NBA Draft

Stacked 2021 Draft Class Beginning to Take Shape

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With the 2020-2021 NBA season entering its second half, the eyes of the super-nerdy turn to the next NBA draft class.

This 2021 group has been touted as special for some time, and they haven’t disappointed. Keeping apprised of the top prospects is important as the lottery starts to take shape. This is the first article of three outlining the upper half of the prospects. We’ll begin with players that just missed the top 10.

Jalen Green

Jalen Green, ESPN’s No. 1 overall prospect, opted to play for the newly formed G-League Ignite instead of playing in the NCAA. Seeking a higher challenge while getting paid is what he rightfully had in mind. It hasn’t gone exactly as expected, but Green has flashed why he was ranked so highly. Still, in such a stacked class, it takes significant flashes to put yourself in that upper echelon.

Offense

On offense, Green is a masterful scorer around the rim. He has a sublime package of finishes and the explosiveness to fly above the rim as well. He struggles getting there with his weaker left hand, but can still finish off-hand if he gets to the cup. His dribble is loose and high, but he does well at keeping his center of gravity low to get by defenders. Green stumbles and falls from time to time, but as his frame fills out the balance will follow.

What’s troublesome offensively is his perimeter game. His shot release is slow and he spends a lot of time hunting for threes. The off-ball scoring is practically nonexistent, which is a major issue. Green relies on timing his shot instead of quick releases, a skill that takes a lot of development. Those looks won’t fly as often at the next level until he gets a feel for NBA pace. At the very least, he can make open looks at a decent clip and has an average sense of relocating for open looks.

There’s enough reason to believe Green has a floor as a shooter. His playmaking also leaves a lot to be desired, and he struggles to create consistent looks for himself or others. Perimeter creation has never been more important for guards or wings, and Green lacks in that area.

Defense

Green’s defense certainly is lacking, too. He’s a great athlete with a 6’5″ frame but struggles to keep players in front of him. Expecting constant effort from players his age is unrealistic, but his lack of defensive impact is concerning. He has to focus on not hurting his team before true defensive playmaking can follow. Poor positioning combined with a tendency to gamble and swipe for the ball means any team taking him will have to build his defensive game from the ground up.

Green has shown plenty of potential as an aggressive downhill scoring guard, but needs to check a lot of other boxes in order to live up to his vast potential. For teams throwing darts in the late lottery, it’s hard to do better than Green in terms of potential. A marked improvement in ballhandling and playmaking could turn him into a Caris LeVert-esque player. Any sort of defensive impact on top could make him a star.

Ziaire Williams

Ziaire Williams was a highly ranked recruit who didn’t exactly dominate in the ways people expected. Injuries contributed heavily to the disappointment this year. A twitchy combo forward with a jumper and ball-handling skills intrigues at any level, but Ziaire has still shown why he came out so highly regarded. Some concerns are present, but his physicality and basketball instincts will help him greatly at the next level regardless of how the rest of his game pans out.

Offense

Offense is the biggest letdown for Ziaire at Stanford. Playing in an antiquated offense than ranks near the NCAA basement in pace and three-point attempts has hidden some of what he can do. Williams is a transition beast who can make great reads despite what his negative assist/turnover ratio may indicate.

His athleticism is explosive, and he understands how to create favorable angles to use his size and burst. Half-court offense has been a struggle, but playing in a completely unideal role makes it hard to make any scathing judgments. Williams would be better used in an offense surrounded by shooters where he can hit the glass.

Defense

Defense may be Williams’ true calling card at the next level. He has some work to do ironing out his technical skills. Still, it’s hard to find a better physical profile for a defensive forward at 6’8″ with long arms and strength. As he fills out more, I expect him to be more of a force down low, and has the potential to be an above-average defender both on the perimeter and on the block. This kind of defensive versatility is built for today’s NBA. If he can begin doing the small things, build on his frame and quickness, he has the potential to be an incredible defensive force. Skip to 0:25 in this video to see something scary.

Blocking a corner three after running from the free-throw line is Zion-level athleticism. There is a very short list of players in the world capable of making that play. These kinds of flashes of potential greatness will keep Ziaire in the top 10 in all likelihood.

The only thing that keeps me from ranking him there is his development on the perimeter. His free-throw fluidity and percentage point to a better jumper down the road, but I’m not sold on him being much of a creator out there in halfcourt, even with development. Players like Green and Boston have the sort of handle and quickness to create shots that Ziaire can’t consistently get. It may not matter in the end due to his potential on defense, but it limits his overall upside in a stacked class.

Kai Jones

Kai Jones has had the misfortune of playing next to or behind Greg Brown for Texas most of the season. But the real gem of the Texas frontcourt is Jones. A 6’11” big with incredible athleticism and a legitimate perimeter game, Jones has impressed as a sophomore who mostly comes off the bench for a strong Texas squad. He’s the kind of player who should see a big rise in draft stock down the stretch of the season and in the tournament getting games on national TV. Now is your chance to buy Kai stock before it goes to the moon.

Offense

Watching Jones offensively can be frustrating at times. He’s prone to silly turnovers and no-win shot attempts that get blocked or clank high off the rim. Double teams can be a serious problem for him down low. Sometimes he pulls up near or beyond the arc for no good reason.

Kai has made serious strides offensively since his freshman year, however. As an energy player he’s prone to springing around the rim looking to go up with power and draw contact. Now he’s learned that with his size and athleticism, he can use footwork to make life easier on himself. Jones is actually a decent threat in the low post and can make some defenders look bad 1-on-1. As he learns when to pick his spots and go up with control, he can be an above-average paint finisher.

Kai also has a legitimate perimeter game for a near seven-footer. He has the quickness and handle to take players off the dribble. But unlike other bigs with that attribute his age, he has the ability to play under control once he beats his man. Jones has a package of finishes, eurosteps and dump-off passes to make him a versatile threat downhill.

Players that can create space and make quick, efficient decisions with said space are incredibly valuable at his size. If he continues this upward development with the ball in his hands, he could be a strong offensive asset at both the four and five.

Defense

Defense is where Jones predicates his game. The numbers don’t reflect what a great shot blocker Jones can be at times. He doesn’t have the strength yet to bang down low with bruisers but shows ability to box out clinically and secure strong rebounds. Many of these positioning skills are translatable to shot blocking down low as well.

This makes me think he can at least hold his own defensively against bigger players. He shines in space, showing an ability to keep players in front of him on the perimeter. Kai makes great recovery plays and use his position and quick hands to create turnovers.

Some teams are probably happy Greg Brown keeps Jones in the dark. I think he can fit right in at the next level in his current role. An energy big with a versatile defensive game and offensive potential who is strong on both ends of the glass has value. Though centers have depreciated in value greatly, what sells on Jones is his upside on both ends of the floor. With his athleticism, skill set and instincts, he has no ceiling.

It’s rare to find a player with that upside and a convincing floor in the middle of the draft, but that’s just how good this year is.

Franz Wagner

Franz Wagner is another player like Jones. fighting against the rising tide against big men. Where the inefficiency lies in scouting these players is the skill level. Gone are the days where being seven-feet tall and large got you drafted regardless of whether or not you could even catch the ball. Teams are engaged in an arms race on the perimeter and big men without skill are secondary. But a big player like Franz with legitimate skill is what can allow teams to break the formula of the modern NBA.

Offense

Though mostly deployed as a guard at Michigan, I don’t think his future is there. At 6’9″ and over 200 pounds Wagner is built like a combo forward, yet has legitimate guard skills. The one thing keeping him back is burst. Though Wagner (pronounced vog-nur) has a great handle and a decent understanding of creating angles, he doesn’t have the speed to beat NBA guards off the dribble.

Large guards that can translate that success consistently at the next level are incredibly rare, which is why Wagner has a better future as a forward. Against other forwards he has comparable athleticism and size, and he can use his excellent dribble, passing and footwork to break down larger defenders.

Transitioning to forward shouldn’t even be difficult for Wagner. He has a good post game already against smaller players, and can still play guard for some stretches when the team needs it. The NBA level will give him more chances to explore his versatility which should make him an even more dangerous player. As a very capable offensive player right off the bat, teams will be sold on his floor as a playmaker and scorer if they believe they can work his skills into their lineups.

He took his offensive game to new heights this sophomore season, shooting 53/38/82 on good volume and having a comfortable 2:1 ATO as one of Michigan’s lead playmakers. Teams have to key on him now but he’s adept at rolling out a game-long attack. If a defense is set on denying him one thing, he can create several other looks for himself and others to balance that. He might be one of the most polished offensive players in the draft already. Though his lack of straight-line athleticism limits his overall upside, offense will be what gets Franz on the board.

Defense

Defense is what will ultimately determine his place in the league. Defending wings and guards in college is easier for slower players, but he won’t be able to get away with a lot of his habits at the next level. He does a fine job creating turnovers off ball and can be a decent shot blocker at times, but he doesn’t have a true niche defensively. His slowness limits what he can do on the perimeter, and though he has the footwork to keep some players in front of him, it won’t be a match for NBA guards.

His strength and technical skills point to a future as a defensive power forward, ideally playing against non-perimeter players. If he can develop the ability to guard one or two positions at an average level, he certainly has an NBA future. The team he ends up with will determine a lot of his success as a very difficult player to deploy and assimilate to any lineup. If he’s drafted and played as a true one-position player, regardless of the position, he could struggle. A team willing to get creative with their lineups and spacing could make excellent use out of a player like Franz Wagner.

Alperen Şengün

Şengün (shen-goon) is one of the more interesting prospects coming into the draft. He’s only 18, yet has played at levels of basketball above his head for his whole career. Playing for Besitkas has exposed him to a high level of competition, and he’s responded very well. He’s a tad small for a true center at 6’9″ but is very strong and plays above his height.

Offense

Şengün has a serious disadvantage as a plodding center incapable of playing the four. To show value to teams as this kind of player you need serious skill, and he has it in spades. Şengün may be one of the best, if not the best, finishers among big men in this class. His ability to go up strong or soft with either hand and use the rim to create separation is easily his best skill. He creates a ton of contact as a result, resulting in an absurd amount of free throws this year. He’s also knocked in 78% of his nearly seven freebies per game.

Şengün’s ability in the post can work into the modern game well, since a quick seal and strong attack to the rim will forever be valuable offense. He also punishes defenders on the offensive boards to the tune of four per game this season. His strength and positioning allow him to give his team countless extra possessions.

Şengün has little to offer outside the paint. His footwork can be stiff but he’s still a strong passer for his size. He can operate out of the high post in a motion offense to some degree. Shooting isn’t a big part of his game but he at least has the ability to shoot threes. It’s not out of the question his jumper can keep defenses honest and open up space for him and others. He doesn’t need a convincing perimeter game for teams to be sold on his offensive skill, but it’s be a huge added bonus if it develops.

Defense

Defense isn’t Şengün’s biggest asset to say the least. He’s mostly effective around the basket, and gets exposed in space and pick and roll. As teams move away from drop coverage, it’s hard to find a way to keep him out of those situations. He has plenty of smarts he uses to keep himself in advantageous positions. Those positions are harder to come by in the NBA. Şengün is a smart team defender which helps him keep his head above water on the ugly side. What he lacks in true rim protection he makes up for in timely rotations and strong positioning.

On the whole, Şengün isn’t dripping with upside compared to his fellow prospects. But he does scream reliability and consistency, with enough untapped offensive and defensive potential to grow further. I see a lot of Jonas Valančiūnas in him long term; a player with a polished offensive game that can adapt his play to changing personnel without killing you on defense. Any team would love to have that.

Up Next: 6-10

Coming in the next article will be a preview of prospects 6-10 and more detailed breakdowns on their profile. Stay tuned as we build closer to the draft, because one of these players could be wearing your favorite team’s jersey in just a few months.

Follow us on Twitter @Draft_Lead for the latest NBA rookie, prospect and draft insight. 

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About Charlie Cummings

Warriors writer born and raised in the Bay Area. University of Denver graduate currently living in Denver

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