Thorpe’s favorite draft prospects
Take Evan Mobley #1
BY DAVID THORPE
You don’t have to have a high pick to get a team-altering talent. If you’ve seen Ted Lasso, then you know how a team can use culture to alter the course of things. Giannis as a skinny teenager, Kawhi who couldn’t shoot, Jokic who needed to lose dozens of pounds … any could have failed in the ultra-competitive NBA. All did a lot of the hard work of becoming stars well after the draft. Teams that can inspire have huge advantages.
This year, I see three prospects who are likely to succeed no matter where they end up:
Evan Mobley is my favorite prospect in the draft. I would pick him with the first overall pick without a care in the world.
He plays like a right-handed Chris Bosh, which is high praise. When Bosh played for the Raptors I saw him as a future MVP candidate. Instead he went to the Heat and was a key player on four contending teams that won two titles. LeBron James got all of the attention, Dwyane Wade scooped up some crumbs, but Bosh was essential to those titles. As Henry Abbott recently pointed out on Monday’s BRING IT IN, he was a plus-minus monster who rated as the league's best pick-and-roll defender.
At 19 years old, Evan Mobley:
Has crazy length and eye-popping athleticism.
Is already seven-feet tall with massive reach.
Dribbles like a guy who could develop into a primary ball handler.
Has a decent looking shot. It needs work, but shooting will likely be a skill.
But that isn’t even the good part. It’s his projections on defense that excite me most.
3 stopping Last year the Jazz averaged 43 3-point shots a game. Eighteen teams took 34 or more, including the Suns at 34.6. In their last three games of the Finals, the Suns took 23, 19, and 25 of them. This wasn’t because the Suns didn’t want to shoot 3s; the Bucks used their size, length, and versatility to chase them off the line. Teams will continue to launch more 3s than ever until someone stops them. Not just any defender can do that. Mobley, like Bosh, has the speed and reach to be a leader in this key skill.
Rim protection Every team needs a plan to protect the paint. Many have to play a large, slow player to get the job done. As a freshman, Mobley was sixth in the NCAA in blocked shots, and first among power schools. Interestingly, and importantly, he can block shots with his right or left hand, which—keep reading—matters.
Pick-and-roll defense You know what NBA coaches think about when they can’t sleep at night? Defending the pick and roll. It’s the league’s core conundrum, and it’s constant. Our friends at ESPN Kevin Pelton and Kevin Arnovitz explain that this year Trae Young, Luka Doncic, and Damian Lillard each received more than 2,800 screens above the 3-point line this season. We’re talking about a defensive conundrum that starts far from the hoop, ends wherever the offense decides, and happens all the time.
During the 2004-05 season, Nash's first with the Suns, 22% of their finished plays were generated by a pick-and-roll, by far a league-high. Just one other team, the Seattle SuperSonics, finished with more than 20%.
Five years later, 20 teams ran pick-and-rolls at least 20% of the time, per Synergy Sports. Four years after that, it was all 30.
Today, the innovative stylings of Nash, Stoudemire and D'Antoni—their 22%—would rank dead last in the league by a huge margin; not a single team relied on pick-and-rolls less than 25% of the time.
Another day, I could write a novel about how to defend the pick-and-roll. But for now suffice it to say, you’d do well to start with Evan Mobley, who, like Bosh, has the pure speed and quickness in that long and tall frame to enable suffocating possessions in a variety of defensive strategies employed—hard hedging screens, blitzing them, drop coverage, or just pure switching.
Offense You might remember Deandre Ayton’s playoff party, or Rudy Gobert’s season-long positive impact on the Jazz offense. See that as evidence that it matters that Mobley can jump and dunk lobs thrown to something around 13 feet in the air. He’s agile, nimble, and—like Bam Adebayo—is a good bet to develop the handles to dribble around heavy-footed centers. Rim racing in transition should be a feature too. Mobley can make solid offensive contributions without a reliable perimeter shot. There is no reason to think he won’t be able to make NBA 3s though as he ages and strengthens. His form on the 12 made 3s he had this season (in 40 attempts) looked great—good right arm, right hand extension, and follow through, left hand “quiet,” decent footwork. Over months of work and thousands of reps, year after year, this form can become what most shots of his look like. And then he’s likely to be a legit threat behind that line.
Mobley is unlikely to set the league on fire offensively like Jokic does now, but what he looks like he can do has a very good chance at helping teams win more than anyone else in this draft.
I’d hate to be an NBA agent. But if I had to be, I’d like to be Scottie Barnes’ agent. I’d tell everybody he’s the most Giannis-like NBA prospect since Giannis. Who wouldn’t draft that guy?
Personally, I’d take him second overall.
First, I know a ton about his game because my son was his teammate at Florida State. I’ve watched every second of Scottie Barnes’ college career. Call me biased, I don’t care. I think he’s fantastic.
I’m not saying Barnes is a lock to become a double NBA MVP and record-setting Finals MVP. Instead, I’d focus on what we know. Barnes is a much better player than Giannis was at the same age. He’s nearly as tall and has the same kind of length. He jumped 39.5 inches at the combine, with almost the longest wingspan of anybody. Jason Kidd wisely and famously moved Giannis to point guard his rookie season; Barnes played a ton of minutes running the point for Florida State. I don’t project Barnes to end up looking as physically imposing as Giannis does now, but it's fair to assume he's going to get much stronger and capable as an athlete, at the very least.
He didn’t shoot well. Which means … well I’m not certain what it means in a pandemic.
On college campuses across America, players were mostly forbidden from extra work before or after practice. For most athletes there was literally zero time spent on perfecting skills with coaches, either in one-on-one or small group sessions. They also didn’t do film sessions.
Reports are he’s shooting better in workouts—I take them with a pound of salt, but I would not be surprised if he ends up being a far better scorer and shooter down the road. He doesn’t yet know how to utilize his excellent paint touch either. That will come, too.
Nevertheless, Barnes took on the sport’s most demanding position for the first time, which worked well enough because of his natural inclination to be a passer and a ball mover. Barnes never needed a smooth perimeter stroke to dominate games growing up. Nor did he spend lots of time playing point guard—his high-school teammate at Montverde Academy was point guard Cade Cunningham, the consensus top prospect. (It might have been the best high-school team ever.) Given all that, he killed it. We simply don’t know what kind of skills he can develop.
But we do know how he works. Barnes plays and practices with a Giannis level of joy. It’s why I think he has a very high floor, like Cunningham.
He can genuinely defend every position, other than jumbo centers like Joel Embiid and Nikola Jokic—and even then he could make life tough. Barnes loves to pass, has a flair for the dramatic, and celebrates with equal enthusiasm when anyone on his team does well.
He’s a decade-plus NBA starter at worst. In the right setting and with a bit of luck, he’s a mix of Scottie Pippen, Draymond Green, and Giannis.
Cunningham checks every box on and off the court, in bold marker … except one. He’s a good athlete, but not a special one.
The model for players like that is Luka Doncic. But … let’s be careful comparing anyone to Luka. There have been a ton of good-not-great athletes and almost none become Luka. At Cunningham’s age, 18, Doncic was the MVP of two leagues that are light years tougher than the NCAA: Spain’s ACB and the Euroleague. His team won the championship of both leagues. He won the MVP of the Final Four of the Euroleague, while earning a spot on the All-Decade team after just one full season on the court.
Cunningham had a great season helping Oklahoma State to a fifth-place finish in the loaded Big 12 conference, losing in the conference tournament final and then again in the second round of the NCAA tournament to a 17-12 Oregon State team.
Bottom line, Cunningham is no Luka. What he is, though, is a can’t-miss prospect with a high floor and not-quite-so-high ceiling. He can play on or off the ball effectively and play solid defense. He would be a top-five selection in nearly every draft this century. In terms of impact, I would direct you to Lonzo Ball rather than Luka Doncic. (Ball, who is about to earn a big contract but is not a sure-fire maximum player.)
Of course Cunningham could end up surpassing Ball as a player—Giannis Antetokounmpo and Kawhi Leonard are living proof that it’s silly to create cement ceilings. It’s just harder to see that happening for him. Cunningham’s talent and size hints at a very productive career with little downside as a pro, it’s just a far leap to go from that to MVP contender. Still, he’s an “era-proof” guard who can quarterback the right team to contention in a few years.
It’ll take time and luck, though. Being drafted first overall, which is almost certain, means very little about a player’s ability to lead a team all the way. The last top overall pick to do that was LeBron James, and he went to Miami first. Anthony Davis was the Lakers’ second-best player and was the top pick in 2012. Kyrie Irving, the top choice in 2011, was the second-best player when the Cavaliers won their title. Zion Williamson was picked first overall two seasons ago and looks like a guy that can anchor a title team, but he has not led the Pelicans into the playoffs yet.
Thorpe also loves
Jalen Suggs Like Cunningham, the team that drafts Suggs does so knowing they have their point guard of the future. He’s a combination of Jrue Holiday and Kyle Lowry, a tough-as-hell defender who is all in on winning over any personal glory. Lowry was a terrible shooter in college and early in his NBA career; Holiday has been up and down over the years. But both impact games with their leadership, effort on defense, and overall game management talents. Suggs is built of the same cloth, down to his spotty shooting to this point of his career. I see him as a great choice with the fifth pick or below.
Keon Johnson Hours of video study got me excited about the defense of only four prospects, and you already know about Mobley, Barnes, and Suggs. Johnson is the best athlete in the draft. He jumped 48 inches at the draft combine, his natural instincts on defense are superb. He reminds me of Trevor Ariza on that end of the court, who probably rates as a top 10 player from his 2004 class and is a $100+ million dollar earner who is still getting minutes in 2021. Incredible athletes have enormous advantages in this game. Johnson clearly qualifies as one. Like Ariza, he will begin his pro career as a teenager. The Kings have the ninth pick and are in dire need of defense help. You’ll say that’s a reach; I’ll say how dumb is it that Trevor Ariza slid all the way to the second round?
Davion Mitchell We know little guys can get beaten up in the post when their teams switch all screens. But we also know powerful, aggressive-minded point guards that are under 6-2 are nightmares to post up. Their lower-body strength makes them hard to back down and their quick feet and hands drive big centers crazy inside. Being a Floridian I remember laughing when players tried to back down Jameer Nelson when he was the Magic’s starting point guard. It wasn’t happening. That’s what I think it will be like when people try it on Mitchell, who teamed with Jared Butler to win a national title in the spring. He’s one of the best shooters in the nation, making 45 percent of his 3s. But it’s his speed, toughness, and powerful frame that make him capable of running a great team, as a weapon on both ends of the court. If I had the Hornets’ 11th pick I wouldn’t hesitate.
RaiQuan Gray Gray is a projected second rounder who I think plays like P.J. Tucker 2.0 and would be a good choice with any pick after 20. He is a wall of a man, 6-8, 270 pounds. He moves like a cat and has exceptionally quick hands. He is also a primary ball handler who can guard every position. His weight at the pre-draft camp likely prevents him from being a first-round pick, but I think that’s silly. As a pro, he will almost undoubtedly drop 30-40 pounds and then he becomes a long-term NBA starter. If he irons out his perimeter shot, he has All-Star potential.
Jared Butler Butler is poised, skilled, and more crafty than bouncy—like CJ McCollum. McCollum amped up his draft stock when his Lehigh team beat Duke in the NCAA tournament. Butler was the best player on the National Championship team from Baylor, the Final Four Most Outstanding Player, and a First Team All-American. He is a pure shooter/scorer who knows how to play and can fit into any offense. The 15th pick or below makes a ton of sense.
High ceiling, lots of risk
Jalen Green Green played for the G League Ignite team in their strange, Orlando bubbled season. For me, as a coach who loves this game and obsesses over player development, it was hard to watch. This draft process has me studying high-level international teams, exceptional college teams, and … what a buzzkill to watch the Ignite’s elementary offensive sets. Many, perhaps even most possessions take the form of, “It’s your turn, go score.” I have no idea how well Green has or has not mastered the five-player game at either end.
Despite all that, based on pure talent, he has a real chance to be the best scorer in the draft. The question is, will he be like Zach LaVine, a brilliant athlete and scorer who needed four years to learn how to help his team win? Or will he be like James Harden, who instinctively knows how to play impactfully even before he becomes an elite scorer?
Green had the single best highlight of all the film that I watched, a full-speed race to the rim, then a spin, drawing a foul. Most guys would have fallen down when trying to spin at that speed. It’s possible he has no idea how best to play as part of a team—but that could be because no one he played with on that team was all that interested in playing as a unit. His pure talent is worth a top-five pick and some years devoted to development.
Jonathan Kuminga Like Green, Kuminga’s a physical freak who did not show well overall in the G League “season.” If he ends up failing as a player it will be because he just can’t figure out how to use his immense physical talent. He wouldn't be the first player to fail that way, that’s for sure. Kuminga, once in the running for the top slot overall, is not someone who can succeed anywhere. He’s the only player on this list that I see connected to a franchise and a narrative. The Warriors want to—have to—try to win now. That’s a given. They might be trading all kinds of things for win-now help. However, if the Warriors keep James Wiseman, I would love to see them draft Kuminga. Rookies almost never make good teams better, but drafting Kuminga would let them develop almost two different teams this year. One team of 10 players who compete for a good playoff seed, and a second, younger group, toiling mostly in the G League. Let Wiseman do both leagues as his play evolves, but put Kuminga on the Santa Cruz Warriors, along with whoever the team gets with the 14th pick (on Chad Ford’s Big Board Mock Draft podcast I chose 6-8 Australian point guard Josh Giddey), and let them develop a year or two. If they earn playing time on the “varsity” in the next two seasons, great. Otherwise, as Curry ages out of being a dominant player, the new core of Giddey, Kuminga, and Wiseman becomes their new core. Three players with massive potential, who—with some Ted Lasso TLC—could make the Warriors look like geniuses.
Kai Jones Measurements don’t tell you much. But for the record, at the NBA draft combine, Kai Jones measured with almost the highest standing reach, almost the longest wingspan, and almost the lowest body fat of anyone. That’s what it looks like on the court, too: Kai Jones makes startling athletic plays all over the place. Often they happen in the sky—finishing alley-oops, dunking in transition, or swatting shots. That’s not to say he’s ready to be a full-time NBA contributor. He disappeared for long stretches of Texas games. In Chad Ford’s mock draft I took Jones eighth for the Magic, who had already drafted Suggs. I like that for Jones, who will likely need years to find his footing, but can be a dominating center as he figures things out. As we wrote about Mobley, centers who can cover the perimeter and protect the paint are so rare and valuable that they are worth the pick.
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