Much like 2020, the 2021 NBA Draft took a twist right after the third pick and gave us a number of surprising picks thereafter. In what was a draft process that felt both shorter and longer than normal due to the unusual timing, we finally know where the best available college stars, international players and G-League Ignite prospects have landed. There were shocking risers, even more shocking falls and even some legitimate potential NBA players who went undrafted. The Pro Insight team spent the weekend outlining some of their favorite picks and biggest surprises from draft night.
In the latest edition of ‘P.I. Pulse,’ we present our 2021 NBA Draft Recap:
Favorite Overall Picks
Nah’Shon Hyland to the Denver Nuggets at #26
“Bones” is about as fun a player as there was in this draft. Depending on how things shake out in free agency for Denver, Hyland could get serious minutes with Jamal Murray out for the foreseeable future and little overlap between him and Campazzo, Dozier, or Barton ($14.7M player option). Add Hyland’s dynamite shotmaking into an offensive system built around Jokic’s passing and watch out.
Jaden Springer to the Philadelphia 76ers at #28
The 76ers identity has revolved around their stymying defense in the Joel Embiid/Ben Simmons era, but as a result, they’ve lacked requisite perimeter creation, due to how few players in the league are able to provide both strong defense and offensive creation. To somehow land a prospect who projects to provide rim pressure, interior passing, strong point of attack defense, and active off-ball rotations at the 28th pick is a massive win for a flawed contender. While Springer’s youth likely prevents him from contributing immediately, his profile projects to be spectacularly helpful in easing some of the Sixers’ pain points down the line.
Josh Giddey to the OKC Thunder at #6
The draft started at pick #6 when the Thunder opted to do what they always do, which is draft the guy they want regardless of the general consensus. At 6’8” tall with the ability to act as a secondary creator, big facilitator, slasher and set shooter, Giddey is able to slide next to Shai Gilgeous Alexander as part of an effective and methodical guard duo. While he’ll need to learn quickly on the defensive end, the pairing of SGA and Lu Dort will serve as mentors and aid in covering up any mistakes. With a roster that’s still very much in flux, the hope is Giddey proves to be one of the corner pieces of the puzzle that brings OKC back to playoff relevance.
Most Surprising Picks
Josh Primo to the San Antonio Spurs at #12
Primo’s stock had risen in recent months but it was surprising to see a guy projected as a late first/early second-rounder go in the lottery with fellow SEC freshmen SGs Keon Johnson and Moses Moody still on the board. When you factor in Primo’s youth and the organizational fit in San Antonio this could end up being a fine pick but if Primo was “their guy,” it seems the Spurs likely could have traded down from 12 and gained an additional asset.
Josh Christopher to the Houston Rockets at #24
An elite recruit coming out of high school, Christopher struggled to find the same level of success in his lone year at Arizona State. While the talent is apparent and there’s still plenty of reason to believe in his long-term projection, it was a little brow-raising to see him be selected in the top-25 picks when prospects who had similar trajectories and more obvious hurdles to success (Brandon Boston, Jr., Jaden Springer) fell further. Adding to that, the Rockets had selected future building block Jalen Green just 22 picks prior, who in many ways overlaps with Christopher skillswise in areas that may make it hard to develop them together.
Georgios Kalaitzakis to the Milwaukee Bucks at #60
The Bucks made sure to cap off the night with a mild surprise. The Bucks traded off #31 (Isaiah Todd) for #54 (Sandro Mamukelashvili) and #60 (Georgios Kalaitzakis). The 22-year-old Greek wasn’t on many boards but just happens to share an agent with the Finals MVP, Giannis Antetokounmpo.
Steals of the Draft
Keon Johnson to the Los Angeles Clippers at #21
Johnson reportedly slipped from the mid-lottery to #21 due to a questionable medical report. He also is a multi positional defender and a top tier athlete who seemed to settle more into his offensive role as his lone season at Tennessee progressed. After seeing what Terance Mann was able to do with the Clippers last year, Johnson should be able to fill a similar role down the line, but with more youth and athleticism — assuming he is healthy.
Usman Garuba to the Rockets at #23
This was also good value for where he was taken. The 19-year-old Spaniard has already proven to be an impactful defensive player in the second-best league in the world. His blend of athleticism, instincts and growing passing savvy makes him an excellent fit next to Sengun and Green, who will both likely need some covering up for defensively and some help greasing offensively. An excellent way to ease the likely developmental hurdles that come with having three ball dominant scorers, as the Rockets now do, is adding a player who’s ready to accept a role and fill in gaps when needed, which is exactly what Garuba excels at.
Jaden Springer to the Sixers at #28
For the second straight year, the Sixers drafted a strong, impactful defender with an offensive upside dependent on shooting development. For the second straight year, that player was wildly underrated and will make an outsized early impact relative to draft slot. Springer is a tough evaluation to be certain — a low-volume, high-percentage shooter in a cramped Tennessee offensive setting, one where easy creation looks were hard to come by for anyone. Some of the concerns about Springer came about his true positional home: “is he a guard-sized wing or a wing-sized guard?” But in a Philly system that has a ton of good defenders, adding another talented POA option to the stable to throw on creators as the matchup deems fit, eliminates this concern. The low hanging developmental fruit is going to be adding flexibility — Springer is a blocky mover, favoring pro hops and two-foot strength finishes instead of the en vogue euro steps and extension finishes. Getting a more versatile and unpredictable finishing package will go a long way when attacking closeouts or defenses tilted by the amount of defensive attention Joel Embiid demands.
Second-Rounders w/ Star Potential
Kessler Edwards to the Brooklyn Nets at #44
Jared Butler to the Utah Jazz at #40
Sharife Cooper to the Atlanta Hawks at #48
All three of these players were first round talents that slipped for one reason or another and each has something to contribute right away. Kessler Edwards is a multi-positional defender who will slot in beautifully next to three superstars that will carry the playmaking load. Jared Butler’s maturity, BBIQ, and skill will fit nicely into Quin Snyder’s system in Utah. Sharife Cooper’s driving and playmaking ability should give the Hawks a much-needed offensive boost when Trae Young is off the floor.
B.J. Boston to the Memphis Grizzlies at #51
Jericho Sims to the New York Knicks at #58
Widely mocked to go in the top part of the lottery pre-season, Boston fell further than necessary after a tumultuous season at Kentucky. Standing at 6’7” with excellent fluidity and a budding perimeter skill-set, Boston will have the chance to develop at his pace in Memphis. While Sims doesn’t project to be a star in the traditional sense he does however project to be a star in his role. Few players enter the league at 6’9” 250+ lbs with 5.5% body fat and a 44.5” vertical. He’s strong, tough, understands who he is, and dunks everything. The marriage between him and Coach Thibodeau seems ideal.
Memphis Grizzlies trading up for Ziaire Williams at #10
To be clear, in a vacuum, we’re proponents of adding Ziaire to the Grizzlies roster. Early in the week, Memphis sent Jonas Valanciunas along with #17 and #51 to the Pelicans to take on the contracts of Steven Adams and Eric Bledsoe for the bounty of #10, #40 and the Lakers 2022 first-round pick (protected top-10). ESPN’s Jonathan Givony reported the Grizzlies may have been targeting Josh Giddey at #10, but the Thunder took Giddey at #6. Instead, Memphis ended up with Stanford’s Ziaire Williams who may have still been available at their original #17. What makes this pick more puzzling is that we have grown accustomed to Memphis valuing “analytic darlings” in recent drafts (Xavier Tillman, Desmond Bane, John Konchar, Jontay Porter, Brandon Clarke, and Jaren Jackson, Jr. to name a few), so to see them trade up for a guy ranked #59 in Jesse Fischer’s consensus analytic draft model left us scratching our heads a bit. That being said, Williams provides a much needed dimension to the Grizzlies if he reaches the high end of his projection. In an optimal outcome, he adds weight so that his shot creation is able to shine through, while the already present high-level feel and defensive versatility come along with it. The end result is a shotmaking forward who can ease the burden on Ja and Jaren Jackson, Jr. while providing added versatility and length defensively.
The Rockets draft process
On one hand, there’s a lot to love about the prospects that the Rockets drafted — each makes a great deal of sense, [refilling] the talent deficit that found the Rockets picking second. Green, Sengun, Garuba, and Christopher each offer a specific and unique strength to create outsized value. Taken together, it becomes murkier to understand how the four can have their developments maximized at the same time. Green and Christopher are both high-usage wings and Christopher will negatively impact spacing as an off-ball player until he solves his shooting concerns. The Sengun and Garuba fit is great for Sengun, an elite schematic defender with outsized rebounding and rim protection abilities, but the other two picks prevent Garuba from exploring the wing creation he flashed in his final months at Madrid. The process of getting to these picks, trading two future firsts to select Sengun and then committing Garuba to big man minutes — doesn’t jibe with the logic of the selection Green over Mobley, in a draft where wings with creation upside were fairly common and the Rockets committed four total selections to these two players, when Mobley was on the board for one pick. This isn’t a slight to Green, a hyper-talented player destined to be a very valuable scorer, but a concern about the organization's allocation of pick resources. It’s a unique draft to parse, to love the players, not the class, and certainly not the process.
Best Overall Fits
James Bouknight (#11) and Kai Jones (#19) in Charlotte
Outside of the top-three picks fitting with their respective team’s [barren] rosters, we like how the Hornets surrounded LaMelo Ball with some young weapons. Mitch Kupchak & co. selected James Bouknight at #11 then traded for Kai Jones at #19 and JT Thor at #37, finally capping their night by selecting Scottie Lewis at #56. Bouknight will likely come off the bench for a Charlotte squad headlined by LaMelo Ball, Terry Rozier, Gordon Hayward and Miles Bridges. However, Bouknight is about as good of a long term fit alongside LaMelo as Charlotte could have asked for and gives them cap flexibility for the impending restricted free agency of Malik Monk and Devonte’ Graham.
Kessler Edwards to the Nets at #44
The Nets had a wonderful draft, picking up a fearless scorer and a bunch of upside bets on playoff archetypes: the big with passing, a ++ shooting PG, RaiQuan Gray, and a classic 3&D wing. Kessler is that last idea — a bona fide shooter (it looks unique, but the numbers don’t lie) with excellent individual and scheme defensive chops. Kessler Edwards + Nets are a perfect fit — low-usage on a team that doesn’t have any usage to give out, a wing capable to taking defensive assignments on 2-3.5 defensively, a shooter more than capable of knocking down any kickouts or “one-more” that arises from the creation of Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and James Harden. That’s the recipe for getting first round value out of a second round pick.
Jalen Johnson to the Hawks at #20
One of the bigger storylines to track on draft night was where Duke forward Jalen Johnson was going to be drafted. Landing at #20 in Atlanta strikes the balance of value and potential and is perhaps one of the best outcomes for one of the more mysterious prospects in recent memory. The Hawks have excelled in their draft process and player development with fliers such as Cam Reddish, John Collins, Kevin Huerter, DeAndre Hunter, etc. all playing major roles in the Hawks recent playoff success. With their bevy of young talent, the pressure will be off of Johnson to come in and either be something he’s not or be too heavily relied upon to make an immediate impact. Under this construct, Johnson can not only earn real minutes, but have the requisite time to tap into his full potential. The scary part — at 6’9” and built like a horse, Johnson has the God-given tools and modern skill-set to be Atlanta's best “flier” yet.
Biggest Draft Winners
While much of the discussion involving winners is rightfully about teams with the highest or most draft selections, the Pacers quietly put together a sneaky good draft. Taking a more practical approach, the Pacers walked away with more of an “immediate impact” prospect in 24-year-old Oregon standout Chris Duarte as well as the “upside play” in Kentucky big Isaiah Jackson. Duarte is another versatile guard that can fill in the gaps next to Malcolm Brogdon, Caris LeVert, and Doug McDermott by bringing additional scoring, toughness and injury insurance to a talented, but snake-bit, backcourt. Jackson on the other hand could be labeled as a “pre-draft” prospect who is in-between being too good to be in college and fully ready for the NBA. He’s an athletic freak who can offer rim protection, rebounding, pick-and-roll finishing, and highlight jams while also flashing the ability to face-up, operate out of the high post, and straight line drive. Ideally, Jackson can serve as an energy big off the bench in his early development, and if needed, act as a cheaper alternative to either Sabonis or Turner down the line. For a small-market playoff team, the Pacers were efficient in adding talent for both now and the future.
Oklahoma City Thunder, Atlanta Hawks and Orlando Magic
Oklahoma City coming away from draft night with Josh Giddey, Tre Mann, Jeremiah Robinson-Earl, and Aaron Wiggins while picking up future picks in the process has to be a win despite an unlucky lottery draw earlier this summer. Leading up to the draft, there was talk about Atlanta making a splash to trade up, but Travis Schlenk’s decision to stand pat was made easy when Jalen Johnson and Sharife Cooper somehow slid to them at #20 and #48, respectively. The Magic, despite a somewhat unlucky lottery draw, left the draft with two excellent prospects in Jalen Suggs and Franz Wagner, which allowed them to fill some holes from a diversity of skills perspective while also taking the best players available. In Suggs and Wagner, the Magic now have a true cornerstone to build around as well as a multi-faceted, versatile wing who will add complexity to lineups that have lacked it in years’ past. The table was set for them, and they capitalized well.
From undrafted, to NBA rotation staple — it happens more often than one might think. For a full list of this year’s UDFAs, check out the exhaustive list that our friends at Rookie Scale have compiled. Below, we’ve listed the 20 UDFAs we feel have the most realistic chance to “stick” in the NBA:
Joel Ayayi (LAL)
David Duke (BRK)
Justin Champagnie (TOR)
Sam Hauser (BOS)
Aaron Henry (PHL)
Matthew Hurt (HOU)
AJ Lawson (MIA)
JaQuori McLaughlin (GSW)
Matt Mitchell (SAN)
Daishen Nix (PHL)
Yves Pons (MEM)
Austin Reaves (LAL)
Aamir Simms (NYK)
Chris Smith (DET)
Chandler Vaudrin (CLE)
Duane Washington (IND)
Trendon Watford (POR)
Romeo Weems (MEM)
McKinley Wright (MIN)