he will be tough to guard.”

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Will it be Green? Green’s path to success is a little easier to see. “He has the highest ceiling of any of them,” says a team exec. Green, Summer League has shown, is an electric scorer. “His shot-making is pretty impressive,” says the assistant. Green solved Detroit’s blitzing defense—and at some point we have to discuss why a summer league team is blitzing—and proceeded to carve it up.

Another thing: The chip on Green’s shoulder is visible. Green didn’t hide it—he wanted to win Tuesday’s matchup with Cunningham. On the bus ride to the arena, Green played Detroit music on Instagram. At his postgame interview, Green wore a T-shirt with No. 1 stitched on it. The Rockets season could be Green’s crusade to prove the Pistons screwed up.

(That’s not a bad thing either, Houston. Paul Pierce spent the lockout-shortened 1999 season with the memory of nine teams passing on him on draft night playing in a loop in his head. Pierce turned out O.K.)

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Watch Mobley, and you see all the things scouts drooled over. He’s long. He’s fluid. He is already an efficient midrange jump shooter, with clear room to expand his game outward. He gets that he needs to get stronger (“I’m going to live in the weight room,” said Mobley) but all rookies do. He says his favorite place to operate from is the left elbow … exactly where the Cavs plan to deploy him.

“He’s extremely talented and has a lot of gifts,” says J.J. Outlaw, Cleveland’s summer league coach. “He’s good with the ball anywhere.”

The biggest question? Aggressiveness, both the exec and the assistant say. At times, Mobley has appeared passive. Against Kansas last January, Mobley played 31 minutes … and didn’t attempt a field goal. Against Utah in the NCAA tournament, the 6' 11" Mobley was held to 10 points by a Kansas defense led by 6' 5" Marcus Garrett. An NBA scout compared Mobley to Danny Manning, noting, though, that Mobley has not shown the same competitiveness a young Manning did.

“You can see all the tools,” says the exec. “But does he have that fire? If he does, awesome. He will be tough to guard and he can do everything defensively. I just haven’t seen it yet.”

It will be years before there is a clear pecking order. Green will probably post the best numbers next season. Cunningham will probably look like the more complete player. And if Mobley jells with Jarrett Allen and if the Collin Sexton/Darius Garland backcourt remains intact and if Kevin Love returns healthy, Mobley’s Cavs could be in the play-in mix.

The top of the 2021 draft could turn out pretty good.

Check back in a few years. We’ll know who is the best.

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