The Knicks are unlikely to come away with a top pick in the 2021 NBA Draft — but this time it’s because of strong play on the court. A deep class, here are names and first impressions of prospects you need to know.
We are nearly halfway through the 2020–21 NBA season, and unlike years past, the Knicks faithful is not looking to the draft boards for hope. New York is in the playoff picture, and that makes determining draft picks difficult. Both picks the Knicks possess currently fall outside of the lottery, but that could very well change in the remainder of the season.
Last year’s draft was highlighted by the idea that there were few stars to be had. While the Knicks were able to find a star in the back of the first (Immanuel Quickley), this year’s draft class has a very different narrative around it.
The incoming class has been talked about as one of the all-time greats, anchored by potentially franchise-changing superstars. Not only is the 2021 NBA Draft class heralded for stars at the top of the lottery, but also “high ceiling” prospects throughout the first round as a whole. This is a great sign for the Knicks, whose front office has proved able to find the diamonds in the rough.
The Knicks have two swings in the first round and enough future draft capital to make a move for their guy.
Below are three sections representing where the Knicks could end up, and what they should target in those spots: a top two or three pick in case the lottery gods shine on the Knickerbockers for the first time in decades; a pick in the late lottery; or high-upside players who could land in the mid-to-late first round.
Top of the Class
While the Knicks would need lottery luck they haven’t seen since Patrick Ewing, the top tier is worth talking about. There are prospects at the front of the lottery who will be franchise-changing players. It is highly unlikely that either of the Knicks’ first-round draft picks will hit in the top three, but if they do, these players are too good to miss.
Cunningham began his inaugural season at Oklahoma State pegged as a generational talent; an absurdly high expectation for a young player. Every single aspect of his game has been poked and prodded.
On an Oklahoma State team without a ton of talent, Cunningham was the primary focus of opposing teams’ defensive energy. His impressive stats (19.8 points, 6.3 rebounds, and 3.5 assists per game) do not tell the entire story. His teammates left a lot of points on the table from wide-open looks distributed by the freshman guard. However, Cunningham led the Cowboys to an overachieving 17-6 season, with six wins over ranked teams.
Exhibit Z as to why Cade's assist numbers understate his passing ability. Live dribble off-hand swing pass out of the post: pic.twitter.com/YgH0zyISQs
— Jackson Frank (@jackfrank_jjf) January 3, 2021
Positionally, Cunningham is an interesting blend at 6’8″. He has the body of a wing and the facilitation ability of a lead guard. His scoring makes him an exciting prospect, but his playmaking and vision make him special. Cunningham’s versatility will allow a good coach to use him in a plethora of ways.
He may not be a point guard at the NBA level, but Cunningham’s ball-handling and ability to push the tempo off a turnover or rebound will take the pressure off his future team. His body control under pressure and ability to get to the paint allow him to pressure defenses and create easy baskets for his teammates.
Good lord this open court handling from Cade pic.twitter.com/G46MxLFkK5
— Max Carlin (@maxacarlin) November 25, 2020
There were questions about Cunningham’s shooting going into the year, but his 43% from beyond the arc on nearly five attempts per game has quieted even the loudest of critics. His free throw and other shooting metrics project him to be a good shooter in the NBA, able to create his own shot off of the dribble.
Cunningham’s size and athleticism will make him a versatile defender in the NBA, and his high I.Q. and motor guarantee he will be a high-floor defender. His defense, coupled with his rebounding, scoring, and playmaking makes him a complete prospect.
If the lottery gods could shine on the Knicks just once, this would be the year to do it.
Cade Cunningham (40 PTS) TOOK OVER to upset No. 7 Oklahoma in OT 😤 @brhoops
The potential No. 1 pick continues to impress pic.twitter.com/3OCSYJydsl
— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) February 27, 2021
There is much more debate about who the second pick in this year’s class should be, but there are no prospects as complete as Evan Mobley. Mobley is a legitimate seven-footer who looks to anchor whichever defense drafts him as soon as next year.
Evan Mobley defensive movement skills compilation (7 HOURS) pic.twitter.com/U4BDAt0wji
— PD Web (@abovethebreak3) February 11, 2021
The USC big man is going to be on a shortlist of most talented center prospects we have seen in years, and will immediately draw comparisons to players like Anthony Davis due to his defensive versatility. His footwork and defensive movement are out of this world for a guy his size. It is easy to see why teams would fall in love with the idea of a defense built around Mobley for years to come.
In a world where traditional big men are no longer valued as highly as versatile wings, multi-faceted big men may be more valuable than ever. Mobley is a unicorn on both sides of the ball.
His offense still needs to develop, but he shows flashes of brilliance. In a Trojan offense without a significant amount of spacing, Mobley is able to create offense out of the pick-and-roll as a screener and with pop.
Evan Mobley step back jumper. Completely normal things from a 7-foot teenager. pic.twitter.com/5XhkjsN7GU
— Brandon Simberg (@BrandonSimberg) February 18, 2021
Mobley averaged 16.4 points and 8.5 rebounds as a freshman, but more importantly, he led the 19-6 Trojans to one of the best team defenses in the country, even as injuries ravaged the club.
Mobley looks to be the kind of big you want to build a team around for the next decade on defense alone, and if the shooting and offense pan out, he could be an elite center for a long time.
While Suggs had less hype than Mobley or Cunningham, he has been a highlight of the college basketball season. The 6’5″ combo guard benefitted from playing at Gonzaga amid a historically great regular season, and his draft stock skyrocketed early in the year.
Suggs is a super athlete with high-level creation ability and elite passing. He’s an interesting prospect as a primary or secondary playmaker at the next level. He can run the offense, make reads out of the pick-and-roll, push the ball in transition, and make remarkable passes.
Jalen Suggs' passing ability will make you go 🤯
— Stadium (@Stadium) January 4, 2021
Suggs brings something all NBA teams look for: an advanced point-of-attack guard defender. Suggs projects to cover and even lock down primary ball-handlers on the other side.
With Suggs, Gonzaga’s defense was able to stifle opponents in their biggest games of the year. His on-ball defense pesters opposing ball-handlers, and he forces turnovers at an extremely high rate. Suggs averages two steals a game, and with his explosiveness and quick decision-making, this often leads to easy baskets on the other end.
Jalen Suggs disruptive point of attack defense + lightning-quick decision on the other end
Impressive sequece pic.twitter.com/dQJ2m3V9Ja
— Emiliano #BLM (@EmilianoNaiar8) May 8, 2020
Suggs averages nearly 14 points along with 5.5 rebounds and 4.5 assists. Those numbers are what they are partially due to the wealth spread so evenly among the Zags, and partially because they spend so much time blowing people out. The advanced stats are kind to Suggs, whose per 40’s are right around 20/7/7.
There are some concerns about Suggs’ shooting (33% from three), but even without the consistent shooting at the next level, Suggs has an incredibly high floor as a super role player at the next level. His playmaking and defense make him a fascinating combo guard and an enticing two-way prospect.
Gonzaga is not known for having one-and-done prospects, so Suggs is a bit of an anomaly for the Bulldogs, whose only top-five pick was Adam Morrison in 2006. Suggs is going to get a lot of attention going into the NCAA tournament on the best team in the country. He deserves the hype, and at the very least you can expect some fun transition dunks and passes.
If this is happening with five minutes in the first half, I can't even imagine what's going to be happening at the end of this game.
Joel Ayayi to Jalen Suggs off the back board dunk ⬇️ pic.twitter.com/24O1esGG3W
— Brenna Greene (@BrennaGreene_) December 23, 2020
Other names: Jalen Green, Jonathan Kuminga
In drafts as deep as this one, talented players will fall for one reason or another. These three players are top-10 talents who could potentially fall toward the end of the lottery and into a Knicks jersey.
The undersized Auburn point guard may be one of the most interesting prospects in all of the draft class. Due to NCAA investigations, Cooper did not play for the first half of the season and might have been barred from playing college basketball at all. After it was all said and done, Cooper got a chance to play for the postseason-ineligible Auburn Tigers and has done enough to prove he is a first-round talent.
There are a lot of good passers in this draft class, but there may be none craftier than Sharife Cooper. The 6-foot-1 guard is quick and obscenely skilled, with great vision and creation ability. He can manipulate defenses with his eyes and control the offense with quick reads and smart decision-making. He also throws the best alley-oop in the country.
Today’s Play of the Day is Auburn’s Freshmen Duo of Sharife Cooper & JT Thor. Sharife does a great job out of the Ball Screen with his eyes looking off the defense and Thor does a great job of cutting back door and finishing the alley oop. #NBA #NBATwitter #NBADraft pic.twitter.com/oCd4lZe9Wf
— Jack Liss (@JackLiss8) February 18, 2021
Today’s Play of the Day is Auburn Guard Sharife Cooper. Does a great job in the middle of the floor. Hits the roller out of the Ball Screen for the precise alley oop assist with his left hand. pic.twitter.com/khDhVFcHMu
— Jack Liss (@JackLiss8) February 28, 2021
Cooper is as fun to watch as anybody in college basketball, but there are some real areas for concern that keep him from being a top prospect.
Cooper’s slight frame and stature make him a potential weak link on defense who can be targeted on switches and picked on by bigger guards. His shooting leaves something to be desired at just 22% on nearly five attempts per game. Despite the poor shooting, Cooper puts up big numbers, averaging 20 points and eight assists on an underachieving 12-13 Auburn team.
Cooper is undersized but makes up for it with high talent. He is an elite ball-handler and passer who plays with high energy and looks well suited to run an offense at the next level.
With a bevy of alley-oop catchers in the Knicks’ frontcourt, a guy to throw them and create offense for others seems like a perfect fit.
Another crafty freshman guard, Springer is the opposite of his SEC counterpart. A much bigger guard, Springer is a sturdy 6’4″ with body control that allows him to go where he wants on the court. Weaving in and out of traffic with good footwork, Springer controls the offense as a scorer or creator.
Jaden Springer's combination of strength, footwork, dribble moves, and balance makes for really interesting creation. Just uniquely capable of getting exactly where he wants on the floor pic.twitter.com/teMJ0DNGoV
— Max Carlin (@maxacarlin) December 28, 2020
Springer is a unique offensive player with an unconventional game that makes it hard for defenders to stay in front of him. His offense has been inconsistent throughout the season, to a certain extent because of minutes and opportunities under coach Rick Barnes.
Springer is also a hard-nosed perimeter defender who can make life miserable for opposing guards. His strength helps him control his body against bigger players. This is sure to translate to the next level, and makes Springer the perfect kind of player for a coach like Tom Thibodeau.
Jaden Springer active on defense, leads to basket. pic.twitter.com/yJ2fZXhySA
— Trey Wallace (@TreyWallace_) December 31, 2020
Springer has been inconsistent on offense, averaging only 12 points per game, but has the ability to take over—he went off against Georgia for an efficient 30 points on 11 field-goal attempts.
His offensive versatility makes him an interesting prospect; he does a little bit of everything. Springer can play on- or off-ball with the ability to score and facilitate. He is a high-energy prospect, versatile on both sides of the ball, and a malleable backcourt player for the future.
While the Gonzaga small forward may not have the upside of his Freshman teammate, Corey Kispert is the best shooter in this draft class. The 6’7″ wing took a leap in his senior year at Gonzaga, shooting 46% from beyond the arc on six attempts a game. With a steady increase in points per game, three-point attempts per game, and three-point shooting percentage, the Gonzaga sniper has rocketed up draft boards.
— Gonzaga Basketball (@ZagMBB) February 26, 2021
Kispert has been a key part of Gonzaga’s incredible regular-season success. Where he goes in the draft will depend entirely on how teams value upside as opposed to consistency and reliability.
If a team wants to reach on him to take the best shooter in the draft, he could go much higher in the lottery. Or he could fall and give a team later in the lottery a lights-out jump shooter to support their stars.
If the Knicks end up with two draft picks in the low-to-mid teens, it would be a shame if they don’t come away with Kispert. He’s the kind of role player teams need going forward in the modern NBA. We know how important spacing and off-ball shooting is, and how that can open up the game for creators and on-ball scorers. The senior sharpshooter can unlock an offense with off-ball movement and spacing to relocate and find open looks.
Kispert would not be the flashiest pick in this years’ draft, and won’t be expected to become a star, but the Washington native could be a key part of the team’s success, giving them shooting for years to come.
Other names: Ziaire Williams, Daishen Nix
As opposed to last year’s draft class, which was highlighted by safe prospects, the 2021 class has high-potential prospects who will fall due to the depth of the class.
One of the most fascinating prospects from this year’s class is Kentucky freshman Brandon Boston Jr. Boston began the year as a consensus top prospect who mainstream sports media and draft Twitter alike fell in love with. Some even argued that he could have even been the top prospect over Cade Cunningham.
It has been a disappointing year for Kentucky—and Boston was no exception. While he has shown flashes of potential that could make him special, he has been inconsistent. His scoring has come in bursts, and he hasn’t found a role on this Kentucky team, even as their leading scorer.
He has been inefficient throughout the year, shooting 36% from the field with a true shooting percentage of 44%. His three-point shooting has been a major disappointment, but there are still reasons to believe in Boston.
We have plenty of examples of successful NBA players whose draft stock fell in one year under John Calipari. With the Kentucky-Knicks connection, nobody should be surprised if they pull the trigger on Boston, and that may not be a bad thing.
While Boston has not lived up to the hype, there were legitimate reasons to believe in him as a top prospect coming into the year. If Boston is able to find his jumper and a more consistent role, a case can be made that he is worth the risk.
Kentucky played inside out in this run. Isaiah scores last possession. Now Olivier Sarr causes Auburn help. 2 big lineup with Jackson stepping in at the dunker spot baits opposite wing & leaves BJ Boston open for the skip & three. Different BJ in February. @KentuckyRivals pic.twitter.com/3o5TR1JJ8M
— David Sisk (@CoachDavidSisk) February 13, 2021
The Arizona State freshman wing is the kind of prospect teams are looking for in the modern NBA and is a lock for the first round, but there are things that can make or break him as a prospect.
Christopher is a tough shot-maker, but not a super-efficient one. He will force shots and try to find offense when there is none. Sometimes that works for him, and other times it doesn’t.
Josh Christopher's tough shot-making has been really impressive this season pic.twitter.com/AFWafz64rH
— Jackson Frank (@jackfrank_jjf) December 13, 2020
Not only will he make tough shots off the dribble and from the perimeter, but he is a great finisher below the rim. He plays through contact and attacks the rim with aggression. This can be a double-edged sword, as he has a tendency to avoid kick-outs to open teammates, and instead opts for tough finishes at the basket.
Arizona State guard Josh Christopher showcasing his body control and ability to finish through contact pic.twitter.com/e5E2xbyurA
— Kevin Daniels (@KDScoutingBBall) November 27, 2020
His offensive game is appealing but very flawed, with clear areas where he needs to improve. If you believe Christopher’s growth will impact his defense and decision-making, his ceiling is extremely high.
His size, shot creation, and shot-making ability make him an attractive player for a team in the back half of the draft looking for instant offense.
Illinois has been a pleasure to watch this season, and one of the reasons for that is junior guard Ayo Dosunmu. The 6’5″ guard has been amazing to watch, averaging 21 points, six rebounds, and five assists on one of the top teams of the college season.
While there are valid concerns about him as a prospect, it’s easy to see why Dosunmu could be one of the better guards in this class. There will be reasons Dosunmu falls wherever he lands in the draft, and none of those reasons have anything to do with the game of basketball.
Among the older prospects in this class, questions about Dosunmu’s age and the sustainability of his current success will arise. The junior guard is shooting 40% from three, a big jump from his 29% stroke his sophomore year. His assist percentage has also jumped from 21% to 30%.
If teams don’t think those numbers are legitimate, it is fair to question Dosunmu as a prospect. If they do, as I do, it is easy to see why he should be at the top of everybody’s sleeper list going into the 2021 draft class.
Dosunmu is an excellent ball-handler with a change-of-pace game to get past defenders, making him a reliable scorer. He can manipulate defenders and create offense for himself. He is a three-level scorer who can pressure defenses with his ability to attack the basket.
Whewww Ayo Dosunmu with the change of pace and inside hand scoop. Crafty pic.twitter.com/D6ZD87NUtG
— Max Carlin (@maxacarlin) November 25, 2020
Ayo Dosunmu handling and change of pace, making use of the Cockburn seal nicely. Been really interesting to start the year pic.twitter.com/9RsmFFsDFU
— Max Carlin (@maxacarlin) November 27, 2020
Dosunmu’s perimeter shooting will be questioned by some, but on nearly four attempts per game, 40% from beyond the arc seems sustainable. Shooting growth will come over time with fluidity in his shooting motion. Dosunmu looked uncomfortable shooting in previous seasons, but this year he has a dynamic nature that seems natural. He projects to score on and off the ball.
Dosunmu’s ball-handling and offensive prowess make him an elite prospect on that side of the ball, and one that should not be overlooked. He has a unique, crafty game with the ability to score on all three levels, pressure the defense, and facilitate for his teammates. There are few players in this draft class with a more complete offensive game. If Dosunmu falls into the lap of the Knicks, they should take advantage of every team that passes on him.
Other names: Usman Garuba, Franz Wagner, Marcus Bagley