The 2021 NBA Draft went off rails after the third pick. While the Toronto Raptors were unanimously projected to take Gonzaga guard Jalen Suggs at No. 4, Masai Ujiri and co. opted for another big, strong forward in Florida State’s Scottie Barnes instead.
That set the stage for a draft that was full of surprises. No one thought Josh Giddey was an option for the Oklahoma City Thunder at No. 6. Davion Mitchell going to the Sacramento Kings at No. 9 caught everyone off guard. It was legitimately shocking to see the Spurs opt for Josh Primo at No. 12.
Read our live draft grades if you want to catch up on the action. It goes without saying that: a) the draft is always a crapshoot, b) it takes several years to truly assess how a team performed in the draft.
I’ve been doing this long enough that I remember giving the Timberwolves an A for taking Jarrett Culver and the Suns a D for taking Cameron Johnson in 2019. That certainly doesn’t look good now as the Wolves are reportedly trying to move on from Culver after two poor seasons, while Johnson was just a crucial piece on an NBA Finals team. Again, this stuff requires time.
There is some value in instant reactions to the draft if only to see how they age over the years. Suns fans sure felt better about the team “reaching” on Jalen Smith in the 2020 lottery after the success of Johnson. We’ll see how that one plays out down the road, too. For now, let’s again overreact to what saw on draft night and come up with what feels like the winners and losers in the heat of the moment.
6 winners in the 2021 NBA Draft
The Magic’s recent draft history has not been particularly impressive (we still love Cole Anthony!), but it sure feels like they hit this one out of the park by grabbing two players in the top five of our big board.
Suggs fell into the Magic’s lap after the Raptors opted for Barnes. While we view Suggs as more of a supercharged complementary guard rather than a true lead engine, he’s unquestionably an awesome young talent to add to Orlando’s rebuild. Suggs joins a fascinating backcourt in Orlando that also includes Anthony, RJ Hampton, and Markelle Fultz. Suggs, Anthony, and Hampton all feel like combo guards, while Fultz is the best of the bunch at touching the paint but is coming off a torn ACL he suffered in January. The fit will be interesting, but Suggs feels like a pretty safe bet to be a productive pro for a long time as a quick and powerful 6’4 guard who brings it defensively, thrives in transition, and is at least competent (and maybe better than that) in the dribble-pass-shoot areas of his skill set.
Wagner is also a bit of a redundant fit on a roster that already includes Jonathan Isaac and Chuma Okeke, but we love his game. Wagner says he’s grown to nearly 6’11 and showed tremendous defensive versatility in his two years at Michigan. His three-point shot is the clear swing factor — he hit 34 percent at Michigan on solid volume, yet appeared to lose confidence after a few misses — but this is a great pick at No. 8 in our humble opinion.
The Hawks picked at No. 20 and No. 48 and came away with two of the top-10 players on our board. Of course we are going to mark them down as a winner.
Jalen Johnson has a super enticing combination of speed, power, and passing. He thrives with his open floor ball handling, and should immediately give the Hawks a new dimension in transition. He also has all the tools to be a good defensive player. Johnson is a clunky fit in the halfcourt because he’s a non-shooter, but it’s absolutely worth taking a flier on his talent at this point in the first round.
Cooper is simply the best shot creator in this class. Yes, he’s small (6’1, 180 pounds) and didn’t shoot well at Auburn. He’s also one of two freshmen in the last 30 years to average 20 points and eight assists per game in a major conference, with the other being his new teammate Trae Young. From this perspective, the bogus NCAA investigation that limited him to 12 games really hurt Cooper’s draft stock. He may not get a huge opportunity right away with the Hawks since he can’t play alongside Young, but on the plus side ATL won’t have to change their scheme when Trae goes to the bench. Cooper is so good at getting into the paint, finding open teammates as a passer, and drawing fouls. It was wild to see him slip into the late second round. Read our profile on Cooper here.
In Daryl Morey’s first draft as leader of the Sixers last year, he landed what we considered to be a major steal by taking Tyrese Maxey in the early 20s. He did it again this year, nabbing Jaden Springer at No. 28.
We had Springer as a lottery-level prospect. He’s the youngest American player in this draft, but turned in a productive season in the SEC as a freshman at Tennessee. Springer is a monstrous on-ball defender who can really get after smaller opposing guards. It feels like he didn’t show everything he could do offensively with the Vols, but a) he still led the team in scoring, and b) he hit 44 percent of his threes on low volume. He’s one of the best long-term bets in this class for his point of attack defense and off-ball offense.
The Sixers also picked up Charles Bassey and Filip Petrusev in round two. Either could become a nice backup center option behind Joel Embiid.
Evan Mobley is the sort of prospect talented to go No. 1 overall in most years. To get him at No. 3 is a boon for a Cleveland team that badly needed a talent infusion of this level.
In our eyes, Mobley is the most versatile big man to hit the draft in a long time. He should be able to play the four next to Jarrett Allen early in his career before becoming a full-time five as he adds strength to his frame. His ability to play multiple pick-and-roll coverages defensively and act as an unselfish passer on offense should do wonders for this time around Darius Garland and Isaac Okoro. If he three-point shot develops and if he’s able to add muscle while maintaining his quickness, it wouldn’t be a shock to see him eventually end up as the best player in the draft.
There was no better place for Barnes to end up than Toronto. The Raptors have a long history of doing a great job developing their young players. Barnes has a lot of tools to work with because of his length, motor, defensive versatility, and playmaking. He also needs to develop his shooting, ball handling, and vertical pop around the basket if he’s going to reach his full potential.
Toronto and Miami feel like the best best places for a tools-y young player to go and develop their skills. Barnes should be thankful he landed north of the border.
Cade Cunningham is that dude. Enough said.
4 losers in the 2021 NBA Draft
San Antonio Spurs
OK listen: Gregg Popovich and the rest of the Spurs’ braintrust knows more about ball than me or anyone else with the audacity to lob criticism at them. It’s easy to see the logic behind the Josh Primo pick. San Antonio needed to take an upside swing after compiling a solid roster of young players that lacks top-end star-power. There’s a case to be made for Primo as a high ceiling pick: he’s super young (he started playing for Alabama as a 17-year-old), he’s fast, he has serious bounce, and he hit 38 percent of his threes. He may be a good NBA player one day.
There’s also nothing about Primo’s season at Alabama that suggested he should be a lottery pick. He struggled to read the floor, finishing with more turnovers than assists. His handle is shaky, he lacked finishing craft, he was often overpowered defensively, and he didn’t show the ability to play through contact. More than anything, Primo is just a raw player who is likely to need a lot of time before he’s ready to contribute at the NBA level. We didn’t have him as a top-30 player in the class.
You would be wise to trust the Spurs over me, but this sure feels like a shaky pick a day after the draft.
The Kings were reportedly interested in taking Wagner at No. 9, but the Magic scooped him up one pick earlier. Sacramento still had a lot of good options on the board, but they went with a questionable one (in our opinion) by selecting Davion Mitchell out of Baylor.
Mitchell skyrocketed up draft boards after helping lead the Bears to the national championship. He has a super quick first step, he’s a great on-ball defender, and enjoyed massive shooting improvement in his last year in school. He’ll also turn 23 years old before he starts his rookie year and didn’t turn into a high-level NBA prospect until late in his career. His big shooting leap feels like it could be exaggerated (he only hit 64 percent of his free throws), he’s one of the smallest players in this draft, and he isn’t particularly advanced as a passer.
He’s also just a weird fit for a roster that already has Tyrese Haliburton and De’Aaron Fox. The Kings would have been better off going with Moses Moody in this spot in our opinion. We’ll see how it works out.
One thing that became clear during the draft: there’s a huge disconnect between how the blogboys like myself see the draft compared to how teams see the draft.
The amateur consensus had Primo at No. 35 overall and the Spurs took him at No. 12. The amateur consensus had Cooper at No. 12 and he went No. 48. The amateur consensus had Springer at No. 10 and he went No. 28. The amateur consensus had Jared Butler at No. 17 and he went No. 40. The amateur consensus had JT Thor at No. 20 and went No. 37. The amateur consensus had Chris Duarte at No. 27 and he went No. 13. You get the point.
We’ll see how it works out! That’s why the draft is so much fun. I certainly have plenty of hits and misses scattered throughout my years of covering the draft, as will anyone working in the league or making educated guesses as a hobby. It’s just clear that people outside of the league and people inside of the league value different things (or, as a wise man said, maybe the NBA just lacks imagination).
The Warriors’ veteran core
We didn’t like the James Wiseman pick last year, or the Jonathan Kuminga pick this year. We love the Moses Moody pick. Regardless, it’s hard to see how three players 20 years old or younger are going to help the Warriors’ capitalize on the remainder Stephen Curry, Draymond Green, and Klay Thompson’s prime.
Maybe the Warriors are saving up for a big move. They still need to find a team that values their young guys as highly as they do. There was a report that the Warriors rejected Philadelphia’s counteroffer for Ben Simmons that asked for Wiseman, Andrew Wiggins, both lottery picks this year, and two future firsts. That seems like a lot to offer for Simmons, but Simmons also seems like he would have been a nice fit with Golden State’s veteran core.
The Warriors still need a major talent infusion to be a legit title contender. It’s hard to expect Thompson to single-handedly push them there given that he’s missed two full seasons because of two major injuries since we last saw him on an NBA court. It’s hard to expect Wiseman to make huge leap given how much he struggled as a rookie.
Golden State’s ownership said they were ‘lightyears ahead’ of the rest of the league when they were at their peak. We’ll see if that still holds true while Curry and Green enter the twilight of their prime.