Re-Tiering the 2021 NBA Draft Class (2023)

Re-Tiering the 2021 NBA Draft Class (1)

While I’m not a major fan of re-drafts, I’m going to dive in and try a few this Spring. It’s an important exercise for looking at the draft landscape and finding overarching lessons that can help me improve as a scout. Often these exercises are done solely on revisionist history (how players have turned out and what they’ve produced) instead of cross-examining their production with what was thought or known at the time.

In essence, anybody can go back and just rank players from the same draft class in terms of their NBA production. To me, the real skill comes from going back and figuring out what decisions I’d make differently knowing where the league has trended and what some players have shown early in their careers.

Almost three years ago, I broke out the debut of a tiered approach to setting up my final big board. It’s one I’ve stuck with since, as I find it helpful for parsing through impact and filtering through biases a bit. But I also wanted to look back to see how successful some of those tiers have been and what has come to fruition from those draft classes.

This week, I look back at the loaded 2021 draft class. It was filled with clear high-end talent, and almost none of those players have disappointed or failed to live up to the hype. That doesn’t mean we are without lessons to learn or adjustments to make from a scouting perspective.

I’ll be diving into the first seven tiers, which include all first-round grades. I will simultaneously critique my pre-draft rankings while placing the guys from the draft class into the tiers where it seems they belong.

Tier 1: Franchise Player Alphas
Pre-Draft: Cade Cunningham, Jalen Green, Jalen Suggs
Now: Cade Cunningham

Despite being heralded as an elite class, thus far the 2021 Draft has only yielded one true trustworthy top player. And he’s only played 76 career games in two seasons. Injuries have prevented us from seeing continual growth or dominance from Cade Cunningham, though there’s very little to suggest he cannot and will not reach those heights in his career.

During his injury-shortened sophomore season, Cade averaged 20-6-6 on a team with no floor spacing. He’s a dynamic passer and a cerebral top option who dissects a defense with ease. Add onto that his defensive capability with the 7’0” wingspan and it’s still so easy to see the pathway to stardom for Cade.

Two years ago, both Jalen Green and Jalen Suggs were viewed as franchise number-one options. They were both dynamic with the ball in their hands and either had elite athleticism (Green) or intangibles (Suggs) that gave them superstar upside. The upside is still present, just in different ways than imagined to the point where neither fall safely into this top tier of prospect.

Cade was #1 on my board back then and one of my favorite prospects I’ve ever scouted. I feel great about having him in the top spot.

Tier 2: Alpha Upside with High-End Trajectory
Pre-Draft: Evan Mobley, Scottie Barnes, Jonathan Kuminga, Usman Garuba
Now: Evan Mobley, Jalen Green, Scottie Barnes

Where this draft really starts to show its value is in the number of players who are in Tier 2 and Tier 3 — excellent tiers of All-Star status. Six players from the draft class are, after only two years in the league, presenting this type of trajectory.

The elite of the group are Evan Mobley, Scottie Barnes, and the aforementioned Jalen Green. Mobley is here for his defense, the calling card of his career thus far. While he puts up some raw numbers on offense, we saw the shortcomings in his game from the first postseason series he participated in against the New York Knicks this spring. He needs a jump shot or more dynamic tools off the bounce to be a full-time 4. Still, he’s risen to become one of the best defenders in the entire league and is still so young. He’s got the highest-end trajectory due to his defensive ceiling.

While the Houston Rockets have been a rough watch, Green has shown doses of elite scoring ability. He’s just as shifty and athletic as anticipated, but the consistency of his jump shot and desire to buy in on defense make it a little hard to call him a true alpha. The young pup Rockets are growing together and taking their lumps as a group. Green’s potential is still sky high, but he hasn’t shown that charismatic ability to command the locker room and be the man on the floor just yet. I’d be shocked if an All-Star appearance wasn’t in his future though, so Tier 2 is still a safe spot for him.

Of all the great players we’ve talked about, Scottie Barnes is the one to take home Rookie of the Year. An up-and-down second season has stunted some of the high-end upside that so many folks saw, but 15-6-5 with elite defensive potential is still a remarkable pathway to be on.

Honestly, Barnes likely has the most room between where he is now and his ceiling of any player in these top two tiers. The jump shot still hasn’t really come along, his on-ball reps waxed and waned with the Raptors this season, and his passing is the best of the group outside of Cade. We’re still early enough in these guys’ careers that future projection has to play a role in how we re-tier them. Barnes’ ceiling, work ethic, and baseline for impact he’s already showed compels me to keep him in Tier 2.

Tier 3: Fringe All-Stars At Peak/ Good 3rd Options
Pre-Draft: Keon Johnson, James Bouknight, Alperen Sengun
Now: Franz Wagner, Josh Giddey

Here’s where the draft projections start to go off the rails. Franz Wagner and Josh Giddey were top-ten picks that, for one reason or another, I wasn’t too high on. It came down to perceived functionality. I was worried about Giddey’s lack of a jump shot as a primary ball handler; teams would go under PNRs with him on-ball and the spot-up game was really undeveloped off-ball. With Wagner, it was the functionality of his driving — he was really right-hand dominant at Michigan and seemed to thrive more off designed action for him than standstill creation.

Those worries were both unfounded in some regard. Wagner has been too smart and skilled as a handler to be denied, and has added pieces to his game in the mid-range he didn’t show at Michigan. Giddey’s slight shooting improvements have helped, but he has been just a straight-up impactful creator despite his absence of elite shake. The lessons learned here are quite impactful from an evaluation standpoint: value the intersections of positional size and feel above all.

Looking at 2023, that bodes well for guys like the Thompson Twins, Anthony Black, and Sidy Cissoko. Whatever flaws or warts exist on their games shouldn’t be over-penalized when the two main ingredients for success are ones they already possess.

Conversely, Keon Johnson and James Bouknight have failed to take off as pros despite their insane natural gifts. Johnson was an elite athlete with untapped potential on-ball and some promise as a playmaker. Bouknight an ultra-smooth scorer at Connecticut with natural feel to get his off or play off-ball. But neither have catapulted themselves into an NBA rotation, and their lack of processing speed/ quick learning ability may have something to do with that.

We’ll touch on Alperen Sengun a little bit later, but the placement of him in this tier was built around a supreme belief in his offensive arsenal simply translating. Thus far, it has… but it’s difficult to envision him as a really good third option for other reasons.

Re-Tiering the 2021 NBA Draft Class (2)

Tier 4: The Safest, High-Value Role Players/ Connective Starters
Pre-Draft: Jared Butler, Moses Moody
Now: Jalen Suggs, Trey Murphy III, Austin Reaves

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