Tiered board for top-heavy 2021 NBA Draft

NBA draft prospects Jalen Suggs and Evan Mobley
Brett Wilhelm/NCAA Photos via Getty Images
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If the 2021 NBA Draft looks fairly strong, it’s because of prospects 2-4.

Cade Cunningham would be a fairly average No. 1 pick. Which is no slight. No. 1 picks tend to be pretty darned good.

But there’s not much drop to Jalen Green, Evan Mobley or Jalen Suggs. Any of those three could be the top pick in a different year.

However, after that, I see a steep drop. Of course, there will be finds. So, it’s worth assessing deeper into the draft.

How this works:

Draft for need or take the best player available?

It’s the question as old as drafts themselves. Personally, I favor the middle-of-the-road approach – the tier system. I judge prospects on three attributes:

  • Current ability
  • Potential
  • Likelihood of meeting that potential

Obviously, assessing those attributes is not easy. It’s really hard.

That’s why I don’t like taking the best prospect – based on all three criteria – available. It’s just too difficult to split hairs between players with so many variables.

But overly considering fit is problematic for the same reason. Rosters churn, and it’s foolish to pass on a clearly better prospect – in the cases that becomes clear – just because he doesn’t fit the current version of the team.

So how does the tier system work?

Divide players into tiers based on their value regardless of fit. Don’t worry about differentiating prospects with nearly identical values. Find natural cutoffs.

Then, within each tier, rank the players based on fit for the specific drafting team.

Theoretically, a draft could have anywhere between 1 and 60 tiers. A 1-tier draft would mean every prospect – from the top pick to Mr. Irrelevant – holds the same value. A 60-tier draft would mean every prospect is clearly distinguishable based on value. Obviously, neither is likely.

The size of tiers should be organic, and therefore, the number of tiers is also organic. Naturally, tiers tend to be smaller near the top of the draft, where lines between players are sharper.

Within each tier, I rank players as if the drafting teams had empty rosters. Obviously, actual NBA teams would need to consider other information when assessing fit of players within a tier.

Here are the 10 tiers that cover the first round of the 2021 NBA draft:

Tier 1

1. Cade Cunningham, point guard/wing, Oklahoma State

The consensus top player in this draft, Cunningham lacks the explosive athleticism to rate among the very best prospects of recent years. But he checks enough boxes to warrant going No. 1. He’s a knockdown shooter. He sees the court well, and he’s strong enough to make every pass. Big (6-foot-8) and physical, he navigates the court well enough to overcome his inability to create space through quickness/burst. The (limited) ways he struggled at Oklahoma State – turnovers, poor mid-range shooting – were directly tied to the massive defensive attention he received. His size is a plus defensively.

Tier 2

2. Jalen Green, shooting guard, G League Ignite

Green is an electric athlete and smooth shooter, a highly intriguing combination. He can detonate to the rim or dribble into lightning-quick pull-up jumpers. His passing has improved, though nobody will mistake him for a point guard. His defense remains unimpressive, and his slight frame limits his upside on that end.

3. Evan Mobley, big, USC

Only special centers should be drafted this high, and Mobley might qualify. He could be the rare center whose game completely holds up deep into the playoffs. A 7-footer with a 7-foot-4 wingspan and nice hops, he protects the rim well and moves so fluidly in space. Defensive rebounding and post defense must improve, though they should as he gets stronger. Offensively, he’s best screening, rolling and finishing above the rim. His ball-handling unlocks a higher ceiling. Mobley has also shown tantalizing flashes as a passer and outside shooter.

Tier 3

4. Jalen Suggs, point guard, Gonzaga

Suggs imposes his will on games with his athleticism and tenacity. He plays with such force on both ends of the floor, attacking as a driver and distributor and hounding opponents defensively. He plays hardnosed defense, often gambling for steals (usually productively). That fuels his excellent transition game. His competitiveness shines.

Tier 4

5. Scottie Barnes, forward, Florida State

Barnes hounds opponents on and off the ball defensively. At 6-foot-9, long and built, he guards every position and communicates so well. His intensity is contagious. However, his choppy jumper could be a flaw that undermines everything. His driving and passing will get him only so far if he can’t shoot 3s.

6. Jonathan Kuminga, forward, G League Ignite

Kuminga is extremely raw. Which is OK, considering he’s just 18 and incredibly athletic. At least in the short term, he’d be well-served moving closer to power forward than small forward on the positional spectrum. His unadvanced ball skills wouldn’t be such a liability at power forward. At 6-foot-8, he has the strength to hold up inside.

Tier 5

7. James Bouknight, shooting guard, Connecticut

Bouknight passed many eye tests by making difficult shots and finishing way above the rim. But his efficiency on jumpers was poor, and he had had more turnovers than assists. Maybe his wild shot selection was a product of his situation. Still, Bouknight will need work fitting into a good NBA offense. He’s not much of an off-ball threat. But his drives and pull-ups are tantalizing – a quick burst, shiftiness as heads to the rim then either a compact pull-up or athletic finish. He’s an inconsistent defender.

8. Josh Giddey, point forward, Adelaide (Australia)

Giddey is a phenomenal passer, including using his handle to create angles. At 6-foot-8, he really sees the court. He’s an aggressive driver. But his jumper needs major work. He could be overwhelmed as a ballhandler and individual defender in the NBA until he gets stronger. However, just 18, he should fill out more. His rebounding and team defense indicate his basketball intelligence will translate into other facets of his game once he becomes more athletically capable.

9. Franz Wagner, forward, Michigan

Wagner’s defensive anticipation stands out, though top NBA athletes will test him. He can handle and pass as a secondary creator, though he lacks the explosiveness to run the offense. His 3-pointer will be a swing skill. His efficiency at Michigan was merely OK, but he looks like he should shoot better.

10. Moses Moody, wing, Arkansas

Moody fits the 3-and-D mold – including the implication the rest of his game is limited. He’s a good spot-up 3-point shooter. He’s a smart defender who moves his feet well and has good length. But he’s not going to create much offensively, though he can at least get into the mid-range and sometimes use his craft to draw fouls as he gets closer to the rim.

Tier 6

11. Alperen Sengun, center, Besiktas (Turkey)

Sengun won MVP of Turkey’s top league at just 18. But it’s unclear how Sengun’s old-school game will translate. He was a fantastic interior scorer – shooting efficiently on post-ups, rolls, drives, offensive rebounds. However, the 6-foot-10 Sengun will face greater length and athleticism in the NBA. Encouragingly, he’s a willing – though overly ambitious – passer and has potential as an outside shooter. Discouragingly, he has so many bad habits defensively. Even if he cleans those up, he looks like neither a rim protector nor someone quick enough to defend many power forwards.

12. Jalen Johnson, forward, Duke

Johnson leaving Duke during the season raises concerns, though it’s tough to tell whether they’re overblown. His athleticism shines in transition. He glides across the court, finishes above the rim and makes good decisions as a passer. But he struggles in the halfcourt, where he doesn’t have enough craft as a ballhandler or touch as a shooter. His defense is more versatile than stout.

Tier 7

13. Keon Johnson, shooting guard, Tennessee

Johnson has eye-popping athleticism and plays with a high motor. He glues to his man defensively. He has shown flashes as mid-range shooter and passer. But he must expand his range and tighten his handle. Or maybe the 6-foot-5 19-year-old could play as a small-ball four once he gets stronger.

14. Jared Butler, point guard, Baylor

Butler was flagged medically in the pre-draft process though ultimately cleared. He’s a smooth shooter and ball-handler, though he lacks explosiveness. He makes the right reads as a passer but doesn’t tilt the defense enough to be a top playmaker. His defense is more sound than harassing on the ball, and at 6-foot-2, he’ll struggle to guard multiple positions.

15. Davion Mitchell, point guard, Baylor

Mitchell is a pesky, physical on-ball defender. He has expanded his offense, getting more creative in his moves and sharpening his court vision, as a 22-year-old. His 3-pointer has also improved, though not to the point it’s reliable. He must draw more fouls at the next level to score efficiently. Mitchell’s track record of growth and fiery attitude are commendable, but the 6-foot-2 guard will face real challenges translating to the next level.

16. Trey Murphy, forward, Virginia

Murphy is a 3-and-D player who can guard multiple positions. His 3-pointer is less versatile, as he was good with his feet set but not as reliable on the move or off the dribble. He’s not an offensive creator, for himself or others. But he can finish above the rim if set up on a cut. His rebounding would be an issue at power forward, though that’s where he’d create the most matchup advantages.

Tier 8

17. Usman Garuba, big, Real Madrid

Garuba was already a good defender in Europe’s top league as a teenager. He protected the rim and guarded on the perimeter, using his smarts to make hustle plays everywhere. He can put the ball on the floor after grabbing rebounds, and he can pass in the halfcourt. But his offense – especially shooting – is undeveloped. He’ll probably have to play center, though he’s just 6-foot-8.

18. Ziaire Williams, wing, Stanford

His combination of size (6-foot-8), athletic fluidity and ball skills is rare. But he struggled in his lone season at Stanford. Maybe that was a product of this year’s unique challenges. The 19-year-old could also improve significantly – as a defender, as a driver – as he gains mass. But his struggles, particularly as a shooter and decisionmaker, are concerning.

19. Nah’Shon “Bones” Hyland, guard, Virginia Commonwealth

Hyland is an awesome 3-point shooter who can pull from deep. His range helps him blow by defenders and get to the basket, where he’s a creative finisher. However, Hyland often has tunnel vision, looking for only his own shot. At 6-foot-3, even with a 6-foot-9 wingspan, he’s a limited defender due to his rail-thin frame. So, Hyland must either get significantly stronger, improve his passing to play point guard himself or play next to a bigger point guard, which limits Hyland’s fits.

20. Josh Primo, shooting guard, Alabama

Primo is a good 3-point shooter and just 18. It’s possible to see how the rest of his game will round out, but it’ll take time. His offensive moves are too simplistic, especially given his lack of explosiveness. He has shown disappointingly little as a passer. His defensive competitiveness is encouraging.

21. Chris Duarte, shooting guard, Oregon

Duarte enters the NBA relatively polished. He better be. He’s already 24. Duarte is a good 3-point shooter. He can handle the ball and pass, too. He’s a sound defender. But his lack of speed limits him on both ends.

22. Jaden Springer, guard, Tennessee

Springer is a tenacious defender. He struggles to gain separation through either burst or creative ball-handling, and he plays below the rim. But he compensates by being so decisive, being comfortable amid contact and finding creative passing angles. He shoots efficiently on 3-pointers, but he must accelerate his motion to get more off. Just 18, he has more time than most to improve.

23. Corey Kispert, wing, Gonzaga

Kispert is an excellent 3-point shooter who launches in any setting. He gets open looks by running in transition and relocating within the halfcourt. But is he more than a specialist? His athleticism and ball-handling significantly limit him. Though he competes defensively, especially against bigger players, he is slow on that end.

Tier 9

24. Cameron Thomas, shooting guard, LSU

Thomas is score-first, score-second and score-third. He hunts pull-ups from beyond the arc and in the mid-range – and makes plenty, including difficult ones. Self-created offense is a premium skill, and Thomas has it. But his shot selection is troublesome, too often settling for tough jumpers. He does a good job drawing fouls along the way (then making free throws), but he too rarely gets all the way to the rim. His passing is poor, and his defense is worse.

25. Isaiah Jackson, center, Kentucky

An exceptionally athletic big, Jackson fouls too much. But that’s because he’s trying – and often succeeding – to block everything inside and out. He can move on the perimeter, a mobility that also helps him rim run offensively. He even shows potential as a mid-range shooter, though he takes too many jumpers. His effectiveness should improve as he fills out, but he also needs work on his awareness.

Tier 10

26. JT Thor, big, Auburn

At 6-foot-9 with a 7-foot-3 wingspan and plus athleticism, Thorn can both protect the rim and hold his own the perimeter defensively. He gambles too much, though does so without fouling. His 3-point shot is projectable, though not yet good. The 18-year-old must develop better offensive feel and get stronger.

27. Josh Christopher, shooting guard, Arizona State

Christopher is a powerful athlete with a nice bag of moves. He carries an obvious upside. But he must iron out his 3-point shooting and clean up his defense.

28. Tre Mann, shooting guard, Florida

Mann is a dynamic self-creator off the dribble. He’s mainly looking to get off his own jumper, which he does pretty efficiently. But he’d generate more faith if he better channeled his athleticism into getting to the rim, creating openings for teammates and/or defending.

29. Sharife Cooper, point guard, Auburn

Cooper is a maestro attacking with the ball. His accelerations get teammates open (leading to his slick, though sometimes too aggressive, passes) and draw fouls (leading to his efficient free throws). But he’s just 6-foot-1 and doesn’t shoot well from distance. That’s a tough combination to overcome.

30. Joe Wieskamp, wing, Iowa

Wieskamp’s calling card is 3-point shooting. He can spot up and come around screens, giving him high-end role-player potential. He tested very well athletically at the combine – a surprise given how exploitable he was defensively at Iowa. He must improve his flexibility for those testing numbers to reflect actual ability. But the possibility clearly exists.

31. Miles McBride, point guard, West Virginia

McBride is a dogged defender, though just 6-foot-2. He gains enough separation to get up pull-up jumpers from mid-range and beyond the arc. But he’s not explosive enough to get to the rim often. He makes solid passes. However, sometimes it seems he has decided to shoot or pass beforehand rather than reading the defense as he goes.

32. Kai Jones, center, Texas

Highly athletic, Jones is great in transition. He creates his own opportunities with a perimeter defense that belies his 6-foot-10 frame. He has even shown advanced moves off the dribble and glimpses of outside shooting. But he struggles to make his presence felt defensively.

Doncic’s 30, Mavericks’ 17-0 run lift them past Knicks at MSG

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NEW YORK (AP) — Luka Doncic had a game-high 30 points, Tim Hardaway Jr. chipped in 28 points against his former team, and the Dallas Mavericks beat the New York Knicks 121-100 on Saturday.

Spencer Dinwiddie scored 17 points for Dallas, which outscored New York 69-41 in the second half for just its second win seven games.

“I think it’s great that everyone’s in the locker room smiling,” Mavericks coach Jason Kidd said. “Everybody saw the ball go in, we shared the ball, we played the right way. … We’re a team that lives or dies by the 3, and today we made them.”

Forward Julius Randle led the Knicks with 24 points, and Immanuel Quickly chipped in 23. Leading scorer Jalen Brunson had 13 points playing against Dallas for the first time since he signed with the Knicks on July 12, but New York fell for the sixth time in its past eight games.

“To be honest, not fun,” Brunson said when asked what it was like playing against his former team. “They played great tonight. You got to give them credit. No matter who is on the floor, my approach stays the same. But to see them after the game and shake their hands, that was pretty cool.”

Hardaway exacted revenge against his former team, with whom he played 254 games over parts of four seasons. Hardaway had 17 points in the third quarter, including five 3-pointers, during a 27-6 run. He credited familiarity in New York – and Dallas’ previous game in Detroit – as keys to his third straight 20-plus point game.

“This road trip, when you have family and friends in both cities, it lightens you and brings some positive vibes and some positive energy,” Hardaway said. “To come here, to Detroit and to New York, both places where I used to play college and professionally, was a great atmosphere. I was comfortable, and my teammates (were) keeping me positive.”

Doncic, the NBA’s leading scorer, had just 11 points on 3 of 11 shooting in the first half. But he took over in the third, scoring 19 points on 8 of 10 shooting. Dallas outscored New York 41-15 in the third quarter, turning a tight game into a rout.

“The first half I wasn’t really participating,” Doncic said. “It was a challenge to come out of the locker room with more energy.”

The Knicks shot 55% in the first half, including 63% from the field in the first quarter. Randle had 14 of his 21 first-half points in the first quarter, including seven on a 9-0 run that gave New York an early 14-5 advantage.

The Knicks led by as many as 15 in the second quarter, but Dallas turned up the defensive intensity and cut New York’s lead to seven, 59-52, at halftime.

“The start of the game, I thought we were pretty good,” Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau said. “We built the 15-point lead, then we sort of lost traction mid-second quarter.”

Ja Morant fined $35,000 for using ‘ inappropriate language’ toward referee

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A frustrated Dillon Brooks and Ja Morant must have used some special language near the end of the Grizzlies’ loss to the Timberwolves, because both were ejected within a matter of minutes near the end of the game Wednesday night.

The league fined Morant $35,000 for “confronting and directing inappropriate language toward a game official and failing to leave the court in a timely manner following his ejection.”

Morant was not demonstrative at the time and was clearly surprised by the ejection. Before leaving the court he dapped up Anthony Edwards (who was shooting free throws) and a couple of other players before heading back to the locker room. Afterward Morant took to social media.

If the official said that to Morant, he should also be punished. The league can’t come down on players for not showing the referees respect if it’s not a two-way street.

It was an ugly loss for the Grizzlies, who fell to a Timberwolves team without Karl-Anthony Towns.

Teams reportedly watching to see if Bulls make stars available; Lakers had internal discussions on it

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It was a talking point going into the season: What teams we thought would be good will struggle, and then pivot to chase Victor Wembanyama in the lottery.

What about the 9-13 Chicago Bulls? They barely look like a playoff team, they miss Lonzo Ball, and even at their best where do they fall in the East? Would they blow it up? With DeMar DeRozan, Nikola Vucevic and Zach LaVine, they have players that would interest other teams and could bring quality picks (or young players) back to Chicago. Other teams are watching, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

One of those teams: The Los Angeles Lakers.

That is according to ESPN’s Zach Lowe on the Lowe Post Podcast. He was discussing a potential trade floated by The Ringer’s Bill Simmons where the Lakers send Russell Westbrook and two future first-round picks (2027 and 2029) to the Bulls for DeMar DeRozan and Nikola Vucevic.

“The trade I saw on Twitter was Russ and both picks, one with light protections I think for DeRozan and Vucevic. I can tell you 100% for sure that the Lakers have had internal discussions about that very possibility, if it would ever come up. Not that they would do that. Let me be clear.”

None of this matters if the Bulls don’t decide to pivot, and they are not there yet. They may never get to that point. But the Lakers and other teams are surveying what teams might make game-changers available at the deadline, and the way the Bulls are stumbling has other teams keeping an eye on them. Expect the rumors to keep coming.

But for now, that’s all they are, rumors and speculation.

On the bright side for Bucks, Khris Middleton looks good in return

Los Angeles Lakers v Milwaukee Bucks
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MILWAUKEE (AP) — Milwaukee Bucks forward Khris Middleton initially said that making his 2022-23 debut in his return from offseason wrist surgery felt great.

Then he quickly corrected himself.

“I should actually say good,” Middleton said Friday night after the Bucks’ 133-129 loss to the Los Angeles Lakers. “If we got the win, I think I would have been (feeling) great. It felt really good to be back out there with the guys competing and playing,”

Middleton, 31, had 17 points and seven assists while playing 26 1/2 minutes in his first game since spraining the medial collateral ligament in his left knee April 20 in Game 2 of the Bucks’ first-round playoff series with the Chicago Bulls. That injury caused him to miss the entirety of the Bucks’ Eastern Conference semifinal with the Boston Celtics, a series Milwaukee lost in seven games.

The 6-foot-7 forward then had surgery on his left wrist in the summer, having played through the injury late last season.

“Pretty impressive how kind of seamlessly he got back into the game on both ends of the court,” Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said.

Middleton said Friday at a post-shootaround availability that he might need some time to readjust, but the three-time All-Star didn’t show any signs of rust in his first game back. He shot 6 of 11 and went 3 of 4 from 3-point range.

“Just relying on my experience,” Middleton said. “Just (trying) not to rush and let the game come to me. Don’t try to do too much the first game back and try to fit in and play off my teammates.”

The most important thing is that Middleton felt just fine physically.

“Hopefully tomorrow when I wake up, I feel the same also and I won’t feel too sore or whatever,” he said.

The Bucks had gone 15-5 in Middleton’s absence. Milwaukee is second in the Eastern Conference, behind only the Boston Celtics.

Middleton’s teammates believe his return should make them even better.

“It takes us to a whole different level,” Bucks forward and two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo said. “We scored 129 points and we had a bad first half. That says a lot.”

Lakers coach Darvin Ham knows how much Middleton means to the Bucks’ title hopes. Ham was an assistant coach on Budenholzer’s Bucks staff from 2018-22, including their 2021 championship season.

“Giannis is the heart and soul and the engine, and Khris is like the steering wheel,” Ham said before Friday’s game. “He’s the GPS in terms of understanding what to do. Giannis is the focal point but Khris is the master of putting guys where they need to be. He’s like that quarterback.”

The Bucks aren’t going to overexert Middleton as he returns to the floor for the first time in about 7 1/2 months. Budenholzer said Middleton probably won’t play Saturday at Charlotte.

“We’ll talk about it on the plane, but my guess is he will not play a back-to-back,” Budenholzer said.

Middleton’s just happy he’s back on the floor at all.

“Just a range of emotions,” Middleton said. “(I’ve) been through a lot these last couple months. Happy, sad, anxious, nervous. To finally get out there and play and get a lot of those nerves past me felt pretty good.