Draft day in the NBA is always my favorite day of the year. It generates hope and a sense of optimism previously forgotten among the downtrodden fanbases. The constant ineptitude of management is often the sin that rewards the same beleaguered franchises the top picks every season. However, through the incompetence and pious vanity of front offices, we have our hope renewed. Cementing the winners and losers of draft night before any of these players set foot on an NBA floor is a preposterous exercise on the surface. However, as an appreciator of overreactions and a devotee of my own evaluations, highlighting the winners and losers of the 2021 NBA Draft felt appropriate.
Winner: Orlando Magic
For the last decade, the Magic have been one pick away from having a franchise-changing superstar. In 2018, the Magic took Mo Bamba with the sixth pick, one pick after Trae Young (who was turned into Luka Doncic). In 2015, three of the four picks before the Magic consisted of Karl-Anthony Towns, D’Angelo Russell, and Kristaps Porzingas. The Magic settled for Mario Hezonja. In 2014 (a draft considered to have three stars), the Magic drew the fourth pick and settled for Aaron Gordon after Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker, and Joel Embiid were taken. The Magic have made their share of draft mistakes, but in general, they’ve drawn the short end of the stick.
Thankfully for Magic fans, the NBA Draft Gods smiled upon them as they allowed Jalen Suggs to fall to them at the fifth pick. Minnesota natives are well acquainted with Suggs’s winning ways. Regardless of the sport or the level of competition, Suggs has done nothing but win. The Magic have a promising young core of guards, but none of them are the two-way General that Suggs will be. Suggs is a terrific athlete who can run an offense, score off-ball, and play tremendous defense. Before playing a single game, Suggs is the second-best point guard in franchise history. He is the cornerstone, franchise player they have been begging for since Dwight Howard, and I cannot wait to watch him elevate that team out of the trench of mediocrity.
Having Jalen Suggs fall to the fourth pick is enough reason for celebration, but the Magic also nailed their pick at number eight in Franz Wagner. Casual fans will recognize the last name as “is that the brother of the obnoxious Michigan center who flops a lot?” Yep! It certainly is.
(Disclaimer: As an avid Michigan fan, I use that description of Mo with nothing but love and affection).
Thankfully for Magic fans, Franz is a far superior player to Mo. Franz Wagner is one of the best wing defenders in this class. He has elite perimeter footwork and is an impactful team defender. Offensively, Wagner is a threat off the dribble and moves the ball exceptionally well. If his shooting consistency improves, he will be one of the biggest steals of this draft.
The Orlando Magic added a franchise cornerstone at the point guard position in Jalen Suggs. He has tremendous two-way upside and has the personality that can change a franchise. They continued their good fortune by adding one of the smartest two-way players in the draft in Franz Wagner. The Magic should be one of your League Pass priorities in 2021.
Loser: Indiana Pacers
Nothing the Pacers did on draft night made sense to me. For starters, they drafted the oldest player in the draft in Chris Duarte. Despite my current pessimistic tone, I have no issues with Duarte as a player. I am actually quite a fan of his. However, I hate him on the Pacers, despite his rotational fit. I know, none of this sounds like a “loser” so far; bear with me.
Duarte is an excellent two-way wing who can elevate a good team to a great team. What he likely won’t do is elevate a fringe playoff team to a near top-four seed. All this pick does is prolong the Pacers’ tenure on the treadmill of mediocrity despite the gym’s very clear signs saying, “30 minutes or less.”
To make matters worse, the Pacers added Isaiah Jackson. Like Duarte, I have no disdain for Jackson as a prospect. What I loath about this pick is the fit. The Pacers already had three centers on their roster who have hefty cap holds, so adding a fourth makes little to no sense to me.
I know, you’re reading this and saying, “ugh, Tyler, you ignorant simpleton. They’re obviously trading Myles Turner.” As I recover from your hurtful barbs, I acknowledge that I am no simpleton and have, in fact, incorporated that option into my reasoning. Despite that potential trade that is likely to happen, the pick is still nonsensical. There is no need to have this many centers on the roster. Jackson is an elite shot-blocker, but he has shown little to no offensive capabilities. The Pacers were in a spot to significantly improve their roster but instead deviated to picks with limited upside.
Winner: Brooklyn Nets
As a fan of multiple small market teams in desperate need of talent, considering the Nets as a winner is tough sledding. Personal bias aside, I absolutely adore what the Nets did on draft night. They took a home run swing while also filling numerous areas of need.
In a vacuum, I was relatively low on Cam Thomas. I recognized his insane scoring ability but detested his defense and lack of passing. Thomas has always been the go-to scorer with no limitations at every level he’s played. He has never been held accountable, but with the Nets, he will be coming off the bench behind three of the greatest offensive weapons in the history of the league. Thomas has the potential to lead the league in scoring one day, but if he can’t learn and develop the rest of his game behind these guys, he was a lost cause to begin with.
The Nets also added Day’Ron Sharpe in the first round. I had a second-round grade on Sharpe, but I love the fit. The Nets needed to fill out their center position with a physical rebounder, which is exactly what Sharpe is. Sharpe is also a tremendous rebounder and has unusual passing chops for his position. With this pick, the Nets upgraded the Bruce Brown position with an actual center.
Finally, the Nets picking Kessler Edwards is one of the best values in the draft. As a neutral observer, I wanted the Nets to pick Edwards in the first round. Edwards falling to pick 44, though, is an insane turn of fortune. Edwards is arguably the best team defender in this class. He will cover for so many defensive deficiencies that exist on this team. Edwards also doesn’t need the ball to score. In fact, he’s much better at scoring without the ball (I know that seems paradoxical, but you get what I’m saying). Edwards’s combination of elite team defense and elite off-ball shooting is a perfect fit for this Nets team that desperately needed to improve on the fringes.
Ugh, just saying that feels dirty and like it’ll haunt me. The Spurs had the first head-scratching pick of the night as they took Josh Primo at 12 overall. Primo is an excellent off-ball shooter and on-ball defender. I liked Primo a lot as a prospect. However, I liked him in the 20s, where he could sit and learn on a contending team, not as a lottery pick. Throughout most of the draft cycle, I actually expected Primo to go back to Alabama so he could show off more on-ball equity and essentially be taken in this spot in 2022. I guess he showed me.
As a prospect, Primo has a lot to offer. The criticism of the Spurs’ pick is not due to the player but due to the value. I find it hard to believe that the Spurs would be unable to get Primo after trading down. By all accounts, the New York Knicks were desperate to trade up for Chris Duarte. A package of the 19th pick and the 21st pick would have been more than enough for me to move back and take Primo if he was still first on my board.
I hesitate to doubt the Spurs’ player development because that has never worked for anyone, but this pick felt like a massive reach, or at least poor asset management. The Spurs now have a log jam of back-court players, and we likely won’t see Primo for at least one year, barring garbage time minutes.
Winner: Charlotte Hornets
Based on the Hornets fans that I’ve talked with, the Hornets had a catastrophe of a draft. To their credit, I don’t think that the Hornets got any better in the short term. However, when taking the big picture view, I love this draft for the Hornets.
James Bouknight is the best off-ball mover in this class and one of the most prolific bucket-getters. No one else in this class moved off-ball like Bouknight does. Off-ball movement is too frequently equated with players who sprint off screens, catch, and then shoot. That’s simplistic and unimaginative. Bouknight’s off-ball movement is used to create floor imbalances. Bouknight runs off screens to create space and force the defense to rotate or recover. From there, Bouknight attacks closeouts, out of the pick-and-roll, or in isolation. It is a unique shot creation philosophy that is rarely found among current shooting guards. By pairing with LaMelo Ball, Bouknight finally has a legitimate point guard who can create for him.
The Hornets were also fortunate enough to trade back into the first round to select Kai Jones. Jones is one of the more polarizing prospects, but I tend to love his upside. Jones has only been playing basketball for a few years, so he is incredibly raw. However, he has shown tremendous growth and flashes of two-way brilliance. If Jones hits, he will significantly improve their front-court depth.
With the Hornets’ final two picks, they took one of my favorite upside swings in JT Thor and one of my favorite human beings in Scottie Lewis. Thor gives off significant Jaden McDaniels vibes with his two-way versatility and tremendous upside. Thor didn’t have the best shooting percentages, but I dare you to watch his mechanics and not be encouraged. On top of his offensive upside, Thor is already a terrific defender. He moves his feet well on the perimeter and is a quality weakside rim protector.
When it comes to Scottie Lewis, I dare you to say anything bad about this saint of a human being. Lewis is a phenomenal athlete, exciting defender, and terrific human being. Fine, I’ll acknowledge that I am slightly (incredibly) blinded by my love for Lewis. He has some significant offensive issues, but him getting drafted and getting a chance is hard not to be excited about.
Last but not least...
Loser: Minnesota Timberwolves
That’s right, I buried the lede. I was incredibly disappointed in the Timberwolves on draft night. Coming into the night, I had zero expectations for them to make a significant move. However, they decided to trade Ricky Rubio for Taurean Prince, a 2022 second-round pick, and cash hours before the draft. While I originally hoped Rubio would be a piece for a more significant trade, I quickly pivoted to hoping the acquisition of the 2022 pick could be used to move into this second round.
As the draft proceeded, there were incredible talents that continued to inexplicable tumble down the draft board. I prayed the Timberwolves would find a way to trade into the second-round for JT Thor or Jared Butler. Alas, the Timberwolves did nothing.
The easy approach is to assume there was nothing to be had and teams were asking for far too much. However, with numerous second-round picks over the next few years, it seems tough to believe that trading up was an impossibility. To make matters worse, it was public knowledge that Jarrett Culver was available for a second-round pick, and yet, nothing happened. So, either the Timberwolves were unwilling to move into the second round to acquire players that would improve the team, or they have an immovable liability in Culver. Either way, not great.
With all pessimism and critique removed, I did like what the Timberwolves did with their UDFAs. There will be more words to come in the near future, but signing hometown kid McKinley Wright was a great move. We’ll dive deeper into these guys once we get into Summer League, but Wright is a name to keep an eye on.