We shall call this “The Class That Couldn’t Shoot Straight.”
As the game of basketball continues to move inexorably in the direction of the elite long-distance shooter, the next group of prospects wishing to be evaluated, drafted and paid at the NBA level arrives with little accomplishment in the area of 3-point shooting, the skill that made Stephen Curry an All-NBA First Team pick for the fourth time this past season.
There is a truckload of highly regarded prospects for the 2021 NBA Draft who have elite athleticism, passing skill or positional size but haven’t shown substantial proficiency as 3-point shooters. Sometimes, middling numbers at the pre-NBA level are corrected through the repetition that comes with basketball being a full-time job and with a decrease in the pressure attached to each attempt in games that contain about 30 percent more possessions per game. Sometimes, it’s just that guys can’t shoot.
NBA MOCK DRAFT: Is Cunningham or Green the No. 1 overall pick?
That’ll be the trick for teams navigating the two rounds and 60 picks of this year’s draft, to discern which players have a gift for this skill that supersedes all other aspects of their game, which can be trained to elevate themselves into dangerous if not elite shooters and which will be identified on opponents’ scouting reports as a “non-shooter.”
Sporting News, though, is tasked with providing you the Big Board of top 60 prospects now. So here it is, subject to revision in advance of the draft:
NBA Draft prospects 2021: Big board of top 60 players
1. Cade Cunningham, 6-8, PG, Oklahoma State
There was so much to love about what Cunningham put on display as a Cowboys freshman, and it starts with the skill that so many others in this draft have not yet mastered. Cunningham shot 40 percent from three on 62 makes for the Big 12 Tournament runners-up. He should have little trouble translating that ability to the NBA level. He is a winner who helped Oklahoma State advance from 18-14 to 21-9, from out of the NCAA Tournament to a No. 4 seed. He also was a gold medal winner with the U.S. at the 2019 FIBA U-19 World Cup.
He can play all three perimeter positions, though he always has been listed and almost exclusively deployed as a point guard. In that position, Cunningham is an effective passer but not elite; he does not have Penny Hardaway or Magic Johnson-level vision. And he struggles sometimes with his ball handling; his turnover average of 4.0 per game is disconcerting only because so many of those involved him simply losing his grip on the ball. He must improve in that discipline to prove himself worthy of the first overall selection.
2. Evan Mobley, 6-11 C, Southern California
It’s possible Mobley could rise to the very top of this draft because he so beautifully fits the ideal of the modern NBA big man. He is exceptionally mobile and should become an elite pick-and-roll defender. He protects the rim to the tune of 2.9 blocks per game in his only college season. He finishes strong at the goal and shot 58 percent on 2-pointers. He attempted only 40 3-pointers but made 30 percent, suggesting there is a foundation for him as a jump shooter.
Mobley will have to grow stronger to survive along an NBA baseline, but he’s got a fine frame for carrying more muscle.
3. Jalen Green, 6-6 SG, G League Ignite
Entering the G League bubble for an accelerated 15-game schedule turned out to be a much better proving ground for Green than the hodgepodge of G League and international exhibitions that had been proposed at the Ignite program’s introduction. Green got to play legit competition for 32 minutes per game and averaged 17.9 points on 46.1 percent shooting. He hit 36.5 percent on threes from the NBA distance, making two per game.
Green has A-level NBA dynamism and could become an unstoppable scorer. The team that wins the lottery also will be tempted by Green’s promise. Yes, he played in games that didn’t matter much, but last year’s No. 1 overall pick (Anthony Edwards) was on a bad college team and thus in much the same situation, and the No. 2 pick (James Wiseman) barely played any post-high school ball.
4. Jalen Suggs, 6-5 PG, Gonzaga
You want to know why Suggs is a fabulous prospect? Forget about the buzzer-beating shot that put the Zags into the NCAA championship game and put in the tape of the final 20 minutes of their West Coast Conference title game against BYU. Suggs put on an astonishing display of shot creation, shot-making and defensive insistence that allowed the Zags to recover from a double-digit halftime deficit and become the fourth team since 1980 to enter the NCAA Tournament undefeated.
Suggs averaged 4.5 assists functioning as the primary ball handler in Gonzaga’s double point guard lineup. Has has considerable room to improve as a deep shooter.
5. Davion Mitchell, 6-2 PG, Baylor
Mitchell’s respect level as a prospect progressed nicely as the Bears progressed toward the NCAA championship, but it soared when he flat wrecked every guard Gonzaga put in front of him in the title game. That included Suggs, who managed to score 22 points on 8-of-15 shooting while Mitchell denied him the opportunity to have any influence on actually winning the game. Mitchell’s on-ball defense always had been respected and admired. He was second-team All-American largely for that reason. But to do it against elite opposition with so much on the line, while also scoring 15 points and passing for five assists, made it clear he was a big-time prospect.
Mitchell improved from a 28.8 percent deep shooter as a freshman at Auburn to 32.4 percent in his first season after transferring to Baylor, but then made a massive jump last season to 44.7 percent. He can be a long-term starting point at the NBA level.
6. Scottie Barnes, 6-9 PG, Florida State
Seminoles coach Leonard Hamilton has done a wonderful job with the many pro prospects he has recruited to Tallahassee over the past decade, but one wonders what might have been possible for Barnes if Hamilton’s approach — spreading the minutes among 9-10 players, with no one averaging 30-plus — had been set aside. Barnes only played 24 minutes and averaged only eight shots per game. The Seminoles might have been his team but never really were.
He’s a powerful talent, though, with absurd size for a playmaking guard. He is another player who did not show himself to be a proficient deep shooter. I had him lower on this list the first time around. I’m blaming Leonard for that. (Just kidding, coach.)
7. Jonathan Kuminga, 6-8 SF, G League Ignite
Kuminga’s dynamism is at an A-plus level, perhaps not quite Andrew Wiggins-level, but not far from it. But Wiggins has been viewed as a disappointment to date, even as he has averaged 19.5 points over seven seasons, because his game has had so little variety. Kuminga is unlikely to be the first overall pick, so he won’t have to carry that burden.
But can he grow into a complete offensive player? Kuminga can get by defenders, but he spent a lot of G League time trying to prove he’s a deep shooter, with more than a third of his field-goal attempts coming from deep even though he hit only 24.6 percent. NBA opponents might just back off and dare him to show he can make the leap to competence.
8. Sharife Cooper, 6-1 PG, Auburn
You almost certainly will not find Cooper rated this highly on any other draft preview. So maybe I’m nuts. (I also had Saddiq Bey rated 14 spots higher than he eventually was chosen by the Pistons, and he wound up ranked No. 5 among rookies in scoring.) But Cooper is a dazzling creative force, the sort of playmaker that rarely develops. He has the ability to play at multiple speeds, which is so difficult for opponents to defend.
Cooper averaged 8.1 assists in 12 college games after being declared NCAA-eligible and before an injury ended his season. He also was good for more than 20 points per game; every Auburn possession with Cooper in charge was an opportunity to be dazzled. If only he were a legitimate shooter (he was just 13-of-57 from deep). Initially, I said I’d drop Cooper 10 spots if he measured, as I suspected, at shorter than 6-0 at the NBA Draft combine. Then it was published he’d measured taller than 6-3. It seemed an error, and it since has been removed from the NBA web site. So the teams know where he stands, but we don’t.
9. Keon Johnson, 6-5 SG, Tennessee
There are a lot of similarities between Kuminga and Johnson: coveted because of exceptional dynamism, questioned because of meager deep shooting numbers. The difference is that Kuminga is more explosive, whereas Johnson has elite-level ball skill that just hasn’t yet translated to long-distance shooting. Watch his form on midrange shots, or even on some of his attack-the-rim finishes. His elbow is locked tight, the ball is held high, his eye never leaves the target.
With these qualities, Johnson likely can grow into a better deep shooter than the fellow who was 13-of-48 at Tennessee. He may not be a great rookie, but by Year 3, he could be an exceptional contributor.
10. James Bouknight, 6-2 G, Connecticut
Still another player whose value would soar if he were a more consistent shooter, Bouknight hit just 29.3 percent of his deep shots as a sophomore, down from 34.7 his first season. He’s such an electric player, though, capable of getting to wherever he wants on the floor — and above it. He converted well more than 50 percent of his twos.
If he’s going to operate as a smaller shooting guard, he’ll have to improve his touch. If he’s going to be a point guard, he’ll need to improve his handle. But some guys are just players.
11. Alperun Sengun, 6-9 PF, Besiktas (Turkey)
You try moving him. If the best bigs in Turkey’s Super League, one of the top pro leagues on the planet, cannot stop him from going where he wants to go, it’s easy to imagine him maturing into someone who is even more of a baseline terror in his 20s.
At 18, he averaged 18.0 points and 8.9 rebounds. In a draft with many flawed players, he at least is a productive, physical, tenacious flawed player.
12. Kai Jones, 6-11 PF, Texas
Texas had so many dynamic big men it was not easy for Jones to make the impact he might have elsewhere. He started only four games and played 23 minutes on average, but there just aren’t many big men who move like him and fly as high above the rim.
The trick now will be translating those gifts into basketball success. He improved steadily as last season advanced, producing four consecutive double-figure scoring games at the end, and seven blocks in that stretch.
13. Moses Moody, 6-6 SG, Arkansas
One of the surprises of the 2020 recruiting class, Moody was ranked only the 46th-best prospect but quickly asserted himself as one of the best freshmen in college basketball. Arkansas’ light early schedule helped Moody to gain confidence — not only that he could excel, but also that he could feel comfortable as the Razorbacks’ No. 1 option.
He took nearly two more shots per game than such veterans as Justin Smith and J.D. Notae, and that included 162 3-point attempts that were converted at a 35.8 percent rate.
14. Corey Kispert, 6-7 SG, Gonzaga
If the later rounds of his NCAA Tournament hadn’t gone so poorly, it’s possible he’d be ranked even higher in a class that struggles in his specialty: shooting the basketball. But he shouldn’t be dismissed based on a single week in a season that was beyond brilliant.
Danny Green, Kyle Korver, Bryn Forbes and Buddy Hield have been important NBA players because they do this one valuable thing so incredibly well. Kispert converted 91 threes at a 44 percent rate for the national runner-up Zags. His shot is compact and his release is quick. He’ll be a longtime NBA player.
15. Josh Giddey, 6-8 PG, Adelaide 36ers (NBL)
Giddey chose to play in Australia’s NBL rather than accept one of his many Division I offers, and he was so successful in his first pro season he was named the league’s Rookie of the Year. Giddey averaged 10.9 points and 7.6 assists. What he did not do well — and this will shock you — is shoot the ball from long distance. He was only 29-of-99 in 29 games for Adelaide.
He has excellent form that should produce a proficient deep shooter in time. He excels at finding gaps in opposing defenses and exploiting those. His first instinct is to get the ball to the lane, and though he does not explode past defenders, he is great at getting them off-balance and in difficult positions to recover.
16. Chris Duarte, 6-6 SG, Oregon
His 24th birthday passed a month ago, which will lead some to devalue his potential to improve, no matter how many times we see NBA players make enormous leaps in their mid-to-late 20s. Duarte made an enormous leap himself as a college senior, from 12.9 points to 17.1 and All-America candidacy. He shot 42.4 percent from deep and 63.1 percent on 2s, more significant advances.
Unlike many first-rounders who’ll be chosen in this group, Duarte is someone who won’t need to spend the next year or two in the G League to become worthwhile.
17. Franz Wagner, 6-9 SG, Michigan
Before he declared he was gone from college hoops for good, I suggested he could be a top-10 pick if he returned to college and made significant progress on his jumper. With so many others carrying the same affliction, he might be one, anyway. Wagner was an excellent defender for the Wolverines, has a great feel for rebounding and finishes well at the rim; there’s a reason he shot 61 percent on 2-pointers.
Wagner had an opportunity to show he could handle stardom when teammate Isaiah Livers was injured prior to March Madness. With Livers and All-American big man Hunter Dickinson to handle the heavy business, Wagner was ideally suited to picking up whatever work they left undone. He was less successful as a focal point. But as ESPN analyst Fran Fraschilla likes to say, the NBA is a league of a few dozen stars and several hundred role players. Wagner will fit comfortably into the latter category.
18. Jared Butler, 6-3 SG, Baylor
Butler has been enough of a playmaker that perhaps he could function as a point guard, but he has seemed best suited to playing on the wing. Good thing for him the NBA no longer dismisses smallish off-ball guards — so long as they can shoot, which Butler certainly can.
He made 254 3-pointers in three seasons for Baylor at a 38.4 percent conversion rate. He also has demonstrated himself to be a capable defender.
19. Jaden Springer, 6-4 SG, Tennessee
He does not have the dynamism of higher rated off-ball perimeter players, but he is a powerful guard who finishes through contact and shoots the ball beautifully, from long range (43.5 percent as a freshman) or in all manner of concocted attempts. It could be said he is ahead of Buddy Hield at the same stage; it also could be said that Hield stuck around college basketball until he mastered it.
Will Springer be able to get enough court time to take the steps he needs to become a significant pro, or will he need to be farmed out to the G League to continue working?
20. Usman Garuba, 6-8 PF, Real Madrid (Spain)
Currently playing for Spain in the Tokyo Olympics, Garuba is a power forward who plays physically but still is developing in various areas of skill, including long-range shooting. He has three years of experience in Spain’s ACB but was used as a part-time player in that competition and the EuroLeague. He averaged 5.3 points in 19 minutes per game in his most recent domestic season. He is not an elite shot-blocker.
There may be value here for a team looking to allow Garuba to remain in Europe an extra year or two.
21. Isaiah Jackson, 6-10 PF, Kentucky
22. Tre Mann, 6-5 PG, Florida
23. Ayo Dosunmu, 6-5 SG, Illinois
24. Nah’Shon “Bones” Hyland, 6-3 SG, VCU
25. Miles McBride, 6-2 SG, West Virginia
26. Cameron Thomas, 6-4 SG, LSU
27. Trey Murphy, 6-9 SF, Virginia
28. Greg Brown, 6-9 PF, Texas
29. Rokas Jokubaitis, 6-4 SG, Zalgiris (Lithuania)
30. Joel Ayayi, 6-5 SG, Gonzaga
31. Aaron Henry, 6-6 SF, Michigan State
32. Jeremiah Robinson-Earl, 6-9 PF, Villanova
33. Charles Bassey, 6-11 C, Western Kentucky
34. Ziaire Williams, 6-8 SF, Stanford
35. Kessler Edwards, 6-8 SF, Pepperdine
36. Jalen Johnson, 6-9 PF, Duke
37. Ariel Hukporti, 7-0 C, BC Nevezis (Lithuania)
38. Quentin Grimes, 6-6 SG, Houston
39. Jason Preston, 6-4 PG, Ohio
40. Joe Wieskamp, 6-6 SG, Iowa
41. Day’Ron Sharpe, 6-11 C, North Carolina
42. Joshua Primo, 6-6 SG, Alabama
43. Brandon Boston, 6-7 SF, Kentucky
44. David Duke, 6-5 PG, Providence
45. JT Thor, 6-10 PF, Auburn
46. Josh Christopher, 6-5 SG, Arizona State
47. Isaiah Todd, 6-10 PF, G League Ignite
48. RaiQuan Gray, 6-8 PF, Florida State
49. Isaiah Livers, 6-7 F, Michigan
50. Herbert Jones, 6-8 SF, Alabama
51. Trendon Watford, 6-9 PF, LSU
52. Matthew Hurt, 6-9 PF, Duke
53. David Johnson, 6-5 PG, Louisville
54. Filip Petrusev, 6-11 C, KK Mega Soccerbet (Serbia)
55. Luka Garza, 6-11 C, Iowa
56. Sandro Mamukaleshvili, 6-11 C, Seton Hall
57. Derrick Alston Jr., 6-9 SF, Boise State
58. Justin Champagnie, 6-6 SF, Pitt
59. Aaron Wiggins, 6-5 SG, Maryland
60. Daishen Nix, 6-5 PG, G League Ignite