NBA Draft grades 2021: Live results, analysis for every pick in Round 1

The NBA playoffs have concluded, but as the saying goes, basketball never stops. The NBA Draft has arrived.

This year’s draft class is strong at the top with potentially franchise-changing prospects such as Oklahoma State’s Cade Cunningham and USC’s Evan Mobley. As always, draft night could see a lot of movement with front offices also preparing for free agency, which will quickly follow the annual event.

Which teams will land future All-Stars? Which selections will leave NBA Twitter stunned? And which general managers will be aggressive and move up the draft board?

Sporting News will provide instant grades and analysis as the picks are announced on Thursday. Check out our 2021 NBA Draft tracker below.

MORE NBA DRAFT: SN’s latest mock draft | Top 60 big board

NBA Draft grades 2021: Live picks, analysis from Round 1

Round 1

1. Detroit Pistons — Cade Cunningham, Oklahoma State

There’s a lot to love about Cunningham, including his 3-point shooting touch, which is rare in this class. There is his command of the court; he is not one of those passers who sees what isn’t there, like a Jason Kidd or Penny Hardaway, but Cunningham always sees the pass that’s available, even if it’s a difficult angle or a player on the opposite side of the court.

What should matter most to the Pistons, hopefully, is that Cunningham is a winner. He was outstanding at the FIBA U-19 World Cup in 2019. He battled through a hotly contested Big 12 regular season and got Oklahoma State to its conference tournament title game. In a draft with no obvious superstar but lots of quality prospects, it makes great sense to draft someone who has both promise and a proven track record as a competitor. 

2. Houston Rockets — Jalen Green, G League Ignite

When Green signed onto the G League Ignite program, it was described as an operation that would be little better preparation than another year spent in AAU. Better coaching, for sure, but a series of meaningless exhibition games against disinterested opposition is not going to polish a prospect into a legitimate NBA competitor. Because of the pandemic, however, the G League bubble was created so the NBA’s minor league players had somewhere to complete. The Ignite were included, so they got 15 games using NBA rules against teams pursuing playoff berths and a championship.

That was great for Green, who shot a respectable 36.5 percent on 3-pointers and averaged 17.9 points. Green will enter with an awareness of NBA rules and a feel for the 24-second clock — as well as ideal size and talent to develop into a scoring wing. And for a team that needs everything, a wing who could become an All-Star is a great place to start.

3. Cleveland Cavaliers — Evan Mobley, USC

It is a measure of the change in NBA mentality that Mobley, as the draft’s best center prospect, is not automatically the presumptive No. 1 overall pick. It’s also a measure of the change that a player with Mobley’s frame (7-0, 215 pounds) would be valued so highly at the center position. When Shaquille O’Neal was chosen No. 1 overall in 2007, he was 7-1 and 293 pounds.

But the desire now is for big men who can move on the perimeter to defend against screens, and Mobley is elite in that department. He is a developing shooter with great ball skills, especially as a passer. He thinks the game like the coach’s son he is. The more I consider him, the more I wonder if I should have had him No. 1 on my big board. He will have to grow stronger— and there is the fact wings are the most important NBA position now — but a big man with Mobley’s potential makes the Cavs one of the most exciting young teams in the league.

4. Toronto Raptors — Scottie Barnes, Florida State

He is impossible not to like and a challenge to love — at this stage, anyway. Barnes offers so much: a winning background, the ball skills to function as a point guard, a commitment to his teammates, the size to overwhelm at that position or even function at times as a small-ball power forward. Barnes played in a college system at Florida State that allowed him to learn but not to flourish; he played only 25 minutes and attempted eight shots per game. It would have been nice to see him take command more often, but that’s not how FSU sets up its program.

At the U-19 World Cup in 2019, he was more comfortable in that role, and he scored in double figures four times in seven games. So the investment here is on what might be. I believe it’s a gamble worth taking. He’s a logical pick for the Raptors because they have Fred VanVleet under contract and can use Barnes to provide them with multiple playmakers. I’ve seen him listed as a forward — and that may be the plan — but he thinks the game like a point guard.

5. Orlando Magic — Jalen Suggs, Gonzaga

He is just about everything a modern NBA team wants in a point guard: exceptional size, decent length, ball handling skill, understanding of pick-and-roll play, at least a taste for defense. He’d be even more attractive if he owned a track record as an elite shooter, but there’s every indication that will come with practice. He does not fly like Jonathan Kuminga and isn’t 6-8 like Cade Cunningham, but he has that uncanny knack for positioning his body in whatever way is necessary to succeed that is difficult to quantify and commonly overlooked when analysts discuss “athleticism.” 

I’ve said this before: If you want to understand his value, watch the second half of Gonzaga’s comeback victory against BYU in the West Coast Conference title game. He would not let the Zags lose and was willing — and able — to do whatever was required to prevent it. That’s going to be harder to do with the shape the Magic are in, but he’s the kind of player around whom one can build a team.

6. Oklahoma City Thunder — Josh Giddey, Adelaide 36ers

In terms of passing ability and size, there are a lot of similarities between Giddey and Cade Cunningham. Neither has that next-level vision thing, but each has a great feel for his teammates’ locations on the court and how best to use that to his team’s advantage. Giddey is absolutely excellent in operating pick-and-roll sets and exploiting the mismatches that develop. The difference is that Giddey struggles to get by defenders and is mostly reliant on using his strength and length to finish over them. And that was against the guys from Australia’s NBL, not America’s NBA. And Giddey is a meager deep shooter at this stage.

The Thunder may or may not be thinking they’re getting the next Luka Doncic, but the Mavericks star was named Euroleague MVP at 19 years old and won the championship (largely because of his performance). Giddey played for a lousy team in Australia’s NBL. It’s not the same.

7. Golden State Warriors (via Minnesota Timberwolves) — Jonathan Kuminga, G League Ignite

The Warriors could not resist a player whose ceiling is so high he’s the only one who has the vertical leap to reach it. Drafting Kuminga is like betting a three-game parlay on your favorite gambling app. It’s harder to be sure, but the rewards are greater. Kuminga is an A++ player in terms of dynamism — at least the most explosive player to enter the league since Andrew Wiggins — but with greater length. The thing about Wiggins, though, is he keeps producing stats and never wins. And that’s the question about Kuminga.

Yes, he might win the Slam Dunk Contest during his career, but what else? He has to be more than a straight-line driver and finisher at the rim to excel in this league. If he gets himself a jumpshot — and it’s not like it’s broken – he could become a high-level scoring wing. But that seems farther off with him than other prospects in this draft. Can he even get on the floor for the Warriors at full strength?

8. Orlando Magic (via Chicago Bulls) — Franz Wagner, Michigan

He may be the single best defender in the draft, and that includes his knack from rebounding from a wing position. He’s alert, aware and physically tough against the players he checks. He passes and handles the ball extremely well and finishes at the rim with such dexterity and, when it’s called for, physical force. If he were a shooter, we would have been talking about him long before this. But he’s not. That’s after just two college seasons, and we have seen many players improve their touch after this stage.

Being drafted by the Magic, a team that is not soon contending for the playoffs, means he’ll be able to get minutes as he works on it. That’s an ideal scenario for both.

9. Sacramento Kings — Davion Mitchell, Baylor

Who really loves the game but doesn’t love Davion? OK, but the Kings maybe loved him too much. This is a team that already has Tyrese Halliburton and De’Aaron Fox, the latter on a max deal. Any other team drafting Mitchell would get an A. But this team so desperately needs frontcourt toughness, which was available to them.

Mitchell demonstrated to everyone watching the 2021 NCAA Tournament that he is an extraordinary leader. He was outstanding in leading Baylor to the title, particularly with his elite on-ball defense and first-rate shooting stroke. He’s not just a winner; he’s a champion. But he’s also the Kings’ umpteenth point guard, and, as gifted as he is, probably the least gifted of them.

10. New Orleans Pelicans — Ziaire Williams, Stanford

The Pels made this pick for the Grizzlies as the result of a trade. One imagines whoever it was in New Orleans that took the phone call from Memphis having to suppress the instinct to respond: “Seriously?” 

Williams is a talent, but his season at Stanford was a failure in pretty much every way it could be, from the lack of production (only 10.7 points and 4.6 rebounds per game) to the lack of shooting accuracy (37.4 percent from the field, 29.1 on threes) to the mysterious conclusion of the season, when he “did not travel with the team to Las Vegas,” as 247 Sports put it. Maybe being around Ja Morant can make him better.

11. Charlotte Hornets — James Bouknight, UConn

He’s one of the first players off the board that comes with considerable risk attached. His high-above-the floor style most likely is required for him to excel, but it’s risky given the physical stature of the players he’ll oppose. Trae Young has an even slighter build, but Young’s game is close to the ground. Bouknight is, first, an above-the-rim player, and he winds up on his behind more often than a pole vaulter.

His frequent flying might become less essential as he grows into a more consistent shooter, but a guy’s got to earn his standing (and money), and it’s hard to do that without using your greatest gifts. As a result, I worry about his ability to play 82 games a year. But what he brings at his best is hard to ignore.

12. San Antonio Spurs — Joshua Primo, Alabama

How far back do we have to go to find a time when Primo made a difference to his team? He averaged eight points in 22 minutes for Alabama. I was in the gym for the Tide’s Sweet 16 game against UCLA, but, once his name started popping up on NBA Draft sites, I didn’t remember Primo being there. And no wonder: He scored six points and missed all four of his 3-pointers in just 17 minutes of an overtime game.

For the Canadian junior national team at the FIBA U19 World Cup, he averaged four points. He does have shooting skill, but he is thin and will need too much time to be able to physically handle himself. Passing on Corey Kispert feels like the strangest move.

13. Indiana Pacers — Chris Duarte, Oregon

The first time I saw him, I immediately thought: pro. He does everything so smoothly, has such great size for the shooting guard position, nice bounce and such a great feel for offensive basketball. Obviously, it’d be nicer if he became this player at 21 or 22 rather than 24, but I don’t care if he’s 61 — I want him on my team.

It will be interesting to see how he fits into the Pacers’ current lineup, which has lots of wings, but it suggests there might be some moves coming.

14. Golden State Warriors — Moses Moody, Arkansas

If Moody had returned to Arkansas for a second season, we might be talking about him in the way James Harden was discussed when he left Arizona State in 2009. That’s not to say Moody should have stuck around Fayetteville, but it leaves open the question of how long it will take for Moody to make the next step. He went from undervalued prospect to first option on a successful NCAA Tournament team as a freshman. Now, can he be a factor at the the NBA level?

He does not need to be a star to be a worthwhile pick, not at this level in the draft and not with the team that selected him. He might just be capable, though skipping a developmental step makes it a very, very long leap.

Special tribute — Terrence Clarke, Kentucky 

Lovely touch by the NBA and commissioner Adam Silver to acknowledge Terrence Clarke and his tragic death at age 19. “He will forever be a part of the NBA family,” Silver said, before announcing Clarke as an NBA draft pick and welcoming his family to the podium.

15. Washington Wizards — Corey Kispert, Gonzaga

His stumbles in the late stages of the NCAA Tournament — he shot a combined 7 of 25 from distance from the Elite Eight through the title game — might have dimmed the enthusiasm for Kipsert. But the defensive attention generated against him in those game will almost never be mounted by an NBA opponent. He’ll get shots, like Danny Green did in San Antonio, because opponents will be focused on stopping Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, Kawhi Leonard and Tony Parker. (Well, not those three specifically, of course).

Kispert will have to grow into being as spirited a defender as Green, but his success will be based on delivering as a long-range shooter. He will.

16. Oklahoma City Thunder (via Boston Celtics) — Alperen Sengun, Besiktas

The Thunder made this pick for the Rockets because of a trade, and they might have been tempted to reconsider after hearing his name. Sengun is a warrior. What separates him from accomplished young U.S. big men like Luka Garza is length, quickness in tight spaces and the ability to change ends — but mostly length. Sengun is not a high-flyer, either, but his reach allows even the smallest jump to put him well above the rim.

He put up big numbers in the Turkish Super League, where he was MVP at age 19. So many European prospects arrive having played so little, either because they’re unprepared to compete in Spain or Italy or, more likely, their teams are trying to hide them from overseas scouts. Besiktas didn’t make that mistake. They got an elite performance out of him. In time, so will the Rockets.

17. Memphis Grizzlies

18. Oklahoma City Thunder (via Boston Celtics)

19. New York Knicks

20. Atlanta Hawks

21. New York Knicks (via Dallas Mavericks)

22. Los Angeles Lakers

23. Houston Rockets (via Portland Trail Blazers)

24. Houston Rockets (via Milwaukee Bucks)

25. Los Angeles Clippers

26. Denver Nuggets

27. Brooklyn Nets

28. Philadelphia 76ers

29. Phoenix Suns

30. Utah Jazz

Round 2

Pick Team
31. Milwaukee Bucks (via Houston Rockets)
32. New York Knicks (via Detroit Pistons)
33. Orlando Magic
34. Oklahoma City Thunder
35. New Orleans Pelicans (via Cleveland Cavaliers)
36. Oklahoma City Thunder (via Minnesota Timberwolves)
37. Detroit Pistons (via Toronto Raptors)
38. Chicago Bulls (via New Orleans Pelicans)
39. Sacramento Kings
40. New Orleans Pelicans (via Chicago Bulls)
41. San Antonio Spurs
42. Detroit Pistons (via Charlotte Hornets)
43. New Orleans Pelicans (via Washington Wizards)
44. Brooklyn Nets (via Indiana Pacers)
45. Boston Celtics
46. Toronto Raptors (via Memphis Grizzlies)
47. Toronto Raptors (via Golden State Warriors)
48. Atlanta Hawks (via Miami Hawks)
49. Brooklyn Nets (via Atlanta Hawks)
50. Philadelphia 76ers (via New York Knicks)
51. Memphis Grizzlies (via Portland Trail Blazers)
52. Detroit Pistons (via Los Angeles Lakers)
53. New Orleans Pelicans (via Dallas Mavericks)
54. Indiana Pacers (via Milwaukee Bucks)
55. Oklahoma City Thunder (via Denver Nuggets)
56. Charlotte Hornets (via Los Angeles Clippers)
57. Charlotte Hornets (via Brooklyn Nets)
58. New York Knicks (via Philadelphia 76ers)
59. Brooklyn Nets (via Phoenix Suns)
60. Indiana Pacers (via Utah Jazz)

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