The 2021 NBA Draft class is stacked to high heaven, so which prospects will shine the brightest during March Madness?
Ladies and gentlemen, March Madness is back!
CUE THE MUSIC!
Okay, fine. So I hit the play button on this a few weeks early, but even so. After the pandemic forced last year’s NCAA Tournament to be canceled, fans can now rejoice. College basketball in its finest form is back and a new champion will soon be crowned!
And if you’re like me, March Madness gets you even more excited for what happens a few months later: the NBA Draft. Seriously, I love watching the tournament from start to finish, but nothing compares to seeing these young men’s efforts rewarded on Draft Night.
Sure enough, this year’s draft class is loaded with talent, much of which we will see over the next two to three weeks as the tournament progresses.
Who’s the biggest name to watch? Which small school or mid-major phenom will see his stock skyrocket after a strong March? Who’s the player everyone is counting out?
Well, in a crowded tourney field, these ten players should stand out the most.
1. Cade Cunningham, G, Oklahoma State
Cade Cunningham is more than just college basketball’s most notable Eric Andre lookalike. He’s a dynamic athlete who will make whichever team drafts him very, very happy. He’s a long and athletic guard, standing 6-foot-8, 220 pounds, and averaged 20.2 points and 6.3 rebounds as a Cowboys freshman.
As for his game, Cunningham bleeds confidence. He posted a true shooting percentage (TS%) of 58.6% and can score from anywhere on the floor. He creates his own shot well and is quite active in the midrange for someone so young. Turnovers can be a problem for him but when everything else is clicking for Cunningham, they’re easy to ignore.
Plain and simple, the kid can play.
2. Evan Mobley, C, USC
One year after Onyeka Okongwu, USC is back with another exciting big in Mobley. The freshman seven-footer is on the skinnier side at just 210 pounds, but his 7-foot-4 wingspan makes up for it. He averaged 8.6 rebounds and three blocks per game en route to being named Pac-12 Rookie of the Year.
Though a strong rim protector, Mobley also exhibits impressive range for his size. In fact, he prefers to utilize his range as opposed to getting rough in the paint. His spindly frame may lead to him getting beaten up by stronger players, but Mobley’s talent is all about his ceiling. Once he hits both the pros and the weight room, he could easily become a dominant big.
3. Jalen Suggs, G, Gonzaga
No. 1 Gonzaga was an absolute force in college basketball this year and Suggs was a big reason why. The 6-foot-4 freshman averaged a modest 14.3 points this season, but was also remarkably efficient. He shot 51.2% from the field, but his TS% was an astounding 60.2%. Suggs is also a competent defender who posted a defensive box plus/minus (DBPM) of 4.7.
The key thing to watch with Suggs, meanwhile, is his confidence with the ball in his hands. His handle isn’t quite like Cunningham’s, but he has a soft touch and isn’t afraid to take hard shots around the rim. If there’s anyone to break the NBA Draft stigma attached to Gonzaga and/or Adam Morrison, it’s Suggs.
4. Scottie Barnes, F, Florida State
Leonard Hamilton’s Florida State teams have long had a reputation for being gritty, tough, and athletic. Barnes, though a lanky 6-foot-9 freshman, beautifully embodies all three. He was named both ACC Rookie and Sixth Man of the Year and averaged 11 points, 4.3 boards, and 1.5 steals this season.
As for his value as a prospect, Barnes is interesting. He doesn’t have much range, but works the low post well and is comfortable in the paint. His basketball IQ and awareness are amazing for his age, and his tenacity is reminiscent of Draymond Green’s days at Michigan State. He doesn’t have much of a face-up game, but give Barnes time. The kid knows what he’s doing and is still just 19.
5. Corey Kispert, SF, Gonzaga
Kispert made sure to close his senior year out with a bang this season, averaging a career-best 19.2 points while shooting 54.4% from the field and 44.4% from three. Though very much a shooter, his TS% for the year was an excellent 69% and more than made up for his limitations on defense.
As for how he’ll fare in the NBA, that’s an interesting question. Kispert isn’t overly athletic, but has the size for the wing at 6-foot-7, 220 pounds. He’s almost like a poor man’s Chandler Parsons in that he can be versatile with his offense, but will otherwise be limited. If Gonzaga has a deep tourney run and Kispert plays well, he should find a home in the NBA as a three-point option off the bench, at least to start his career.
6. Keon Johnson, G/F, Tennessee
Johnson both started and came off the bench as a Vols freshman, and averaged a respectable 11.2 points per game. He also managed 17.6 points per 40 minutes, but he has limited range outside the paint and just how well he’ll fare on offense as a pro remains to be seen.
But what Keon Johnson can do consistently well is defend. His DBPM this year was 3.1, so think of him almost like Isaac Okoro, a strong defender whose offense is more about the upside. The NBA being a high-scoring league now means wing defenders are in demand, so Johnson can expect to hear his name called on NBA Draft Night.
7. Moses Moody, SG, Arkansas
6-foot-6, the ability to score from anywhere on the floor, and still just 18 years old. That is future NBA All-Star shooting guard Moses Moody in a nutshell. The freshman averaged 17.4 points and 5.9 rebounds for the Razorbacks this season and had a TS% of 58.7%.
As a pro, Moody just has to show he can function outside a college offense. He already does a good job of limiting his turnovers and, like the aforementioned Suggs, is confident with the ball in his hands. Once he adjusts to the NBA’s pace, it won’t be long before he’s a key factor in his new team’s offense.
8. Jaden Springer, SG, Tennessee
We’re going to keep rolling with another 18-year-old prospect from the SEC in Springer. He only posted 12.5 points per game for the Vols this year, but has a strong build for his position at 6-foot-4, 204 pounds.
Jaden Springer shot 47% from the field as a freshman and though he can stretch the floor with his range, it’s not a huge part of his game. That will need to change when he turns pro, and Springer also needs to be better about how he moves in traffic. The good news is his development will improve with coaching, and maybe a trip or five to the weight room.
9. Ayo Dosunmu, SG, Illinois
Ayo Dosunmu is more than just the best name and hair in March Madness. Just as Illini coach Brad Underwood expects from his players, Dosnunmu has electric speed and can score faster than most statisticians can count. He averaged 20.7 points, 6.3 rebounds, and 5.3 assists per game as a junior and can do almost everything on the court.
The only real knocks against Dosunmu are that he doesn’t do much in the mid-range, though he can stretch his range to three-point land, and he isn’t much of a defender. Like Moody, his biggest hurdle will be proving he can star outside of a college offense. He has the size at 6-foot-5, 200 pounds, so look for him to parlay a strong NCAA Tournament performance into being a top NBA Draft selection.
10. James Bouknight, SG, UConn
The Huskies are back in the Big East and thus fun to watch again, and James Bouknight is set to reap the benefits. The sophomore averaged 19 points and 5.7 rebounds in just 14 games for UConn and bleeds confidence on the court. He posted a TS% of 55.7% and win shares per 40 minutes (WS/40) of .196.
Though not a point guard, Bouknight’s handle is strong and he uses the whole floor well. He is almost Derrick Rose-like in his movements and how he picks and pops in the mid-range. There’s definitely a place for him in the NBA if he has a good March Madness. However, adding some muscle to his 6-foot-5, 190-pound frame would be a smart move before he turns pro.