On the morning after the 2020 NBA Draft, back on Nov. 19, 2020, I projected that Cade Cunningham, Jalen Green, Evan Mobley, Scottie Barnes, Jalen Suggs and Jonathan Kuminga would be among the first seven players selected in the 2021 NBA Draft. Then they all became top-seven picks. So that's the latest bit of evidence that suggests it's never really too early to look ahead to the next NBA Draft.
Believe it or not, front offices already have a fairly good idea of which players will be under consideration in the lottery next June, as they've been evaluating most of the elite Class of 2021 prospects, to different degrees, for years. So with that in mind, what's below is an early look at how the lottery of the 2022 NBA Draft could unfold. By my estimation, it should be a draft that's once again dominated at the top by American-based prospects only one year removed from high school just like the 2021 NBA Draft was dominated at the top by American-based prospects only one year removed from high school — namely Cunningham (No. 1), Green (No. 2), Mobley (No. 3), Barnes (No. 4), Suggs (No. 5), Kuminga (No. 7), Ziaire Williams (No. 10), Joshua Primo (No. 12) and Moses Moody (No. 14).
1. Thunder: Paolo Banchero (Duke)
I first saw Paolo Banchero in person two years ago at a USA Basketball event in Colorado Springs, where he was already so big and strong and overwhelming that a coach of a top-five college program told me the 6-10 forward could start for him then even though the Seattle native had only completed his sophomore year of high school. In the subsequent 24 months, Banchero has gotten even bigger and stronger, more skilled and more versatile, and it's easy to imagine him being the first player selected in this draft after one season of playing for Mike Krzyzewski at Duke.
2. Magic: Chet Holmgren (Gonzaga)
Chet Holmgren is one of the most unique prospects to enter college in a number of years given that he's a 7-foot rim-protector who is also extremely comfortable and effective playing with the ball in his hands on the perimeter. Questions about his skinny frame, and how much it will fill out at the next level, are legitimate — but the talent is so undeniable that he's the biggest threat to replace Banchero at the top of this draft after spending one season helping Mark Few try to win Gonzaga's first national championship.
3. Pistons: Jaden Hardy (G League Ignite)
Jaden Hardy projects as the next G League Ignite product to bounce into the top 10 of the draft the same way Green and Kuminga just did. He's a 6-4 bucket-getter who can shoot it comfortably from 25 feet and would be electric playing beside a tall and gifted point guard like Cade Cunningham in Detroit.
4. Cavaliers: Caleb Houstan (Michigan)
Caleb Houstan's decision to reclassify last summer is what allowed him to enroll this summer at Michigan, where he'll play on the wing in a starting lineup anchored by preseason All-American Hunter Dickinson. The 6-8 Canadian is considered a high-level 3-and-D prospect thanks to his already exceptional catch-and-shoot ability that would compliment the skills Evan Mobley is bringing to the Cleveland franchise.
5. Spurs: Patrick Baldwin Jr. (Milwaukee)
Patrick Baldwin Jr. is the type of long shot-creator and shot-maker NBA franchises routinely prioritize. The fact that he's also the son of a coach, and basically at no risk of doing anything other than dominating while playing for his father this season in the Horizon League, are two other pluses that should give him a chance to crack the top five and give San Antonio a big wing to pair with recent lottery pick Joshua Primo.
6. Rockets: Kennedy Chandler (Tennessee)
Kennedy Chandler is a traditional point guard (with incredible speed and handles) whose team just always seems to win — in high school, on the grassroots circuit and with USA Basketball. He's a little on the small side, but that wouldn't matter much playing next to a big guard like Jalen Green in Houston.
7. Kings: Adrian Griffin (Duke)
Duke should go from having zero lottery picks in the 2021 NBA Draft to multiple lottery picks in the 2022 NBA Draft because of the presence of Banchero and A.J. Griffin, the latter of whom is the son of Raptors assistant Adrian Griffin. The 6-6 wing has incredible physical tools that allow him to guard multiple positions, and the fact that he's the child of a professional athlete is something front offices also value.
8. Hornets: Jabari Smith (Auburn)
It's preferable in the modern-NBA that all forward prospects be competent shooters who can keep the floor spaced. That's among the reasons scouts are high on Jabari Smith, who should be terrific in one season at Auburn, where he'll create a super-talented frontcourt with fellow former five-star recruit Walker Kessler.
9. Timberwolves: Peyton Watson (UCLA)
Peyton Watson is an athletic wing with great length who can fly in transition and guard multiple positions. His enrollment at UCLA is one of the reasons Mick Cronin has a real chance to guide the Bruins to a second straight Final Four before Watson bounces to the NBA, where he'd fit nicely playing on the perimeter beside the No. 1 pick from the 2020 NBA Draft (Anthony Edwards).
10. Pelicans: TyTy Washington (Kentucky)
Kentucky got stuck last season without the kind of high-level one-and-done point guard John Calipari has used to make four Final Fours in 12 years with the Wildcats. But things will get back to normal this season thanks to the enrollment of TyTy Washington, a 6-3 point guard who can create for himself (and others) and reliably shoot in a way that would be beneficial for any primary ball-handler playing with Zion Williamson in New Orleans.
11. Pacers: JD Davison (Alabama)
JD Davison is the point guard prospect in this draft most likely to dunk on a larger opponent like Grizzlies star Ja Morant sometimes does. Assuming he performs as expected at Alabama, he'll likely be Nate Oats' third straight lottery pick and somebody who could be an interesting backcourt addition for a Pacers organization trying to return to relevance with Rick Carlisle back on the sideline.
12. Raptors: Yannick Nzosa (Congo)
Yannick Nzosa is likely to be the first non-college/international player selected in this draft. The 6-11 center, who is still only 17 years old, has a chance to be special defensively, and in general, even if most things on the offensive end remain very much a work in progress.
13. Wizards: Nikola Jovic (Serbia)
Nikola Jovic possesses some real point-forward skills that allow him to make passes most prospects his size and age can't make. The 6-10 Serbian spent the past year also becoming a respectable 3-point threat, which is another skill that has bolstered his stock and could help the Wizards in what, by then, might be the post-Bradley Beal era.
14. Grizzlies: Jalen Duren (N/A)
Listeners of the Eye On College Basketball Podcast likely know I'm a little lower on Jalen Duren than most, mostly because, from an NBA perspective, he can reasonably be described as an undersized center who doesn't do a whole lot away from the basket, at least not at this point in his development. But in certain situations, that might not be the biggest deal, and playing in Memphis next to a versatile big like Jaren Jackson Jr. is one such situation that could maximize Duren, who is expected to soon reclassify from the Class of 2022 and, by extension, make himself eligible for the 2022 NBA Draft.