This column serves as Part 2 of a three-part series called “What Each NBA Team Should Do With Its First Round Pick In The 2021 NBA Draft.” Part 3 will come on Thursday, with picks 10-30 and looks an some intriguing second round talents.
No. 2, Houston Rockets: Jalen Suggs, Gonzaga
The Rockets seem destined to take Jalen Green with this pick. Trading up for Cunningham, who they are allegedly interested in and would make sense given Houston’s array of future draft picks and Cunningham’s prospectus, is perhaps a better option. But the Rockets can split the cake if they instead take Jalen Suggs, who’s the only player in this class in the same tier as Cunningham.
Suggs is a classic high floor player with his passing, instincts and addiction to winning. But he has a higher ceiling than that. He possesses a scoring knack seldom seen in guards, using his lean yet sturdy frame to get to the rim and a mechanical but effective jump shot to hit from deep and pull up in transition.
At Gonzaga, Suggs was everywhere on the court. He always seemed to be in the right spot making winning plays – be it a steal, box-out, extra effort on a help defensively, a rebound, or a game-winning shot..
He’s reminiscent of Tyrese Haliburton from last year’s draft class in that sense – a player that this site was way too low on (He was No. 14 on the Hub’s 2020 Big Board). Having Suggs ranked as high as No. 2 might be an overcorrection from that, but Suggs’ shot creation skills give him an extra flavor that Haliburton – as a draft prospect – never let exude.
Houston is at the forefront of a rebuild, but Suggs represents a path down multiple routes. He can play next to John Wall in the short term while representing a path forward and past Wall’s contract. A team with Suggs, a hopefully healthy Wall, Eric Gordon assuming he’s not traded and Christian Wood isn’t terrible. Sprinkle in some Kevin Porter Jr. off the bench, and if the Rockets want to be competitive while stuck with Wall’s salary, that mix of players doesn’t make a great team, but it’s not exactly a bad one. It puts them in contention for a playoff spot.
Suggs also would serve as the next face of the franchise and Wall’s successor at point guard in the long term. He’s the type of player you build around rather than insert as a role guy. His upside is the best player on a championship team.
Suggs’ weaknesses are the expectations. Like Cunningham, projecting anybody as a true 1A offensive option is risky. This is even more true with Suggs, who already does so much on both ends of the court, and isn’t the shooter Cunningham is, limiting his potential as a scorer in the pick and roll game. He’s bigger than one would think, but his lack of immense size at the guard spot, in addition to a lack of moves in isolation, makes him potentially more of a true point guard rather than an all-around offensive creator.
No. 3, Cleveland Cavaliers: Evan Mobley, USC
In a way, Mobley should be the Cavaliers’ pick at this spot no matter who is on the board, assuming he’s available. Cleveland might be set on developing its young backcourt of Collin Sexton and Darius Garland even further, and Mobley’s unique skill set as a big makes him fit to play anywhere in the frontcourt. The fit is so good that Cunningham, if he were here, may be worth passing on for the Cavs.
But that scenario is unlikely to occur, with Cunningham destined to go No. 1 no matter who is picking. That makes this decision easy for Cleveland.
Mobley is the best player available and with good reason. The 7-footer is an absolute freak for his size and position. He moves as effortlessly as a wing or guard for his size – the only prospects in recent years who comes close to matching Mobley’s mobility are Oneyka Onkongwu in 2020 and Bam Adebayo in 2017, and both of those players are at least three inches shorter than Mobley.
Mobley’s game is simply beautiful. He’s not much of a bruiser or a post-up player thanks to a thin frame, but his athleticism and soft hands make him deadly on the roll. His height allows him to shoot over anyone – even the tallest bigs – with jumpers, hooks and curls. While Mobley won’t bang, his quick feet and athleticism gives him the ability to take his time before attacking a defender – one he will almost certainly beat. In addition to his work as a true center, Mobley can shoot it from anywhere. On a short roll, he can pull up from the mid-range while creating the mirage that he’s diving to the hoop. He can pop instead of roll out of the pick and drain a three with an effortless stroke. He has shot creation skills as well with his knack for shooting, touch and athleticism. At the same time, he doesn’t need the ball, because he’s a capable shooter from beyond the arc and moves around like a slashing wing trying to find an open spot on the court to spot-up from.
That’s just the start of it, too. Mobley’s not quite Nikola Jokic, but has an amazing passing gene for someone his size. He can handle and take dribble-handoffs, and have the offense anchored around him at the elbow. With some seasoning as a ball-handler and an expanding knowledge bank, it’s not far-fetched to say that he could be a lead ball-handler someday.
On the other end, Mobley is just as special. The athleticism on the offensive side of the floor translates perfectly to defense, where the former Trojan can switch and guard 2-5. He’s a menace at the rim, blocking anything in sight and using those quick feet to help and recover to wherever. Teams simply can’t hunt in the pick and roll – he’s too fluid to let a screen disrupt his movement and stands a chance against almost any ball-handler in that scenario (aside from much smaller, craftier guards).
So how is Mobley not the No. 2 overall pick, or let alone the first? He has very few weaknesses – the first being that despite his skills as a rim protector, his thin frame will likely see him suffer against beefer bigs like Joel Embiid and Jokic. The second is a reaction to the first. If he can’t hang against those players, then who does his team have to put on the floor to help handle them, and what kind of problems does that cause late in the postseason when unathletic bigs are hunted and usually played off the floor?
The value of bigs overall still plays its part here. Sure, Mobley himself projects as a player able to stay on the court in those situations, but does his defense – or someone else’s in spite of Mobley’s limitations thanks to that thin frame – actually hurt against teams that can get away with going against the grain? That list is bigger than it seems– the Lakers, Sixers, Nuggets, Bucks, Suns and Pelicans are all doing it with success or likely will be soon.
In addition, the fact that a player can do everything Mobley does at his size at the NBA level seems a bit unreasonable. Every USC game of his was a show, but the Pac-12 wasn’t exactly college basketball’s greatest display last season. Can Mobley do all of the things he displayed at the next level? If he truly can, then he could very well be the best player in this draft years from now.
That said, Mobley is a fantastic prospect, and the Cavaliers should be ecstatic that they’ll likely be able to take him here on Thursday night. Mobley’s versatility allows them to play him at the 4-spot if they re-sign Jarrett Allen to play center, which will protect Mobley from bigger guys but allow Cleveland to deploy him as a switching defensive menace who can simultaneously protect Allen against more mobile bigs. If Allen and the Cavs part ways, then Mobley slides right into the 5-hole, and likely struggles defensively in certain matchups but punishes unathletic bigs on the other end.
No. 4, Toronto Raptors: Jalen Green, G-League Ignite
The Raptors need a star – and one who can be a star right away.
That’s why Toronto takes Jalen Green here, who despite having two players ranked ahead of him on the Hub’s board, can be that.
Let’s first start with the players we don’t have Toronto taking. More in-depth scouting reports will be found in the next two picks, but Jonathan Kuminga, despite being the better prospect, is not an immediate help to the Raptors, whose roster won a NBA Championship two years ago and is not far off from being there again. Kuminga may be a better player than Green someday, but his rawness on both sides of the ball makes inferior to Green right now.
There’s perhaps a better case for Scottie Barnes going to the Raptors here. Toronto needs more size, and likely has a hole at guard assuming Kyle Lowry signs elsewhere (Suggs seems likely to be here for the Raptors Thursday night, which is insane and would be a home run for them to draft). Barnes can arguably fill both of those roles, as his passing instincts are rare for a player with his size and frame and his defensive acumen and ability is the best in the draft. But he’s a lock at either position, and probably fits best as a Draymond Green-style player offensively – someone who can screen and roll or be anchored at the elbow throwing darts to teammates. Using him solely as a rim protector – which Toronto needs – wastes his true potential.
So, enter Green. Pascal Siakam is a fine, solid player. But his half-court and isolation scoring went off the deep end after a brutal performance in the Bubble in 2020 – the Celtics seemingly figured him out in that second round series last Fall, and he never recovered. Fred VanVleet is the same level of offensive player as Siakam, as he can get hot one night and carry the team, but isn’t a crunch-time scorer made for deep playoff runs.
Toronto needs someone like Green – who’s best skill is scoring and who can do so in bunches. He’s their best bet in the short-term to pull them out of the league’s middle class.
That said, Green as a prospect is not perfect. While scoring is his best skill, it might be the only one he has. He’s a weak passer for someone who projects as a No. 1 offensive option, and doesn’t have the best game in and out of the pick and roll. Green is a high-usage player, who loves isolations and high-usage possessions. It’s not totally a bad thing if the ball consistently goes in, but players like Green – who are purely scorers and don’t bring anything else to the table aside from it – tend to have their ceiling capped in the NBA.
Those players are not bad – Devin Booker, Bradley Beal and Donovan Mitchell come to mind. But teams like Washington and Utah seemed capped out at second-round playoff exits with those types of players as its 1As. With two-way threats like Kuminga available, a Green-clone in James Bouknight still on the board and potentially Suggs or Mobley in reach on Thursday night, Green’s ceiling just isn’t worth reaching for at the top of this class. For Toronto though, it is.
No. 5, Orlando Magic: Jonathan Kuminga, G-League Ignite
Sure, this is the classic Orlando pick – a long, athletic guy who’s raw and has problems shooting.
But the Magic have room for error. First, they own this pick and No. 8 overall, allowing them to take a swing with one of the spots. Second, if the past four years are any indication, Orlando’s front office led by John Hammond and Jeff Weltman have unlimited job security – that duo entered a rebuilding situation four years ago, took the team nowhere, and have now entered their second rebuilding phase. It is incredibly hard to not get anywhere at all when building a team up from nothing.
With those two things in my mind, Kuminga should be the pick. There’s a case for him to be a top-three ceiling player in this class, as his two-way skill set and athletic wing frame is comparable to no one ahead of him.
Kuminga is raw as all hell. He needs to fine-tune his shot selection, and he can be too aggressive at times on the ball and take shots away from those who potentially deserve it more. Despite his athleticism, his defense can waver – most of this may be due to his age and lack of development thus far.
But the seeds are there. If he can put it together, Kunminga could develop into a Kawhi Leonard-type player, where he’s one of the game’s best defenders and not only is a No. 1 option offensively, but can handle the ball and initiate the offense as well. For better or for worse, Kuminga plays at his own pace, and establishes control over a game that way – similar to the way Leonard does. That’s a rare skill to have – it’s the same reason Cunningham is going No. 1 overall.
Throughout the last decade, the Magic have had solid pieces. But there was never a guy to bring all together with his star power, and it’s why Orlando has been stuck in the dirt for years on end. Kuminga is no guarantee to be that guy either, but he has the best shot out of anyone available.
Barnes is the widely expected pick here, and it makes sense. The Magic don’t have a big man they can be confident in, as Mo Bamba has seemingly busted and Wendell Carter Jr. is not the player we’d thought he’d be out of college. But at No. 8 overall, the Magic should have another option to fill that spot, and whoever may be there doesn’t have close to the ceiling that Kuminga does.
No. 6, Oklahoma City Thunder: Scottie Barnes, Florida State
The Thunder are living a blank check lifestyle.
With 17 first-round picks over the next seven drafts starting Thursday night, Oklahoma City can essentially make any offer they want to, and subsequently, draft whoever they want to.
It seems as though they’re already trying. As written on Tuesday, the Thunder have reached what they considered their ceiling to be on a package offered for No. 1 overall, and it’s not enough for Detroit to accept given that there’s a potentially generational player on the board. It’s odd that the Thunder won’t go to the ends the Pistons want, because they certainly can, but there’s also a good case that protecting some of those draft assets to trade up for another generational prospect in a future draft – or a disgruntled star elsewhere in the league – is worth it as well.
If the Thunder don’t move up for a shot at one of the top three prospects, all of whom should be held in similar regard by their respective teams compared to the Pistons and Cunningham, Barnes is the best player available.
The Thunder have cornerstones of their future at guard and on the wing already in Shai Gilgenous-Alexander, Luguentz Dort and Darius Bazley. Down low, there’s less of a future, with Aleksej Pokuševski being a complete wild card in terms of which way he goes as an NBA player (or not – that’s legitimately still up in the air).
With Barnes, the Thunder can get someone they can play anywhere. Likely used best as a screener and roll man and switchable big, Barnes’ athleticism makes him a matchup nightmare on both ends. Offensively, he’ll be impossible to stop when heading toward the rim. With a good passing guard, lobs should become a staple play of his. He also has the ability to initiate an offense – some see Barnes as a point guard given how good his feel for the game is. That might be a tad ambitious, but there’s no reason he can’t be an anchor at the elbow with sets running around him, or bring the ball up the court at times and initiate from the top of the key.
Barnes is the best defensive player in the draft, too. He’s legitimately switchable 1-5, which automatically makes him one of a select few in the NBA. He’s got the special ability to play the equivalent of free safety on the basketball court by manning the open space on the court and quickly jumping to wherever the help is needed or the switch is to occur. His recovery time is that small, thanks to a chiseled, long frame and ballerina feet.
For whoever takes him, Barnes is an extremely safe pick. The only concern is his lack of a jump-shot, which is brutally bad and has no means of getting better given his poor free-throw shooting. In minutes he does play point guard, the lack of an outside shot could throw off his team’s offense – the same way it has to Philadelphia and Ben Simmons all these years.
No. 7, Golden State Warriors: James Bouknight, UCONN
If they don’t move them, the Warriors need to be getting two things out of their two lottery picks.
- Basketball competence.
- Consistent shot-making.
Last year was just not good enough in those two departments. For example, Kelly Oubre Jr.’s line left you wondering if he was wildly underrated or overrated every night. Juan Tocanso-Anderson is certainly a rotation player, but the days of him starting need to be over. James Wiseman was simply not ready for the minutes allocated to him, and his eventual injury forced players much less talented than him into the rotation.
Of course, upgrades might be more bankable on the trade market rather than in rookies. But those options are much different than they were in 2020, when Golden State was picking No. 2 in a perceived weak draft. Trading last year’s pick for a star or selling low on it and acquiring two or three average to above-average rotation players was a better choice than taking a swing on whatever prospects were available.
This year, a trade for a star player is the only real option outside of using the picks. The talent available at No. 7 and No. 14 is not far removed from – or perhaps even better than – trading for NBA-qualified veterans or rotation players.
But does a star exist? It seems like neither Damian Lillard nor Bradley Beal are officially available yet. Ben Simmons would be the third name but picks No. 7 and No. 14 seem like a lot for someone who would essentially serve the same role as Draymond Green on the Warriors current squad.
It seems as though the Warriors are stuck using these picks, which isn’t totally a bad thing, as James Bouknight would provide both of the traits Golden State needs.
Bouknight is a very similar prospect to Green in the sense that both have only one real skill in scoring. But the Warriors desperately need that around Stephen Curry and the returning Klay Thompson to avoid a similar outcome as last season. Bouknight’s shot bag is deep, and he projects as a classic 2-guard who could fit in alongside Curry and Thompson.
Bouknight has a chance to be a bit more efficient than Green despite his poor outside shooting. He’s not quite as high usage as Green is, displaying more selflessness as an off-ball offensive player despite bad three-point percentages. His slim, small frame may be a worry when cutting and slashing, but his athleticism translates to him getting to the rim well when the ball is in his hand.
If Bouknight’s threes can go down, then he’s got similar ability to Curry in the sense that he never stops moving and trying to get open. His shot creation skills make him more bouncy and slippery at the point of attack than Curry, which could allow Bouknight to still be effective if the shot never comes along.
Bouknight tries hard defensively. His small, slight frame puts a cap on his defensive ceiling that he can’t control. But the Warriors, for once, need offense with these picks. The other side of the ball is, for once, not a worry at all.
No. 8, Orlando Magic: Alperen Sengun, Turkey
After taking a high-upside wing at No. 5 overall, the Magic come back and address their problems down low here at No. 8 overall with Sengun.
Sengun is simultaneously one of the most intriguing and confusing prospects in this draft. The things he does to his opponents on tape make you wonder if he’s playing against YMCA dudes, but the Turkish League is a legitimate association, and Sengun put up historic numbers in it and won MVP at just 18 years old.
So how does a non-switching, defensively challenged, throwback offensive big end up ranking ninth on the Hub’s big board and go eighth in the draft?
Sengun is simply a bucket. He will almost immediately challenge Joel Embiid for the best footwork in the league, which he uses to dance with bigger, slower players in the post with his back-to-the-basket. His quick feet also allow him to attack off the dribble from the perimeter and get to the rim, a skill that seems hard to believe until you see it.
On the roll, Sengun can throw dimes to shooters, keeping defenders honest and reluctant to help inside. This opens up the lane and rim for him, which is an easy two points every time.
Sengun’s passing also allows a team to use him as an offensive hub at the elbow, where he can dot up opposing defenses with craft and I.Q.
There are serious limitations with Sengun, though. While his bounce off-the-dribble when driving would lead one to believe that he has untapped potential as a shooter and switchable big, neither is guaranteed. Sengun’s quick feet do not translate to defense at all, and his three-point percentage is quite low on not much volume. Not only is Sengun not switchable, but his defense in every type of coverage is poor. He’s also a little short on height, which doesn’t give him advantages on the defensive end.
Does that combination of traits in a Magic uniform sound familiar? Sengun is extremely comparable to former Orlando center Nikola Vucevic with his dazzling footwork, passing skills and lack of defensive talent, but he might have a higher ceiling thanks to his capabilities off the dribble and work from the perimeter.
No. 9, Sacramento Kings: Keon Johnson, Tennessee
Texas’ Kai Jones would make a lot of sense here for the Kings given their need for a big man, but Sacramento also desperately needs defense, which is Keon Johnson’s calling card.
Johnson should be expected to make a similar defensive impact Isaac Okoro did for the Cavaliers last season as a rookie. He’s a lockdown wing defender who grinds through screens and has quick feet. He’s a tad short, but has a long wingspan and might be one of the best athletes in the draft – June’s Combine proved that.
His ability on the offensive side of the ball is up for debate. Johnson certainly projects to be better on that end than Okoro was or ever will be, but to what extent is unknown. He was a little too ball-dominant at times at Tennessee and took shots at times when he would have been much better off putting in Jaden Springer’s hands instead. But those shots at times were impressive when they went in, and tapped into Johnson’s perhaps unexpected potential as a go-to scorer.
The Kings could benefit from a guy like that. They currently lack a star offensive player on their roster, although Tyrese Haliburton’s second year could bring some upgrades to that department. Regardless of what Johnson does offensively, his defensive presence should make an immediate impact, one that the Kings sorely needs.
No. 10, Memphis Grizzlies: Jalen Johnson, Duke
The Grizzlies need a star.
Ja Morant already is that, but he and Memphis are bogged down by his inefficiencies in the half-court. Morant plays 100 mph, and while that’s not a bad thing, it’s unfortunately not the way things can be all the time.
So the Grizzlies need somewhere else to go for those buckets. As good as he is, Dillion Brooks just isn’t that guy, and Jaren Jackson Jr. is best suited shooting from the corner and wrecking havoc defensively.
Jalen Johnson has his warts. He has no jump-shot. He left Duke after his relationship with Coach K soured and his performance dipped. He’s done the same at other schools. His effort wanes on both sides of the ball, particularly on defense.
But the Grizzlies need a star and are one of few teams in the league that can afford to take a gamble. That star is their only missing piece, now that they’ve installed a greater veteran presence on their roster and added extra draft capital thanks to Monday’s trade with the Pelicans, who initially owned this pick.
The trade was smart for both sides. Memphis downgraded at center with Steven Adams but at least replaced the leadership Jonas Valancuinas brought to the table. It also added to it with Eric Bledsoe who, despite his selfish tendencies, can at least be a bit of a mentor to Morant, as the two’s games at one point were quite similar. They also picked up an extra first in addition to moving up to this spot, giving them extra protection if this pick or future ones bust.
New Orleans got rid of two massive financial mistakes in Bledsoe and Adams, and only moved down seven spots while giving up one of its billion other future picks in the process. They also improved their current roster, as Valanciunas is a much better fit next to Zion Williamson in the front court thanks to his ability to shoot threes.
Both teams are better off, and if both hit on their draft picks, it’s essentially a win-win.
Memphis may not hit on Johnson though. What he’s guaranteed to bring to the table is an intriguing skillset built around his astute passing gene, which is rare for a wing his size. He’s a wizard in transition and would be a dynamic threat next to Morant. In the half-court, his vision is still pristine, but his lack of a jump-shot makes his constant yet impressive drives to the rim predictable – he’s not a Ben Simmons/Giannis Antentokoumpo body mold, making those play types much easier to stop.
But the Grizzlies need someone who can be any type of threat off the dribble. Johnson’s frame makes him much more imposing than Morant, and his passing skills give Memphis something else to bank on. With youth everywhere and only one piece missing, the Grizzlies are best off taking a chance. Johnson is a big one, but he just might be worth it.