Breaking down surprises, steals of ‘the deepest NBA draft since 2003’

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With the bright lights of Brooklyn’s Barclays Center shining upon basketball’s newest cream of the crop, the 2021 NBA draft was as tense as it was exhilarating. As expected, trades were made before, during and after the draft; fans jeered after hearing their beloved team draft the “wrong” player and Adrian Wojnarowski tweeted the selections far before they were announced on stage. This draft was a far better show than last year’s – partly due to the venue, but mostly due to the abundance of fans in attendance. Here are our staff’s overall impressions of everything that went down.

Which team had the best overall draft night? 

Ryan Chien: Besides the Lakers stealing the show with a blockbuster trade for Russell Westbrook, the Houston Rockets had the most well-rounded night. With four first-round picks, the team with the worst record in the NBA last season did what it was supposed to do: rebuild. Jalen Green is a battle-tested phenomenon and future NBA star, Alperen Sengun will pair with Christian Wood fittingly and Usman Garuba as well as Josh Christopher are sure to bring an infectious energy that’ll translate immediately to the rest of the team.

Emily Wilson: The Orlando Magic. Drafting Jalen Suggs and Franz Wagner with the fifth and eighth overall picks, respectively, gives the team plenty of young talent to build around. Suggs wasn’t projected to be on the board when the Magic’s first pick came around, and drafting him only improves the team’s young guard rotation, which already has R.J. Hampton and Cole Anthony. Wagner gives the Magic a high-IQ player and a solid team defender, qualities that’ll help make the team competitive in the coming years.

Justin Kim: The Golden State Warriors. While they likely would’ve preferred to package their picks for a proven player who can make an immediate impact, they arguably left with the most raw talent in the draft. Kuminga was projected as a top-five pick by many draft boards and it’s hard to get better value with the last lottery pick than Moses Moody, whom the Warriors likely would’ve drafted at seven had Kuminga not fallen.

Casey Grae: The Charlotte Hornets had a surprisingly busy night filled with moves that I love. They not only pulled off a steal by getting James Bouknight with the eleventh pick, but also traded up to the 19th spot to take Kai Jones, a really intriguing big man with the tools to be a fantastic two-way player. But because it might take Jones some time to develop, they traded for Mason Plumlee to be their short-term center, a position they desperately needed to address.

Which team surprised you the most with their pick(s)?

RC: Josh Giddey to the Oklahoma City Thunder. The 6’8”, 19-year-old pick from Australia is a natural facilitator, excellent ball handler and solid rebounder. But a lot of his game is still unpolished – namely, his scoring ability from outside the paint. Internationally, he averaged less than 30% from downtown. Yes, he’s young and has time to develop. And yes, the Thunder aren’t exactly championship contenders here and now. But with such an inconsistent jumpshot, Giddey’s ceiling may seemingly be lower than that of other top draft picks. Only time will tell.

EW: The Sacramento Kings, by drafting Davion Mitchell with the ninth overall pick. Mitchell is a solid defensive guard, so in theory, he could improve the Kings’ lackluster defense. However, he’s only 6’2’’, which could make it tough to pair him long term with De’Aaron Fox and Tyrese Haliburton, two effective Sacramento guards. With a lottery pick, one would have expected the Kings to prioritize long-term fit over raw talent. Maybe there’s something to the three-guard lineup, though.

JK: The Toronto Raptors, when they chose Scottie Barnes. While this pick could age well, the Raptors’ cornerstone point guard, Kyle Lowry, is looking elsewhere, which is why at face value, point guard Jalen Suggs seemed to be the right pick. Moreover, the Raptors’ star forward Pascal Siakam signed a maximum contract extension less than two years ago and is still in his prime, making last night’s choice all the more surprising, considering both Barnes and Siakam play have similar styles of play.:

CG: The San Antonio Spurs left my buddy and me looking at each other in complete shock when they selected Alabama shooting guard Joshua Primo with the 12th pick. Most analysts projected that he was more likely to fall into the second round than rise up to the lottery. However, Gregg Popovich is certainly smarter than the people on Twitter making fun of the pick, and Primo’s potential as a three-and-D wing can prove his lottery status to have been warranted.

Which player was the biggest steal in the draft?

RC: UConn’s James Bouknight to the Hornets. By most mock draft projections – including those from ESPN, the Ringer and Sports Illustrated – the 6’5” guard was supposed to be a fringe top-five pick. Instead, he wound up as the 11th. He’s one of the best cutters in his draft class, has a flashy crossover package and is uber-athletic. Pair that with a playmaking maestro such as LaMelo Ball and you’ve got a match made in heaven in Charlotte.

EW: Sharife Cooper, who was drafted by the Atlanta Hawks in the second round with the 48th overall pick. Cooper was projected to be taken in the mid-20s of the first round and even flirted with the lottery earlier in the draft process. Cooper’s a project, but he’ll have a great chance to improve behind Trae Young as the Hawks’ backup point guard. Many speculate that Cooper was the best passer in the draft class and he has a high ceiling in the NBA.

JK: An environment can make or break a career, which is why Arkansas’ Moses Moody was the steal of the draft. Assuming he stays with Golden State, Moody will not only get the opportunity to learn from the best backcourt of all time in Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, but will likely have meaningful minutes on a playoff team due to his elite shooting and defensive presence.

CG: As a Knicks fan, it brings me great pain to admit that the Brooklyn Nets landed the biggest steal of the draft in Cam Thomas. The 6’4” shooting guard out of Louisiana State University somehow fell into their lap with the 27th pick. Thomas is a natural three-level scorer, as if Brooklyn didn’t have enough of those. He’ll immediately contribute by replacing Landry Shamet’s bench minutes and can eventually evolve into a very good player.

Do you agree with Jay Bilas that this is the “deepest overall draft class since 2003”?

RC: To say that this is the deepest draft class since 2003 is too premature. After all, 2009’s draft class featured players such as Blake Griffin at No. 1, James Harden at No. 3 and Stephen Curry at No. 7. But the 2021 draft class is certainly the most athletically gifted. From Mobley, a 7’0” forward who can glide across the floor like a unicorn, to Keon Johnson, a shooting guard with a record-breaking 48-inch vertical, this draft class is historically unique in its own right. In fact, 41 players at the NBA draft combine recorded vertical leaps of 35 inches or higher. For context, an average vertical leap for an NBA player is about 28 inches.

EW: At this juncture, it’s too hard to tell. Plenty of draft classes between 2003 and now have produced multiple All-Stars. The 2021 class definitely has enough talent to do so as well, with Cade Cunningham, Evan Mobley and Jalen Green all being prospects with elite potential. The offensive and defensive versatility of the younger draftees indicates that they’ll be able to perform at an NBA level, but we’ll see.

JK: It’s too early to say, as it takes at least three to four seasons to see how a draft class pans out. Even when only looking at drafts from the past few years, there are already notable botched analyses. For example, the 2016 draft class was seen as a two-player draft, but has proven to be quite deep; the 2014 draft, meanwhile, was touted as a once-in-a-generation class, but clearly didn’t live up to its billing.

CG: It’s hard for me to see this draft class surpassing that of 2018’s class. Even putting aside the massive star power of Luka Doncic and Trae Young, players such as Shai-Gilgeous Alexander, Deandre Ayton, Jaren Jackson Jr., Michael Porter Jr., Collin Sexton and Mikal Bridges all have legitimate star potential. Sorry Kings fans, I know how much it hurts to read those names.

Casey Grae covers women’s water polo. Contact him at [email protected].
Contact Emily Wilson at [email protected].
Justin Kim covers women’s basketball and men’s water polo. Contact him at [email protected].
Ryan Chien covers women’s soccer. Contact him at [email protected].