Will Cade Cunningham go No. 1? Projecting the first round of the 2021 NBA Draft


Carter Landis, General Assignment Reporter

The NBA Draft lottery is set, and the hometown Detroit Pistons were the lucky winners for the first time in the lottery era. This is also their first time selecting No. 1 overall since 1970, when they took future Hall of Famer Bob Lanier. 

This draft is as loaded in the top five as any draft in recent memory. With a transcendent talent, two elite college freshmen and a couple of G-League standouts, the top of this draft rivals that of 2018, which had Luka Doncic, Trae Young and Deandre Ayton. 

With the entire draft order set, let’s take a look at how the first round of the 2021 NBA Draft could shake out. 

1. Detroit Pistons – Cade Cunningham, F, Oklahoma State

The Pistons finally get their shot at drafting a franchise-changing talent. Cade Cunningham can do it all — shoot, pass, defend and win. Detroit already has a considerably good young core, but adding a potential superstar to lead the team makes this group a serious candidate to contend for the Eastern Conference in a couple years. 

2. Houston Rockets – Jalen Green, G, G-League

If it weren’t for Cade Cunningham, this would be Jalen Green’s draft. Green has a chance to come into the NBA as the most athletic player in the league — which speaks to how ridiculous his athleticism truly is. Green just has that natural ability to become a star, and Houston will benefit greatly from building around him. 

3. Cleveland Cavaliers – Evan Mobley, C, USC

If Green is gone, the Cavaliers will go with the best big man in the class. Mobley averaged 16 points and nearly nine rebounds a game for the Trojans last season on the way to an Elite Eight appearance. Jarrett Allen is a free agent, and the Cavaliers have a chance to replace him with a younger center with a higher ceiling. 

4. Toronto Raptors – Jalen Suggs, G, Gonzaga

It appears that the Raptors and longtime point guard Kyle Lowry are headed for a split, so they will look to replace him with the best point guard in the draft. Suggs has elite tangibles and leadership tendencies at such a young age. He posted good numbers across the board for a Bulldogs team that appeared in the National Championship, and he should fit right in next to Fred Van Vleet. 

5. Orlando Magic – Scottie Barnes, F, Florida State

Scottie Barnes is yet another NBA prospect to come out of Tallahassee after playing under Leonard Hamilton, and the track record of success has been undeniable. His athleticism and defensive ability pop off the screen, and he’ll become the centerpiece in Orlando’s next (and probably not last) rebuild. 

6. Oklahoma City Thunder – Jonathan Kuminga, F, G-League

A candidate to be the No. 1 overall recruit in college basketball before spurning the NCAA for the G-League, Kuminga didn’t meet the expectations he was capable of, but the physical profile is still there. An ultra athletic wing with great size and the right mechanics to become a good shooter, the Thunder continue to stockpile young talent in hopes of speeding up their rebuild. 

7. Golden State Warriors (from Minnesota) – James Bouknight, G, Connecticut

The first of the Warriors’ two lottery picks, they decide to take the athletic guard with high upside. Bouknight’s potential is as high as anyone’s in this draft, and if his shooting improvement is legit, we could be looking at one the top five players from this class. 

8. Orlando Magic (from Chicago) – Keon Johnson, G, Tennessee

Keon Johnson is an athletic freak. Setting an NBA Draft Combine record in the vertical jump at 48.5 inches, he also has a chance to come into the league as the most athletic player, like Green. Orlando adds a good young guard who can play the 1 or the 2. 

9. Sacramento Kings – Josh Giddey, F, Australia

The Kings go with a unique player, a 6’8 Aussie forward with elite passing instincts. With two good passers at their guard spots, Giddey comes in as another facilitator. He needs to improve his shooting ability, and if he can do that, he could be one of the best players in the draft. 

10. New Orleans Pelicans – Corey Kispert, F, Gonzaga

The Pelicans desperately need shooting, which is exactly what Kispert provides. Kispert has the making of a Joe Harris archetype, a 3-point specialist who can spot up, catch and shoot and really just flat out beat you from beyond the line. He’ll provide a reliable shooting threat for Zion Williamson to pass out to. 

11. Charlotte Hornets – Alperen Sengun, C, Turkey

Sengun is one of the most offensively talented big men in this draft class. He has an elite post game, great athleticism and good passing instincts. He would provide immediate two-way production from the center spot, which Charlotte desperately needs. 

12. San Antonio Spurs – Moses Moody, G, Arkansas

Moody, in all honesty, could go higher than No. 12, but he’s here for the Spurs, and they’re thrilled about it. Moody has the best chance to become a quality player in the NBA, with elite shooting tendencies and good defensive instincts. Moody has great size and good potential to become a 3-and-D wing in the league.

13. Indiana Pacers – Davion Mitchell, G, Baylor

Another player who could be gone before this pick, but the Pacers are elated that Mitchell is on the board for them. Mitchell has the potential to be a defensive pest in the league, with elite physical traits and a relentless motor. Mitchell can be a guy who plays the point guard spot for the Pacers, as T.J. McConnell is a free agent. 

14. Golden State Warriors – Franz Wagner, F, Michigan

The second of the Warriors’ lottery picks goes to an elite defensive wing with size. If Wagner can improve his shooting percentages, he can become a good 3-and-D wing for Golden State. 

15. Washington Wizards – Jaden Springer, G, Tennessee

Another Volunteer goes in the first round, this time with Springer to Washington. Springer, like Johnson, has unreal athleticism and is a disruptor on the defensive end. He’s got some work to do with his jump shot, but his ceiling is incredibly high. 

16. Oklahoma City Thunder (from Boston): Jalen Johnson, F, Duke

The Thunder are playing with house money with these draft picks because they have so many opportunities to hit on them. Drafting the bouncy forward out of Duke, Jalen Johnson, is one of those opportunities. Johnson’s game is reminiscent of John Collins, an athletic forward with a solid offensive game. 

17. Memphis Grizzlies – Kai Jones, F, Texas

The Grizzlies have not gotten what they expected out of Brandon Clarke, so they might look to replace him in this draft. Luckily, Kai Jones is a high-energy forward who can play the 4 or the 5, with off-the-charts athleticism and the highest motor out of anyone in the draft class. Adding a guy like Jones strengthens the Grizzlies young core that can make some noise in the playoffs. 

18. Oklahoma City Thunder (from Miami) – Ziaire Williams, F, Stanford

While Williams may have had a disappointing season at Stanford, he’s got all the physical tools to be a good player in the NBA. He’s got potential to be a good three-level scorer, playmaker and defender at the next level. OKC is the perfect spot for him to develop his game for a year or two. 

19. New York Knicks – Sharife Cooper, G, Auburn

The Knicks need scoring from their point guard spot, as Derrick Rose was good, but he’s not the long-term answer at that position. Cooper could be, as he has a natural knack for putting the ball in the basket as well as some sneaky good defensive tendencies. He’s undersized, but he gets to the free throw line better than anyone in this class and would provide an immediate scoring punch to the Knicks. 

20. Atlanta Hawks – J.T. Thor, F, Auburn

Fresh off a Conference Finals appearance, the Hawks might be looking for a cheap John Collins replacement, as he is a free agent. They’ll look no further than Thor, who is an intriguing, high-upside defensive forward. He’s shown the ability to create some offense for himself and would provide some great defense for the Hawks’ bench. 

21. New York Knicks (from Dallas) – Trey Murphy III, F, Virginia

The Knicks picked up a scoring point guard with their first pick; now they double back and get a 3-point sniper with their pick from the Mavericks. Murphy has a 7-foot-1 wingspan and shot 43% from 3-point range last season. If that doesn’t scream “3-and-D”, I don’t know what does. Murphy provides outside shooting that the Knicks desperately need. 

22. Los Angeles Lakers – Tre Mann, G, Florida

The Lakers need scoring from their guard spots as well, and they’d probably benefit from letting Dennis Schroder walk and drafting Mann. He’s got unlimited range and is a decent playmaker. He fits the mold of a Kemba Walker type guard, and any team would love to have that. 

23. Houston Rockets (from Portland) – Cam Thomas, G, LSU

The Rockets need a long-term answer at point guard, and John Wall is most likely not that. Cam Thomas could be, being one of the best scorers in this entire draft class. He joins Jalen Green and creates a scary backcourt duo for the future. 

24. Houston Rockets (from Milwaukee) – Greg Brown III, F, Texas

The Rockets have already added Jalen Green and Cam Thomas and now they get a freakishly athletic forward with a high ceiling. Brown gives the Rockets an elite finisher who is great in the open floor and has high defensive upside as well. 

25. Los Angeles Clippers – Isaiah Jackson, F, Kentucky

If the Clippers decide to keep Reggie Jackson, their next move should be finding someone who can consistently play the power forward spot. Isaiah Jackson can be that guy. He defends well, is a great athlete and has potential to be a great two-way player. Jackson can develop under one of the best coaches in the league in Tyronn Lue. 

26. Denver Nuggets – Chris Duarte, G, Oregon

The Nuggets add an elite shooter to come off the bench. There are questions about Duarte’s ceiling, being a four-year player at Oregon, among other things. But if he’s knocking down shots, Denver isn’t going to care. 

27. Brooklyn Nets – Usman Garuba, C, Spain

The Nets get a quality bench big in Garuba here, an energetic and relentless center. They have one in Nic Claxton already, but why not add another? Garuba can defend his tail off and has good passing instincts in the pick-and-roll. 

28. Philadelphia 76ers – Joshua Primo, G, Alabama

The Sixers failed to meet expectations again because of a lack of scoring from their point guard position. They add Joshua Primo and fix this problem. Primo is a great shooter already, and he can become a three-level scorer while being a capable defender. He is the youngest player in the draft, so he will need time to develop, but his potential makes him worth a look in the first round.

29. Phoenix Suns – Jared Butler, G, Baylor

Butler is only here because of medical red flags, but if he’s cleared, he’ll land somewhere in the top 15-20. The 2021 NCAA Tournament’s Most Outstanding Player has elite defensive skills, a killer ability to create offense and unflappable leadership skills. Whatever team drafts Butler will end up winning the draft. 

30. Utah Jazz – Nah’Shon “Bones” Hyland, G, VCU

Nobody improved their draft stock at the draft combine more than Bones Hyland. Hyland is a natural born scorer, putting up 19.5 points and knocking down about three 3-pointers per game for the Rams last season as a sophomore. Hyland would immediately provide another scoring punch off the bench for the Jazz.