The rest of the Eastern Conference has seemingly improved through the NBA Draft and free agency. Meanwhile, things in Washington have gotten more...dramatic. And that’s putting it mildly. Given everything that has gone on with John Wall over the last week, it seems increasingly likely to me that the Wizards may find themselves in the 2021 NBA Draft Lottery again. Las Vegas oddsmakers certainly think so.
I hope I’m wrong but the free agency additions have been less than inspiring and I wouldn’t rule out the notion of the organization “blowing it up” at the trade deadline if things are not going well. It may seem like I’m being a pessimist but considering how highly regarded the 2021 draft class is, this has to at least be in the back of Tommy Sheppard’s mind.
Everyone from ESPN’s draft team to that annoying guy in your office who barely follows basketball reminded you how devoid of game-changing talent the 2020 draft was. Well, 2021 is basically the exact opposite of that. It’s too early to tell how deep it will be but it is certainly shaping up to be top heavy.
I discussed this with Larry Hughes on the latest Bleav in Wizards podcast. Hughes runs several successful youth programs and his son is one of the top prospects in the St. Louis area (he plays for the Bradley Beal Elite AAU team). Because of his time around the youth basketball circuit, Hughes is very familiar with several of the top prospects in the 2021 class and I wanted to get his input on this list.
With that in mind, here are the names you should be keeping your eyes on this year so that we can all inevitably complain about next year’s lottery pick too. (Just kidding, we love you, Deni!)
College freshmen and G League Select rookies
Cade Cunningham, 6-8ish, freshman, Oklahoma State
This is the no-brainer, top prospect at the moment. Anyone who says otherwise either wants to be a contrarian or has not seen him play. Cunningham has the ideal physical gifts for an elite small forward but with point guard skills.
He’s a pretty good athlete who can grab the ball off the back board and pick defenses apart either by driving or passing. There’s some serious prime Penny Hardaway-type upside here. The top teams in the league all have big, dynamic playmakers to initiate their offense and score from all of the court. Cunningham appears to fit perfectly into that mold.
He’s not a knock-down shooter yet but from the time I first heard his name a few years ago to now, he’s gotten markedly better in that department. This is not a situation where his jump-shot needs a total overhaul. It needs some refinement and reps.
Cunningham attacks the rim, he makes tough shots, he drives hard to the basket, he makes special live-dribble passes, and seems happy to get his teammates an easy basket when he could just as easily get one for himself. It’s almost like someone took all of the positive attributes from Anthony Edwards and LaMelo Ball’s scouting reports. I’ve seen Luka Doncic comparisons thrown out there by some and just the fact that it’s not a ridiculous comparison says a lot about Cunningham.
He was a grown man against boys at the high school level and I have a pretty good feeling that will be the case at the college level. You better make the most of your opportunities to see him during the regular season though. Unfortunately for him and March Madness fans, Oklahoma State has a postseason ban in place this year.
Jonathan Kuminga, 6-8ish, 1st year, G League Team Ignite
I know it’s only one series but I watched him chase down an opponent in transition to block the guy with both elbows and then hustle down court to hit a pull-up three. There’s literally only a handful of people on the planet capable of that. His overall skills aren’t as refined as some of his peers but he is a top tier athlete by NBA standards.
Like Cunningham, he isn’t a knockdown three-point shooter yet but is much further along than many in the 2020 class were. His jumper isn’t always fluid from the perimeter but he looks good on mid-range pull-ups and displays good touch. For the most part, he hasn’t needed to rely on it as he was largely unguardable at the high school level. He’s more of a raw scorer than Cunningham but he makes just enough special passes to remind you that he can do that too when he wants.
With his physical tools, he could one day turn into an impact defender but the effort isn’t consistently there yet. There are times when he seemed bored and that's not uncommon among special prospects like this when playing at the high school level.
When I asked Hughes about him, he believed he has a chance to be an elite defender at the NBA level based on what he had seen from him this far. Considering he made an NBA All-Defensive First Team, I'm willing to trust that he knows what he's talking about on this front.
Cunningham is better right now but long term I’d be willing to put my money on Kuminga as the one who ends up having the best NBA career. I’ve certainly been wrong before but it wouldn’t surprise me if he ended up being a multi-time All-Star. That’s how gifted he is.
He will be playing for the G League Select team after reclassifying from the 2022 to the 2021 class. Despite appearing to be the most physically mature player in this class, he's actually about a full year younger than everyone else. That's one more thing NBA front offices will have to consider when evaluating him against grown men and former NBA players this year.
You can’t get a full sense for what type of player he will turn into from highlight videos but if you have a few minutes to spare just take a look anyway. I think you’ll at least be able to see why he’s a consensus top 10 prospect at this point. (Extra bonus: he’s from the Democratic Republic of the Congo so he satisfies the Wizards international requirement).
Evan Mobley, 7-0ish, freshman, USC
I know everyone was disappointed we didn’t get to take that freshmen center from USC (Onyeka Okongwu) this year. Luckily for us, there’s an even better freshmen center prospect at USC this year so we could potentially try again. Mobley is taller but lacks the strength of Okongwu. He appears to offer a similar combination of perimeter switching and rim protection while projecting as more of a shooter than his predecessor.
Mobley also has the ability to put the ball on the floor and he even has some highlights of crossing guys up. He’s 7-feet tall but about 5 of those are legs which makes him look a bit awkward out there at times. I remember thinking the same thing about Myles Turner in high school and I’d say he turned alright. Turner’s actually not a bad NBA comparison or goal for Mobley to shoot for.
BJ Boston, 6-7ish, freshman, Kentucky
BJ Boston is going to going to be a legitimate scorer in the NBA someday. I would put money on that. However, I’m just not sure I’d bet on him to do so as quickly as some of the other names who will be in next year’s lottery. He looks like he weighs about 150 pounds (maybe an exaggeration but he’s really skinny) so he might need some time to fill out. I could see college defenses trying to be physical with him and bully him into tough shots next season.
I’m not sure if playing in college will help or hurt his draft stock. Kuminga and Jalen Green are both playing for the G League’s Team Ignite and it remains to be seen how NBA teams will evaluate that experience. But it wouldn’t be the NBA draft if there wasn’t at least one Kentucky guard in the mix come draft night.
Once his body catches up to his talent, the sky is the limit. He’s shown the ability to score in just about every way you can think of. Of the guards as Kentucky has produced over the last several years, many of them have been at least slightly undersized. Boston is a legitimate 6-7 with long arms and that should give him an added dimension over his predecessors.
There are other notable players that just left the high school ranks and could vault to the top of this class with a strong season. Jalen Green of the G League Select team, Jalen Suggs of Gonzaga, Jalen Johnson of Duke, Scottie Barnes of Florida State, and Ziaire Williams of Stanford are all high-end wing prospects. However, the guys detailed above are my personal top four based on what I’ve seen so far.
Returning college players
It’s also very likely a few names that were already in college basketball will make a big leap forward and find their way into the lottery.
Jeremiah Robinson-Earl, 6-9ish, sophomore, Villanova
Villanova guys just play smart basketball and Robinson-Earl is no different. He’s a good scorer around the basket and a good rebounder. He’s not a big time athlete but he appears to have touch and should be a good perimeter shooter in the NBA.
Trayce Jackson-Davis, 6-9ish, sophomore, Indiana
He averaged 13.5 and 8.5 as a freshmen in the BIG10 and looked like he belonged. He’s a physical player who blocks shots, hustles, and rebounds. At only 6-9, he will also have to show more of an ability to shoot the ball.
Drew Timme, 6-11ish, sophomore, Gonzaga
Timme was a back-up as a freshmen last season but could wind up being the best player on the country’s best team this season. He’s an old school back-to-the-basket scorer but has shown great touch from the mid-range. If he can show legitimately three-point range this season I think he could surprise some people and move up draft boards. He’s likely a long shot to end up as a lottery pick next year but there seems to be a new Gonzaga big who just pops up every year or two. Timme is the next in that line and would be more in the Kelly Olynyk mold.
David Johnson of Louisville, Keyontae Johnson and Scottie Lewis of Florida, Wendell Moore Jr. of Duke are also names that seem poised for breakout years.
Then there’s the international prospects we all love ... or hate ... so much.
This year’s international class is much deeper from everything I’ve read so far. Having watched no tape of them myself, I can’t properly comment on any of their games at this point. The three consensus names seem to be Usman Garuba (6-9 forward for Real Madrid), Ibou Dianko Badji (7-1 center for Barcelona’s 2nd team), and Roko Prkacin (6-9 forward for Cibona in Croatia).
If the wheels totally come off for this year’s Wizards team, at least we can still have something to look forward to! Any names you’re already keeping an eye on?