With LaMelo Ball, James Wiseman and Anthony Edwards off to the NBA, teams can fully shift their attention to next year's highly touted prospects, which is widely expected to be a banner crop with star power that significantly exceeds that of the 2020 class.
We've been studying this group closely for the better parts of two years, attending numerous FIBA tournaments, USA basketball camps, AAU and high school events and breaking down hundreds of hours of film while quarantining over the spring and summer. That was a necessity after losing several important scouting evaluation platforms due to the pandemic that traditionally help decipher how NBA teams build their early draft boards.
This will be an unprecedented stretch in many ways, with plenty of questions already bubbling about the fate of the college and European seasons. Working from home will continue to be the norm for most scouts, leading executives to mostly rely on film and background checks from trusted contacts as the primary means of talent evaluation. There's a sense of urgency after last season was abruptly canceled, as no one quite knows how many real games prospects will be able to play.
The 2021 draft appears to be tentatively on track for late July, though a lot needs to happen between now and then. For now, here's our new mock draft featuring the top 60 prospects in this upcoming class, plus the big things to watch with the college basketball season about to tip off.
Note: While it's too early to reasonably predict the 2021 NBA draft order, we've used ESPN's October Power Rankings as a guide to help give an early look and show traded picks.
Storylines to watch
• The race for the No. 1 pick is still fairly open right now, though not quite to the extent that it was in 2020.
Oklahoma State point guard Cade Cunningham is the early favorite, and he has a great chance to hold on to that spot due to the premium that NBA teams are putting on oversized playmakers who can defend multiple positions and carry significant shot-creation duties. Cunningham's ideal physical tools, outstanding feel for the game, pick-and-roll savvy and increasingly effective jump shot puts him in pole position, despite the fact that Oklahoma State will not be playing in the NCAA tournament.
Cunningham's main competition at this stage will come from the G League Ignite's Jalen Green and Kentucky's B.J. Boston. Green is perhaps the most explosive player in the class. He has fantastic scoring instincts in the open floor and is a capable shot-maker, passer and defender. How effectively NBA teams are able to scout him -- along with potential lottery pick teammates Jonathan Kuminga and Daishen Nix -- is one of the questions NBA teams have as the G League is still getting a handle on what its season will look like amid the pandemic.
Boston may be able to capitalize on that with a strong season playing in a more traditional setting at Kentucky, where he has already demonstrated impressive talent as a 6-7 guard with a 7-foot wingspan who can create shots for himself and others, pull up with deep range and defend all over the floor.
• The rest of the lottery is composed of one-and-done freshmen and promising internationals.
USC's Evan Mobley spent much of his high school career in consideration for the No. 1 spot in recruiting rankings thanks to his dynamic combination of length, mobility, defensive versatility and offensive upside. How his 215-pound frame and modern skill level evolve will help determine how high he gets drafted, but there's quite a bit to like about his long-term potential.
NBA teams will have many flavors of wing prospects to choose from in the rest of the top-10 if our early projections are any indication. Stanford's Ziaire Williams has outstanding tools at 6-8 with budding ballhandling, passing, shot-making and defensive ability, but he is rail-thin and a late bloomer whose consistency fluctuated in high school. Duke's Jalen Johnson is physically ready at 6-9, 220 pounds, and perhaps the most unique prospect in the class skills-wise with his ambidextrous ballhandling and passing as well as outstanding defensive versatility. His jump shot will swing his ability to contend for No. 1 or slide to later in the lottery.
The dark horse of the group, at least relative to his No. 28 recruiting ranking, is Tennessee's Keon Johnson, who is garnering rave reviews from the Vols' coaching staff in the preseason. He has been projected in our lottery since an impressive showing at the USA Basketball minicamp in October 2019, but missed most of his senior year of high school with a knee injury. Johnson is an ultra-aggressive, explosive guard who plays with outstanding energy and activity, and his skill level seems to be catching up with his physical tools. His passing, shooting and ballhandling looked significantly improved prior to his injury. Likely to see time as a big playmaker who defends all over the floor, Johnson is another high-upside prospect who could make a run at the top five, similar to Isaac Okoro did.
FSU's Scottie Barnes dipped in our early projections, but he has rocketed back into the top 10. Film from his outstanding senior year of high school shows that he is perhaps the best defender in the class and also one of its best passers, Barnes doesn't jump off the page with his athleticism or shooting, but he brings real contributions to winning with his toughness and feel. He will likely be a polarizing prospect if his career 27% 3-point shooting and 67% free throw shooting don't show improvement in college.
Kuminga, one of the most gifted prospects physically at 6-8 with a 7-foot wingspan and a strong frame, had an up-and-down final season in high school due to injury, inconsistency and inefficiency. His skill, feel and intensity are still catching up with his tools. Still, he's a prototype for what the NBA looks for in a combo forward, as he's lethal in the open court, shoots off the dribble some and brings multi-positional versatility defensively.
• Are big men back? The results of the 2020 NBA draft -- in which 10 players who played primarily at center ended up being selected in the top 35 -- showed that teams aren't quite ready to fully usher in the small-ball era. The NBA playoffs seemed to remind executives of the value of big men, especially those with legitimate skill or game-changing defensive versatility, and that translated to draft.
Seventeen of the 60 players currently projected to be drafted can be categorized as big men, the exact same number of players who heard their name called in 2020.
• As projected, 2020 ended up being a historically young and inexperienced class, with zero college juniors or seniors drafted in the top 25. Three seniors were drafted in the top 45, an all-time low. We currently have zero seniors projected in the first round and only two juniors, both in the 20s.
History suggests that older, more productive college players usually end up working their way up draft boards during the season. Due to the uncertainty surrounding the pre-draft process, significantly more players than usual either withdrew their names at the 2020 deadline or elected not to enter altogether. That could indicate more upperclassmen making up the 2021 draftees.
• Six prospects who spent their season outside of the U.S. were drafted in the first round in 2020, the highest number since 2016. That number might drop slightly in 2021, with only four internationally based prospects currently in our first round, but there are enough players having strong seasons thus far in Europe (as well as Australia, which has yet to tip) to suggest that number might tick up. Several intriguing candidates have already helped their stock, which we'll dive into in the coming weeks.
• The strength of the 2021 draft class is perhaps best reflected in how few projected lottery picks or unprotected first-round selections have been traded. Most teams have put a premium on these upcoming first-rounders given the expected star power.
New York owns Dallas' first-rounder unprotected.
Golden State owns Minnesota's first-rounder with top-three protection.
Oklahoma City owns Golden State's first-rounder with top-20 protection.
Houston owns Portland's first-rounder with lottery protection.
OKC will get the two best first-rounders between its own pick, Houston's pick and Miami's pick (protected Nos. 1-4), with Houston getting the worst pick.
New York has first-round swap rights with the Clippers.
The Pelicans get the Lakers pick if it falls between Nos. 1-7.
Memphis owns Utah's first-rounder if it falls between Nos. 8-14.
Jonathan Givony is an NBA draft expert and the founder and co-owner of DraftExpress.com, a private scouting and analytics service utilized by NBA, NCAA and international teams.