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2021 NBA Draft Primer Part 1: The Big Five

Familiarize yourselves with the top 5 prospects in the 2021 NBA Draft!

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To begin, this is the first of a three part series that I will be publishing for the purpose of getting Raptors fans acclimated with a few important draft prospects this year. This first piece will be just a quick look at the top five players in the draft. Next week I’ll be touching on some players who the Raptors could target in the 6-10 range (assuming they stay there), and the final piece in the series the following week will look at some players that I think more people should be paying attention to… because I just think those players are cool. There won’t be anything too intense here. More in-depth analysis from myself and other writers will be coming on players in individual articles in the weeks to come, and I can imagine that will only ramp up once the draft lottery happens on June 22, so please keep an eye out for those.

Oren published a fantastic draft primer from a more philosophical perspective yesterday, and it blends neatly with this. He offers the concepts, and I’m offering the details. To that point, please enjoy this primer so you can get up to speed on 2021’s most intriguing prospects.

Enough setup, let’s get into it.

The Big Five

To get a sense of how stacked this top 5 is, each of these players would have had an argument to go first overall in 2020. They all have the potential to be star players for quite a long time, and there are definitely a couple franchise standouts in here. It would take some luck for the Raptors to jump up into this area (they have a 32% chance of a top 4 pick), but it’s important to be familiar with this group in the event that happens.

Cade Cunningham | 19.6 y/o | PG | 6’8 | Oklahoma State | Archetype: Big Playmaker

Courtesy of tankathon.com

I think even Raptors fans who don’t follow the draft that closely are familiar with the player who is the reason for the #FadeForCade movement. Cade is just special, plain and simple. Tall point guards who can dominate in the pick and roll and excel at shot creation aren’t that common, but they’re becoming increasingly desirable as the NBA transitions into a league that values length and players that can make plays at every position. Look at some of the top picks of the last few years: Luka, LaMelo, Simmons — all of them are big playmakers who are going to be stars in the league and contribute to winning franchises for a very long time. Big point guards are simply incredibly valuable, and even more so if you have a skillset like Cade’s.

Cade is not only an incredible playmaker, but he can also shoot off the dribble, step out behind the three point line, and finish at the rim with the best of them. His ability to finish with either hand as well as take contact at this early stage in his career is a truly beneficial skill for a young prospect to have. There are multi-year veterans who still struggle with ambidextrous finishing, and Cade is doing this already at an elite level in college.

Cade’s ability to make any sort of pass and score from everywhere gives him truly limitless potential on the offensive end, and makes it so he can immediately provide positive shot creation for the team who drafts him (Hint: the Raptors’ biggest weakness right now isn’t their big man rotation, it’s their lack of a true first option who can create his own shot). In tandem with being a true three level scorer, Cade’s also an intelligent defender with a good physical profile, and he hustles hard. An excellent recipe for a potential elite defensive presence in the league.

Where does Cade need to improve? His quickness off the dribble isn’t elite by any stretch. He’s not a typically explosive player, though he can use his imposing frame and savvy IQ to manipulate defenders and successfully drive and/or kick when he so desires. It’ll be interesting to see if his quickness is something that will come with several years of NBA development, or if he can be a player who can succeed despite that weakness.

This lack of quickness can extend to the defensive end as well. There’s no doubt that Cade will be an excellent defender, but adding a little bit of lateral quickness would do a world of good for him if he ever is tasked with guarding small, fast players. The benefit of being a good defender at 6’7-6’8 though, is that Cade will likely be comfortable defending 1-4 regardless.

Another thing that people tend to mention with Cade: his turnovers and his AST/TO ratio. I like to look at these stats as somewhat misleading. Cade’s teammates at Oklahoma State weren’t… the best. Cade’s obviously still developing and learning as a passer, and he can force the issue at times and he can be careless, which led to a lot of turnovers in his collegiate career and that’s likely to continue early on in his NBA career until he develops his game a bit more. At the same time, there were too many occasions to count where Cade would set up his teammates for an open shot only for them to brick it completely. Given NBA spacing and quality teammates, there is zero doubt that Cade could quickly become one of the premier playmakers in the NBA.

So, how would Cade fit on the Raptors? In a word… seamlessly. He’s undeniably the best talent and fit available. There is a real path towards him being a superstar in the NBA. He can play on or off ball, but slotting him at the PG would be the best use of his abilities. Bringing him off the bench would be a crime, so he would likely start with VanVleet in the backcourt right away.

Evan Mobley | 19.9 y/o | C | 7’0 | USC | Archetype: Two-Way Big

Courtesy of tankathon.com

The second-best prospect in the draft (you read that correctly), Evan Mobley has been drawing comparisons to the likes of Anthony Davis and Chris Bosh. Alright, slow down, direct player comparisons suck… and I’m certainly not placing unfair expectations on Mobley and calling him a future Hall of Famer, but I’d be lying if I said he doesn’t check a lot of boxes in what teams are looking for in a modern big man. For a 7-footer, he’s one of the more fluid prospects that I’ve seen. It’s not everyday that a big man with wing-like mobility comes around. It’s in part due to his fluidity where many can see a future for Mobley as a go-to scorer.

In addition to the way he moves, Mobley also sports an impressive handle. He can get a little loose with it, and it’s much too soon for him to be given primary creation privileges, but an athletic 7 footer with the ability to handle will prove to be too much for any team to pass up. His ceiling is going to depend on whether or not he can develop that ball handling and shooting. If he can, we’re looking at a potential superstar. If he can’t, then he’ll still probably be a good player, but not nearly as special, and most likely not a star. There’s a lot of optimism with him though, so bear with me.

Mobley’s shooting; it’s… a work in progress. His free throw shooting was below 70% and he averaged 30% from the 3-point line on low volume. You can expect him to take one or two threes per game in his early NBA career, but don’t expect him to snipe the lights out anytime soon. If he does, then watch out because you’ve got a successful example of a true unicorn prospect. There’s lots of optimism that he’ll be a true stretch big throughout his career though, his shot is mechanically smooth and he’s shown mid range ability already, he just needs to extend his range and do it consistently. He’s an excellent finisher in the interior, and the fact that he’s a threat in the pick and pop gives him plenty of options in any offence that makes heavy use of the pick and roll.

Due to his handle and mobility, he can slash to the rim if needed, and he also sports an excellent hook shot, though his post game is still very much a work in progress. That’s not to say he completely lacks a post game like other big prospects such as Kai Jones, but Mobley is currently more comfortable facing the basket, and it’s hard to picture his skinny frame backing down someone like Jonas Valanciunas or Steven Adams. Evan’s playmaking is not necessarily a focal point like Jokic, Marc Gasol, Bam Adebayo, or Nikola Vucevic, but he’s certainly capable of making passes within the motion of the offence and should eventually settle into the role of being a team’s tertiary playmaker. It’s a part of his game that’s better than most other big prospects.

Mobley also has elite defensive upside with his 7’5 wingspan and high defensive awareness. There were several games in college where opposing offences simply couldn’t do anything to penetrate USC’s defence so long as Mobley was on the floor. His shot blocking instincts are great, and his ability to switch on the perimeter is also very solid. That said, he’s going to struggle at defending NBA bigs, specifically in the post. He’s a skinny 210 lbs, and the stronger bigs such as Embiid, Davis, and Jokic shouldn’t have a problem using their strength to throw him aside like a week-old Osmow’s order. It’s because of Mobley’s lack of strength that he’d most likely have to play his first few years in the league alongside another big man if his team is going to want success defending the interior. Mobley is by all accounts a hard worker, so there’s a lot to look forward to on his path to becoming a star. He’s certainly not going to disappoint his team in the effort department.

If the Raptors wind up picking second, Mobley is the likely selection. He naturally fits into the 5 slot going forward, and his talent is undeniable, but for the first few years of his career he may actually benefit more from playing the 4. There are concerns from Raptors fans that Mobley needs too much time to develop like James Wiseman, or that he’s too skinny, and I’m not nearly as pessimistic. Mobley needs development as much as most other players in the draft, that’s just the reality when you’re picking young players with high ceilings like this. However, he’s entering the league with several translatable skills and a ceiling that teams will be fighting each other for. The Raptors would be incredibly lucky to draft a player as hard working and talented as him.

Jalen Suggs | 19.9 y/o | PG | 6’4 | Gonzaga | Archetype: Two-Way Point

Courtesy of tankathon.com

Run the clip.

I get those goosebumps every time.

Suggs took some time to grow on me… and that’s weird, since taller point guards are my favourite type of player. I tend to place Suggs and Jalen Green within the same tier of the top 5 prospects; a slight step below Cade and Mobley, with both of them on similar footing above Jonathan Kuminga. I think an argument could be made for either at the 3rd overall selection, and it’ll simply come down to which team is selecting there and what they value more. Assuming the team values a two-way point guard who will eventually take on a leadership role, the selection is obviously Suggs.

I don’t really trust Suggs offensively yet. The field goal percentage is good, but he’s by no means a half court player. Suggs thrives in a transition based offence, and at Gonzaga that’s where he got a large percentage of his points. He can score in a set offence, but tends to over-rely on his athleticism to slash to the rim and doesn’t possess the ability to reliably handle in the half-court or create for himself when the offence becomes stagnant. Developing his dribble, creativity with the ball, and half-court creation will be key to unlocking the next part of his game. On the plus side, Suggs can use his quickness and athleticism to finish at the rim with excellent efficiency, and that’s something that the Raptors really lack with their current guard rotation. His field goal percentage at Gonzaga was 50%, so there’s a lot of room for optimism here.

Suggs’ shooting deserves a little scrutiny at this point. There’s reason to believe he can develop it since the three-point shooting numbers aren’t necessarily terrible, but overall he’s just not quite effective from outside at this point. He doesn’t lack the confidence, but he’s inconsistent nonetheless. Developing his catch and shoot jumper will help his ability to play off ball as well. Until then, he’s best utilized with the ball in his hands and pushing the pace in transition.

On a more positive note, Suggs is a truly unselfish player. His decision making allows him to make some elite reads and improve the play of his teammates. His playmaking isn’t as elite as Cade Cunningham’s, despite what the assist and turnover numbers may say, but Suggs should still be recognized as a top tier playmaking prospect who will no doubt develop into an effective leader for whichever team he lands on.

Defensively, Suggs also excels. He hustles hard and his size makes it so that he can match up with most backcourt players and some smaller frontcourt players to an effective degree. He can also hound players off the ball and has a knack for picking the lane, as he showed with his high steal numbers.

Similar to Cade, it’s likely that Suggs immediately fits into the future PG role for the Raptors. His size, quickness, and playmaking ability will allow him to play beside both Fred VanVleet or Gary Trent depending on what the makeup of the team looks like next year. His transition play, playmaking, and defence will easily allow him to be a plug-and-play guy in a Nurse system, but his offensive creation remains a question mark. If Suggs is unlikely to become a primary scorer, the upside of Jalen Green may prove to be more appealing.

Jalen Green | 19.2 y/o | SG | 6’6 | G League Ignite | Archetype: Athletic Scoring Wing

Courtesy of tankathon.com

Now let’s assume the team picking third doesn’t want a player like Jalen Suggs, and instead they may desire a dynamic scorer on the wing. Someone who can take over games with creative shot making and explosive dunking ability. A guy who can become a first option on offence. Enter Jalen Green.

Players with elite first steps are awesome. They’re always fun to watch on offence, and Green is no different. He’s coming into the league with excellent cutting ability and he can also run in transition. With the ball in his hands, he can easily blow by defenders and explode to the rim for some highlight-reel finishes. He definitely plays too fast at times, and it would make a lot of sense for him to learn to let the game come to him.

Slowing down his play in the half-court could also benefit him as a playmaker, where he is currently underwhelming. Being able to see his teammates and the play develop instead of driving headfirst would certainly lead to more winning plays than Green’s headstrong “gimme the loot” play style. He’s not necessarily a ball hog, but he needs to learn to make the easy pass.

As for creating for himself, that’s another point entirely. Green is up there as one of the best ball handlers in the class. His creativity and quickness provides ease of access to the opposing rim, or he can simply pull up to shoot from anywhere on the floor. He’d benefit from learning how to change pace as well. As mentioned before, he’s essentially a runaway locomotive on offence. Learning to change pace as well as stop and start effectively would open up a whole new dimension to his shot creation.

Green can shoot, better than I think most expected, but he’s still very streaky. There are games where he’ll completely annihilate the opposing defence, and there are games where it will look like he’s just out there for cardio. His jumper is smooth and his free throw percentage is good, so there’s optimism here, but early in his career it can be expected that he’ll disappear for a few games at a time and be relatively inconsistent from deep. I buy the long term shot-making though.

Defence. Not a selling point with Green. He’s thin, his wingspan is about average to his height, and his attentiveness and overall IQ is questionable at best. He can certainly gain some weight and his quickness will never be a negative to him, but the team that drafts him is going to want to get him to develop his defensive intensity ASAP. Otherwise he’s only going to be useful on one end of the floor for a majority of his career.

He’s charismatic, likeable, and an extremely hard worker. There are no character concerns with Green and there’s room to hope that he can eventually fill out into a leadership role as well. Green’s fit on the Raptors is obvious; he’d (hopefully) be the future starting 2. It’s a bit of a logjam if we bring Gary Trent back, and even more so if Lowry is still in the picture. There would be obvious competition at that spot, but last I checked, too much talent is never a bad thing. The Raptors’ need for an offensive creator and first option scorer is by far their biggest need, so Green makes a lot of sense. His weaknesses in playmaking and defence might be enough for the Raptors to prefer someone like Suggs, though.

Jonathan Kuminga | 18.6 y/o | SF/PF | 6’8 | G League Ignite | Archetype: Athletic Forward

Courtesy of tankathon.com

Ah, the yearly tantalizing, extremely raw forward with high two-way upside but also some potential to bust that may leave teams hesitant. Thy name is Kuminga. I have Kuminga firmly in my top 5, but I think it’s fair to place him below Cade, Mobley, and the Jalens given the uncertainty about the young Congolese forward.

I don’t like to use the term boom/bust, but with Kuminga it makes sense when evaluating him. Here’s a player who has all the right physical tools and has flashed some exciting potential in terms of two-way ability, but there are also some aspects of his game that are worrying. Despite being a lengthy and strong 6’8, Kuminga isn’t a very consistent defender. He loses focus and tends to fall asleep quite often. He shows flashes of elite defensive upside occasionally, and his foot speed is impressive for a player his size, but he needs to hit on the consistency if he’s going to meet his potential on that end. Those physical measurements will give the team that selects him some hope regarding his defensive development, but it’s to be expected that he’ll be slow in that area out of the gate. He has the tools, definitely, but can he make use of them?

Kuminga definitely has offensive potential. He flashed 19 points on 50% shooting in his debut for the Ignite, and followed it with two performances of 23 and 24 points. After that he was hit or miss, and his efficiency tanked in the remainder of his games. He finished the G League season with 49% TS (yikes). He averaged 16 points and 7 rebounds though, so in spite of his inefficiencies he’s flashing impressive scoring upside for an 18 year old, and his rebounding is already on track to be a positive asset. He’s not a positive playmaker at the moment, but he’s about on par with the far more polished Jalen Green in that area, so there’s optimism there too.

He looks to create his own shot often, and that’s encouraging for a young player like him. A 6’8 lengthy forward who can create for himself is something every team should want on their roster. His dribbling is improving rapidly, and he can slash to the rim pretty well given how raw he is. At the same time, he can get into his own zone too much and that can lead to him icing his teammates out, even when his shot isn’t there. His decision making needs work. Ideally, you’d like for him to lose the tunnel vision and learn to make the easy pass, similar to Green. His shooting is just a non factor at this point. It’ll be the primary part of his game that determines his success, and it’s also the part that needs the most patience.

It may sound like I’m just listing off negatives with Kuminga, but that just comes with the territory when you’re as much of an unfinished product as he is. In reality, he has a ceiling as high as anyone in the class. Whether or not he reaches it depends on his own effort as well as the kind of situation he’s drafted into. If he puts together his shot creating upside with his defensive potential and his physical gifts, he’s going to be a truly dynamic and special player.

Patience is a great quality to have with Kuminga. The team that selects him is going to be doing so based on what he can become 5 years from now rather than what he can be during his rookie season. Kuminga is a weird fit with Siakam and OG, but lines with OG/Kuminga/Siakam on the floor at the same time would certainly be possible given Pascal and OG’s ability to play the 5. If the Raptors, for example, jump up to the 4th pick and aren’t thrilled with who the remaining Jalen is, Kuminga would be the likely selection. Kuminga’s not likely to be an immediate contributor, but his exciting ceiling as a two way star may be too much to pass up for the right team.

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