By my estimation, five different players — Oklahoma State's Cade Cunningham, Gonzaga's Jalen Suggs, USC's Evan Mobley and G League stars Jalen Green and Jonathan Kuminga — should be in the running to be the first pick of the 2021 NBA Draft, and we probably won't have a great idea of which player will actually go first until the lottery order is set.
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Odds are, it'll be Cunningham.
But I could make an alternative case for any of the other four, two of whom have largely been out of sight/out of mind because they bypassed college basketball and the stage it provides. What you see below is the order in which I'd select them (and 25 others) at this moment based on personal observations and discussions with people throughout the sport, among them college basketball coaches and NBA front office members. But, please note, team needs were NOT taken into consideration at all because, at this time, I'm more interested in having a proper order than I am in making sure somebody is a good fit for the franchise theoretically making the selection. I'll worry about that later — but not until the lottery order is set on June 22. (The order for this lottery is set by SportsLine projections of each team's predicted win totals.)
Round 1 - Pick 1
Oklahoma State • 6'6" / 220 lbs
Cunningham is a point guard with size who often took over games in his one season at Oklahoma State. His ability to reliably make plays and sink shots are why he's likely to be the first player selected before developing into somebody who can be the face of a franchise for a decade.
Round 1 - Pick 2
Jalen Suggs PG
Gonzaga • 6'5" / 205 lbs
Suggs is a top-shelf athlete who can impact the game on both ends of the court. He's a big reason why the Zags went 31-1 in his one season on campus, and it'll hardly be a surprise if he's selected higher than any Gonzaga player has ever been selected in an NBA Draft.
Round 1- Pick 3
Southern California • 6'11" / 215 lbs
The center position has never been less valued in the NBA than it is right now, which isn't ideal for Mobley. But the one-and-done reigning Pac-12 Player of the Year should still go in the top three based on his ability to rim-protect and stretch the floor.
Round 1 - Pick 4
The decision to skip college and play for the G League Ignite did not harm Green's draft status in any meaningful way. He's a scoring guard with size who starred against other professionals and made perimeter shots consistently enough to solidify himself as a consensus top-five prospect.
Round 1 - Pick 5
The fact that Kuminga only shot 24.6% from 3-point range with the G League Ignite was disappointing given the importance of perimeter shooting in the NBA. But he's such an explosive athlete and generally gifted prospect that slipping out of the top five seems like an unlikely outcome.
Round 1 - Pick 6
Baylor • 6'0" / 202 lbs
Arguably the biggest star of the NCAA Tournament, Mitchell was among the reasons Baylor crushed everybody it faced in the bracket on the way to winning the national championship. He's a super-athletic point guard who can distribute and shoot at a high level, and there's no reason to think he won't be impactful in the NBA from Day One.
Round 1 - Pick 7
Florida State • 6'7" / 225 lbs
Barnes is essentially guaranteed to be Florida State's third lottery pick in a span of two drafts. He proved capable of playing four different positions in his one year of college and is maybe only a reliable jumper away from really becoming a dangerous offensive weapon.
Round 1 - Pick 8
Connecticut • 6'4" / 190 lbs
When he got going this season, almost nobody was as offensively overwhelming as Bouknight was for UConn. The guard with size was limited to just 15 games because of a midseason elbow injury, but he showed enough scoring ability in those contests to turn himself into a likely lottery pick.
Round 1 - Pick 9
Moses Moody SG
Arkansas • 6'5" / 211 lbs
The leading scorer and second-leading rebounder for Arkansas, Moody was one of the keys to the SEC program making the Elite Eight for the first time since 1995. His poor shooting throughout the Razorbacks' NCAA Tournament run wasn't ideal, but he still showed enough from November to March to make himself worthy of being selected in the lottery.
From Chicago Bulls
Round 1 - Pick 10
Keon Johnson SG
Tennessee • 6'4" / 185 lbs
Johnson got off to a bit of a slow start for a Tennessee team that returned a lot of experienced pieces, but he eventually developed into a reliable double-digit scorer. His athleticism and size on the wing should give him a chance to be a nice two-way player for many years to come.
Round 1 - Pick 11
Tre Mann PG
Florida • 6'3" / 178 lbs
Returning for a second season at Florida benefited Mann immensely as he averaged 10.7 more points per game, and shot 12.7% better from 3-point range, than he did as a freshman. He's now considered a lock for the top 20 and somebody who can possibly flourish at three different positions in the NBA.
Round 1 - Pick 12
Kentucky • 6'10" / 205 lbs
Jackson's block percentage of 12.7 ranked eighth nationally, according to KenPom. He still needs to develop significantly on the offensive end, but the size and athleticism to be special someday are inarguably in place.
Round 1 - Pick 13
Tennessee • 6'4" / 202 lbs
Springer went from playing just nine minutes in the season-opener to finishing as Tennessee's leading scorer. He made above 43% of his 3-point attempts in his one year of college, which is an encouraging stat even if it was on limited attempts.
Round 1 - Pick 14
LSU • 6'3" / 210 lbs
Thomas is a big-time scorer who led the SEC in points per game in his one season at LSU. The efficiency numbers weren't great, but that's largely because he was responsible for creating an unusually high percentage of the Tigers' offense.
Round 1 - Pick 15
Auburn • 6'1" / 176 lbs
Cooper is a little on the small side, which will likely be the thing that prevents him from being seriously considered for the top 10. But he's such a gifted passer and playmaker that he's worth a look in the teens after averaging an SEC-best 8.1 assists per game.
From Miami Heat
Round 1 - Pick 16
Ayo Dosunmu SG
Illinois • 6'4" / 200 lbs
Dosunmu improved enough as a shooter in his third season at Illinois to lock up a spot in the first round. The regularity with which he took over games in the Big Ten suggests he can be a big-scoring guard at the next level.
Round 1 - Pick 17
Gonzaga • 6'6" / 224 lbs
Kispert's lackluster performance in the Final Four didn't leave a great last impression. But he's still a wing with size who can really, really shoot it, and players like that are incredibly valuable these days.
Round 1 - Pick 18
Kai Jones PF
Texas • 6'10" / 221 lbs
Selecting Jones in the top 20 is little more than a bet on his upside given that he was a mostly unproductive player in two seasons at Texas. But the potential to be a stretch-big at the next level is obviously present considering he made 13 of the 34 3-pointers he attempted this season.
Round 1 - Pick 19
Chris Duarte SG
Oregon • 6'5" / 190 lbs
Some might discount Duarte as a prospect because he's already 23 years old, and because he's not an elite athlete. But the former National Junior College Player of the Year is an accomplished player who made better than 42% of the 5.5 3-pointers he attempted per contest this season, and there's little doubt he has a game that'll translate to the NBA.
Round 1 - Pick 20
Stanford • 6'9" / 185 lbs
Williams operated mostly off of the national radar in his one season of college basketball while playing for a Stanford team that finished tied for sixth in the Pac-12, and he largely struggled down the stretch. But he's still an athletic wing with size who can theoretically be a matchup problem in the NBA.
From Dallas Mavericks
Round 1 - Pick 21
Franz Wagner SF
Michigan • 6'10" / 220 lbs
Wagner is a wing with size who has great feel and is a good passer. His 3-point shot must improve for him to meet expectations, but the fact that he shot 83.3% from the free-throw line suggests he's capable of being an above-average shooter in time.
Round 1 - Pick 22
Jared Butler PG
Baylor • 6'2" / 193 lbs
Butler earned Most Outstanding Player honors at the Final Four after scoring 22 points in the title-clinching win over Gonzaga. He'll enter the NBA with lead-guard skills and as one of the most accomplished shooters in his rookie class.
Round 1 - Pick 23
Giddey is the son of a professional basketball player, which is considered a plus these days by most front offices. At 6-8, he can play on or off the ball, and he's already proven himself against professionals in the same league where LaMelo Ball played before coming to the NBA.
From Milwaukee Bucks
Round 1 - Pick 24
Duke • 6'8" / 219 lbs
Johnson's underwhelming play at Duke that preceded him quitting the team has him projected to go much lower now than he was projected a year ago. Regardless, it remains hard to imagine him slipping into the 30s given the versatility he possesses as a 6-8 wing who shot above 44% from 3-point range over a span of 13 games.
Round 1 - Pick 25
Sengun has been a professional in Turkey since 2018 even though he's still just 18 years old. He's more of a throwback center than a modern center, but he's already very comfortable catching the ball at the elbow and using a face-up game with nice footwork to score and draw fouls.
Round 1 - Pick 26
Virginia • 6'8" / 206 lbs
Murphy had no problem adjusting to the ACC after spending his first two years of college at Rice. He's proven over the span of three seasons to be a consistent high-level shooter, one who should be able to carve out a niche in the NBA.
Round 1 - Pick 27
Villanova • 6'8" / 242 lbs
Robinson-Earl was the leading scorer and rebounder for a Villanova team that won the Big East by multiple games. He's not the best athlete, but his understanding of how to play, and his ability to be a pick-and-pop 4, should serve him well at the next level.
Round 1 - Pick 28
Matthew Hurt PF
Duke • 6'9" / 235 lbs
Whether evaluators like Hurt or not comes down to what they focus on — the things he can do or the things with which he struggles. But almost any 6-9 forward who made 44.4% of 5.3 attempts from beyond the arc for a program like Duke deserves serious consideration as a first-round prospect.
Round 1 - Pick 29
Greg Brown PF
Texas • 6'8" / 206 lbs
Brown is such a bouncy athlete that he's worthy of first-round looks based on potential alone. If his 3-point shot continues to improve to the point where he's a legitimate big who can stretch the floor, he'll prove to be a steal at this point in the draft.
Round 1 - Pick 30
Arizona State • 6'3" / 215 lbs
Things didn't go well for Christopher at Arizona State, where he only played 15 games because of what was described as a back injury. But the guard with size did enough when he was on the court to display the type of scoring ability that makes him an intriguing prospect regardless of the fact that his time with the Sun Devils left something to be desired.