“The NBA Draft–Great Gamble”
The 2020 NBA season is in the history books.
The 2021 season kicks off with the NBA Draft on Wednesday night.
Maybe the most uncertain draft we have seen in years. No universal pick at the top of the board. Guys who got bounced out of college for an NCAA violation. One who dropped out of high school to go play abroad.
And a collection of players from abroad that only scouts know about.
It has been a wild week leading up to the draft. Lakers superstar Anthony Davis opted out of his 28M contract to move towards getting a max deal from the Lakers.
Legendary guard Chris Paul is heading to the Phoenix Suns in a big deal with Oklahoma City.
The Milwaukee Bucks, attempting to retain Giannis Antetokoumnpo, pulled off two huge deals to get New Orleans G-Jrue Holiday and then Sacramento Kings swingman Bogdan Bodanovich. Those two join Giannis, Kris Middleton and Brooke Lopez.
Still to come,what Houston does with unhappy guards James Harden and Russell Westbrook. Hardten wants to go to Brooklyn to link up with Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving.
And of course the NY Knicks are still out there, with cap space and a new coach Tom Thibodeau, who wants to win immediately.
So with all the weeks moves as a back-drop, here comes the draft, and rumors the top couple of draft picks could be in play. Who knows if Minnesota or Golden State keep the top two choices.
Here’s a look at the top five picks and the summary on their talent levels by Sports Illustrated’s scouts.
For further reading, you can dive into SI’s Top 80 prospects and subscribe to our draft newsletter, which will land in your inbox over the course of the week.
1. Timberwolves: Anthony Edwards, SG, Georgia
Height: 6′ 5″ | Weight: 225 | Age: 19 | Freshman
Although there’s been much discussion publicly surrounding the Timberwolves’ decision at No. 1, within league circles, this situation appears far less confusing. As I’ve reported in recent weeks, a wide range of teams have been operating as if Edwards will be Minnesota’s selection. The Wolves have done their best to send mixed signals to market the pick and have explored a range of trade possibilities, and a deal would probably be their preference in the end. But for the most part, the educated assumptions I’ve heard from executives and front-office personnel have not wavered much. There’s been minimal belief that Minnesota will opt for LaMelo Ball over Edwards. There’s also skepticism that the Timberwolves will find a deal they like enough to pursue—and though there’s certainly time left for that to change, many have penciled in Edwards as the choice here.
While there’s justifiable debate as to who the draft’s top prospect really is, Edwards has a strong case, with an elite physical profile, an improving jump shot, underrated playmaking skills and the potential to be a good defender as he matures. He has a lot to learn, and his overall efficiency and level of engagement must improve. But factoring in his team context and development trajectory, Edwards has really just started to tap into his ability. He fits comfortably with the Timberwolves’ core pieces and will benefit from playing with better players for the first time, which should naturally help his shot selection to an extent. Edwards continues to track as the best answer and presumptive solution for Minnesota.
2. Warriors: James Wiseman, C, Memphis
Height: 7′ 1″ | Weight: 240 | Age: 19 | Freshman
The dust has settled a bit with regard to this selection, and, whether or not the Warriors make a deal, most rival teams are preparing as if Wiseman will be off the board at No. 2. Teams interested in Wiseman have operated under the assumption that that they have to trade up in front of Charlotte, and it’s known that the Warriors are interested in moving back in the lottery, seeking to draft a young player while also upgrading their frontcourt with a veteran who can help them win now. The most logical trade partners here are San Antonio and Detroit: both can use a long-term center in Wiseman, can offer LaMarcus Aldridge or Blake Griffin, respectively, and most importantly can offer Golden State a pathway out of Andrew Wiggins’ contract. The Warriors will have to weigh those types of opportunities carefully, but their immediate desire to win is going to be a factor here.
Although teams didn’t have much Wiseman film to work with, his immense size and physical tools, defensive ceiling and potential to develop a reliable jump shot are major calling cards. While the argument against investing early draft capital in a center is understandable, it’s not often you get those three traits in the same teenage prospect. He would have a better case at No. 1 if a different team held the pick. But Wiseman should be a more than sufficient prize for whichever team ends up with him on draft night, and has all the ability to be successful.
Graphic by Bryce Wood
3. Hornets: Onyeka Okongwu, C, USC
Height: 6′ 9″ | Weight: 235 | Age: 19 | Freshman
Charlotte is likely to face a difficult choice on draft night, as LaMelo Ball should be on the board for them and present a fascinating upside proposition. But all indications have been that selecting Ball here is not a no-brainer for the Hornets, and Okongwu has gained momentum among rival teams in recent weeks as Charlotte’s presumed selection at No. 3. The Hornets have long been thought to be targeting a big with this pick and were widely linked to Wiseman, but their level of interest in meeting Minnesota’s price to trade up two spots remains unclear. Their decision here will have a domino effect on the rest of the lottery. I wouldn’t totally rule Ball out here yet, but there’s more momentum surrounding Okongwu at this point in time.
Okongwu’s defensive-minded style and mobile, anticipatory play make him well-suited for the NBA game, despite being undersized for a center. He should enable his team to deploy smaller lineups without giving up an edge around the rim. Okongwu’s offensive game is a work in progress, and his ball skills and shooting are currently subpar, but he’s shown flashes of passing ability and has an overall good sense of himself as a player. If he becomes a more consistent threat to put up points in addition to his other strengths, he should be a valuable piece.
4. Bulls: LaMelo Ball, PG, Illawarra Hawks
Height: 6′ 7″ | Weight: 180 | Age: 19
Ball’s situation continues to be the primary determinant in the flow of the draft lottery, but in any case it’s hard to see him lasting too long outside the top three. He makes a real degree of sense for Chicago, with the Bulls in dire need of a creative playmaker and Coby White better suited as a two-guard long-term. There’s some thought around the NBA that Zach LaVine could be had via trade as well, so his presence shouldn’t be an impediment. The Bulls have done a good job disguising their intentions with this pick, but they’ve long been thought to covet Deni Avdija, who could be the choice here whether or not Ball is on the board. Obi Toppin is also in the mix here, but his skill set would appear redundant with Lauri Markkanen also on the roster.
At the end of the day, Ball has a real chance to end up as the best player in this draft, but opinion varies widely depending who you talk to. His size, innate playmaking instincts and creativity with the ball are all difficult to find, but his carefree style, ball dominance and lack of winning history are concerning for some teams. The upside proposition is easily evident, though, and he could evolve into one of the league’s best passers. Ball’s iffy three-point shooting remains his biggest impediment to stardom, but if he can make enough to keep defenses honest, he has all the pieces to be a quality starter at bare minimum. For better or worse, Ball will garner the spotlight right away. He would seem difficult for Chicago to pass on, and could be the connective piece that ties together an underachieving young roster.
5. Cavaliers: Deni Avdija, F, Maccabi Tel Aviv (Israel)
Height: 6′ 8″ | Weight: 210 | Age: 19
Avdija and Obi Toppin have been the two players strongly connected to Cleveland, with the team in search of a more versatile frontcourt piece to pair with its young guards. Avdija gets the nod here for now, as his playmaking potential and comfort playing on the perimeter are a more natural match for the Cavaliers’ core. Speculatively, if Ball makes it to this spot, the Cavs would probably think hard, although it would likely require them to move on from Collin Sexton or Darius Garland. There’s also some talk about Cleveland trading back from this spot for the right offer.
Optimists hope Avdija evolves into an oversize secondary playmaker and maximizes his promising passing skills, and they also see value in his floor. Even if his handle doesn’t peak to the point where he’s functionally a guard, Avdija should at least shoot it well enough to keep defenses honest, and he’s a quality downhill playmaker who should be able to attack closeouts and rotations comfortably. If his defense proves passable, he has an easy pathway to value.