Updated: Jul 14, 2021
With the Draft Lottery in the rear-view mirror, our in-house experts sat down to answer some of the most important questions surrounding the 2021 draft. Discussing the top pick, some favorite fits, contextual differences, team-building hypotheticals, and more, our team of Drake U’u, Henry Ward, and Michael Visenberg weigh in on 12 questions surrounding some hot-button topics with this year’s class.
In the latest edition of ‘P.I. Pulse,’ here’s our group’s first NBA Draft Roundtable Discussion:
Q: What is a more important foundation when constructing a team: a defensive anchor or a primary initiator? Is there a case for taking Evan Mobley number-one overall?
Henry Ward: To me, this question, in and of itself, is the driving force behind the clear-cut case for Cade Cunningham as the number-one pick. I’d imagine I’m about as big of a fan of Evan Mobley as you’ll find; he projects to be uniquely impactful as someone who could be an elite rim protector, excel in virtually every ball-screen coverage, provide both vertical and horizontal spacing, put the ball on the floor, and playmake, all within an overly agile 7-foot frame. However, even in his 100th percentile outcome, I don’t see him being the type of player who can consistently make decision after decision with the ball and take over a game with rim pressure, pull up shooting, preternatural passing, and stingy point of attack defense in the way Cade projects to be able to. These are two awesome prospects, and when it’s all said and done, I wouldn’t be surprised if Evan finished with a more impressive career. But, we’ve seen the unmatched level of impact these wing initiators bring to the table, and Cade reads as the guy who’s next in line to follow in the steps of the Tatums and Lukas of recent drafts.
Drake U’u: I think these are two separate topics. With regards to the first question, I think two of today’s most valuable skill sets are shooting and playmaking. Guard play in today’s game is essential to overall team success. While both of those roles are valuable, I would lean more towards a primary initiator than a defensive anchor — mainly due to that particular skill set being harder to find. As far as the case for taking Evan number-one, I think there’s absolutely a legitimate argument. Both he and Jalen Green in my opinion, have the two highest ceilings in this draft class. Evan’s combination of skill and mobility at his size is truly special. I think my major question with him is whether or not he is willing to become that alpha, number-one option for a franchise. While Cade may be the safer prospect with a higher floor at number-one, Mobley has the potential to become the best player from this draft.
Michael Visenberg: I think this one resoundingly goes to the primary initiator, especially if that initiator has plus-size for a wing. As rare of a big man prospect as Evan Mobley is and projects to be, championship teams have recently been built around a lot of big initiators, primary offensive options or in the case of Stephen Curry, a historically great shooter. Cade fits the big initiator mold — he certainly could be that primary offensive option, and his shooting indicators from this past season at Oklahoma State were incredibly promising. The case for taking Evan Mobley as the top pick would be if you think he is another Anthony Davis, and even then, Cade could be something even more rare and scalable. Ultimately, if you look at most of the past championship teams, the “defensive anchor” has usually come from complementary pieces but are built around a primary star. Evan Mobley is a really good prospect, it just appears that Cade Cunningham is more likely to be a star with his ability to initiate and make great things happen with the ball in his hands.
Q: After the consensus top 4-5 players in this draft, who do you like and why?
Henry: Personally, I very much see it as a solid top-4 as opposed to the top-5 that is consistently pushed, with Cade, Mobley, Jalen Suggs and Jalen Green making up that group. Beyond them, I personally favor two prospects over the rest: Scottie Barnes and Josh Giddey. It feels like every year, we are reminded more and more of the benefits to be reaped by compiling as many high-feel, quick-thinking decision makers as you can, and these two are perhaps the two best in the draft in this regard. Their ultimate impacts will look much different: Barnes’ calling card being more of a playmaking 4/small-ball 5 who can guard up and down lineups and drive offense when surrounded by secondary actions, shooting gravity, and off-ball creators, while Giddey’s optimal outcomes include him being a pass-first, connecting wing initiator who can make every pass in the book, apply rim pressure, and leverage some level of shooting gravity. In both cases, their value additions on well-constructed teams read as fantastically positive given their elite ceiling raising skills. While I hear the argument that they perhaps won’t be able to contribute to the same level immediately on lower level teams, I’d argue that the goal is to ultimately build towards contention anyway, and therefore, grabbing guys like these makes sense at any stage in the process, when available.
Drake: A few players I like in that next tier of prospects are Davion Mitchell, Josh Giddey, Scottie Barnes, and James Bouknight. Each of these guys have contrasting skill sets, but I love their potential as great role players at the next level.
Davion Mitchell is one of the toughest two-way prospects I’ve seen in recent years. I love his competitive spirit and willingness to play on both ends. Physically, he has an elite NBA frame paired with great foot speed and explosiveness. He has a unique ability to play with the ball in his hands and either beat you with his speed or with his shiftiness. He’s shown the ability to knock down shots from distance and finish at or above the rim through contact. My favorite qualities come on the defensive end, as he takes on the challenge of picking guards up in the backcourt and pressuring without fouling. I can really see him being ready to contribute immediately. We’ve seen players like Marcus Smart and Luguentz Dort impact a game. NBA teams are constantly searching for difference makers, tough players who care about winning — I think Mitchell checks a lot of boxes for every NBA roster.
Josh Giddey is another one of my favorite prospects in this year’s draft. There’s a good chance he is the best playmaker/passer in his class. At 6’8, he has tremendous positional size that allows him to take his time and dissect defenses out of the pick-and-roll. He plays with great poise, pace, and maturity on the offensive end, and really has a high understanding of the game considering his age. While his shot making will need to continue to improve, I think he shoots a good ball mechanically — with repetition and confidence, I would expect him to get better. Defensively, he will be tested at the next level. He must continue to work on his body and get stronger to handle the physicality on both ends. But given his size and IQ, I think he will be able to adjust and figure out his limitations on this end. He has a real chance to come in and improve a roster, and I can see him carving out a role similar to Joe Ingles or Tyrese Haliburton — a valuable secondary ball-handler/playmaker with elite basketball IQ.
Scottie Barnes is another interesting prospect with upside. What intrigues me most is his combination of size and versatility on both ends. While I wouldn’t consider him a true PG, I think his time at Florida State showed that he’s more than just a utility player. He has good ball skills, decent understanding of the game, and has shown shot making ability at times. While he will need to improve in all of the areas and become consistent, his foundational skill set and athleticism lead me to believe that his game will translate. Similarly to Mitchell, my favorite qualities come on the defensive end. His length, mobility, and frame will allow him to play immediately. He plays with a good motor on both ends, and is someone I could see shifting over and becoming a modern-day playmaking PF as he matures.
James Bouknight rounds out my list of players outside of that top-4. Bouknight has an NBA game, with his ability to score at three levels and play with the ball in his hands. I like his combination of skill and athleticism, along with his ability to create for himself and get shots when he wants. Despite underwhelming numbers from three-point range this season, I like the mechanics of his jumper and would expect him to improve with increased repetition and better shot selection. He has real NBA-level explosiveness combined with translatable skills that make him one of the more intriguing prospects in this class. From a talent perspective, I think there is a real argument for him being a top-5 prospect.
These four players — in no particular order — stand out from the remainder of lottery prospects.
Michael: Most drafts seem to have a division point after a certain group of players, and it was written early on that this draft had a very likely top-5 with Cade Cunningham, Evan Mobley, Jalen Suggs, Jalen Green and Jonathan Kuminga. I agree with the top four, and while I still think Kuminga has some definite upside as an athletic, physical, combo forward with wing skills, I will take this chance to talk about a similar player I like even more. That player is Scottie Barnes, a player with Kawhi Leonard measurements at 6’8, 225 pounds with just under a 7’3 wingspan, who was tasked with playing a lot of point guard at Florida State.
Scottie Barnes can handle the ball and pass at a level that very few players his size can. His defensive versatility can fit him in at a number of different positions and he is an excellent communicator. Not only this, his off-court intel and work ethic are both very notable and give a lot of promise in terms of him working on his weaknesses, like shooting and finding go-to offense in the half court. The Draymond Green comparisons have been around for a long time with him and even if he is not a Hall-of-Fame level player, I would heavily bet on him being a key contributor on a number of good teams. There’s a lot of uncertainty among players outside the relegated top guys, and Scottie Barnes is a player I am very sold on and would be ecstatic to have on my team.
Q: The college season was dominated by two historically good teams that met in the National Championship in Baylor and Gonzaga. Does playing on a team like that improve a player's stock or does their production come with an asterisk because of their surrounding talent?
Henry: While we can all try to see through context to an extent, and we can certainly oscillate from micro to macro skills to try and form an honest opinion of a single player, it’s extremely hard to fully separate the thread from the cloth. For this reason, I think we can see how positive contexts have undoubtedly risen the stocks of multiple prospects this year, starting with these two teams. Do Davion Mitchell’s outrageous steal numbers look as good if he’s not playing the weak-side of a dominant no-middle scheme? Does Jalen Suggs put together the same season if he’s not surrounded by two college stars with tremendous gravity in Corey Kispert and Drew Timme? The answers are probably no in both cases, but ultimately, both will see their names called early, due in part to how much they shined in their own situations this year. This isn’t to say it isn’t earned, and perhaps it’s more illustrative to look at the flip side — what does the season of someone like Brandon Boston, Jr. look like in a more beneficial context?
Drake: I think it’s all part of the evaluation process. Whether college teams win or lose doesn’t necessarily dictate whether a player will have success at the next level — several factors go into effectively evaluating players. Personally, I’ve always valued players who come from winning programs. They’ve seen what winning looks like and know the amount of work, discipline, and selflessness that goes into it. Every situation is different. I don’t necessarily knock a prospect if their team doesn’t win or have success. Instead, I like to dig a little deeper — watching more film, speaking with various coaches and support staff from the player’s team (as well as opponents), and then forming an opinion. In the end, I like when prospects come from some form of success — it usually bodes well for them in a variety of levels in the NBA. That being said, it is not the end-all-be-all for a player. Simply something to peel back the curtain on.
Michael: The goal of any team is to find players that will win you games, whether it be in the present or the future. I could see how enticing it would be to think that drafting one of these players from either of those two fantastic teams might be a shortcut to finding such a player in this draft. I think being on these teams has certainly helped these players' stock in the eyes of the NBA. Yet while I think “asterisk” is maybe a bit harsh, them being parts of these two elite NCAA teams should not completely cover up what are notable concerns. For instance, Jalen Suggs likely would have been a great player on any college team. It's still worth wondering if being part of the well-oiled Gonzaga offensive machine masked some of his struggles in the half court creating off the dribble. For the sake of the question, I think it's safe to say Suggs would have still been a very high pick in almost any scenario due to his athleticism and awareness on both sides of the ball.
Now, the other four likely draftees, Corey Kispert and Joel Ayayi for Gonzaga along with the Baylor backcourt of Davion Mitchell and Jared Butler, all had strong seasons with nice roles. Yet, all of these guys are multi-year college players, who have been through some ups and downs. I still think all of these players should be measured against others in the draft and do not think them being on these incredible teams this year should boost them to the point many will likely be drafted. I will always go with the tape, past intel and the overall body of work of the player when making my final rankings. Being part of winning teams at lower levels can surely help at times, but it comes down to the work you will be able to put in for your role at the NBA level, which could look quite different from college just in terms of what these players will be realistically asked to bring to the table consistently.
Q: Using an example from this draft, explain how you approach the problem of comparing older more established players with younger unproven ones at the same position.
Henry: I love this question, because it’s been one that Drake and I have gone back and forth almost weekly over our group’s draft calls, with the proxy often being Jaden Springer and Davion Mitchell. I tend to believe that even though it may require a bit more imagination, and therefore, more risk, betting on youth is one of the best ways to find value in the draft. By finding indicators of microskills and future developments in younger players who are perhaps in smaller roles or are just generally less skilled after their freshman years, teams can ultimately wind up with better players in lower draft slots. Because development doesn’t occur in a vacuum, this also of course allows a team to commandeer the prospect’s formative developmental years themselves with their own set of resources, as opposed to letting it occur on a college campus with no input. To go back to the Springer/Mitchell example, it’s fun to imagine what 18-year-old Jaden Springer would look like in college in four years in comparison to Mitchell’s 22-year-old season this past year. And, vice versa, imagine if a team had somehow foreseen Mitchell’s improvements and gotten him in the late second round last year, when he now will likely cost a lottery pick — an idea that goes back to PD’s piece on pre-drafting.
Drake: I love this question as well and it will probably take me a while to articulate because it’s relatively complex. I’m fascinated by this year’s draft compared to the previous five years — mainly because it’s such a polarizing class. Ultimately, it comes down to a decision maker’s risk tolerance and whether or not they feel like they have the time to be patient and wait 3-5 years for a prospect to develop. So many variables to consider reflecting on this COVID college season. How critical should we be of highly-touted freshmen who underperformed? Do we lean more on their high school resumes or do we turn to more reliable upperclassmen? Ultimately, this is a difficult question front offices deal with every year.
Personally, I’ve always arranged my draft boards in order of talent — finding players with that unique combination of production and upside. While I’m all for developing players and investing in them, they must show signs of production, have a feel for the game, positional size, and a skill set that translates. A kid can have all the measurables in the world, athleticism, analytics in his corner, but I will always heavily rely on a prospect’s understanding of the game — his feel for spacing, how he moves without the basketball, how they understand defensive positioning, how they see the game. In my experience, you minimize your risk in drafting players that understand who they are (their strengths and weaknesses) and are highly skilled. I like to rank based on reliability over possibility.
As Henry mentioned, the Davion Mitchell versus Jaden Springer comparison has been particularly fun — mainly because I am so high on Mitchell and can’t get there with Springer (I’ve tried several times). I think similar arguments can be made from players such as Chris Duarte, Corey Kispert, Trey Murphy, and James Bouknight versus guys like Jalen Johnson, Brandon Boston, and Keon Johnson.
Rather than focusing on the Mitchell-Springer comparison — because that really isn’t a close conversation for me — I’ll focus on Mitchell versus Jalen Johnson. While Johnson has significant upside paired with impressive measurables, I remain much higher on Mitchell primarily due to dependability. This goes back to a decision maker’s risk tolerance, and is why drafts are highly situational and difficult. While more successful teams may have the luxury of time and ability to groom young players, some may be looking for a quicker return on their investment. In my opinion, Johnson is much farther away than Mitchell from becoming a productive NBA player. While Johnson’s age and upside is intriguing, I haven't seen enough from his game to make me feel comfortable taking that gamble. With Davion, I have a good understanding of his NBA floor — at the very least, I know that I am getting a competitor, a winner, and a two-way player who will physically be ready to play right away. He can dribble, pass, and shoot and has all the athletic tools that give me confidence as a decision-maker. He is a great example of a player who has produced but also has potential to become a stud at the next level.
Michael: The constant battle between “production” vs. “upside” is an evergreen draft trope for good reason. There was a grand total of zero former college seniors who made the All-Star team this season, with that number getting to two (Stephen Curry, Nikola Vucevic) if you were to add players that stayed until their junior season before entering the NBA Draft. This is not to say that you cannot still find very valuable role players who are upperclassmen, it just tends to show top-end talent is usually identified pretty early on and a large reason why the top of the draft is usually full of the younger players.
Age is a key factor in terms of trying to project future development, yet the debate will rage on as players add wrinkles to their game over time. The example I have been thinking about a lot in this draft is Chris Duarte and Brandon Boston, Jr. Duarte, an Oregon standout, will be 24 before he plays his first NBA game, which is typically a red flag from an evaluative standpoint. However, he was also one of the best players in college basketball, a very confident scorer, a high-level shooter with shot versatility, a solid playmaker, and a strong defensive presence. While his age still plays a factor and could prevent him going as high as the lottery, his potential to help a team right away, and the wing role he could fill, is what has potentially led to his presumed first-round promise.
Boston, on the other hand, was a very well-regarded high school player who showed ball handling and creation upside throughout his prep years. He lacked functional strength and had an inefficient freshman season as Kentucky struggled as a team. What one still has to take into account is Boston has even better physical tools than Duarte in terms of measurements, plus is nearly four-and-a-half years younger. Would a younger Chris Duarte have not struggled in the same position as Boston? How will Boston look when he is 24, which would be near the end of his first contract?
In this particular head-to-head prospect matchup, I lean toward the shooting and confidence in Duarte filling his role. Duarte seems like he can step right in and if you can get a wing that can immediately provide rotation minutes, that is an enticing proposition. Boston is still someone I’m worried about missing out on, with how he has looked in complementary roles, with his impressive physical tools and the thought of what his skill set may look like once he has added necessary strength. It takes conviction to face these tough decisions and while youth is not always the answer, it will remain part of the inexact science of the draft.
Q: How do you weigh production vs. different competition levels? This year we saw the introduction of the G-League Ignite team who played against many NBA rotation players. How do you make sense of what Daishen Nix was able to do in the G-League bubble vs. Sharife Cooper in the SEC? When considering international youngsters like Usman Garuba and Alperen Sengun, how valuable is their respective defensive and offensive production in top-notch professional leagues?
Henry: Competition level, like team quality as we already discussed, is simply another contextual factor in evaluating a player’s projection in the NBA. A lot of that measuring happens naturally at a certain point — it simply looks different when Usman Garuba chucks a 220 pound, 30 year old cutter in Spain versus when Isaiah Jackson does the same on a Vanderbilt freshman — but it’s definitely important to consider nonetheless, especially when looking at stats. It’s hard to explain the full scope of the influence competition level has on an evaluation, as it can affect everything from production, role, numbers, expectations, and of course, all of this affects how a player looks on a court. To answer the question directly, I’d say there’s generally more leeway to be given to teenagers in a professional league versus a college setting, but that not all pro leagues are created equal and ultimately, there’s more to be gleaned from the generally increased flexibility of roles in college, so there’s plusses to evaluating both.
Drake: This question really varies. It takes an incredible amount of perspective and experience to be able to discern and weigh competition levels. Personally, I’ve always found it difficult to properly evaluate Europe due to the fact that I’ve never played there or watched games live. In my experience, I feel much more confident evaluating prospects from the NBL, G-League Ignite, and college because I have a much stronger lens to lean on. All that being said, I tend to weigh professional leagues higher than the collegiate level. Production at these levels against grown men (many of whom had significant success at the D1 level) is impressive for young players. The G-League experiment this year for example, in my mind, was a major success for the league as a whole. What better environment to evaluate kids than in a real NBA setting against several NBA-level pros? I would even argue it’s the best way for front offices to project young players in today’s game given the style of play, rules, and competition level. All of this being said, the main takeaway here is that it all factors into how we evaluate players. Every prospect — whether high/mid/low-major, Australia, Europe, or G-League — requires careful perspective and context during the process. And I agree with Henry, there are pluses and minuses at every level.
Michael: This year was incredibly unprecedented with the G-League Ignite and there really is no good way of quantifying what the players in the program did without more of a sample size. Names of past G-League-to-NBA draftees are Mike Taylor, Latavious Williams, Chu Chu Maduabum, Glen Rice, Jr., Thanasis Antetokounmpo, P.J. Hairston, and Alen Smailagic. Only Antetokounmpo and Smailagic are still in the NBA, neither playing major roles. Point being, it’s really hard to know what the numbers have meant for players who maintained sustained NBA success.
There were narratives that what these players did in the G-League was more impressive considering their averages and the fact they were doing it against older players, many of whom were top college players during their time in the NCAA. Where it gets confusing is with the difference in pace, the longer games, and the more spread floor. The fact that you are likely playing with higher level players than who you might be playing with in college must be considered, as well. G-League stats always have kind of felt like funny money — they mirror neither college nor the NBA. Substitution patterns are different, illustrated by the presumed desire to get more players minutes, even if it comes at the cost of winning.
Jalen Green was the most impressive of the G-League Ignite players due to his overall efficiency and high-level athleticism. Many point to his raw stats and see what he did being even more impressive than both Cade Cunningham at Oklahoma State and Evan Mobley at USC. However, we really do not know what those players would have done playing with that level of spacing, his level of teammates and given the extensive training he had without having to deal with the schedule constraints that come with being a college student. My guess is, both Cunningham and Mobley would have excelled, possibly putting up superior all-around numbers, which is their selling points as being drafted higher. The returns of the G-League draftees this year will likely be a key to what to think about future Ignite players. Even then, we will not know until they have built up more of a sample size.
We have more of a framework to work with when contrasting international and collegiate prospects, but it’s still not a 1:1 comparison. Historically, players who have played rotation minutes for a top Euroleague club at a young age, like Usman Garuba, tend to be good bets. Putting up big numbers in a good European league at a young age, like Alperen Sengun, also have a good track record in terms of NBA translation. Does it dismiss concerns over Garuba’s possible offensive issues and positional size, or questions about Sengun’s defensive role? No, those questions remain. It will once again come down to trusting their skills and having a development plan that extracts the most out of them.
Q: Looking at the teams at the top of the lottery, what are the dream landing spots for a few of the lottery players?
Henry: This draft is exceptionally fun, because it feels like there’s two sets of teams in the lottery this time around — those with a relatively blank slate beginning a rebuild, and those who fell out of luck this year but aren’t necessarily that far away from contention, relative to most lottery teams historically. For example, last year’s draft was headlined by the Timberwolves, who remained many pieces away, and the Warriors, who of course still had championship aspirations. This year, the Rockets, Pistons, Cavaliers, Thunder and Magic are all in a place where there’s not really any holes in the team building process already filled. Of course, they each, most namely Orlando, have a handful of young, promising players who can help fill out that long-term core, but the slate remains blank enough for them all to basically any direction they see fit. For that reason, it’ll be fun to see how the first four picks shake out, with Detroit, Houston, and Cleveland leading the way. However, it’s also easy to get excited about the idea of one of those top four players ending up in a highly beneficial situation with a shorter timeline as well, in Toronto. The biggest concern, and one that will likely rear its head through a trade of some sort, is Cleveland missing out on Cade and Mobley. Because Green and Suggs are still a head above the rest, it wouldn’t make sense to reach, but obviously neither fit well alongside the young pairing of Sexton and Garland. It’ll likely come down to which high leverage asset makes the most sense to move, between those two guards and the pick itself.
Drake: This draft is interesting given the variety of teams sitting in the lottery. While some teams are seemingly far away from being competitive in the short-term, you also have a handful of teams coming off of down years who expect to be back in playoff contention next season.
Hard for me to see a team like Detroit passing on Cade with the #1 pick, and rightfully so. I really like how he fits in with their core and happens to be a major positional need as they build for the future.
Houston is interesting because while they struggled this year following the departure of James Harden, they have an interesting core of role players to work with (Jae’Sean Tate, Dave Nwaba, KJ Martin), paired with a few nice starting pieces in Christian Wood and Kevin Porter, Jr. Adding a player like Cade to build around at PG would be a nice piece for the future if they had the ability to trade up. I also think they are in a good position to move back, should they look to add a PG such as Suggs and potentially obtain an additional asset (whether it be a pick or player).
Cleveland is a great landing spot for either Jalen Green or Evan Mobley, as they both fill positional needs for a roster in need of talent. Personally, I would love to see Green slide to a team like OKC, where they have an interesting young core and several chances to add more with their draft capital. He and Shai in the backcourt, with pieces like Pokusevski and Dort would make for an exciting blend of skill and athleticism.
The last team I’ll touch on is Sacramento, who will always be a team of personal interest. I would love to see them add a player like Davion Mitchell, Josh Giddey, or James Bouknight. All three would be home-run picks for them at #9. Mitchell in particular is the type of player the Kings have been missing in recent years — that tough two-way player who competes on a nightly basis and cares about winning. Giddey would be a great Haliburton-like player who brings playmaking and versatility to a team that lacks depth on the wing. And finally Bouknight, who in my mind may be the most talented guard in this draft. He has the ability to score at every level and create his own shot, paired with elite athleticism which are all areas the Kings need to improve in.
These are just a few interesting scenarios for teams come draft night. As mentioned before, drafts are entirely situational and I think each of these teams would be great landing spots for these young prospects.
Michael: I don’t know if Cade Cunningham dreamed of winding up in Detroit, but it’s looking like a strong possibility it will be his home for the next seven years. I think Evan Mobley to Toronto would have been a great spot for him, even if he would thrive in both Houston and Cleveland, who already may have young centers. The Raptors could have really used the defensive presence and quick decision-making Mobley provides along with the offensive kick they missed from their bigs once Chris Boucher went down. Orlando would have been an interesting landing spot for Jalen Green, as he fits in with many of their other athletes and potentially provides the shooting they are missing. Even if the lottery was not a dream scenario, it seems like if the top-6 stand (as the current belief is Cunningham, Mobley, Jalen Green, Jalen Suggs, Jonathan Kuminga and Scottie Barnes), all of them will be in spots to succeed (barring Cleveland’s likely trading Collin Sexton to a team willing to sign him to a second contract). Dreams are fun, but watching reality play out can be even more interesting.
Q: Following the draft lottery, Orlando sits at #5 and #8 (via CHI). If you are the Pistons would you trade off of #1 for #5 and #8? If not, what else would the Magic need to add to get you there? What players would you realistically target at the #5 and #8 slots?
Henry: It’s a tough call, but I ultimately don’t think that amount of draft capital is enough for me to forfeit the opportunity to build around Cade. The drop off between him and whoever would be there at #5 is just far too great. It’s the difference between having a well-rounded franchise cornerstone who raises the level of a team alongside really any lineup, and having a wonderfully skilled secondary or tertiary player. That’s a massive difference when building a contender. I suppose if the Magic were willing to offer future picks, I’d be more inclined, but even then it’s very hard to pass up an opportunity that’s much more certain in favor of potential chances at players that you’d hope would be similar to the guy that’d be essentially given away. Beyond that, I think the Magic are in an excellent position. They’ve already built a strong core of versatile, smart players in Markelle Fultz, Wendell Carter Jr., Chuma Okeke, and Jonathan Isaac, alongside their rookie class of Cole Anthony and RJ Hampton. With two picks in the top-10 and more in the future, they’ve kicked off their rebuild very well. From here, I think the plan has to be continuing to add smart, multi-faceted wings who can provide different skill sets, as well as finding their primary of the future, to better insulate their current core and eventually build towards contention.
With the fifth pick, I would personally target one of the two high feel jumbo playmakers I keep coming back to in either Scottie Barnes or Josh Giddey, who’d both add a necessary new dimension to that depth of youth they already have. At #8, I’m in favor of them gambling on the somewhat flawed creation bets that exist with Ziaire Williams, Moses Moody, or Jaden Springer. That back-half of the top-10 seems like an excellent place to be in this draft, especially when the foundation is already laid to an extent, like it is in Orlando.
Drake: In this specific scenario, I actually like where both Detroit and Orlando sit. Detroit has a chance to land a franchise-level point guard for the future, while Orlando has the chance to add quality role players that fit nicely with their roster’s timeline. Personally, I am not a big believer in Killian Hayes, so Cunningham gives me much more confidence leading a young Detroit core for the future. He fits Troy Weaver’s style, being a bigger/longer guard, and should be a safe cornerstone for the franchise. It would take significantly more from the Magic for me to seriously consider moving back — i.e. 5 + 8 + Jonathon Isaac or them trading 5+8 to move into the top 4, then sending me a top-4 pick and an asset like Terrence Ross.
As for Orlando, I think they have a great chance to acquire talent without sacrificing any assets. At pick 5, I think they have great options in either Jonathan Kuminga or Scottie Barnes. And at pick 8, I think they have potential to hit on a stud as well with players such as Davion Mitchell, James Bouknight, and Josh Giddey likely available. All three of these players in my mind have starter potential for different reasons. Having a chance to land two starter-level players in the top-10 could bolster Orlando’s rebuild, nicely. They’re going to need to get lucky to find their future primary, which will likely be the last piece of the puzzle missing in their rebuild, but taking a flier on one of those three would be a worthwhile way of potentially striking gold through development, with the floor being a productive, useful player.
Michael: This is why you have draft tiers, and why the answer should be a hard no. It will always depend on the year and just how a team views players, but getting a player in Cade Cunningham who seems to be in his own tier given his rare archetype, it would be hard to accept trading for players at 5 and 8 who have much murkier paths to stardom. I am honestly not sure what else would have to be included in a trade package from Orlando since having Cade Cunningham on a rookie contract is such an incredible opportunity. We’re talking about a player with the ability to impact winning right away.
At 5 and 8, I would aim to reunite a pair of Cade Cunningham’s high school teammates, Scottie Barnes and Moses Moody. At the fifth pick, Barnes would fit in well next to a Jonathan Isaac or Chuma Okeke, providing similar versatility, as well as a different look in terms of secondary playmaking. With the eighth pick, Moses Moody is a scoring wing with fantastic size who has very solid shooting indicators along with defensive potential. Both prospects offer fantastic positional size and basketball acumen, with Barnes being a high-level playmaker and Moody as a shooter and scorer who showed he can get to the foul line at a high rate during his time at Arkansas.
Q: Who is one player you feel is currently undervalued in mocks and boards?
Henry: Where do I start? I feel like this year has been so all over the place in regards to lack of viewings, oddball contexts, and just general insanity to where there’s very limited consensus to be had over who should go where. Personally, it feels like I have a ton of players ranked in the top 20-25 who all seem to fall out of the first round elsewhere. I think out of everyone, I’m far more excited about Terrence Shannon, Jr. and David Johnson than the consensus seems to be. Shannon’s movement skills in such a strong, long frame are somewhat unique, and when adding an intriguing shooting projection, slashing potential, and passing flashes on top of the present defensive profile, you get a really interesting wing prospect who’ll be able to guard multiple positions, space the floor, and make decisions. As we’ve seen from teams like the Hawks and Jazz this postseason, it’s hard to have too many of those players. Johnson fits in a similar mold but with a bit of a different skill set. His passing acumen is one of my favorite singular skills in this draft, due to how proactive he is at mapping the floor combined with his technical skill in delivering well-timed skips, lobs, and swings with good speed and accuracy. I think he’s falling victim to some lack of clarity about his role and maybe some disappointment in him not taking a major leap this past year, but to me, he projects as a terrifically high-feel off-guard or wing who can slot into any lineup and immediately raise its ceiling with his wits and floor-spacing, at minimum.
Drake: For once, Henry and I can agree on a player (laughs). A few players stand out in my mind in this draft: Trey Murphy, Terrence Shannon, Jr., Marcus Zegarowski, Jericho Sims, and I’ve always been a fan of Derrick Alston, Jr. Murphy has really impressed me as of late. I love players who come from disciplined programs and have the size and skill to plug in at the next level. Murphy fits today’s coveted 3-and-D role. He has great positional size and length, paired with a strong frame that will allow him to switch and defend multiple positions. He has good athleticism, moves well without the basketball, and most importantly can really shoot it from distance. I love his growth from his freshman year at Rice to where he finished at Virginia. He has a skill set that not only translates to today’s game, but is incredibly valuable. Shannon fits the modern day game as a valuable utility piece. He plays with an incredible amount of toughness and versatility from the forward spot. I love his tenaciousness as a slasher and his ability to get the rim and finish through contact. He has a great frame that allows him to defend a variety of positions, and has shown ability to knock down catch and shoot opportunities from distance. Zegarowski is another one of my favorite players in this class who I think is underrated. He has the ability to play either guard position and has a real knack for scoring the basketball. He scores at three levels, with great shiftiness and deep NBA range. He dribbles, passes, and shoots it. He’s always reminded me of a Steph Curry/Malachi Flynn type of role player at the next level. Sims is someone who has really started to figure it out late in his career. This season, he showed improvement in his consistency with his motor and sticking to his strengths. I’ve always loved his frame and mobility for his size. He’s a high-level athlete, and physically will be able to defend and rim run right away. I see him being a potential steal in the late first/second round. Finally, I’ve been a Derrick Alston, Jr. fan for the past few years, now. A late-bloomer, Alston is a uniquely skilled combo forward with a high basketball IQ. I’ve always been a sucker for 6’8-6’10 players who are mobile and show perimeter ability to dribble, pass, and shoot (i.e. the McDaniels brothers, KZ Okpala, Wenyen Gabriel). I love versatile players with positional size and length you can’t teach. Alston is someone I could see carving a role at the next level given proper patience and development.
Michael: Among a large group of wings in the late first/early second round, it seems like Aaron Henry out of Michigan State may not be getting enough love. Right off the bat the lefty was seen as a very good complementary wing, versatile defender and a quick decision maker on offense who can keep the ball moving. This year, while he did not shoot well from long range, he showed ability and confidence as a pull-up shooter that could bode well in terms of shooting projection. It was a rough year for Spartans fans and Henry was stretched quite thin, nonetheless, he did an admirable job and could really excel in a 3-and-D role in the NBA, while providing some ability even beyond that on offense with his passing and handle.
Q: Who is one player in this draft that has such a wide range of career outcomes that you struggle to accurately project?
Henry: Kai Jones is someone whose range of outcomes and dependence on context is somewhat overwhelming to think about. He’s relatively new to the game and it shows, but the flashes of brilliance he has as a handler, shooter, and athlete at his size are really hard to brush off. Teams that deploy players who can shuffle with guards on the perimeter, protect the rim effectively, space the floor with shooting, and attack the basket on closeouts are given a tremendous head start schematically, and in the long term, Jones could end up as someone who fills these traits. That being said, the moments where he displays these skills are exactly that — moments. He’s yet to really put consistent stretches of production together beyond just a handful of possessions. That could be reflective of his developmental stage, and those who are optimistic about him would likely argue that, but every so often you’re also reminded he’s just simply not effective yet, and asking him to rapidly become a positive player in the NBA could be a big ask. For this reason, it’s easy to see the bust potential, but I remain high on him because of how valuable the positive outcomes would be, in conjunction with how quickly he’s ascended through the prep ranks thus far.
Drake: There’s several in this draft class. I’ve never really been one to put too much stock into high school resumes or success. I’ve always preferred to wait until prospects get to college and see how they perform against stronger competition in a more controlled environment. This year’s lottery class is interesting because you have a wide range of highly-touted freshmen who underperformed based on expectations this season, and are riding the wave of their high school success into this draft. Personally, that worries me. The lack of confidence I have in prospects such as Jalen Johnson, Keon Johnson, Brandon Boston, and Jaden Springer to name a few is unsettling. I think it’s a major reason why upperclassmen who were “undraftable” a year ago in a “weaker” draft have suddenly shot up into the lottery this year. However, perhaps this is where teams in the mid-late first round find value in this year’s draft. Maybe there’s a world where these players’ lack of production is temporary and they turn out developing in a better environment with less pressure. Personally, I like to see more consistent production and rank players based on qualities I’ve seen that I’m certain translate to the next level. I struggle to get there in this year’s draft with a handful of these prospects.
Michael: JT Thor is a very popular name following the combine, where he measured close to 6’10 with a 7’3.25 wingspan and 9’2.5 standing reach — numbers you typically see from centers. Thor is seen as a player who can potentially spread the floor, dribble a few times to get his own shot, finish above the rim and move with enough fluidity to provide defensive versatility. During his freshman season, he got to the free throw line at a high rate and produced a solid volume of outside shots as a big man, even if he was not consistent in making those shots.
In addition to his natural physical tools, Thor does have definite upside and some real positives can be derived from his production at Auburn. The struggle with my projection for him is putting all of that together as a player. As nice as the flashes were, I am still not sold on Thor as a creator for others, or even for himself off the bounce. As nice as it is to envision him putting it all together to be a combo wing, it looks a lot more like he is a combo big who still could struggle with NBA physicality at 203 pounds. I understand the optimism on his projection, I’m just not completely sure he’s being considered by some as a possible lottery pick.
Q: Who are the two guys you are taking from this group of stretch 4s and why: Marcus Bagley, Greg Brown, Kessler Edwards, Isaiah Todd, Ziaire Williams, & Julian Champagnie.
Henry: This one’s easy for me, as I have Ziaire and Kessler in my top-20 and no one else particularly close, apart from Bagley who I have in the mid 30s. I personally wouldn’t venture to call these guys stretch 4s except for Brown, but that may just be a matter of semantics. To me, this group is mostly wing prospects who each add their own flavor in terms of what sorts of roles they’ll be able to play alongside creators, except for Ziaire, who’s someone I’d bet on adding some creation chops himself. So, with that acknowledgement, the other guy I’d opt for is Edwards, whose ground coverage, rotational technique and general defensive intensity alongside terrific shooting (on a large sample) set him apart from the rest of the group. Champagnie and Bagley are certainly worthwhile shooters in their own right, and Brown and Todd may have some interesting physical tools, but Edwards’ combination of translatable skills and Ziaire’s cornerstone potential put them in a tier of their own here.
Drake: Pretty hard for me to decide between Bagley, Brown, Edwards, and Williams. I actually like all of these stretch 4s (maybe even some 3) for different reasons. If I had to pick from these four however, I would lean toward Kessler Edwards and Ziaire Williams.
I went with Edwards and Williams for similar reasons: I feel like they have each shown more consistency in their game/skill sets that I see translating at the next level. With Kessler Edwards, I’ve been a fan for two years, now. He has several intangibles that make him a reliable prospect — someone you can depend on nightly. He plays with great energy and a tremendous motor on both ends. He has a great frame and mobility for his size which allows him to guard several positions comfortably. He’s improved consistency in his shooting from distance. He has a great understanding of who he is as a player, and is someone I see sticking in the league for a long time in a reserve role.
As for Ziaire Williams, I like his combination of positional size, length, and shot making potential. For him, it’s really a matter of him becoming a knock down shooter. He has a great foundational skill set, where he’s shown the ability to dribble, pass, and shoot, as well as move without the ball. Like most young prospects, he will need to gain significant strength to play on both ends at the next level as well as build consistency in his stroke. While he may take some time as far as producing right away, he has great potential as a role player.
Michael: Ziaire Williams and Kessler Edwards are my choices, as both are the highest on my big board. Both can play the wing, but are also big enough to slide up and play the four in spurts. After measuring in at close to 6’10 in shoes (let’s just call it 6’9.5), Williams brings shot making from all over the floor, is a willing passer and gives you defensive versatility. When talking about Williams shot making, he has a high release and can certainly make space for himself. While his shooting percentages from the field have been less than stellar and functional strength is an absolute must, he is very light on his feet and has always had the touch from the free throw line, providing hope that the shooting picks up. Edwards was a very consistent shooter during his time at Pepperdine, finishing his college career just under 40% from long range. Add to that his size, defensive awareness, and instincts, and he could become a valuable rotation piece. Both would be the best bets in the group to give value on both sides of the ball.
Q: What have you seen in the NBA over the last year that changes how you think about the draft on a macro level?
Henry: Versatility on both ends is no longer a desirable trait, but often a prerequisite. The teams that have overachieved compared to expectations so far have been the ones who’ve made it a priority to democratize offense while creating space so that ancillary playmakers are maximized, while also being able to play aggressively on defense without siphoning rim attempts. The way to do that, as illustrated by the Suns and Hawks, is by trotting out as much skill and feel as you can on the offensive end while maintaining flexibility defensively. Of course, elite players and shotmakers like Trae Young, CP3, and Devin Booker are what ultimately move the needle, but beyond the first few picks in this draft, there’s not a lot of bets to take on those types of players. So, beyond that, building that stable of multifaceted, multi-positional defending playmakers becomes basically the next best thing, beyond finding that versatile, skilled big. Thankfully, this draft is loaded with those guys across the lottery and beyond. It’ll be exciting to see teams follow this 2016 Warriors, 2019 Miami Heat blueprint as time goes on. It feels like every time a team commits to this general idea, they succeed beyond what people perceive as possible. Of course, executing this well in the draft is easier said than done, but some teams that aim to do so will be rewarded with products that outplay their understood talent level.
Drake: I’ve learned two valuable lessons from my experience working in a front office and being in a draft war room: always draft the best player available (regardless of fit) and lean heavily towards guards/wings and away from centers (although this is mainly centered around lottery picks).
It’s so important for teams, especially those in small markets, to build via the draft. While team building and roster composition is essential to overall success, teams who have consistently struggled and failed to be competitive must do everything they can to acquire talent and select the best player available. Regardless of if you drafted the same position a year or two prior, you take the best talent and figure out the rest. Only a select few teams have the luxury of drafting for fit/need. Additionally, anyone following the modern day game recognizes the importance of having players who can playmake and score with the ball in their hands — and most importantly, shoot. I think these are important factors to consider when evaluating and team-building. It’s imperative to adapt and evolve with the game and find players who can contribute sooner rather than later.
Michael: The concept of “specialists” has long been seen as something you need on your team. The fact is, if someone is especially good at shooting or provides defensive versatility, they better have some other aspects to their game or they can be heavily exploited. I had heard a lot about Joe Harris being the Nets most important factor as one of the premier shooters over the past few seasons. As soon as his shot was not falling, he became a major liability. Finding a balance as far as what one can bring on both ends of the floor is so key. We saw last season, when Danny Green was with the Lakers, he still had some other aspects to his game and his defense could be relied upon to still give his team good minutes when his shot was not falling. If a player suddenly gets cold shooting as a specialist, or just cannot give you anything on offense if they are out there particularly for defense, it can be heavily exploited. Finding the all-around player, with balance on both ends, is so important in the draft now.
Q: Who is a player in the back-end of the first round that could come in and have a role in these playoffs right away?
Henry: I’m pretty resistant to the idea of players coming in and contributing right away, as rookies rarely do so, but we’ve definitely seen how a handful have been able to come in and provide quality spot minutes in their first year. Without knowing any prospect contexts yet, the skill I’d most lean on as immediately translatable is real, worthwhile shooting. Beyond just strong percentages, players who can shoot off of movement and off the bounce become exceptionally valuable come playoff time when things seem to be more often settled in the half court. For this reason, guys like Bones Hyland, Jared Butler and Trey Murphy come to mind as immediately valuable here. For Hyland and Butler especially, slotting in on teams where the creation burden mostly exists in the wing spots seems like an especially nice fit, as that type of gravity from the guard positions proves very helpful when those bigger initiators are both generating most of the offense and handling major defensive responsibilities. Too much shooting on the floor has never been a problem.
Drake: The two names that come to mind right away are Virginia's Trey Murphy and Texas’ Jericho Sims. I love finding gems late in the first round and into the second (and even undrafted players) who are able to claw their way on to a roster and play meaningful minutes on winning teams. We saw it this past season with older, more mature prospects such as Payton Pritchard, Desmond Bane, and Malachi Flynn — and in previous years with role players such as Kenrich Williams and Terence Davis, Jr. They are in every draft.
With Murphy and Sims, these two have the potential to come in from day one and produce. Both are seasoned college players who have spent years developing and working on defining their games. Starting with Murphy, I love how his game translates to the next level. He’s incredibly disciplined on both ends, understands who he is as a player, and can really shoot it from distance. He has the ability to defend either wing position and really competes. He’s someone who has really shot up my board as of late. Sims is another prospect who has really evolved during his time at Texas. From his freshman year to now, I’ve never really seen a more impressive jump (Nick Richards comes to mind). Early on at Texas, Sims lacked consistency and toughness. Physically, he has always been a specimen and NBA-ready. But mentally is where I’ve seen the biggest improvement. He’s bought into who he is as a player and really embraced it. He’s sticking to his strengths as a screen-setting, rim-running lob threat, and his motor has become much more consistent. He’s great in the dunker area, and his game fits the modern mold for an NBA center. These are two of my favorite prospects in that late first/early second tier.
Michael: Desmond Bane may very well have been the answer last season, as he played beyond his years for Memphis as a rookie. Looking ahead to this year’s class, I would look to those who have experience under their belt and have the requisite skills and shooting that could get them on the floor. Chris Duarte, who has a wide draft range in the first round (with a presumed promise) is someone who I’d feel confident about producing on a good team in his rookie season. While he is not someone you want running your team, he is a versatile shooter with some athleticism to attack off the bounce, make plays and hold his own defensively. Jared Butler is another player who I could see proving some role-player minutes quickly, with his tight handle, strength as a scorer, and defensive instincts. My fingers are crossed for a positive health diagnosis for Butler, who was held out of the combine, as he is someone that could potentially really help a team. It’s not always that rookies contribute right away, but when they do, they’re especially valuable assets from a team-building standpoint.