Even so, NBA viewers will have plenty of lottery talent to evaluate in the coming weeks. Scouts generally are higher on the 2021 class than they were on the 2020 class 12 months ago, in part because there are fewer mysteries at the top. Last year, James Wiseman lasted just three games at Memphis, LaMelo Ball skipped college entirely to play overseas, and then the NCAA tournament was canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Several coveted prospects are playing for top-seeded teams this time around, while 2021 headliner Cade Cunningham of Oklahoma State enters the tournament with momentum after scoring 29 points in the Big 12 championship game last week. Here’s a snapshot look at Cunningham and four other potential lottery picks worth monitoring as the field of 68 opens play.
Cade Cunningham, Oklahoma State: Lead ballhandlers in the modern NBA now come in all shapes and sizes, so it shouldn’t surprise anyone when the 6-foot-8, 220-pound Cunningham (20.2 points per game, 6.3 rebounds, 3.6 assists) takes the reins of an offense as a rookie. The Big 12 player of the year’s playmaking checklist is nearly complete thanks to his size, crisp handle, deep shooting range and shot-creation ability. What Cunningham might lack in pure athleticism and quickness, he makes up for with craft, poise and late-game confidence.
Zion Williamson aside, Cunningham is arguably the most intriguing prospect to pass through the college ranks in the past five years. To fulfill expectations as the consensus No. 1 pick and a future franchise player, he must further develop his decision-making and setup skills. Cunningham, 19, registered more turnovers than assists as a freshman, though there are reasons for optimism. He will enjoy better spacing around him in the pros, and his off-the-dribble three-point shooting will require opposing defenses to show him extra attention.
Oklahoma State enters the tournament as the No. 4 seed in the Midwest Region, setting up a possible second-round showdown with Tennessee guard Keon Johnson, another likely lottery pick, if the Cowboys beat Liberty on Friday.
Evan Mobley, USC: These days, it takes a special package of skills for a 7-footer to appear at the top of mock drafts. The 19-year-old Mobley (16.8 points per game, 8.6 rebounds, 3.0 blocks) finds himself in that conversation thanks to his fluidity, versatility and comfort playing on the perimeter on both ends. He possesses the ball skills to attack the paint, the athleticism to finish lobs and the length to serve as a back-line defensive stopper.
Some lithe young big men, such as Sacramento’s Marvin Bagley III, enjoy having the ball in their hands but look lost on defense when they reach the NBA. Others, such as Indiana’s Myles Turner, evolve into defensive stoppers with limited scoring palettes. But Mobley, the Pac-12 player of the year, projects in the happy middle of that Venn diagram as a two-way impact-maker, especially if he can extend his shooting range to the three-point line.
USC enters the tournament as the West Region’s No. 6 seed and will face the winner of Wichita State and Drake on Saturday.
Jalen Suggs, Gonzaga: The Bulldogs are the tournament’s top overall seed, and their perfect 26-0 season has been driven by a balanced attack rather than a single shining star. While Suggs, a 19-year-old freshman guard, was only Gonzaga’s third-leading scorer, he has garnered the most draft attention because of his upside as a primary scoring option.
There’s a smoothness to most everything he does, from pulling up beyond the arc to picking his spots to break down defenders to pushing the tempo in transition. Suggs balances his natural scoring instincts with a team-first mentality, and he’s a willing passer who can also add value as an off-ball shooting threat. A contrarian might reasonably argue that Suggs (14.3 points per game, 5.5 rebounds, 4.5 assists) can become the best player in his class. His college statistics have been muffled by Gonzaga’s deep roster, and he is quicker off the dribble and a more natural passer than Cunningham.
Gonzaga opens as the West Region’s No. 1 seed against the winner of Norfolk State and Appalachian State on Saturday. If both teams keep advancing, Suggs and Gonzaga could face Mobley and USC in the Elite 8.
Keon Johnson, Tennessee: There’s a gap when it comes to polish and production between this list’s first three names and the other prospects in the field. The 19-year-old Johnson (11.2 points per game, 3.4 rebounds, 2.5 assists) is a 6-5 guard who worked his way into the starting lineup over the course of his freshman season. His high activity level can stray into erratic play, but it’s easy to envision a lottery team betting on his quickness and bounce while hoping that he can improve his three-point shooting and decision-making.
Tennessee opens as the No. 5 seed in the Midwest Region facing No. 12 Oregon State on Friday before a possible Sunday matchup with Cunningham and Oklahoma State.
Franz Wagner, Michigan: The younger brother of Washington Wizards center Moritz Wagner is the only sophomore on this list, but the 6-9 forward has played his way into lottery consideration as a three-and-D option. Wagner (12.8 points per game, 6.2 rebounds, 2.9 assists) has shown dramatic improvement as an outside shooter in his second season at Michigan, and he stuffs the stat sheet on the defensive end. While the 19-year-old German projects as a complementary scorer in the NBA, he’s a long and disruptive defender who competes on the glass, too.
Michigan will open play as the No. 1 seed in the East Region on Saturday against the winner of Mount St. Mary’s and Texas Southern.