NBA mock draft 2021: Next year’s class finally has a legit No. 1 prospect

The 2020 NBA Draft is now behind us, which means one thing: it’s time to look ahead at next year’s class. The next generation of young basketball talent is right around the corner, with top international prospects already in play, and college hoops starting only one week after the 2020 draft.

While this past draft class was defined by a lack of consensus at the top of the board, the 2021 draft will have a big prize waiting for the lucky team that nabs the No. 1 overall pick. Incoming Oklahoma State guard Cade Cunningham checks every box as the type of oversized playmaker teams covet. Cunningham enters the season as a strong favorite to eventually be the first pick, but there’s also an intriguing group of contenders behind him who will be spread out between college programs, the new G League initiative for blue chip high school players, and international teams.

Here’s your first look at the players expected to be at the top of the 2021 draft class.

1. Cade Cunningham, G, Oklahoma State

Cunningham feels like the type of player who would be a legitimate No. 1 overall prospect in almost any NBA draft. At 6’6, Cunningham is a big and strong lead guard whose top attribute might be his overall feel for the game. Cunningham doesn’t have outlier, dunk contest-worthy explosiveness, but he can make every read on the floor while scoring efficiently himself. He absolutely dominated the Nike EYBL circuit as a rising senior, posting ridiculous 66 percent true shooting, flashing remarkable passing chops, and forcing his way to the foul line at will. His swing skill will be his three-point shot, but he’s already showing plenty of improvement in that area over the last year.

While the 2020 NBA Draft didn’t have a consensus No. 1 prospect, Cunningham will become that player a year from now even in a class that includes bigger names with more mixtape hype. His game is perfectly suited for the modern NBA, and the team that gets him should have the league’s next foundational young star.

2. Brandon Boston, G, Kentucky

Boston transferred from his high school in suburban Atlanta to play his final year of prep ball with Bronny James on Los Angeles-based powerhouse Sierra Canyon. Now he’s the centerpiece of John Calipari’s top-ranked recruiting class, and looks like he might be even more talented than his RSCI placement at No. 7 overall in the incoming freshman class. A skinny 6’6 guard, Boston is a burgeoning perimeter scorer with tantalizing glimpses of creation potential. He’s already able to pair together multiple dribble crossovers to create space, and seems like a smart, capable defender, too. After grading out well during his final year of EYBL play in advanced metrics like box score plus-minus, Boston deserves to be recognized as a top-five prospect in this class.

3. Evan Mobley, C, USC

Mobley is a consensus top three recruit in the RSCI who joins his older brother Isaiah on the Trojans this season. A skinny 6’11 big man, the younger Mobley has some truly special movement skills for a player his size. Down the line he could project as someone who could defend smaller players on the perimeter while still protecting the rim, but his high center of gravity will lead to questions on if he can hold up down-low long term. What would really make Mobley scary is if his perimeter offensive skills continue to develop. While Mobley doesn’t have the strengths (namely: strength) of the lottery pick he’s replacing in the middle for USC, Onyeka Okongwu, he does have some outlier abilities that make him worthy of top-three consideration going into the year.

4. Jalen Green, G, G League Ignite

Green has been at the top of the rankings since his class began to get evaluated. The Fresno, CA native decided to join the G League Ignite team for blue chip recruits who didn’t want to play college basketball or turn pro overseas, setting up a fascinating developmental season in a new environment. Green is a super explosive 6’5 scoring guard with outlier burst and explosion. He can score points in a hurry when he gets hot, but he’ll have to work on becoming a more consistent decision-maker on a possession-by-possession basis. NBA scouts will want to see where his three-point shot is at, how he defends, and if he can consistently put pressure on the rim by driving the ball into the paint.

5. Jonathan Kuminga, F, G League Ignite

Kuminga will join Green on the NorCal-based Ignite team after reclassifying to graduate early from high school and put himself in position to be a top pick in the 2021 draft. At 6’7, Kuminga is a strong, athletic forward who has been working to develop his on-ball game over the last year. Scouts will want to evaluate his level of feel and decision-making in the G League, while also seeing where his jump shot is at. Ideally, Kuminga develops into a versatile defender (right now, his point of attack defense is better than his help defense) who can score on cuts and put-backs while he grows the rest of his game.

6. Jaden Springer, G, Tennessee

Springer is going to be part of an upstart Tennessee squad that should have NBA scouts monitoring what’s happening in Knoxville all season long. The 6’5 guard had a terrific prep career at IMG Prep, where he helped lead the team to a mythical national championship as a junior. Springer is a relentless player on both ends, combining aggressive drives to the rim with intimidating one-on-one defense. His strength and agility combined with a winning mentality should make him a productive college player from day one.

7. Jalen Johnson, F, Duke

Johnson is the centerpiece of Duke’s recruiting class this year as a big 6’8 forward who loves to handle and pass the ball in transition. While Johnson’s offensive playmaking flashes are tremendous, scouts will want to see if his three-point shot holds up enough to allow him to play off-the-ball in halfcourt sets. His defense will also have to hold up to scrutiny. If Duke plays Johnson at the four and teammate Matthew Hurt at the five, they should have an ideal offensive front court for the modern game.

8. Usman Garuba, F/C, Real Madrid

Garuba is a strong, agile 6’8 big man who was already earning minutes in Euroleague at 17 years old. The hope is that he can become a Draymond Green-lite as a switchable defender with elite help instincts while also providing short-roll passing and spot-up shooting on offense. His offense remains a major work in progress, but he feels like the clear-cut top international prospect heading into the ‘21 draft.

9. Ziaire Williams, F, Stanford

Like Boston, Williams transferred into Sierra Canyon for his final year of high school as a consensus top-10 overall recruit. He’ll be the focal point of Stanford’s offense this year as a 6’8 wing with an intriguing offensive skill set. Williams flashed pull-up shooting and the ability to get to the foul line during EYBL play. Blessed with great size for a modern wing, scouts will be watching how he holds up defensively and if he projects long-term as a secondary ball handler or if he’ll be best as a spot-up shooter.

10. Scottie Barnes, F, Florida State

Barnes is another player who has been on NBA radars for a while as a three-time USA Basketball gold medal winner and a five-star recruit since his early high school days. The 6’9, 227-pound forward has a game built on versatility: he’s an excellent passer, a capable ball handler in the open floor, and has the mentality to be a star on defense. His shooting is a major question mark to the point where he can’t be expected to space the floor at all. There are already early reports that Florida State plans on playing him at point guard. While Barnes isn’t always aggressive looking for his own offense, he is a big, athletic forward with a unique skill set who should find a way to be a winning player in the league.

11. Ariel Hukporti, C, Kedainiai Nevezis

Hukporti won MVP at Basketball Without Borders during All-Star Weekend in Chicago in February, which is traditionally an indicator that big things are to come for a prospect. It’s easy to see the German center’s talent. A massive 7-foot, 250 pound big man, Hukporti projects as a rim runner and rim protector who separates himself from the pack by being surprisingly light on his feet. Teams will want to see more tape to make sure he can consistently defend on the perimeter, but his rebounding and finishing make him valuable in the right situation regardless.

12. Jalen Suggs, G, Gonzaga

Suggs was an esteemed quarterback recruit who had offers in both sports from Ohio State before deciding to solely focus on basketball by picking Gonzaga. It’s the right move. Suggs is another long-time staple of USA Basketball’s youth teams with three gold medals to his name, earning a reputation as a skilled defender and smart player who makes winning plays at both ends. Teams will want to see where Suggs’ three-point shot is at, and how much juice he has as a halfcourt creator.

13. Keon Johnson, F, Tennessee

Johnson feels like one of the most underrated players in the incoming freshman class after being ranked No. 23 in the RSCI. The 6’5 wing is a nuclear athlete who is able to impact the game without needing the ball in his hands. Read Ross Homan on Johnson’s appeal.

14. Roko Prkačin, F, Cibona

The 6’9 Croatian combo forward is an aggressive scorer who can handle the ball in transition. Teams will want to see how he develops as a shooter (he’s hovered around 65 percent from the foul line for his career) and defender.

15. Moses Moody, G, Arkansas

Moody is going to help make Arkansas one of the most exciting young teams in the country this season. A 6’6 shooting with a reported 7-foot wingspan, Moody is a 3-and-D prospect who looks really impressive in both areas. He hit 43 percent of his threes as a senior on a loaded Monteverde team playing with Cade Cunningham, and was also one of the EYBL’s leaders in steals.

16. Daishen Nix, PG, G League Ignite

Nix is a 6’5 point guard who should have plenty of opportunities to impressive scouts after teaming up with Green and Kuminga on the inaugural G League Ignite team this season. Nix is a good athlete for his size who flashed dazzling passing and ball handling moves in transition and also has an improving pull-up shooting game. Read Dakota Schmidt on Nix at Ridiculous Upside.

17. Caleb Love, G, UNC

Love is a big 6’5 guard who can score at all three levels. He’s an advanced ball handler who should thrive in North Carolina’s uptempo offense. Teams will want to see how he develops as a facilitator.

18. Franz Wagner, G, Michigan

The younger brother of former Wolverines star Moritz Wagner, Franz Wagner is a 6’8 two-guard who enters his sophomore season hoping to emerge as Michigan’s leader alongside veteran forward Isaiah Livers. Wagner should get every opportunity to create with the ball in his hands for the Wolverines, and potentially profiles as a high-volume three-point shooter. While he only hit 31.1 percent of his threes last year, he’s a great free throw shooter (83 percent) and made big strides in his all-around offensive game late last season.

19. Greg Brown, F, Texas

Brown is a 6’8 forward who is the best pure athlete in the incoming freshman class. He should be a versatile weapon defensively who can guard the perimeter and provide rim protection. His offensive game remains a work in progress, but it will be interesting to see if he can make an impact on opportunistic plays off the ball as a freshman on a talented Texas team.

20. Isaiah Jackson, F, Kentucky

Jackson is a super bouncy 6’8 forward who should provide some fireworks for Kentucky at both ends of the floor this season. Jackson dunks everything in the paint, and put up impressive shot-blocking numbers on the EYBL circuit. NBA scouts will want to see if he can provide consistent impact and not just flashy highlights.

21. Trayce Jackson-Davis, F, Indiana

Jackson-Davis came to the Hoosiers with a serious pedigree — McDonald’s All-American, Mr. Basketball in Indiana — and fully lived up to the hype as a freshmen starter. Jackson-Davis is a crafty inside scorer who hit nearly 57 percent of his two-point attempts while also providing some impressive rim protection with a 7.3 block rate. He should be a breakout sophomore and potentially one of the best players in America this year.

22. Sharife Cooper, G, Auburn

Cooper enters Auburn one year after his former high school teammate Isaac Okoro from McEachern in Atlanta blossomed into a one-and-done lottery pick. Cooper is a small and shifty point guard who put up league-leading scoring numbers on the EYBL. He combines tight ball handling with the quickness to dust his man off the dribble and get to the rim. Scouts will want to see if he can hold up defensively, how well he shoots the ball, and where his assist-to-turnover numbers come in.

23. Terrence Shannon, G, Texas Tech

Texas Tech once developed Jarrett Culver and Zhaire Smith into first round picks after breakout sophomore seasons. Maybe Shannon can be next. The 6’5 guard is a wiry athlete who made opportunistic offensive plays for the Red Raiders as a freshman, showing an ability to get to the foul line (he hit 82 percent of his free throws) and finish plays around the rim. You can expect any Chris Beard-coached player to be excellent defensively and to improve their body year-over-year. Shannon has some upside as a breakout candidate coming in to the season.

24 Terrence Clarke, G, Kentucky

Clarke was considered as a potential No. 1 overall recruit in the class of 2021 before reclassifying up a year to join a star-studded group of incoming Kentucky freshmen. The 6’6 wing out of Massachusetts has long been tabbed as a takeover scorer, but scouts will want to see how he functions in a team context. His shooting percentages, playmaking chops, and defensive impact will be under the microscope in Lexington.

25. Devin Askew, G, Kentucky

Askew will be the table setter for Kentucky following a standout career at Mater Dei in California. A big 6’3 guard with a 6’7 wingspan, Askew isn’t the quickest lead ball handler but he’s a sharp passer and a capable shooter.

26. Josh Christopher, G, Arizona State

Christopher is a five-star recruit going to play for Bobby Hurley on an Arizona State team full of dynamic scorers. Christopher fits right in. The 6’5 shooting guard enters college with a reputation as a three-level bucket-getter and great competitor. ASU would love for him to make a defensive impact as a freshman, while scouts will also be monitoring his efficiency and ability to avoid turnovers.

27. Henry Coleman, F, Duke

As you can see from the picture above, Coleman is an obscenely strong 6’8 forward who should bring toughness, physicality, and above-the-rim finishing on both ends to Duke. No one is quite sure how he’ll fit into Duke’s front court rotation as a freshman just yet, but we’ll guess scouts will like his energy if he finds the right role.

28. David Johnson, G, Louisville

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Johnson is a 6’5 guard who made an instant impact as a freshman for Louisville after missing the start of the season as he recovered from hand surgery. The combo guard flashed impressive playmaking chops (36 percent assist rate), and an ability to absorb contact at the rim. Scouts will want to see if his outside shooting as improved and if he can score more efficiently than last year.

29. Jared Butler, G, Baylor

Butler had a breakout sophomore year at Baylor and returns to what should be a national championship contender this year. The 6’3 guard has made real strides as a shooter (hitting 38 percent of his threes on 202 attempts last season) and also posted a sky-high 3.2 percent steal rate. He should be one of the very best players in college basketball this year.

30. James Bouknight, G, UConn

Bouknight is a skinny 6’4 shooting guard who caught fire as a scorer for UConn last year at the end of his freshman season. Bouknight scored 16 or points in 10 of his last 11 games, and enters this season with the coveted ‘breakout sophomore’ label. One major area of improvement has to be his ability to read a defense. He finished his freshman year with 50 turnovers to 36 assists.

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