Despite the unusual timing, this is an especially good year for draftniks and fans of aimless teams in need of franchise-level talent. For starters, there’s a strong top tier of prospects that covers a wide range of positions and skill sets. Even more importantly, there’s a renewed belief that drafting well can turn around a wayward franchise, even in the superteam era.
The Finals featured the Milwaukee Bucks, who found gold with Giannis Antetokounmpo with the No. 15 pick in 2013, and the Phoenix Suns, who relied heavily on three recent lottery picks: Devin Booker, Deandre Ayton and Mikal Bridges. Yes, the Bucks and Suns swung major trades for Jrue Holiday and Chris Paul, respectively, but those moves only made sense because both teams had previously identified building blocks in the draft. Remember, Milwaukee won just 15 games in 2013-14, and Phoenix won 19 games in 2018-19.
Those success stories should be helpful mood-boosters for the teams selecting at the top of Thursday’s draft. Hope has been hard to come by for the post-Blake Griffin Detroit Pistons, post-James Harden Houston Rockets and post-LeBron James Cleveland Cavaliers, and real help is finally on the way.
Let’s look at who might land where with a quick-hitting mock draft.
1. Detroit Pistons: Cade Cunningham (Oklahoma State)
The 6-foot-8 Cunningham has drawn comparisons to Harden, Luka Doncic and Khris Middleton for his shot creation and shot-making. Blessed with size, shooting range and ballhandling ability, the Oklahoma State product projects as a perennial all-star. Detroit landed Killian Hayes, Isaiah Stewart and Saddiq Bey in the first round of last year’s draft, but Cunningham, 19, will be the franchise’s top asset from day one.
2. Houston Rockets: Jalen Green (G League Ignite)
The Rockets need to replace Harden’s scoring after dropping from sixth in offensive efficiency in 2019-20 to 27th last season. At the same time, Houston badly needs a centerpiece who can capture the fan base’s imagination. Green, an athletic 6-6 wing who bypassed college to play in the G League, would seem to check both boxes. While Green lacks Cunningham’s polish, his long-term potential as a high-volume scorer fits well with the Rockets’ rebuilding timeline. There’s no rush here.
3. Cleveland Cavaliers: Evan Mobley (USC)
Mobley, 20, has been pegged as an heir apparent to the likes of Chris Bosh and Anthony Davis thanks to his defensive versatility, shot-blocking, comfort in space and layered offensive game. If the USC center improves as a scoring threat and establishes himself as a Defensive Player of the Year contender, he might wind up as the top talent in his class. Multiple evaluators reached by The Washington Post preferred Mobley over James Wiseman, last year’s second pick.
4. Toronto Raptors: Jalen Suggs (Gonzaga)
It’s hard to imagine a better fit for Suggs than Toronto. The 20-year-old guard was the NCAA tournament’s breakout star, and he is ideally suited to taking the reins from franchise mainstay (and upcoming free agent) Kyle Lowry. Suggs has good size and great basketball intelligence, and he’s a two-way difference-maker. Pairing Suggs with Fred VanVleet would give the Raptors a skilled, tough-minded and interchangeable backcourt.
5. Orlando Magic: Jonathan Kuminga (G League Ignite)
Kuminga represents virtually everything Orlando has valued in recent drafts. At 6-6, he possesses the length, athleticism and scoring instincts that excite scouts, even though he remains a work in progress as an outside shooter. Pairing Kuminga with Jonathan Isaac could give the Magic a versatile front-line duo capable of overwhelming opponents and establishing an identity that this franchise has been searching for in recent years.
6. Oklahoma City Thunder: Keon Johnson (Tennessee)
The Thunder was arguably the biggest loser on draft lottery night, sliding to the sixth spot in a four- or five-player draft after tanking for months. But OKC General Manager Sam Presti loves taking young, moldable talent, and he can afford to wait on the 19-year-old Johnson, who plays with a high motor on defense.
7. Golden State Warriors: Davion Mitchell (Baylor)
With two lottery picks and a desire to swing a blockbuster trade that would relaunch the Warriors into title contention, it’s no wonder the rumors are swirling about whether they will use this pick. If they do, Mitchell is an ideal fit. The 22-year-old guard made a name for himself during Baylor’s run to the NCAA title, and he would plug in immediately as a backcourt defender who could help lighten Klay Thompson’s workload after two consecutive seasons lost to injury.
8. Orlando Magic: Scottie Barnes (Florida State)
Orlando landed a second lottery pick by trading all-star center Nikola Vucevic, but what it really needed was a shot at a franchise point guard such as Suggs. Instead, it could end up using both of its picks on multi-positional forwards, given the depth of talent at that spot in this class. Barnes, 19, could blossom into a big-time two-way wing even though he posted modest numbers as a freshman at Florida State in a backup role.
9. Sacramento Kings: Corey Kispert (Gonzaga)
Kispert, 22, shot 44 percent on three-pointers during his senior season at Gonzaga, making him a solid plug-and-play option on the wing for a Kings team that lost Bogdan Bogdanovic last year. In its never-ending quest to reach the playoffs, Sacramento need not fret over Kispert’s age or his lower ceiling relative to other possible options.
10. Memphis Grizzlies: Josh Giddey (Australia)
Memphis acquired this pick in a trade Monday that sent Jonas Valanciunas to New Orleans for Steven Adams and Eric Bledsoe. Giddey, 18, is an oversized point guard with strong passing skills and good feel, and he could fit in as a secondary playmaker alongside franchise guard Ja Morant.
11. Charlotte Hornets: Franz Wagner (Michigan)
The Hornets face a decision: Do they want to address their weak interior rotation in the draft or free agency? This draft class isn’t particularly deep on centers at the top, so Charlotte could opt for Wagner, a 6-9 forward who projects as a formidable shooter and defender after stuffing the stat sheet in college.
12. San Antonio Spurs: Alperen Sengun (Turkey)
San Antonio can never get enough international intrigue, and the 6-9 Sengun would offer a scoring-minded complement to center Jakob Poeltl. There should be frontcourt minutes available following the midseason departure of LaMarcus Aldridge, although the 19-year-old Sengun is a longer-term project with questions on the defensive end.
13. Indiana Pacers: James Bouknight (Connecticut)
Indiana has several talented scorers, but the 20-year-old Bouknight might represent the best player available if he is still on the board. After another coaching change, endless trade rumors and a split with Victor Oladipo, the Pacers are still working to identify their long-term building blocks. In the meantime, Bouknight can get buckets.
14. Golden State Warriors: Moses Moody (Arkansas)
Moody, 19, will probably need developmental time before he makes an impact in the NBA, but his length and disruptive defense are coveted attributes for a team such as the Warriors that is hoping to crack open another championship window. With plenty of offensive weapons already on the roster, Moody can do the little things and capitalize on opportunities that are created for him.