Although the 2021 NBA draft is still 17 months away, teams are closely monitoring the evolution of next year's class to see how future first-rounders are progressing. It's also worthwhile to get a baseline for how valuable draft picks might be moving forward, particularly with the 2020 NBA trade deadline coming up Feb. 6.
Some scouts are calling 2020 the weirdest draft in years, so it's encouraging to see 2021 already featuring several high-end prospects who likely would garner serious consideration for the No. 1 overall pick this June if the age limit were not in place.
There is no consensus about the No. 1 prospect in 2021 yet, with a two-player race shaping up between Cade Cunningham and Jalen Green. Cunningham continues to hold the top spot on our board as the leader of a Montverde Academy team that has been wrecking everything in sight this season.
This weekend, we checked in with many of the top prospects in the 2020 high school class -- the backbone of the 2021 lottery, if history is any indication -- at the Hoophall Classic in Springfield, Massachusetts. Here are our insights and new projections for 2021.
Note: We used the same projected standing from our latest 2020 mock draft in this 2021 edition. Although the 2021 draft is too far away to reasonably predict the team order, this gives a sense of picks owed and owned.
Biggest NBA draft takeaways
• Cunningham continues to make major strides with his perimeter shooting, knocking down several 3-pointers this weekend. His ability to hit pull-up jumpers when defenses go under ball screens has also improved. This is an important skill for him considering he's not blessed with the quickest first step and hasn't yet developed the ability to decelerate and explode past defenders like his most frequently mentioned comparison -- Luka Doncic -- possessed at the same stage.
What Cunningham does have is tremendous size, strength and length, with a wingspan measuring over 7 feet. He's doing a much better job of utilizing those gifts on the defensive end. Cunningham completely locked up two of the quickest guards in the 2020 high school class in Jaden Springer and Sharife Cooper, getting over screens forcefully and using his terrific instincts to make plays. He also showed his versatility by switching seamlessly onto bigger players in the post. Cunningham's best asset -- his extraordinarily high basketball IQ -- was evident with the way he ran Montverde's half-court offense smoothly. He can make every pass in the book out of pick-and-roll, while using his size to see over the top of traffic in the open court and deliver highlight feeds. He makes the game easy for teammates and also shows terrific touch on floaters and free throws, leading you to believe he'll continue to progress with his shooting.
Cunningham's impact on winning is unmatched in this class, which gives him the edge at the moment for the No. 1 slot, even if some scouts believe it's Green who possesses the higher ceiling of the two long term.
• Green's Prolific Prep (California) team also competed here, and the potential No. 1 pick did not disappoint, delivering 26 points, 5 rebounds, 5 assists and 5 turnovers in a narrow win over La Lumiere. He knocked down four 3-pointers in this contest, an area in which he's improved significantly over the past year.
Green is considered the most athletic guard in the class and he was too quick for La Lumiere's defenders, fouling out the opposing team's backcourt while drawing 10 free throws (and making all of those attempts). While he showed some ability to split a ball screen, change speeds in the open court and pass out of pick-and-rolls, his ballhandling ability and overall decision-making are still catching up with his physical gifts. He struggles at times to create high-percentage shots for himself and others, and he can be a little turnover-prone. But his explosiveness, scoring instincts and overall aggressiveness give him arguably the highest upside of any player in this class, especially as his body and perimeter shooting continue to progress.
• Evan Mobley, the No. 3 player in our mock, played two games, turning in inconsistent performances in a pair of losses.
On the positive side, Mobley is one of the most fluid big men you'll find. He protects the rim at a high level with his long wingspan and ability to get off the floor, and he can step outside and switch onto smaller players on the perimeter with impressive agility. His skill level is exceptionally high offensively, as he can bust out off a defensive rebound to ignite the break, create his own shot in the half court, find the open man out of short-roll situations and be a tremendous lob target. He also has extremely soft touch finishing around the basket and even knocking down 3s at times. Theoretically, he is exactly what every NBA team is looking for in a modern big man.
Unfortunately, Mobley doesn't always produce up to his talent level. He frequently elects not to insert himself into plays defensively, he isn't a great rebounder and he gets buried in the post by stronger players, showing a concerning lack of toughness. He goes through the motions offensively as well, deferring to lesser teammates, passing up open shots and avoiding contact around the basket. Some of these issues could be solved with added strength, experience, more talented teammates and better coaching. But this has been the scouting report on Mobley for several years now, and some scouts are beginning to wonder if he simply lacks the aggressive approach for a top pick.
It's important to remember that big men in his mold often take longer to develop, and even with his shortcomings, he'll do several things every game that only a handful of players his size can execute. Whichever team eventually drafts Mobley will know it is playing the long game, but with the way the NBA is trending with bigs, it wouldn't be surprising to see executives prioritize guards, wings and forwards who are better equipped to affect the game on a possession-by-possession basis.
• Jonathan Kuminga (No. 4) was in attendance in Springfield but was unable to participate due to an ankle injury. Regardless, we've had several opportunities to evaluate him in different settings, including at the Kyrie Invitational in late December. Kuminga is slated as a high school junior at the moment, which would not make him eligible until the 2022 NBA draft. But he is widely expected to reclassify after the Nike EYBL circuit concludes in July and enroll in college over the summer, similar to Marvin Bagley in 2017.
Standing around 6-foot-8 with a near 7-foot wingspan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo native is a prototype for what NBA teams are looking for at the combo forward position, with a tremendous frame, impressive quickness and highlight-reel explosiveness on both ends of the floor. He is at his best using his physical tools and strength in the open floor, showing impressive fluidity, body control and the ability to finish with either hand. He is capable of creating offense for himself and others in the half court as well, though his feel for the game is still a work in progress. While streaky from the perimeter, Kuminga is a decent shooter both with his feet set and off the dribble, making 42 3s in 19 EYBL games this past spring and summer -- even if his shot selection wavers and he doesn't shoot the ball the same way every time.
Defensively is where he really has a chance to be special. While he plays quite a bit of power forward, you'll often see him matched up with point guards, and he's extremely difficult to score on due to his combination of length, strength and lateral quickness. His effort level here is inconsistent, though, and he tends to gamble for turnovers. Kuminga is a raw player in several aspects, but the hope is that with better coaching and added maturity he can iron out the wrinkles in his game and find a way to be more consistent.
• Rounding out our top five is Ziaire Williams, who played his first two games of the season in Springfield after sitting out the past few months due to California transfer rules. Williams showed off his versatility by posting 29 points, 13 rebounds, 6 assists, 4 turnovers, 4 blocks and 8 steals in 50 minutes for Sierra Canyon over the two contests. Williams' athleticism and scoring instincts were on full display, as he's one of the most dynamic shooters in the class. He can make pull-up jumpers out of pick-and-roll or isolation situations, while also possessing deep range as a spot-up threat. Williams is more than just a tall, explosive shooter, though, as he's also capable of contributing as a rebounder, passer and defender. He is quick to protect the rim, crash the offensive glass or get into the passing lanes, also demonstrating unselfishness moving the ball and making teammates better.
Still thin and narrow in the hips and lower body, Williams is going to need time to fill out his frame. He's not the most efficient player at the moment, as he plays an iso-heavy style that involves quite a few low-percentage attempts, and he doesn't always have the strength to finish inside. Finding a position to defend early on in the NBA might be tough as he's easy to push around, but the fact that he's both smart and competitive will help.
More scouting notes from Springfield
• After seemingly hitting a snag offensively this past summer, Scottie Barnes seems to be reinvigorated by his transfer to Montverde Academy. Barnes was outstanding in a double-digit victory over IMG Academy -- considered the second-best team in the country entering the season -- throwing up a versatile stat line of 16 points, 5 rebounds, 5 assists, 2 steals and 1 block in 31 minutes of action. He set the tone for the team on the defensive end, getting in passing lanes, showing great timing rotating for blocks, igniting fast breaks and making the extra pass to create easy looks.
Barnes' fit in the modern game isn't seamless, as he's just an average athlete and his limitations offensively make him somewhat of a situational player who needs to find the right fit. Still, his impact on winning is unmatched and he's young enough that there might be some hope of him developing a jumper like Draymond Green did later in his career, though the fact that he hasn't made any progress in that area since he came onto the radar years ago is somewhat discouraging.
• Earl Timberlake continues to look like one of the more promising long-term prospects among the non-consensus five-star recruits. He has prototypical physical tools for a wing at 6-foot-6 with a shredded frame, long arms and explosive athleticism, and he showed versatility as a passer, shooter, defender and rebounder. Timberlake looked every bit the part of a McDonald's All American in his two games at the Hoophall and he is certainly someone NBA scouts will want to learn more about when he arrives at the University of Miami this summer.
• Oak Hill's Cam Thomas led the Nike EYBL in scoring this season, so it shouldn't come as a surprise that he dropped an efficient 29 points in a blowout win over Bishop Gorman. Thomas' style of play isn't for everyone, as he's an indifferent defender who can be a ball-stopper with bad body language when things don't go his way, but you can't argue with his scoring instincts and talent. His one-on-one scoring prowess is elite, as his ability to create offense with change of speeds, polished footwork, smooth body control and tight ballhandling skills is going to allow him to put points on the board from the moment he arrives on campus at LSU. He is a natural shot-maker, using step-backs, floaters and wrong-foot finishes to wreak havoc on defenses, while also embracing contact in the lane and getting to the free throw line at a prolific rate.
While he's not considered a consensus five-star prospect and he's on the borderline to make this year's McDonald's All American game, he's a safe bet to draw considerable interest from pro scouts early in his college career thanks to his offense. Although he shows flashes of court vision and playmaking, he makes questionable decisions at times, something he'll have to improve. His strength, length and instincts give him some potential on the defensive, but that's mostly unrealized at the moment.
• Oak Hill teammate K.K. Robinson was equally impressive, scoring 24 points in 27 minutes on just 10 field goal attempts, doing an excellent job of running the team and getting others involved. A lefty with below-average size and an underdeveloped frame (but long wingspan), Robinson has great burst in the open court, a natural shooting stroke and real craft finishing around the basket. He passes and finishes with both hands, plays under control and puts solid effort in defensively, looking the part of a modern lead guard despite lacking a degree of size and strength. Entering the Nike EYBL circuit last spring with strictly mid-major offers, Robinson parlayed a huge showing into offers from a big chunk of SEC and ACC schools, eventually choosing hometown Arkansas.
• The 14-year-old Dajuan Wagner Jr. doesn't get the same amount of attention as some of his brethren in the freshman class, but he looked like a clear candidate to emerge as one of its best long-term prospects. His scoring instincts, ability to change speeds gracefully, body control as a shot-creator and the touch on floaters/jumpers were extremely impressive. If he continues to improve his playmaking ability and grow, he'll become a very impressive prospect.
• Jaden Springer's transition to playing point guard full time is a work in progress, as evidenced by the 11 turnovers and 6 assists he posted in two games for IMG. But he's one of the best slashers in the class and has impressive body control, power and explosiveness finishing around the rim. The fact that he is a tough and competitive defender as well gives him a great framework as his perimeter shooting and decision-making continue to evolve. He's been hobbled by leg and foot problems this season, but he is a prospect to monitor regardless, as he's the youngest American player in this mock. He's committed to Tennessee, which might have one of the most interesting backcourts in the country next season, including projected lottery pick Keon Johnson and 2019 McDonald's All American Josiah James.
• Springer's teammate Matthew Murrell is far from the most highly touted prospect on a loaded IMG squad, but he had the best weekend of anyone on his team, dropping 27 points with 7 assists and 5 steals while making 7 of his 11 3-point attempts in a pair of games. Murrell isn't blessed with great size for an off-guard at 6-foot-3, but he has long arms, a nice frame and impressive shooting mechanics all over the floor. He is a willing ball-mover in half-court sets, covers ground defensively, attacks closeouts and even shows some ability to pass out of pick-and-roll. Headed to Ole Miss, Murrell will have plenty of chances to continue to build his candidacy as an NBA prospect in the loaded SEC.
• Georgia-bound K.D. Johnson had arguably the most impressive performance in Springfield, scoring 35 points on 23 shots with 9 rebounds, 7 assists and no turnovers in Hargrave Military Academy's win over Orangeville Prep. Powerfully built with impressive athleticism, Johnson is a relentless slasher who changes speeds effortlessly and plays with frenetic energy on both ends. Sporting compact mechanics, Johnson knocked down five 3-pointers while throwing some very impressive passes off a live dribble, but he kept mistakes to a minimum (not turning the ball over once). In the crosstown Hoophall Prep Showcase this same weekend, Johnson showed his credentials as a scorer by dropping another 60 points in two games on just 34 shots, though his playmaking wasn't quite as impressive.
• After an underwhelming showing in Las Vegas, as we documented last month, Makur Maker again had a difficult time getting things going under the watchful eyes of NBA scouts, scoring 8 points on 10 attempts with 9 rebounds, 3 blocks, 1 assist and 3 turnovers. Battling an illness, Maker looked a step slow with his decision-making on both ends, turning the ball over on simple passes and forcing the issue from the perimeter with his jumper. Maker's upright handle, lack of passing ability and struggles defensively were discouraging considering he was matching up with younger players. With Maker still yet to receive confirmation from the NBA league office that he will be considered eligible for the 2020 draft, it's looking more and more likely that he will be in college next season and possibly beyond.