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.