As training camp approaches, there’s no better time than now to evaluate a different approach on the rookie class, especially the top 15 picks, and what their worst case scenarios could look like with their first NBA teams. These scenarios are done in order of draft pick slot:
Cade Cunningham’s worst case scenario revolves around being good and not great. He scores in the mid teens per game, only gets 5 or 6 assists per game, as well as rebounds, and has average efficiency. In the short-term, Cunningham can be exploited defensively more in the NBA with a lack of great footspeed at times in isolation. There’s no “bust” scenario for him in terms of flaming out of the league, but there is some chance that he doesn’t live up to the hype of being a number one pick, albeit unlikely in my eyes.
Jalen Green has the best upside in the class, and I think there’s a great chance he hits that ceiling. His worst case scenarios revolve around his passing never developing into stardom, his defense holding him back, and the killer being if his shot doesn’t fully develop. I don’t see more than one of these things happening, but if two of the 3 happen, he may not live up to the #2 pick. Historically, it’s becoming more and more rare that both #1 and #2 live up to the hype. Ja Morant & Zion Williamson in 2019 are the most recent examples of it, as well as Ben Simmons & Brandon Ingram in 2016, and Karl-Anthony Towns & D’Angelo Russell in 2015.
Evan Mobley is probably the first realistic pick to be a bust in the top 5, and it would be a combination of a few things: it would stem from his defensive flags being hidden at USC & his scoring not being high enough to make up for some exposures. The fit in Cleveland is questionable, although I like his upside in the long-term. Mobley can play both the power forward and center, but what if he cannot find his niche offensively? He was a unique offensive player as a passer and finisher at USC, but what if the simplicity doesn’t work? On top of that, in college basketball the Defensive 3 in the Key rule is non-existent. Mobley camped out in the center of the paint at the restricted area, and he will have to learn how to anchor a defense without that. If some of his off-ball awareness shortcomings are shown in the NBA, that might be a sign that collegiate defense hid his flaws, and that could be an uphill battle for Mobley in the NBA. I’m not sure what the outlook becomes in this scenario, but this is the closest to out of the league in the top 3.
Scottie Barnes has a fatal flaw in his lack of a jumper, and that’s pretty simply what would hold him back. I had Barnes as high as 3 on my board at one point before the G League Bubble, but I think his basketball IQ, hard-working mentality, defensive prowess, and elite strides as a slasher hold him up in terms of a floor. His shooting tendency looked comfortable in Summer League, but will that translate to the NBA? He needs to become an elite playmaker and defender to really stick for a long time in the NBA.
Jalen Suggs’ biggest short-term flaw would likely stem from a cluster at guard in Orlando. I don’t see a single trait that holds Suggs back from being at worst a great bench player due to his basketball IQ, creation, and shooting. His defense and shooting may need to overcome a learning curve in year 1, but that should be a quick adjustment for him. If he can’t fit in 3 guard lineups, or in lineups without shooting, Suggs may find struggles early on.
Josh Giddey has something a lot of guys that stick in the league have, even with skill shortcomings: elite basketball IQ. It’s hard to see guys with a brilliant understanding of the game fail, but Giddey does have some glaring red flags that I addressed ad nauseam in the pre-draft process: his shot is unreliable, especially off the dribble, he lacks the athleticism necessary to be a slasher, and his defense is underwhelming given his size. If he can’t fit 2 guard lineups, these flaws will be heavily exposed and will also be a root to his failure at fitting 2 guard lineups. Early on, I expect defense and shooting to be an issue, so seeing him as a positive in his early career will be hard, especially for a losing team.
Jonathan Kuminga has high bust potential due to being a forward with a shaky shot and mediocre feel for the game. Kuminga is unlikely to see major minutes in year one, but his challenge will come in years 2 & 3 to become a rotation player and find a niche role to play off the bench. If he can become a creator and high-level defender, he will stick. If his jumper, especially his spot-up, doesn’t find success, he will struggle to see the floor. He will also need to improve his finishing to stick. In short, if he can’t play off-ball, Kuminga’s NBA time may be quick.
Franz Wagner is unlikely to bust out of the league, but he could struggle with being a shooter early on, which will limit his versatility that made him worthy of the top 10 pick out of Michigan. As a jack of all trades, master of none, Franz needs the shot to come along in order to jump from high level bench player to starter.
Davion Mitchell had pre-draft concerns regarding his shot, but after a great Summer League performance, it’s easy to see why Mitchell will stick. With defensive prowess that could project to being All-Defense caliber, he needs the jumper to work. Like Suggs, it’s hard to see him failing, but his potential to fit in 3 guard lineups will be key, when the young core in place is two other guards. If Mitchell ends up not being able to shoot, he relegates himself to a bench player, but if the shot falls at even a league average rate, he’s a starter caliber player. Mitchell may be one of the rare positive rookies on a non-playoff team this year due to his fit offensively & defensive prowess for a team that has desperately needed defense.
Ziaire Williams is unlikely to contribute for the likely playoff-bound Grizzlies, making this simple yet difficult. If Ziaire is asked to step up into a role as a 9th man as a versatile wing, he simply must hit shots. The difference at Stanford between a good Ziaire Williams and a bad Ziaire Williams almost exclusively relied on how well he shot the ball, and that should continue in the NBA. Another issue he will have to overcome is a significantly raw defensive feel for the game. How he learns NBA defenses will be crucial to his development.
James Bouknight should replace Devonte’ Graham and Malik Monk’s roles as a bench scorer & somewhat playmaker, with mediocre defense in year 1. Bouknight was my #5 player on my final 2021 draft board, and I think his immediate impact plays a role in that ranking. He fits a 3 guard lineup with LaMelo Ball & Terry Rozier, should the Hornets go small, and he can fit with both of those guards in separate lineups. His transition to the NBA is rather seamless. Should he fail, however, it’s likely because his playmaking doesn’t translate, and his early shooting numbers don’t meet expectations.
Josh Primo was a surprising pick at 12, and a lot of the shock has to do with how little he is expected to contribute in year 1, barring a massive roster overhaul in San Antonio. If Primo struggles to play with the already deep guard core in San Antonio, featuring Lonnie Walker, Dejounte Murray, Tre Jones, and Derrick White, he will have a hard time finding positive play. In year 1, Primo is likely a primary off-ball player. The best thing for Primo would be for the Spurs to tank so he can have more freedom as a creator and playmaker to fully develop his offense.
Chris Duarte is probably the most NBA-ready rotation player (non-starter) in the draft, hence his 13th overall selection. He complements Sabonis well, and can be used in the 3 guard lineups that are inevitably going to be run under new coach Rick Carlisle. While Carlisle has historically been unreliable in developing rookies, he can treat the 24 year old Duarte as a free agent acquisition more than a draft pick to find immediate year 1 value as a positive player. His lone risk to failure is his lack of athleticism, and how much that limits him on-ball defensively.
Moses Moody was the pick for Golden State that addressed immediate fit on the wing. As a 3&D player, Moody should find success in off-ball situations addressed above in the Kuminga write-up. The question for Moody is: how can he develop as an on-ball offensive player? He struggled to take collegiate defenders 1-on-1, due to mild dribble moves and a weak first step, which can limit his absolute upside.
Corey Kispert should have a safe career in the NBA, but the risk for Kispert comes with what happens with Bradley Beal. Should he be traded mid-season, the role players Washington surrounded Beal with could see their values tank, Kispert included. As an elite off-ball player, Kispert’s best value is to winning teams, so the question for him is how good can he be on a tanking team? Could Kispert be the first player from the 2021 NBA Draft to be traded if that’s the case? It seems Kispert was purely taken with the intentions that Beal is there to stay.
The 2021 NBA Draft has a lot of high upside prospects with minimal risk factors, but no draft class in the history of the NBA has had a 100% hit rate. While the 2021 NBA Draft was arguably my favorite draft to scout and cover, there will be misses, and identifying some risk factors can be an important exercise in finding red flags early on.