With top college teams in the thick of non-conference play and NBA executives canvassing the country to check up on prospects, it’s time for the first official mock draft of the season.
If you haven’t been paying much attention yet, the early headliners in this year’s draft are Duke’s Paolo Banchero (SI’s projected top pick) and Gonzaga’s Chet Holmgren, with Auburn’s Jabari Smith already playing his way into the top-three conversation. It’ll be a while before we have a great feel for the actual depth of the class, but there’s genuine excitement around the league surrounding all three players right now, particularly Banchero and Smith, who have had impressive moments early in the season.
This year’s draft process in particular is going to require some collective evaluatory patience, particularly with college freshmen, given the ways in which COVID-19 has impacted game schedules and player development over the past 18 months or so. Per usual, this exercise aims to project what might happen if the draft took place on a given day, and serves as a gauge of how the NBA broadly views prospects in the present moment.
The mock draft is based heavily on intel and conversations with executives, scouts, and others around the NBA, as well as my own evaluations of each prospect, which in many cases dates back several years between in-person viewings and film review. At this stage, team need is only a small factor in how I project the draft, but that aspect comes into stronger consideration as the season goes on and the picture begins to crystallize.
The draft sequence was created using the NBA standings entering Monday’s games. Note that there are only 59 selections in this draft due to Milwaukee forfeiting its second-round pick this year.
1. Rockets: Paolo Banchero, PF, Duke
Height: 6' 10" | Weight: 250 | Age: 19 | Freshman
Banchero entered the season atop my early Big Board and has emerged as the early favorite to hear his name called first on draft night. At present, it doesn’t seem like his recent arrest for involvement in a DWI will directly affect that, noting that he was not the driver. It’s way too early to call this a foregone conclusion, but Banchero has made a strong case for himself on the court in the early going, showcasing his full range of talents in a marquee win over Kentucky in the Champions Classic that was attended by essentially every key decision-making figure in the league. He’s productive and exceptionally skilled for a player his size, with the capacity to handle, shoot and make plays for teammates while creating mismatches for opposing frontcourts.
Profiling as a potential offensive fulcrum at the power forward spot, Banchero compares favorably from a skill perspective to players like Julius Randle and Blake Griffin at the same stage of their careers. He’s hyper-polished and is viewed by scouts as a safe bet to have a lengthy, productive NBA career. While not an elite leaper or natural rim protector, Banchero is a smart positional defender with enough size and strength to hold his own and eventually add a bit of value on that end. Offensively, he’s able to compensate for his lack of explosiveness in tight spaces with his physical heft, coordination and exceptional handle for his size.
There’s plenty of untapped upside here too, assuming Banchero eventually becomes a more comfortable three-point shooter and begins to make more advanced reads as a passer. Some scouts suspect Banchero may fall somewhat short of a true No. 1 option on a title team, but he’s a winning player with plenty to offer.
As for the Rockets, expect them to be picking near the top of the draft again. They took a major swing on Jalen Green last year. Adding a more consistent performer like Banchero to balance the floor from the frontcourt would be a coup.
2. Pelicans: Jabari Smith Jr., F, Auburn
Height: 6' 10" | Weight: 210 | Age: 18 | Freshman
It’s taken just a few games for Smith to build serious buzz around the league as a likely top-three pick: he’s receiving glowing reviews from execs and scouts who have seen him live. While early, I think it’s reasonable to label him as a dark-horse candidate for No. 1 at this stage. Smith not only offers huge upside as an athletic forward with size, a smooth jumper and promising instincts, but he’s also been productive immediately for the Tigers, albeit against subpar competition. As a jumbo shot-making scorer with skill potential, Smith has essentially all of what the NBA tends to value in blue-chip prospects. He comes with the requisite pedigree, as a decorated high school player with USA Basketball experience, and has been able to make difficult plays look simple.
The vibe I’ve gotten from many around the NBA over the past few weeks is that it may be a matter of time before Smith usurps Chet Holmgren as Banchero’s primary competition for the No. 1 pick. More than anything else, that’s a reflection of just how promising Smith looks at the moment. For one, he’s an entire year younger than Holmgren and will play his entire freshman season at 18 years old. Smith won’t face serious questions about his role or viability on either end of the floor—he only has to persuade people that he has a real chance to approach his considerable ceiling. There are some shades of Jayson Tatum in the way he operates in the midrange and how naturally creating shots comes to him. Tatum was much more polished, but Smith has a bigger frame and has exhibited far fewer bad habits at the same stage of his development. He’s also shown some surprising mettle defensively.
New Orleans’ poor start to the season has them ticketed for the high lottery, unless Zion Williamson’s eventual return can immediately galvanize the Pelicans toward relevance. While Smith isn’t a neat fit with Williamson and Ingram, the imperative here should be taking the player with the highest upside.
3. Magic: Chet Holmgren, F/C, Gonzaga
Height: 7' 0" | Weight: 215 | Age: 19 | Freshman
Holmgren comfortably rounds out the top three at the moment and is in the mix at No. 1, but is being graded by scouts on a somewhat heightened curve early in the season. Gonzaga plays two massive games this week—UCLA on Tuesday and Duke on Friday—that have major implications for Holmgren’s draft stock, on the heels of a forgettable showing against Texas in which he scored just two points and attempted three shots. Gonzaga will play heavily through Drew Timme this season, and Holmgren should actually benefit from a less focal role more akin to what he’ll do in the NBA. But he has to find ways to produce when the play isn’t flowing through him. Being big and blocking shots is a start, but manufacturing points without designed touches is crucial.
Gonzaga plays only a handful of quality regular-season opponents, leaving less opportunity to impress NBA teams in meaningful settings. Holmgren has to start defining his own narrative this week, and Friday’s matchup against Banchero and Duke should be the most heavily scouted game of the season.
There’s still a strong argument to be made on Holmgren’s behalf as a high-quality prospect: he’s tall, he’s a good shooter and finisher, he can handle and pass, and he’s an excellent shot-blocker. He’s skilled enough to be a four on offense, which helps cover for the fact he likely won’t be a great offensive rebounder. Defensively, he’ll protect the basket in space and has good instincts. Many scouts are concerned with Holmgren’s extremely slender frame, as well as his long-term durability, but the league has moved so far away from post-ups that he should still add defensive value without needing to be a bruiser.
Holmgren was quite old for his grade in high school, and will be 20 before the draft, which does beg the question of how impressive his dominance at that level really was. But it’s also important not to let hype and inflated expectations rebound unfairly in how we view Holmgren: he’s still a uniquely gifted player on a positive trajectory to this point.
The Magic have young players at every position and should continue to draft for upside. Holmgren’s skill level and rim protection would be a strong addition to their core. His path to NBA success will have to be unique, but creatively optimizing his strengths could yield real dividends.
4. Spurs: Patrick Baldwin Jr., F, Wisconsin-Milwaukee
Height: 6' 9" | Weight: 220 | Age: 19 | Freshman
It hasn’t been a remarkable start to the season for Baldwin, who is the highest-profile true mid-major prospect in some time. He has been an early point of interest for NBA teams aiming to evaluate him against higher-level teams before conference play starts. There are a few factors that naturally work in Baldwin’s favor in the context of drafting: he’s very tall, he’s a very good shooter, he can handle and pass, and you can imagine an idealized version of him adding value on just about any roster. Many of the things he does well will translate, and the fact he’ll face low-level competition for most of the season isn’t a huge deal. It’s easy to see a world where he’s a useful starter, and if he continues to improve creating shots for himself, there’s upside to be more of an offensive focal point in the long run.
However, Baldwin is going to have to shake some early stigma surrounding his physicality and toughness, which has come up a lot in conversations I’ve had of late. He’s been a little too content to float around and take tough shots, and reticent to use his size and length to help his team as a rebounder and defender. Effort is always something players can control, and he’s not a total zero defensively, but NBA teams want to see more of it from him. His play in the second half of Milwaukee’s recent blowout loss against Florida illustrated those concerns. Baldwin is a safe bet to go in the lottery, but it’s certainly not a lock he goes this high. The Spurs are heavy on young guards and should be able to address their long-term frontcourt needs in this draft.
5. Pistons: Jaden Hardy, SG, G League Ignite
Height: 6' 4" | Weight: 185 | Age: 19
In a draft that may wind up somewhat thin on top-flight guard talent, Hardy’s scoring prowess and smooth shot-creating ability set him apart as one of the higher-upside backcourt players available. His comfort level shooting off the dribble and deep range could eventually make him a devastating ball-screen player, but his size and lack of high-end explosiveness tends to limit him a bit as a finisher and isolation player at this stage. He hasn’t been particularly efficient to open the season with the Ignite, and while there’s little question he’s an NBA talent, the primary question right now is whether Hardy profiles best as a sixth-man type combo scorer, or if he can be more than that. His jump shooting gives him a shot at a star-level outcome, but he’ll need to improve defensively and sharpen his on-ball decision-making to hit his ceiling.
Hardy’s natural talent level and flashes of big upside should keep his stock somewhat stable as a lottery-level player this season, and as long as his play is trending upward, he’ll get some benefit of the doubt due to the leap in competition with the Ignite. It’s worth noting that he was old for his class in high school. But the allure of developing a potentially elite shot-making prospect should be appealing, and Hardy has enough of a complementary skill set to be an inviting addition on a young team. The Pistons are going to need to find scorers to complement Cade Cunningham, and Hardy would fit the bill.
6. Kings: Jalen Duren, C, Memphis
Height: 6' 11" | Weight: 250 | Age: 18 | Freshman
Predictably, Duren has been feasting against lesser competition to start the season, with elite physical tools and strength that belies his age. He’s long, mobile and explosive, he has huge potential defensively, and his frame is already well-suited for the NBA. On the offensive end, Duren plays a simple catch-and-finish style right now, but is a promising passer and has shown some flashes of ability to space the floor (though there’s a reason Memphis isn’t asking him to shoot threes at the moment).
Duren is a relatively safe choice and a good bet to land in the lottery, but a lot will hinge on how each team values centers, and which ones have long-term needs up front. If you believe in Duren’s skill potential, he’s an easier sell early in the draft, and after reclassifying to enter college early, he’ll be one of the youngest prospects in this class. The Kings are heavy on guards, need defensive backbone and could be a realistic landing spot for Duren in the lottery.
7. Thunder: Jaden Ivey, G, Purdue
Height: 6' 4" | Weight: 200 | Age: 19 | Sophomore
Ivey left a strong impression over the weekend in Purdue’s win over North Carolina, and appears to be in the midst of the sophomore leap many hoped for. He may be one of the better all-around athletes in this draft class: he’s big, strong, explosive and quick, and he has greatly improved his ball skills over the past couple years, making his high school ranking as a back-end Top 100 recruit look conservative. His productivity is bolstered by the fact he plays and guards extremely hard (which is not something to take for granted), helping compensate for smaller holes in his skill set.
Ivey gets into the paint effectively and is a good enough passer to create opportunities for others in transition and slashing to the basket. His jumper is the biggest question right now: he’s a bit inconsistent and has a bit of a mechanical set shot. He made just 25% of his threes as a freshman and will need to get that number into the 30s to maximize his chances at going high in the draft. Regardless, Ivey is on a promising trajectory, and he’s still got a lot of room for improvement in all areas.
8. Pacers: Kendall Brown, F, Baylor
Height: 6' 8" | Weight: 205 | Age: 18 | Freshman
Brown’s emergence as an immediate-impact addition for Baylor has created some early buzz around the NBA, and he looks very much like a one-and-done talent with the way he impacts both sides of the ball. He was a five-star recruit and a known quantity coming out of high school, so this isn’t all that surprising. But he’s been among the more disruptive perimeter defenders in college basketball and a load to stop in transition. He has showcased surprisingly strong passing skills, as well.
The caveat with Brown has always been that he’s not a very good jump shooter, and he can be reticent to hoist threes. But he’s made three of his four attempts from distance through four games and doesn’t take many bad shots in general. He’s not a dynamic ball-handler and won’t create much for himself, so it’s crucial he shoots well enough to force closeouts and make plays out of those situations. As long as Brown makes enough shots to capture the imagination, it’s hard to see a scenario where he’s not a top 20 pick. And if his early play holds up, a spot in the lottery is realistic.
9. Timberwolves: Keegan Murray, F, Iowa
Height: 6' 8" | Weight: 215 | Age: 21 | Sophomore
There’s a case to be made that Murray has been the best player in college basketball so far, and while Iowa hasn’t played anyone of quality yet, it’s hilarious in hindsight that Murray was so under-utilized as a freshman. While he’s on the older end for a potential lottery pick, Murray is gathering real steam among scouts right now with his sheer productivity, appealing athletic tools and versatile two-way skill set.
The NBA continues to place a premium on skilled, jumbo forwards with well-rounded complementary skills, and Murray has also taken a major step forward as a scorer, while doing most of his damage in the flow of the game. Teams will be closely monitoring his progress as a shooter, but he appears to be trending in the right direction on that front. Murray should be able to defend wings and bigs, impact the passing lanes with his length, rebound and play in transition, capitalize on easy baskets and knock down open shots. There may be some debate about his upside, as he’s not a shot-creator or playmaker by nature, but most of what he’s good at is highly translatable to NBA value.
10. Raptors: Dyson Daniels, G, G League Ignite
Height: 6' 6" | Weight: 200 | Age: 18
It takes a couple viewings to really get a grasp on Daniels as a prospect. He’s not flashy and doesn’t hunt shots, but he has good size for his position and a mature approach to team basketball that helps him impact winning in different ways. Daniels plays a bit upright and may not be a full-time point guard in the NBA, but he is a smart passer and cutter, knows how to use his size, and can quietly fill up a stat sheet without necessarily scoring much. All that coupled with his young age leaves room for optimism that he’ll be a quality role player at worst, with some untapped upside as his body matures and he becomes a more assertive scorer.
A native of Australia and product of the NBA’s Global Academy program, Daniels plays with a positionless mentality that helps to optimize his versatility. He has room to improve, but hasn’t looked overmatched in the G League so far, and may be ready to contribute in the pros sooner than later. The scoring should come and his shooting should improve, but it’s hard to teach the other stuff.
11. Hawks: Trevor Keels, G, Duke
Height: 6' 4" | Weight: 220 | Age: 18 | Freshman
Keels has been a pleasant surprise so far, leveraging his large frame, reliable jumper and improved playmaking skills in an important role at Duke. While there are likely to be some freshman growing pains here, Keels has made big strides and looks like a first-round talent with his ability to play both guard spots. His combination of body type and all-around skill is unique, and while he’ll need to work to keep bad weight off, he plays with a good degree of pace and understands how to use his size effectively.
As a big guard who can move the ball and knock down shots, Keels comes with some upside as well as an attractive floor. He’s on track as a first-rounder, although he’ll have to sustain quality performance to wind up in the lottery. The crucial role and platform he has at Duke won’t hurt, and his level of poise and polish has been endearing so far.
12. Grizzlies: Bennedict Mathurin, SG, Arizona
Height: 6' 6" | Weight: 210 | Age: 19 | Sophomore
Another popular breakout candidate, Mathurin has been solid to start the season after a promising freshman campaign, playing a larger role on an Arizona team with a chance to be quite good. He’s an explosive athlete who can attack the rim on a straight line and knock down open jumpers. He also offers some long-term upside as a perimeter scorer.
Mathurin has his flaws—he isn’t particularly shifty with the ball, isn’t a natural playmaker and has never been a highly impactful defender—but players with his profile at his size aren’t easy to find, and he’s been pretty efficient over the course of his college career to date. He’ll need to sustain a high level of play, and it may be tough to replicate last season’s shooting splits, but Mathurin looks like a worthwhile bet somewhere in the middle of the first round.
13. 76ers: Ousmane Dieng, G/F, New Zealand Breakers (France)
Height: 6' 9" | Weight: 185 | Age: 18
It’s possible Dieng is the first overseas-based prospect drafted in 2022, with an appealing mix of size and shot-creation skills and a large frame with room to add muscle. He hasn’t always been the most consistent performer to date, but the upside is clear, and he’ll have a strong developmental opportunity playing in the NBL this season.
Dieng is a terrific passer and has potential to be a useful secondary creator, with the height to see over the defense and make plays for teammates. There’s not a lot he can’t do offensively, and while he’s not extremely fast or explosive, he’s a fascinating project with lottery-level upside. If he becomes a consistent producer in Australia, he’ll have a strong case. For what it’s worth, it’s generally agreed upon around the league that this is one of the thinner groups of international talent in recent years.
14. Bucks: Max Christie, SG, Michigan State
Height: 6' 6" | Weight: 190 | Age: 18 | Freshman
While Christie’s production has been modest to this point, he’s captured the attention of NBA scouts in the early going, with obvious pro potential tied to his smooth shooting stroke and a big frame that should be able to add muscle. His one-and-done case won’t be overly tied to his numbers, although Michigan State has given him a sizable role out of the gate.
Christie has room for improvement in most facets of his game, but doesn’t have a glaring weakness other than the fact he’s inexperienced and not all that explosive. He’s an attractive long-term project with potentially high-level skill as a shooter, and that’s a package of strengths that tends to play up in the draft. There’s a long way to go, and conference play will test him, but he’s very much on the first-round radar already.
15. Grizzlies (from Lakers): Jean Montero, PG, Overtime Elite
Height: 6' 2" | Weight: 180 | Age: 18
Montero remains on track to be Overtime Elite’s first NBA draft pick, and while it’s certainly not surprising he’s been a standout given his level of international experience, his productivity and overall polish are noteworthy. Montero has an advanced feel for his age and is a skilled handler, shooter and playmaker, and while he can be a bit wild at times, there’s an improvisational quality to his game that’s hard to teach.
He’s a bit undersized for a point guard and doesn’t have much room for physical improvement, which may cap his upside a bit. He’s a smart defender, but may struggle with bigger guards, and probably profiles better in the long run leading second units. But Montero has a chance to be a real offensive spark plug, and will continue to get long looks from NBA teams as the season goes on.
16. Cavaliers: TyTy Washington, G, Kentucky
Height: 6' 3" | Weight: 200 | Age: 19 | Freshman
After entering the season with lottery hype, Washington has been fairly effective as a playmaker for Kentucky but has some key areas for improvement that will determine where he actually lands in the draft. He has a good frame for a combo guard, a shifty handle that allows him to beat defenders into the paint, and upside as a secondary creator who can space the floor without being a major defensive liability. He’s a talented midrange scorer, but doesn’t get to the rim quite enough and has had some ball security issues going into the paint. His jumper is workable but sort of a push shot, and a bit inconsistent from three-point range. He hasn’t been all that impactful defensively, but communicates well and isn’t a lost cause.
Basically, Washington has looked like a freshman so far. It may not take too much for a good team to clean up the issues and get more out of him. If he adjusts his diet of shots to cut out the tough attempts and be a bit more efficient, while proving he can make teammates better, it will bolster his case.
17. Celtics: Keon Ellis, G/F, Alabama
Height: 6' 6" | Weight: 175 | Age: 21 | Senior
While J.D. Davison was the buzzier Alabama prospect coming into the season, it’s Ellis who has begun to gain more traction in front offices around the league as a potential first-rounder. A late-blooming prospect who played two years of JUCO ball before landing at Alabama last season, Ellis fills a huge role as the Tide’s top perimeter stopper and wing scorer. While he’s a bit thin and not the strongest player physically, Ellis is a quality shooter and efficient scorer who should be a neat fit as a 3-and-D wing in the NBA. He has excellent instincts defending the perimeter using his length and has enough chops to knock down open shots, attack closeouts and move the ball effectively. Alabama has reliably developed quality pros in recent years, and Ellis has a legit shot at the first round if his early play is to be believed. He could be the first senior off the board in June.
18. Bulls (from Trail Blazers): Peyton Watson, F, UCLA
Height: 6' 8" | Weight: 200 | Age: 19 | Freshman
Earning minutes on a UCLA team that returned every key player has been a bit tricky for Watson so far, but his development is key to the Bruins reaching their ceiling, and his playing time looks to be trending in the right direction. Scouts are eager to see more of him, as his combination of size, frame and ball skills generated some early lottery buzz.
Watson hasn’t shot the ball with much confidence yet and is playing catch-up defensively, so there’s a bit for him to clean up moving forward to carve out a larger role. But the upside should be there regardless, and he has more than enough going for him to warrant top 20 consideration, with lottery potential if he hits his stride. Watson’s situation is a good reminder that patience is key with a lot of freshmen this year in particular.
19. Knicks: J.D. Davison, G, Alabama
Height: 6' 3" | Weight: 195 | Age: 19 | Freshman
Davison is one of the best run-jump athletes in the draft, but it’s going to take him some time to get acclimated to college. He didn’t face a ton of great competition in high school, and scouts are being patient with him as he adjusts. Alabama is deep and talented enough that Davison won’t have to bite off more than he can chew, but he hasn’t done a whole lot in the early going, and it’s clear that he’s raw from a skill perspective.
His athleticism, passing ability and transition play are all pluses, but he’s not a great jump shooter, and it may be a while before he figures out how to harness everything. It’s hard to say with certainty he’s a lottery-level player at this stage, but as a lead guard with highlight-reel athleticism, the upside is significant. It’s reasonable to expect some progression as the season rolls on, and a tough slate of non-conference games will give Davison a great platform to boost his stock in the next few weeks.
20. Nuggets: A.J. Griffin, F, Duke
Height: 6' 6" | Weight: 220 | Age: 18 | Freshman
Following a preseason knee injury, Griffin has been working his way back into Duke’s rotation, earning 21 minutes and scoring 18 points last week against Lafayette and flashing signs of the promise that could land him in the lottery. Scouts are a bit concerned with his body and durability, and he hasn’t looked the most comfortable in game action, but improvement should be coming. He is an impressive perimeter scorer and has enough strength and skill to create advantages, but also settles for more jumpers than you’d hope for a player with his build.
Griffin has been coming off the bench behind the more established Trevor Keels and Wendell Moore and hasn’t shared the floor much at all with Paolo Banchero, so it’ll be curious to see how his role evolves. There’s time for him to get back on track and inch closer to the lottery, but NBA scouts are largely taking a wait-and-see approach until his minutes and role level out.
21. Knicks: (from Hornets): Yannick Nzosa, C, Malaga (DR Congo)
Height: 6' 11" | Weight: 215 | Age: 18
Nzosa entered the season as a projected top 10 pick, but has hit the skids a bit with his early-season play in Spain, raising previously held questions about his overall skill level and what it might take for him to hit his considerable ceiling. He has massive potential on the defensive end, with a huge wingspan and unusual agility at his size. And he plays quite hard. But Nzosa’s offensive game has been slow to catch up, enough so that his reputation has taken a bit of a hit.
Fortunately, the eventual idea here would likely be filling a simplified, rim-running center role that can keep him on the floor and allow him to shine defensively. But scouts are concerned with just how far away he is from accomplishing that, as his touch around the basket has been poor and he’s largely played somewhat hurried so far this season. Nzosa is young enough that there’s plenty of time for the game to slow down for him, and it could be that some of the issues are confidence-based. Regardless, it’s time to pump the brakes on the lottery talk and let his season play out a bit.
22. Mavericks: Caleb Houstan, F, Michigan
Height: 6' 8" | Weight: 205 | Age: 18 | Freshman
Houstan has been disappointing relative to his lofty preseason projections and has seen his stock take a hit in the process. He’s a very good perimeter shooter, and his slow start doesn’t change that. But Houstan has always been more of a blending player by nature, due to his average quickness and struggles creating separation off the dribble. He’ll theoretically be more effective with better teammates to help create open looks, and he’s a smart passer and poised player who certainly earned the reputation he built in high school. It’s been more concerning that Houstan hasn’t looked good defensively, as opponents have frequently blown by him into the paint. He also hasn’t shown much physicality or resolve as a rebounder, and he has yet to block a shot.
This isn’t meant to sound overly harsh, but it’s hard to sell yourself as a 3-and-D wing if you don’t move or handle like a wing, and aren’t offering much defensively. It falls on Houstan to clean up the things he can control and be more productive and efficient moving forward, but his draft stock is in flux at the moment.