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NBA Draft 2021: Early watch list and how they could fit the Pistons

Preseason optimism takes on a different form

City Of Palms Classic Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

I am an NBA Draft head from way back, and rooting for a bad (tanking? [YES]) team makes it even more interesting. I intended to do this sooner, but life intervenes sometimes; special shout-out to Sean and Laz and enbiejowiec, among others, for having better time-management skills than I do and thereby providing us all with Pistons analysis more regularly.

I’m actually glad I waited longer to see some more sights. What follows is a couple of brief Pistons-adjacent topics of consideration, followed by a breakdown of who I’m trying to watch this season. Someone in a recent comments thread suggested going beyond the Pistons expected draft range in case this season goes terribly wrong via too much winning, or if Trader Troy is able to acquire some more picks next year; your wish is my command. Enjoy!

On Small Guards: Just Don’t

We all know that Killian Hayes has been drafted as the PGOTF; that, combined with Weaver’s apparent and appropriately modern emphasis on length and defensive versatility, combined with the selection of #wingspan all-star Saben Lee in the second round, means that the Pistons basically don’t need to look at short guards ever again.

Beyond that, I don’t think it an efficient use of my time to try and figure out who the best future NBA backup point guard is out of Jeremy Roach and Reece Beekman and DJ Steward and Jared Butler and Andre Curbelo and whoever else. It’s probably Butler: he’s a good shooter with a wizard handle, and I was surprised when he pulled out of the 2020 draft.

On Tanking

The people who don’t think this new Pistons season is an intentional tank are not paying attention. I find it hard to believe that Troy Weaver, who was there in OKC when they made the Finals because they got Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden in consecutive drafts, would just go ahead and stupidly build a team that tops out at 45 wins unless Killian shocks us all by becoming a perennial all-NBA player.

I am well aware that my oft-repeated endorsement of tanking falls in the category of facetious self-parody … but what are we really talking about here? It is a known fact that Sixers-style “Process” tanking is not as beneficial now as it was then, because the incentive structure has been intentionally altered to discourage that sort of strategy going forward. So, just be really young and lose a lot this season, and re-evaluate afterward. That’s all I want, and, so far, so good.

On to 2021

This is intended to be a preliminary list of who you might want to check out and is intentionally incomplete. I’m sure I’m forgetting someone, and I look forward to learning from you, dear readers, who is missing and where you think my taeks have gone awry. Here’s the list.

1. Cade Cunningham, Oklahoma State

I’m sure everyone reading this already knows the story. The shooting is coming along, and everything else is amazing. One of the best prospects of this century.

For the uninitiated, Cade is a pure point guard at 6-foot-7 and 225 pounds, with a purported 7-foot #wingspan. Like somebody went in a lab and combined the best parts of Jason Kidd and Grant Hill, while also adding a modern shot diet. I personally don’t think there should be a debate about who should go No. 1 overall next year.

2. Evan Mobley, USC

The exception that proves the “don’t draft centers” rule. He’s what relatively ignorant observers mistakenly thought Wiseman is. (@Cosmis said this recently on Twitter, but I said it first in the comments of the recent fanpost that enbiejowiec put up for discussion of next year’s prospects. I am agree.) Everything you could want on defense, excellent passer out of double teams, can even handle a bit in transition.

The centers you want these days are not centers at all … until crunch time and Death Lineups and marginal advantage at the very highest playoff levels. I’m thinking of AD and Giannis here, and Dubs KD, and basically nobody else. Evan Mobley is so awesome that he might eventually be able to join that list. And if he shoots threes at volume too? Then we’re reaaaaaallllllyyyyy talking about uppppsidiness.

NBA G League - Team Ignite Practice and Scrimmage Photo by Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images

3. Jonathan Kuminga, G-League Select

My hunch is that he will not be misconstrued as a giant point guard, and will get comps like Carmelo Anthony and Joe Johnson and Paul Pierce. Powerful athletic 6-foot-8 dudes who can dribble and (probably) shoot are usually good bets. At this point, I am buying the AAU hype, as we’ve not gotten to see the G-League team yet.

4. Jaden Springer, Tennessee

I think he’s really good, and not getting enough pub despite being on a good and fun college team. For instance, Sam Vecenie and Matt Pennie recently did a “mock draft” for next year that was really a big board instead because it was not team-specific, and I thought Springer was by far the most glaring omission in their top-30 list. Naturally, elsewhere on Draft Twitter we have hot taeks (i.e. Ben Pfeifer from Prep2Pro workshopping a Springer > Suggs taek), so it would seem that the world is generally triangulating in an orderly fashion.

He is not a perfect prospect due to visibly lacking violent quicks, but there is a lot to like. My impression is that he is very skilled on-ball with a crafty mid-range game, has a strong lower body (listed at 6-foot-4 and 204) and a knack for space creation, and I think he can really shoot. His current slash line through five games (60/86/75) looks like a typo but isn’t; he has made six of seven treys! He also appears to be a really good on-ball defender, and even gave Cade some momentary issues when they played against each other in high school last year.

Now, the fun part: family of giants! Gary Springer, Sr. is 6-foot-7 and was a sixth-round pick in 1984. Gary Springer, Jr. is 6-foot-9 and following in his father’s footsteps playing college basketball at Iona. Jordan Springer is 6-foot-7 and playing college basketball at Army. Jaden is very young for his class, having just turned 18 recently, and I envision a significant mitigation effect where his relatively pedestrian athleticism is a lot less of a problem if he is 6-foot-7 than if he is still just 6-foot-4. The taller he is, the more interesting his intersection of skills would become, especially for the Pistons but also more generally. We often talk about growth in terms of skill development; this is a bet on literal actual growth. I look forward to seeing if he is already much taller than advertised by the time the draft rolls around. If he’s not, it will almost certainly be appropriate to move him down a few spots, but we also hopefully have more Tennessee games this season to watch and learn.

5. Jalen Suggs, Gonzaga

He’s real, and Gonzaga is spectacular.

Seems like more of a combo guard despite good vision and instincts, as his handle seems to be a limiting factor and he doesn’t seem to shake defenders on his way to the rim very often, despite being really fast. I am not yet sold on him being a certain top-3 prospect in this class, but that has recently started to coagulate as the majority viewpoint. As pertains to the Pistons, I am already getting preemptive FOMO about drafting another tallish guard to pair with Killian and ending up with a taller version of Dame and CJ except with neither one of them being as good as Dame.

NCAA Basketball: Appalachian State at Tennessee Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

6. Keon Johnson, Tennessee

He wrong-foots dudes in the service of dunking on their heads rather than shooting floaters. This shit is not normal. Crazy dunk-contest athlete, developing shooter, I have seen some mid-range pull-up jumpers that looked pretty good. Seems like ferocious defense too, at least against college kids. Playing against this Tennessee team would be miserable. As pertains to the Pistons, I guess my take should be the same as with Suggs regarding big-wing FOMO.

7. BJ Boston, Kentucky

Lanky alien with contortion finishing aptitude. I hope he can be a giant weirdo point guard. Kentucky should stop starting their actual point guard (his name is Devin Askew and he has fantastic hair but looks slow on TV) and just give the ball to their two NBA wings. Kentucky’s brand is superior athleticism and a whole new team every year, which generally leads to good defense and bad offense, right? Lean into it. I do also think his shooting will come around as he gets stronger, like has happened for De’Aaron Fox.

8. Jalen Green, G-League Select

Flies like young Kobe. I haven’t seen that much of him and am uncertain of potential role, skillset and context beyond the frequent defying of gravity. Has skeptics in the Twitterverse, but also some fans. We’ll know more later.

9. Jalen Johnson, Duke

Big creative combo forward, dribble + pass + (hopefully eventually) shoot. We saw some cool stuff against Michigan State, including weakside shot-blocking, before they started trapping him and the rest of the Duke team didn’t know what to do. The shot is a work in progress, and he had some ugly misses in the aforementioned game against Sparty, but he is very young and some level of improvement is projectable. (Fun fact: he’s eight days older than Poku.) Old-school NBA forward body, long legs and high hips like James Worthy and Tom Chambers and Bernard King, which is not necessarily optimal in this football-leverage era of basketball. Lacking both the LeBron center-of-gravity battering ram thing and the T-Mac wiggle will likely prevent him from being a pure get-mine monster against half-court NBA defenses, probably? I really don’t know, but he seems like he belongs.

Panathinaikos Opap Athens v Real Madrid - Turkish Airlines EuroLeague Photo by Panagiotis Moschandreou/Euroleague Basketball via Getty Images

10. Usman Garuba, Real Madrid

Listed at 6-foot-8, 229 pounds and allegedly possessing a 7-foot-2 #wingspan. Oh, he also doesn’t turn 19 until March. Does violent stuff on defense. During the prior draft cycle, friend of the program Chaz Malibu referred to Deni Avdija as “Usman Garuba’s chew toy” in response to some clips featuring both players, which is incredible. I am not sure what the offense is yet, but Twitter is on the case with clips of short-roll Draymond passing and even some movement shooting. The shooting generally seems to be coming around at the start of this young season. If Paul Millsap was Ben Wallace? Dare to dream!

11. Scottie Barnes, FSU

6-foot-9 and 227 pounds and playing point guard at FSU. Still can’t really shoot. Long arms, really strong, tries really hard, great defensive communicator. Almost certainly a weirdo role player rather than a point guard in the NBA.

12. Moses Moody, Arkansas

3-and-D and maybe more, early returns are excellent, very long arms. The elevator pitch is Devin Vassell but not as skinny, I think?

13. Marcus Bagley, Arizona State

This season, Marvin’s little brother has displayed treys and hops and proper wing size. Seems pretty good!

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: NOV 30 Maui Invitational - Stanford v Alabama Photo by Brian Spurlock/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

14. Ziaire Williams, Stanford

All-world shooting prospect, very tall, seems like he has a good brain for help defense. More like Reggie Miller or Skinny Klay than a volume self-creator. Giant knee brace at the moment, which is allegedly the result of a bicycle crash(?) on campus. The hope is that he will be able to do more inside the three-point line on offense once he gets healthy because that part of his game (separation, finishing around the rim, not looking really slow) has been rough so far.

15. Terrance Clarke, Kentucky

Archetypical big guard with good general athleticism. Kind of a loose handle but maybe better than it looks on first watch. Like Boston, he’s been attempting some iso self-creation with no spacing. Coach seems to have already realized that his point guards are terrible and is apparently talking about playing Clarke at point guard, which would be awesome and fun if they had one more wing shooter. Can they trade their two point guards and a bag of non-sequential hundred-dollar bills to be named later for Moses Moody?

16. Daishen Nix, G-League Select

Pointguardiness at 6-foot-5. Video from before this season suggests good passing vision and a lesser athlete than Suggs to whom he will inevitably be compared as a result of similar size and likely projection as a big point guard. Worse first step and dunking than Suggs but probably a better handle at this stage. Again, we’ll know more about the G-League team, eventually, maybe?

NCAA Basketball: San Diego State at Arizona State Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

17. Josh Christopher, Arizona State

Explosive quickness and strength that reminds me of Anthony Edwards. Friend of the program enbiejowiec is a fan, and he clearly knows more than I do, so that got my attention.

18. James Bouknight, Connecticut

This year’s Grant Riller Memorial Somewhat Old Scoring Point Guard With Possible Next Dame Vibes ... except he’s a black hole, apparently? Maybe his team is just really bad. Regardless, he has produced a chuckle-inducing one-to-three AST%/USG% ratio this season. Otherwise, he’s been good and recently dropped 40 in an overtime loss to a very good Creighton team.

19. Greg Brown, Texas

I became aware of Greg Brown when I saw a Youtube video titled “HE DUNKS SO NASTY THE REF HUGGED HIM!” Well, then. Has not disappointed for Texas providing cool dunks and a somewhat wild volume of trey attempts and on-ball stuff against his former AAU teammate Cade. I continue to believe that he is more of a super-athletic stretch 4 than a wing. There will be comps to Marqueese Chriss and Tyrus Thomas and probably even Stromile Swift amongst the old heads. Don’t let that mess you up.

20. Romeo Weems, DePaul

Real athlete. Event creator on defense. Good cutter on offense. Former Mr. Basketball in Michigan. I think there is something here.

21. Aaron Henry, Michigan State

Was wildly aggressive on offense in that Duke game, which is encouraging. Same case as last year — good smart team defender, borderline wing size, probably not a terrible shooter, probably an NBA player.

22. Nah’Shon Hyland, VCU

“Bones” is listed at 6-foot-3 and 165 pounds, and looks even skinnier than that. He is also the Isaiah Joe of Jordan Clarksons (which is a good thing) and a member of the Malik Monk Imperiously Disregarding Your Closeout All-Stars. Through nine games this season he is attempting 12 3PTA/40 while also nearly doubling his free throw rate compared to his freshman season. He’s super fun, and probably a bench scorer at the very least. This year’s Mendoza Line regarding small players who would be more interesting if I was looking at this via the contextual lens of a team that employed Bron or Luka; Cade’s future team would work, too!

23. Isaiah Jackson, Kentucky

His defense is really cool, but often confounding, sometimes to the other team and sometimes to us as observers, when he misses rotations and gets lost and does weird stuff. Rare speed and hops for being so tall; the wow plays are really wow. Will probably stick around for a decade doing Amir Johnson things.

NCAA Basketball: Northwestern State at Gonzaga James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

24. Corey Kispert, Gonzaga

The next Caucasian gunner who is going to follow in the footsteps of Joe Harris and Luke Kennard and (soon) Svi Mykhailiuk as a very handsomely compensated role player. Big, smart, great shooter. Just imagine if Cade, like Suggs, had somebody like this on his team. (Narrator: he does not.)

25. Kai Jones, Texas

Like a funkier Euro-stepping Zeke Nnaji, Kai merits consideration for his lateral agility at 6-foot-11, enthusiasm for deep shooting, and ostensible rim protection. He banked in a trey from the logo the other day, which I enjoyed immensely, and his BLK% was much higher last year as a freshman, so that should normalize over the course of the season. In the near future, all of the fives will be stretch fives.

Thank you for reading, and Happy New Year, everybody!