Updated: May 11, 2021
All good things must come to an end, but there’s no better way to cap off a year of 5-Point Plays than by discussing the best of what the draft has to offer. In the eighth and final volume of P.I. Pulse’s recurring column, basketball analyst Henry Ward takes a closer look at the five players most often slotted into the first five picks in this year’s upcoming draft. From Cade Cunningham and Evan Mobley’s brilliance in coveted archetypes to G-League Ignite stars Jalen Green and Jonathan Kuminga’s areas of improvement, we cover the good and the bad in what’s likely the column’s final rendition in this draft cycle.
Here’s what caught our eye, all season long:
Cade Cunningham’s Franchise Cornerstone Profile
Once in every few drafts comes a prospect who’s tailor-made for the NBA they’re entering in more ways than one. Every player has their holes and it’s dangerous to label guys as “can’t miss,” but there is a certain “know it when you see it” type of player that, when he enters the draft, represents a pathway to stardom and exceptional value that’s far less jagged and crowded than many others. This year, this player is Cade Cunningham, the 6’8” freshman wing initiator from Oklahoma State who has not only shined as a player at nearly every step, but done so in ways that are exceptionally exciting given where the NBA game is today. Not only has Cade dominated competition, but he’s dominated with the sort of on-ball creation, passing brilliance, pull-up shooting and defensive impact that makes up the ideal NBA primary in the year 2021.
As we have with the other 5-Point Plays, the goal here will be to briefly cover each player and what makes them special, but keeping the “briefly” qualifier with Cunningham feels not only impossible, but somewhat unfair. At 6’8”, 220 pounds with room to add even more strength, Cunningham is an ox of an advantage creator who wisely uses compact, succinct dribble moves to create windows for himself as both a scorer and passer. He’s a graduate from the Luka Doncic school of adaptable pace, rarely beating guys with burst or shake but more often with change of speeds and strength. Once he’s through the first line of defense is where he shines most, with his most elite skill (in a package with multiple) being his passing savvy. Cunningham is a ridiculous passing prospect, simply put, given how well he sees the floor, analyzes decisions, and executes dishes with velocity, accuracy, and variability. Being able to get nearly any pass off is part of what separates him, as well — standing 6’8” with a 7-foot wingspan, there isn’t a pass Cunningham doesn’t see and can’t subsequently execute.
Coming into the year, Cunningham was the widely agreed upon favorite for the number-one pick, but there was still room for debate. On some mainstream recruiting services, he wasn’t even the number one player in his high school class. While some may say this was an oversight in and of itself, the point that stands to be made is that there were relevant concerns with Cunningham, most notably surrounding his shooting. As a prep player, he didn’t show the proficiency as a pull-up shooter some looked for in his archetype, which raised worry about his long term viability as an advantage creator. In response, he went on to have one of the most prolific self-created shooting seasons ever: he shot 41.2% from 3 with only 57% of makes coming off assists, and averaged 8.5 attempts from deep per 100 possessions. For context, Trae Young converted at 36.1% from three on 26.3% of makes assisted, Kyrie 46.2%/50%, and Damian Lillard 39.6%/51%. Using historical context, it’s extremely easy to see Cunningham becoming one of the more prolific pull-up shooters in the league over time, which is insane considering this was arguably the main concern surrounding him before this season.
There’s a lot more to like about him beyond these two traits as well — he’s a stud, versatile defender at the point of attack who uses his large frame, athleticism, and wits to stick with multiple positions, and is also terrific off the ball where his preternatural feel shines through as a weak side player who can force turnovers. However, because of the nature of this week’s volume, which covers truly some of the best this draft has to offer, it’s important to acknowledge where things can go wrong as well. In previous volumes I’ve stayed away from this, but to close this series, it feels important to give a full analysis of these players, all of whom seem widely expected to go in the top five picks. While Cade is in a class of his own at the top to an extent, two things that do provide slight cause for concern are the sustainability of his advantage creation and his developing understanding of when to attack and pull back. As covered earlier, he’s not one to beat you with traditional fast-twitch shiftiness or burst. His advantages come through a dance on the perimeter where he dictates the pace and, once he breaks the first line, in the post where he can overpower with strength. It is yet to be a problem thus far, but he doesn’t quite have the same athletic dominance as some other notable wing creators, and seeing how that plays out for him against better defenders may be worth watching. Apart from that, it seems he’s also learning how to work with his overpowering feel for the game in tighter moments at times. Given how well he reads things, you can sense a little bit of tug-of-war happening internally when his team needs him to take over as a scorer and turn down sensical, correct passes in favor of “less optimal” shots for himself. Ultimately, it’s a great problem to have, but one that reared its head a bit in the tournament loss to Oregon State.
Beyond everything that makes Cade great from a skill perspective, what truly sets him apart is what he’s able to do in such a valuable archetype. Across the NBA, the most successful teams are most often led by players that exist in a similar vein; mega-sized ball handlers who can be an offense unto themselves through their ability to create their own shot and distribute for others, while also being able to match the opponent’s best player defensively effectively with versatility. Cade profiles as someone who’s able to do just that given his physical tools, elite, NBA-ready, highly desirable compound skills, and unmatched mental approach. At the top of every draft, there are players who dominante through their high-level, bankable traits, but what makes Cunningham so uniquely worthy of top-tier investment is that these skills for him are exactly what every NBA team desires because they both raise the floor of what a lineup looks like at both ends while also raising the ceiling. Cade’s magic would fit alongside, and ultimately exceptionally elevate, basically any situation he were to be thrust into. Those sorts of players are the best of what we have in basketball today, and what make Cade the easy choice for anyone with the #1 pick.
Evan Mobley’s Unicorn Skill Set
Since we’ve now covered Cade’s clear-cut case for the number-one pick, the logical chain of events is to discuss Evan Mobley, a traditional first overall pick in his own right. Yes, the top of this draft is uniquely special in that the second best player in it fits the bill of a typical 1.1, and then some. Beyond the core group of XL-sized initiators, perhaps the next most valuable archetype in the modern NBA is the mobile, floor spacing, ball moving, rim protecting, pick-and-roll coverage versatile big man. Such a player unlocks a world of possibilities from a team-building and scheming perspective, because they typically replace players who are woefully deficient on one end with plus skills and versatility all over the court. In other words, modern team-building often requires a choice to be made between offense and defense at the center position, where one has to select between A) a more defensive-minded, rim protecting big who’s likely less versatile, less mobile, and lacks skills that raise an offensive ceiling or B), a more coverage versatile, ball-handling competent, floor spacing big who cannot protect the rim nearly as effectively. This choice requires the other four players on the court cover up for this player on their deficient side of the ball, and is generally understood as a necessary sacrifice worth making given how scarce players than jump this category are.
In steps Evan Mobley, a true 7-footer who moves like a guard, puts a lid on the rim with freakish tools and technique, spaces the floor both horizontally and vertically, can put the ball on the floor, manipulates defenders with passing, and can play just about any desired pick-and-roll coverage far better than his counterparts. A unicorn in every sense, Mobley is a Mr. Potato Head-esque prospect who is an amalgamation of nearly every desirable trait one would want in a big man when considering how the game is played now and where it’s headed. While he projects to be uniquely special on both ends, his impact will be most obvious on the defensive end, where his mix of size, tools, feel, and versatility allows him to fill any sort of defensive role asked of him to its fullest extent. In reality, this appears on court as a center who is a “funnel drives to me and I’ll handle it” level of rim protector who can also step out and contain smaller ball-handlers when necessary. This sort of versatility combined with the elite rim protection skills is incredibly rare, and makes for an extremely tantalizing prospect on this end.
Offensively, Mobley has shown the requisite level of touch, budding shooting mechanics, ball skills, passing and agility to make him projectable in a number of different roles. At his size in USC’s more traditional scheme, a lot of time was spent around the rim, where he’s a constant threat for lobs and offensive rebounds given how quickly he can get off the ground and how high his peak is when fully extended. However, what’s most intriguing is his mix of wildly impressive perimeter skills for someone his size. He’s not a real initiator of offense by any means, which is something we’ll touch on, but he has shown a real ability to attack closeouts, get creative off the bounce, and hit shots at all three levels when sensical. The shooting from range wasn’t on full display in college and may need some time to fully develop, but the combination of touch and form is enough to make me very comfortable betting on his floor spacing being a bankable trait for him soon. When adding in his passing, which he does with terrific instinctual feel, he becomes a unique offensive piece who’s not only a play finisher like most his position, but who has some moments of self-creation and distribution beyond his already worthwhile combination of floor spacing and size.
The cap on Mobley’s ceiling, in a somewhat similar vein to Cade’s, will be the process of figuring out when and where he’s needed. This year he dominated in a muted fashion, consistently doing everything that was asked of him but sometimes leaving a tad bit on the table in terms of being able to take a game over. For someone who’s ceiling is that of a top-five player in the league, it may be fair to wonder if he’s best off as an all-time great Robin who may never be suited to be the Batman. Of course, having this be the biggest “issue” with him is an amazing problem to have, but it’s certainly a question that’s circulating across NBA scouting meetings for teams who will have a chance at him. It’s also worth noting that the other common tropes surrounding his limits are in regards to his strength, but these are a bit more misguided to me. Sure, being able to bully people when needed could unlock more to his game, but seeing his current frame as a weakness negates how smooth and quick he is currently. And, as is worth repeating, any argument that centers on “how will he guard the Embiids and Jokics of the league” is typically faulty, seeing as how realistically nobody can do so anyway. So, if that’s the biggest concern, I’d argue it’s not really one to spend much time on.
As stated at the top, Mobley would be the best prospect in most drafts in recent history. The main differentiator between him and Cade, and what makes him the bonafide number-two in this class versus the bonafide number-one, is that Mobley likely won’t ever be an initiator of offense, or a guy you can hand the ball to when things get tight and rely upon consistently. This isn’t a knock against him, as that threshold is incredibly high, but is simply worth noting as the biggest separator between the two borderline generational prospects. A team landing in the top two picks has a lot to be excited about, given how rare and uniquely helpful a player they’re guaranteed to land with either Cunningham or Mobley.
Jalen Suggs’ Potential for Paretian Development
This is where the draft really begins, following the selection of those two talents. While the mix sometimes seems to be between picks two and four, with Mobley, Suggs, and Green all shuffling in across those three picks in different orders, I am of the opinion that including Mobley in that grouping is a bit off base, for reasons listed above. However, I do think there’s legitimate debate to be had between Suggs and the other bluechip Jalen, Jalen Green, but will use this space to try and explain why Suggs is such a particularly interesting gamble, for reasons beyond the prolific season he had this past season at Gonzaga. Ultimately, the argument for Suggs, in my mind, hinges on a ceiling beyond that of Green’s due to an idea I’ve named “Paretian development,” following the well-known Pareto’s principle, which states “80% of the output is determined by 20% of the input.”
Basically, the idea is that Suggs’ current state as a player, in regards to both technical skill and processing skill, is reflected pretty evenly in regards to his impact. However, given where he is, as an elite thinker in conjunction with what he lacks in terms of his handle, space creation, and shooting consistency, the impact will begin to exponentially increase once those technical skills are developed even further. If Suggs looks like one of the best amateur players on the planet already, he will only continue to improve, at a faster and faster rate, once he’s able to capitalize on even more of the things he sees on the court once he has the tangible skills to do so.
As it stands, Suggs is a uniquely terrific court mapper and processor. In Gonzaga’s potent, historically good transition-based offensive attack, he was put in numerous situations where he could be the conductor of the train with his combination of downhill threat and passing. It was truly an awesome situation for him, and one that allowed him to maximize his current gifts. Whenever Suggs could get the ball on the run, the Zags were in a terrific position to get a good look given how great he is attacking backpedalling defenders and how keen a distributor he can be. This setting allowed him to reach his potential in his current skill set, ultimately putting together a tremendous season on an all-time good college team. However, it’s even more exciting to consider what the future holds for Suggs with only minor skill developments.
As we saw in the title game and at times throughout the year, Suggs isn’t yet fully equipped to generate advantages from a standstill. He can fumble the ball a bit at times and isn’t yet comfortable getting creative with his handle to force changes of direction, which can result in some stagnation and ugly individual possessions. Because he’s also a good shooter as it stands and just not quite as comfortable off the dribble as he is off the catch, this issue compounded and made things look even worse. For a guard who projects to hopefully hold a major share of the decisions his teams make when on the court, like at Gonzaga, this can likely be a bit worrisome for scouts.
However, this, in a funny way, is what actually makes Suggs even more attractive as a prospect to me. The process of evaluation is a constant weighting of ceilings, floors, and every outcome in between, and for someone to be able to perform at such a high level for an entire college season with glaring holes in easy-to-fix skill departments is about as worthy a high-ceiling bet as one could make. This idea is furthered even more when considering how Suggs finds success right now and what that could look like later. A lot of what makes him special is how he reads the game, even though he can’t quite execute on all the actions he perceives yet. For someone who can’t yet probe through a lane confidently, leverage a real pull-up threat, or turn a corner without a minor advantage created for him, he certainly executes plenty of high-level reads as a passer and finds ways to get his team points.
Beyond that, there’s also reason to believe someone with Suggs’ ostensive mental makeup in terms of his proprioception and spatial reasoning is better suited to add those skills down the line, an idea I talk more about in this blog post. So, in sum, Suggs presents a unique and worthwhile developmental proposition for a top-three pick, but one I’d be thrilled to take on. In the interim, the team that selects him would be working with a solid guard who’s lethal when given a corner to turn, especially given his passing savvy, but one who’s better suited to play off the ball at first. Down the line, though, you’re looking at someone who’s able to run an offense with some combination of quick decision making, on-ball advantage creation, pull-up shooting threat, and pick-and-roll sense. It’s also worth adding that regardless of these offensive skill developments, the team that selects him will still, in all likelihood, be adding a defensively versatile guard who can cover the league’s best pick-and-roll threats and rack up stocks off the ball. It may be asking a lot for Suggs to add so many necessary skills, but the floor was visible the entire year, and ultimately, is what makes the ceiling so enticing. If I’m a team that has some wiggle room to work with and am feeling lucky, he’s well worth the investment when the first two studs are off the board.
Jalen Green’s Shotmaking Ease
Admitting when you’re wrong is a healthy practice for scouts to indulge in, even if it scrapes the ego a bit. Personally, I find it productive because it illuminates holes in my process or perspective that allow for recalibration and adjustment that hopefully helps refine my scouting eye more and more as time goes on and my sample of evaluations grows. This, combined with the ever important idea that we all wish the best for every player in their career, is why I will happily eat crow on Jalen Green, whose straight-line burst and overall scoring package felt unsustainable as they scaled up levels. When watching Green in the G-League Bubble this past season, it was apparent that even against NBA-adjacent competition, his lightning quick first step, ridiculous stop-start ability, and explosive vertical athleticism when accompanied by his shooting touch will make for an incredibly difficult cover, at any level.
At the prep level, Green’s calling card was, without question, his athletic traits. He turned advantage after advantage with his crazy first step and wild change of pace before finishing with a dunk or an above the rim layup. Seeing how easy it was for him, along with how he could struggle a bit as a pull-up shooter and with his handle at times, made me worried that better, more physical competition could figure him out rather easily. Instead, Green went on to face some of the best, most physical competition a prospect could find, apart from maybe a few international leagues, and put up monster box scores while showing off significantly improved scoring skills.
As a slasher, Green’s specialities translated without much problem. Using his signature hesitation jab, he got defenders to rise up just a tad right before blowing by them, consistently getting himself clean, uncontested looks with how much space he could create on simple straight line drives. It’s a bit astounding to watch him cover ground with the ball in his hands, as he consistently would start with some cushion and end at the rim with space between him and his defender, meaning he covered about the distance between catch to rim in about the same time the defender could cover half that. This naturally bodes well for him in transition, too, where he applies pressure with the looming downhill threat to open up some very easy passing windows.
As a shooter, Green took pretty significant strides from his final prep year to where he seemed to be at in the “Gubble.” Qualitatively, he looks much more on balance with a less pronounced elbow flare and flatter shooting bed, improvements that would give him a lot more general consistency as well as more versatility, specifically off the dribble. The stats would back this up as well, as he nailed threes at a 37% clip on nearly six attempts per game and converted 83% of his free throws. Whereas in high school the shot was more of a last resort when teams would sag off him to close driving lanes, he now uses it as leverage to give himself more space, confidently pulling up against drop coverage in the pick-and-roll and at times hitting difficult, off the dribble attempts like the one below.
Given that he somewhat holds the ultimate trump card in regards to advantage creation with his first step, Green’s able to make the game easy for himself as a scorer. If someone tries to crowd him, he’s turning a corner. If someone sags, he’s taking that space for a shot. This is especially true in pick-and-roll, where drop coverage is of no consequence to him once he’s able to leverage the shot, seeing as how his ability to play with speeds will put any big in purgatory. But, the drawbacks to Green’s projection are what lie beyond the scoring threat. He likely has the tools and general feel to be a league-average defender in time, which is more than enough considering his projected role, but the real concern I have is with his playmaking feel and processing traits. Green can have a tendency to lock into some serious tunnel vision at times, which drastically changes his ability to score. When he has those blinders on, teams can commit to deterring his movements with extra help and can therefore add more pressure at the point of attack as well, because he’s not able to punish those overcorrections. Of course, this greatly limits what he’s able to do with the ball, problems which are furthered by his current lack of a real handle in tight space. This is also not to mention the general negatives that come with having such a scoring-driven player, such as offensive stalling, stagnation, and missed looks. There’s room for improvement here, but the lack of feel in general does warrant concern and is the biggest reason why I’m a bit more skeptical of him than many seem to be. On one end, the potential he has as a scorer is undeniable, but on the other, having such a player in a league where ball movement, proactive thinking, and quality passing are growing in desirability can potentially limit a team’s ceiling.
Overall, Green’s ability to score the ball at all three levels becomes too useful to pass up on at a certain point. Very rarely do we see scoring prospects enter the draft with as strong a resume against top competition as Green holds, and we’ve seen how valuable on-ball scoring chops are in creating a winning roster. Having a player who can turn defenses in such a way makes things much easier for others and lifts the burden placed on the coach to an extent, and Green’s physical gifts set him up for success in a variety of different scoring roles, whether it be as a pick-and-roll operator or coming off of secondary Chicago or Miami actions and in pistol-focused sets. How much of an impact he’ll truly be able to make on a team comes down to how well he’s able to progress as a reader of the court, but the baseline is there for him to set himself up for easy reads along the way. Green without a doubt projects to be a very good player and even an all-star down the line, but the value he’s able to bring to a team context hinges on his ability to address outlying concerns.
Jonathan Kuminga’s Perceived Translatability
One thing I’ve come to terms with a bit over this recent draft cycle as I learn more about how teams operate and where risk-taking makes sense, is that sometimes, betting on more immediate translation leads to greater returns down the line. Although I’m personally more inclined, and honestly, more interested in the public sphere to break down development theory when it comes to prospects, outlining why and how they could work out, having such autonomy over a player’s development isn’t always feasible from a front office perspective. Operating from that pretense, it then makes sense at times to pull the trigger on a player who’s current combination of traits lend themselves better to immediate minutes at the NBA level. Jonathan Kuminga’s physical dominance was on full display for the G-League Ignite, and the athletic profile combined with his functional handle make for a package that’s ready to contribute to an NBA lineup sooner rather than later, while also leaving room for some massive improvements down the line. For these reasons, he’s often viewed as a bonafide top-five pick in this year’s class.
It’s easy to see what has scouts drooling over Kuminga when he gets going. With his powerful 6’7”+ frame, Kuminga can jockey with NBA athletes of all sizes from day one. He shined as a slasher for the Ignite, easily moving through players with exceptional physicality, strength, and multiple go-to counters. His broad shoulders and powerful base allow him to take contact in stride and win battles of physicality while in motion, giving him an important advantage when attacking the rim. This skill also helps raise the floor of his other traits, similarly to Green’s burst, because it allows him to ultimately turn unideal situations into advantageous ones with a simple drop of the shoulder. On top of this, Kuminga has made serious strides with his handle in recent years, to the point where he’s now comfortable both setting up defenders proactively with manipulation and reacting to defender reaches to create separation. It’s an extremely noteworthy development for a player who’s so often won on physical gifts, but can now flash really high-level dribbling sequences that, if expanded upon, could seriously change what he’s able to do with the ball in his hands.
This growing comfort with the ball shows up in his shot creation, as well. The jumper itself needs some work, which we’ll get to, but the avenues with which he’s able to find clean looks seem to grow in quantity by the day. The move executed in the above video is more of a flash in the pan than a consistent go-to for him at this stage, but to even have the wherewithal and footwork to execute such a shot is huge. This too is a reflection of his insane developmental curve, which is noteworthy in and of itself. Over the past few years, Kuminga has had as big an up-and-down stretch as one could maybe endure. Prior to his senior year in high school, Kuminga was on an ascension unlike any other prospect, seemingly adding new skills to his bag every game and growing more and more comfortable by the quarter. It was a development arc nearly every amateur scout was tuned into because of how insane it felt at times, but it was ultimately paused for reasons outlined by P.I.'s Andrew Slater in our G-League Ignite Scrimmage Recap. The Gubble was critical for Kuminga to show that the factors leading to his perceived senior year plateau were in fact contextual, and the handle and shot creation flashes shown lend themselves to that very idea.
That being said, Kuminga is not without his drawbacks. When entering an NBA skill development program, the first thing that will need addressing is his shot. With a very low, flat release and lacking a certain degree of consistent touch, Kuminga’s mechanics need a slight reworking for him to become a legitimate shooting threat long term. It’s encouraging that he’s comfortable taking them, but his 25% three point percentage and 63% free throw percentage are not the marks of a legitimate long range threat. Beyond that, what reads to me as his biggest hurdle in reaching a higher-end outcome is his overall feel and approach. Kuminga is wired to score, which is excellent in a setting where he’s knocking down shots like the infamous Peach Jam Texas Titans game, but doesn’t bode so well for the rest of the time. Which, as we established, is most of the time, for now. So much of Kuminga’s value addition is scoring that he ends up taking brutally contested, low-quality shots far more than is healthy, sometimes tanking possessions in a row with such decisions. This is a result both of how he’s been asked to play forever, but also of his larger lack of court vision. Even when he did show passing flashes, they all seemed to be fairly obvious decisions. The end result of this picture as it stands is a talented but mostly inefficient player, and one with a good amount of work to do in some hard to reverse areas. The ceiling is present, but how reachable it is is a much blurrier question.
With Kuminga, the gamble is on a player with advanced physical tools that he knows how to use along with his budding ball skills continuing to develop rapidly, to the point where he’s now perceiving his role on the court and operating within it to become a three-level scorer who can capitalize on his advantages with passing and handle a wing defensively. It’s very easy to drool over the flashes of brilliance in which he looks like a future NBA all-star, but those moments need to gradually become more consistent before they’re bankable. Despite the aforementioned qualities which are immediately translatable and intriguing themselves, Kuminga’s overall evaluation hinges heavily on weighting of ceiling, floor, and trust in development systems to truly improve his deficient areas. In a draft where the top-10 is likely to be rounded out with high-reward wing bets of varying degrees and archetypes, Kuminga’s physical tools stand out as one of the safest gambles of any single skill, while the lack of feel and measure seem like some of the toughest hills to climb. In this sense, he makes much more sense to me beyond the top-five, amongst this crowded stable of multifaceted wings, than as the certifiable fifth-best player in the draft. Despite this, if a franchise is able to truly turn an 18-year-old Jonathan Kuminga into a player who understands how to work in the flow of an offense and utilize his athleticism to make an impact defensively, then they’re maybe looking at one of the steals of the lottery.