It’s no secret that college basketball coaches and NBA front offices value different things when it comes to building a team. As one coach told me, “The NBA likes the unknown and birth certificates,” meaning a prospect’s untapped potential and young age hold more value in many cases than the track record of an older, established player. With a maximum four-year window for player development, college coaches much prefer someone who can help a team win now.
One doesn’t need to look any further than the fact that three first-team All-Americans were drafted in the second round of this year’s NBA draft, while the three players atop the transfer rankings earlier this spring — Kofi Cockburn, Marcus Carr and Remy Martin — all initially entered the draft before returning to school after realizing they likely wouldn’t be picked. The early 2021-22 Wooden Award favorite Drew Timme wasn’t projected to be selected, either.
But the different evaluation objectives do lead to interesting perspectives from college coaches about NBA draft prospects and picks — and so that’s what we sought out over the past few days.
A night of surprises started early when Florida State forward Scottie Barnes was selected fourth overall — leapfrogging Gonzaga guard Jalen Suggs, widely considered the last of the top tier of players available in the draft, behind Cade Cunningham, Jalen Green and Evan Mobley.
While the consensus entering the draft was that there was a clear top four atop draft boards, several college coaches didn’t agree.
“There was an actual top three and people assumed there was a four. I don’t think [Barnes] broke a tier,” one said. “I don’t think anyone considered Jalen Suggs for any of the top three spots, I really don’t. You can argue the order of Cade, Mobley and Jalen Green, but you can’t really argue Suggs should have cracked that.”
The Magic use the fifth pick in the NBA draft to take Gonzaga star Jalen Suggs.
“Those top three picks all have the potential to be multiple all-star-type players,” another said. “You look at the other guys in the lottery, there’s a lot of guys you’re guessing on. After the top three picks, there’s question marks.”
As for why Barnes was able to break into the top four after starting only seven games for Florida State last season, coaches focused mostly on his intangibles.
“He can be an elite defender,” one ACC coach said. “He can be a playmaker. The shooting is the question, obviously, but there’s so much about his intangibles in combination with his size. If he can make some shots, all the other things are at such a high level. He’s probably 6-foot-10, he’s huge. Huge shoulders, long arms. He can dribble, he can pass. I’m a little concerned with his shooting, and not just his shooting, but the sequence of his shooting. It’s not effortless. But he’s so high on the other factors, I can see why he went fourth.”
Check out some of the highlights from Scottie Barnes’ college career as he hopes to be a top pick in the 2021 NBA draft.
Barnes, a versatile forward ranked No. 5 in the 2020 class coming out of high school, started the first seven games of the season before moving to the bench for the rest of the campaign. It didn’t slow his production, and he ended up finishing with a top-five assist and steal rate in the ACC — an impressive feat for someone listed at 6-foot-9. Shooting was certainly an issue, as he made just five 3-pointers in ACC play and shot 27.5% from 3 on the season.
“I think it was his personality,” another ACC coach said. “He has a contagious energy about him, I think that was attractive to Toronto. They have a coach [Nick Nurse] who prides themselves on defensive identity. Scottie isn’t a very good on-ball defender necessarily, but he’s a capable defensive playmaker. He can block shots, steal passes, wreak havoc. He has the length and athleticism to be very versatile. Those things all factored in. Offense, they have an unselfish mantra and Scottie is an unselfish person, unselfish player. A very good rebounder, very good passer. Toronto believes in their ability to develop shooting, and that’s the one glaring weakness on offense that he has.”
Neither Ziaire Williams nor Joshua Primo was expected to be selected in the lottery on Thursday night. Williams started the draft process as a late first-round pick, although he steadily rose into the teens in mock drafts as draft day approached, while Primo was projected as the 28th pick in ESPN’s final mock draft.
The Pelicans select Ziaire Williams with the 10th pick of the NBA draft, who will go to the Grizzlies as part of a trade.
Williams, a 6-foot-8 wing from Stanford, was a top-10 prospect coming out of high school but struggled as a freshman. He shot 37.4% from the field and 29.1% from 3-point range and scored in double figures just twice in the final two months of the season.
“Ziaire was [an] overly aggressive [choice] at 10,” one coach contended. “His production was so minimal at Stanford, both his efficiency and his efficacy. For him to jump some of those other guys and get into the top 10, that came as a surprise to me.”
Williams missed six games in the middle of the season and then the Pac-12 tournament due to deaths in his family, and Stanford had one of the more difficult coronavirus-impacted seasons of any team in the country. The Cardinal were essentially on the road from late November until late January because of Santa Clara County’s ban on team sports.
“I truly believe in his talent,” another coach said. “I think he does have a high character. It just comes down to how much stock are we putting into the most screwed up season in college basketball history? Especially for a freshman. Especially in Stanford’s situation, where they weren’t even on campus a lot of the time. You have to do your research. Do you believe in him as a person and as a player? His size, athleticism, skill combination is as good as any wing in the draft.”
Check out the highlights from former Alabama guard Joshua Primo.
Primo, who turned 18 on Christmas Eve, was the youngest player in college basketball last season. He reclassified from the 2021 class into 2020 toward the end of the final year of high school, and the 6-foot-6 wing showed flashes of why he had preseason hype entering college. But Primo’s final season averages were 8.1 points and 3.4 rebounds on 43.1% shooting.
He had a strong stretch in the middle of the season when he averaged 14.2 points in a six-game span, but put up 6.8 points in his final 13 games.
“I don’t think he showed enough in his one year at Alabama to garner lottery pick status, especially when you look up and down the SEC,” one opposing coach said. “When you scouted Alabama, it started with John Petty, it started with what you do with Herb Jones, then how do you contain [Jaden] Shackelford and [Jahvon] Quinerly off the bounce, then what you do against Alabama’s pick-and-pop. And then you finally get to Primo. But it’s age and projected upside. Not only is he young, but he physically looks young. He still has room to grow. And defensively, as the year went on, he became a significantly better defender.”
“Primo was a reach,” another coach added. “The scouting world really likes him because of his youth and his measurables and some of his testing, but in terms of actual on-court production, I don’t think he did as much as he’s been given credit for. There were guys that were more of a sure thing that could have helped San Antonio in the position they’re in right now. But Josh does have more upside than some of the guys who went later in the first round. He’s an unproven, higher-risk choice.”
SEC first-round power
Thursday was a good night for the SEC. The league had seven players selected in the first round, including six one-and-done selections. It was a surprise that Primo went first among the group, but Arkansas‘ Moses Moody (14), Florida‘s Tre Mann (18), Tennessee‘s Keon Johnson (21), Kentucky‘s Isaiah Jackson (22), LSU‘s Cameron Thomas (27) and Tennessee’s Springer (28) didn’t have to wait too much longer.
(No, we’re not counting Texas forward Kai Jones for the league just yet.)
“It’s a testament to the players, but it starts from the leadership up top,” one SEC coach said. “Athletic departments making basketball a priority. The SEC is seen as a football conference, but you look up and down the league, whether it’s [Rick] Barnes, [Eric] Musselman, [John] Calipari, Nate Oats — the coaching in the league, you can put up against any league in the country. The combination of leadership and coaching is a huge, huge part of why the league has been able to take such a big jump.”
Check out the highlights from former LSU guard Cameron Thomas.
Thomas is one player who generates differing points of view. One of the truly elite scorers in the draft, Thomas is the all-time leading scorer at legendary Oak Hill Academy, was one of the best pure scorers in the 2020 high school class and then went out and averaged 23.0 points during his one season at LSU.
“I think he’s a really, really good offensive player,” one coach in the league said. “He does an unbelievable job of being able to create fouls. He’s got a high release point where he draws fouls from guys walking under him, but it doesn’t really affect his shot. He does a great job, when he gets into the lane, he innately throws his head back, gets to the foul line two or three times a game just by utilizing that move. He’s going to be able to come into an NBA game tomorrow and get to the free-throw line and create his own shot.”
On the other hand, Thomas shot just 40.6% from the field, 32.5% from 3-point range and didn’t contribute much for the Tigers outside of his scoring. In order to be a consistent NBA starter, he’ll have to be more than just a bucket-getter.
“Cam Thomas has been a hard evaluation for a lot of people,” one opposing coach said. “He’s been an effortless scorer at every level. But that’s truly all he brings to the game. The NBA wants you to play the right way, share the ball, play good defense, understand the nuances of the NBA game. A lot of those things have been question marks for Cam throughout his career.”
The biggest surprise of the first round came with the final pick: Loyola Maryland forward Santi Aldama. Projected as a late second-rounder, Aldama is a Spain native who spent two seasons with the Greyhounds — where his teams finished eighth and ninth in the Patriot League.
But don’t write off Aldama just because of his lack of high-major pedigree. He’s a skilled 6-foot-11 power forward who averaged 21.1 points and 10.1 rebounds last season for Loyola. Aldama also had offers from powerhouse European clubs before coming to the United States in 2019, and was named MVP of the 2019 FIBA U18 European Championship — an award won by the likes of Tony Parker, Nicolas Batum, Enes Kanter, Jonas Valanciunas, Dario Saric, Frank Ntilikina and others.
“He’s gotten better and better,” one Patriot coach said. “At 6-foot-11, he has legitimate guard skills. Loyola’s Princeton offense is very positionless and fluid. I was watching them, one possession he comes off a pick-and-roll, makes a pocket pass to a roller. Next possession, he holds off a guy and makes a 10-foot floater. You’re not used to seeing that from 6-foot-11 guys, anywhere. He would do one thing a game where it was just like, holy crap. He’s so good off the bounce, so good inside, so you let him shoot and he makes 37% from 3. What can you do?”
“The one thing he’s really good at that people overlook is his passing,” another Patriot coach added. “He’s a really good passer. He can pick you apart. He figured out how to exploit our defense, make adjustments. If you’re drafting a guy based off potential, he has to be one of the top guys. He’s 7-feet tall, can shoot the basketball, pass the basketball. He played at a high level in Europe, played Division I basketball. They drafted him based off potential. He got better every single week. He just figures it out.”
There are going to be questions surrounding his level of competition. Aldama never played anyone outside the Patriot League during his two seasons at Loyola, due to an injury as a freshman and then the pandemic as a sophomore. He’s also just 215 pounds, with multiple Patriot coaches pointing to his strength and lack of physicality as potential issues at the next level.
“I thought it was a bad pick,” a third coach who scouted Aldama said. “He was incredibly productive, but if you actually watched the games, it was because he was bigger than everyone else on the floor. He was involved in every single play. He was able to accumulate these massive numbers against guys that were not as big, not as capable. They played Lafayette six times in a season. That’s just not real. I don’t think he shoots the ball that well. He scored in ways in college where there was no penalty for him missing — he played with a lot of freedom. Allowed for him to make some shots and look good some nights against smaller, inferior competition. He could’ve been gotten 20 picks later.”
Sharife Cooper’s fall
One of the more stunning draft-day drops was that of Auburn point guard Sharife Cooper. Projected as high as the top 10 back in February and finishing at No. 23 in ESPN’s final mock draft, Cooper was ultimately selected at No. 48 by the Atlanta Hawks.
Cooper wasn’t cleared to play as a freshman until Auburn’s 12th game of the season, but he then proceeded to put up numbers we haven’t seen since Trae Young — coincidentally, his new teammate in Atlanta. He averaged 20.2 points, 4.1 rebounds and 8.1 assists in 12 games, leading the league in usage rate, assist rate and fouls drawn in that span.
Check out highlights from Auburn point guard Sharife Cooper.
“You look at him from a sheer talent perspective, he’s one of the top 20-25 players in the draft,” one opposing coach said. “You have to wonder, with Auburn having the postseason ban, the couple games he didn’t get to play in the SEC tournament, he didn’t get to showcase what he could do on the highest level. He didn’t get cleared until SEC play. He didn’t get a chance to play Gonzaga. I think he’s got an unbelievable ability, especially in transition, to throw the advance pass. His first reaction is not to put the ball on the deck, but to look up and advance it with the pass. He does a really good job — Kentucky threw five or six different pick-and-roll coverages at him, he did a good job of adjusting on the fly. I think he’s got a high offensive basketball IQ. Another thing he does really well is get to the free throw line at a high rate.
“Once you get to Pick 25, 26, 27 and beyond, he’s worth taking a flier on because he’s so young, he did it in such an elite-level conference and he’s got enough transferable traits to the next level. He has to improve as a shooter, improve as a defender, but he can come in off the bench into an NBA game and at least be able to fill a role.”
Cooper, listed at 6-foot-1 and 180 pounds, had struggles shooting the ball as a freshman. He shot just 39.1% from the field and 22.8% from 3, while turning it over more than four times per game.
“He’s going to be an acquired taste,” one coach said. “Because of how many times he dribbles the ball, how much he needs the ball, is he good enough to play that way in the NBA? If you need the ball that much to be effective, you have to be the team’s best player.”
“He’s a spectacular talent with the ball, a wizard in the ball-screen and Trae has shown you can be 6-foot-1 and 165 pounds,” another coach said. “He’s just always been inefficient to me. His assists were more a product of, I have the ball the entire time, so five or six times a game I’m going to pass it to a guy and they’re going to make a shot. Passing guys open, rollers and shooters, I don’t see it with him. And he doesn’t try defensively. But I would’ve taken him at the back end of the first round.”
Good or bad night for the G League?
One of the storylines worth watching on Thursday night was the fate of the first G League Ignite class. The new G League pathway signed five-star prospects Jalen Green, Jonathan Kuminga, Isaiah Todd and Daishen Nix last spring, along with ESPN 100 prospect Kai Sotto. While Sotto ended up leaving to play for the Philippines in the FIBA Asia Cup qualifiers, the other four played in the G League bubble.
Green (2) and Kuminga (7) were selected in the top 10, as expected, while Todd (31) went earlier than expected in the second round. Nix and Sotto went undrafted.
Did Thursday night help or hurt the G League’s case for signing more elite high school prospects? According to college coaches, it was a bit of a wash.
Check out the highlights from former G League Ignite player Isaiah Todd.
“Last year when Jonathan Kuminga and Jalen Green made the decision to go into the G League, we all assumed they would be in this position a year later,” one college coach said. “To that extent, it worked. They didn’t want to go to college, they didn’t have to. They wanted to make a salary, train every day, play against pros, it worked out. Jalen Green wasn’t a great shooter, maybe if he goes to college, teams load up — maybe he looks bad. Maybe Kuminga struggles in college in a grind-it-out, half-court game. But it’s hard to say you’ll do better than second and seventh.
“Isaiah Todd shouldn’t have gone 31st, he should have gone 51st. He wasn’t good in the G League bubble. He would have benefited from going to Michigan, but it might have taken him two or three years. The other guys, Sotto and Nix, should’ve gone to college. As a result, they made mistakes. So if Jalen Duren wants to go to the G League, he’ll find himself in a similar position to Kuminga a year from now. Now some other guys, if they do the same thing, they’re gonna have the same kind of night as Nix. So it’s status quo. It didn’t not work. The two primary faces of the thing did great. If somebody said to you last year, ‘Isaiah Todd is going 31st,’ everybody would have signed up for that. But if this is going to be the path you’re going to take, you better be really good.”
“The ones who don’t want to go to college will look at it as a plus. The ones who are on the fence will probably look at it as a negative,” another coach added. “Daishen Nix wasn’t hurt by going to the G League, he was out of shape. Isaiah Todd got drafted higher than I thought. If you put Kuminga in college basketball and he did some freaky things, he could have gone in the top five. But I don’t think in general, it was a plus or minus. Now the focus becomes Cade Cunningham endorsement deals vs. Jalen Green endorsement deals — that will prove or disprove the value of college basketball.”
Top-10 recruits Jaden Hardy and Michael Foster are the headliners for the next class of G League Ignite prospects, while the pathway is also an option for elite recruits Emoni Bates and Jalen Duren.
Good picks, bad picks
“Davion Mitchell to the Kings was a good pick,” one said. “The Kings didn’t guard anybody last year. Now you have Mitchell, with De’Aaron Fox and Tyrese Haliburton. Fox should be a good defender, Mitchell should be an elite defender, frees up Haliburton to guard who he can guard. Makes them significantly better. Maybe small, but who cares?”
Check out highlights of Final Four Most Oustanding Player Jared Butler at Baylor as he heads to the 2021 NBA draft.
“Jared Butler is a f—ing amazing pick at 40. That’s my favorite pick of the second round,” another coach said. “If he’s healthy, I would’ve had him at 15-20. If [Butler’s reported medical condition] is a thing, then that’s a thing. But he’s a mid-first-round pick or at least a top-two-thirds-of-the-first-round guy. Great shooter, incredibly poised, very competitive, good pick-and-roll player, unselfish guy, winner, national champion. He’s awesome.”
North Carolina’s Day’Ron Sharpe was mentioned by multiple coaches as a good pick at No. 29.
“I like Day’Ron Sharpe,” one coach said. “He’s got more skill than people give him credit for, he’s athletic. I like him. He’s probably going to eventually show some ability to make 3s. Plays with force. Carolina has 15 big guys, so everyone gets their turn. He could’ve gone somewhere else in the ACC, averaged 22 and 12 and been a lottery pick.”
Check out the highlights from former UNC forward Day’Ron Sharpe.
“Day’Ron is who he is,” another said. “He’s different than Isaiah Stewart, but people gave Stewart a hard time for the measurable issues and shooting range, complaints about him, and he went out and was an all-rookie player. Although Day’Ron is different and not going to get the same sort of opportunity, he plays with a lot of fight on the glass, a lot of physicality and strength.”
“Ayo Dosunmu did everything he was supposed to do,” he said. “He dominated high school basketball in his area, stayed home for college, dominated there. Luka Garza won the award, but he was arguably the best player in the best conference, maybe the year before too. I know there’s questions about what he is, a point guard or a shooting guard, how consistent of a shooter, creator. All I know is he got everyone’s best shot in an incredible league and he stepped up every night. He’s an unbelievable competitor. Chicago made a great pick.”
Check out all the skills that make Ayo Dosunmu a top prospect in the 2021 NBA draft.
Bouknight was maybe the best pure scorer in the draft outside of Jalen Green, but after being projected to go as high as sixth, he was selected No. 11 by Charlotte.
“I’ve never seen a guy who shot 27% from 3, with 22 assists to 33 turnovers, has been hurt both in high school and college, and everybody is up in arms about him dropping,” one coach said of Bouknight. “He’s got to have the ball. I think he’s talented, but I can see why he dropped.”
“Did Bouknight really drop?” another coach asked. “He was ranked outside the top 70 in high school, two years later, he’s a borderline top 10 pick. I was surprised he fell out of the top 10. A guy like Ziaire Williams going above him surprised me. Franz Wagner is not better than Bouknight, him going above Bouknight surprised me.”
Check out the highlights of former UConn guard James Bouknight.
Murphy played just one season at Virginia after transferring from Rice, where he played for two seasons. In Charlottesville, Murphy averaged 11.3 points and shot 43.3% from 3. Combined with his length and 6-foot-9 size, he steadily rose up draft boards during the offseason and was picked No. 17 overall by the Pelicans.
“He was a really good catch-and-shoot player, but doesn’t do a whole lot off the dribble at all,” one ACC coach said. “I never got the sense he was a particularly tough guy. In space, in catch-and-shoot, when he can use his athleticism in the open floor and fly in on the glass some, that’s where he’s good. I couldn’t really get a great sense for him defensively. I know he’s got fluidity and moves well. Virginia is pretty traditional in the way they play defense, so it’s hard to read between the lines on where he’ll go as a defender. But if you didn’t let him get something easy in the open court and take away catch-and-shoots, I didn’t think he had anywhere else to go.”
Another debate-generating pick was the New York Knicks’ selection of Quentin Grimes at 25. The Houston guard helped lead the Cougars to the Final Four and was one of the best guards in the country last season. He was a top-10 recruit in the 2018 class but struggled at Kansas as a freshman before transferring to Houston.
“He kind of remade his game with Houston where he became a better defender, he improved his efficiency offensively, he was the AAC Player of the Year,” one coach said. “Houston’s a great program, they made a Final Four — but he has Houston next to his name instead of Kansas. If he had Kansas next to his name, maybe he goes 15 instead of 25. It was a good pick.”
Check out the highlights from former Houston guard Quentin Grimes.
“He doesn’t really separate, he didn’t play in a great conference,” another coach said. “I looked at him as more of a second-round pick.”
One coach pointed out the four-pick stretch from Nos. 19-22 is going to be interesting to follow from an upside perspective. Texas’ Kai Jones went at 19, followed by Jalen Johnson at 20, Keon Johnson at 21 and Isaiah Jackson at 22.
Check out highlights from versatile Texas big man Kai Jones.
“One of those four guys from 19-22 is going to hit,” he said. “Those four guys, all of those highly touted upside picks. I would say Jalen Johnson or Keon Johnson more than Kai and Isaiah. Jalen obviously has a lot of flaws and wasn’t particularly impressive as a freshman, but I think he was an exceptional 20th pick. Keon Johnson is more athlete than basketball player right now, but he’s a total freak. He has real defensive potential. He has the ability to improve as a shooter, and he needs to continue to do that. But he was a really smart pick at 21 for a playoff team.”
Some other picks that coaches liked:
Tre Mann, Florida (No. 18 to Oklahoma City): “He could be a really, really good pick. He has Kyrie Irving-esque handle. I know that’s blasphemous, but it’s his finishing package, his handle, his creativity.”
Jaden Springer, Tennessee (No. 28 to Philadelphia): “It sounds like Springer has really been working out well. He was boxier, more rough around the edges when he went to Tennessee, I was looking for more of a skill set. But he was working out well leading into the draft. He was worth a shot early.”
Herb Jones, Alabama (No. 35 to New Orleans): “He’s a guy that will play 8-10 years in the NBA. The negative on him is he was like a 1-4 on Alabama. He can guard 1-through-4 defensively and plays the point offensively. What’s his position? But he’s an elite-level defender and he can step into an organization and be one of their best 2-through-4 defenders. He just does a little bit of everything.”
Neemias Queta, Utah State (No. 39 to Sacramento): “I loved this pick. He’s an unbelievable rebounder, he can score with his back to the basket. He’s probably the best shot-blocker in the draft. He had a knee injury, so you worry about that, but had he come out after his freshman year, he would’ve been in this range. So you’re getting a value pick.”
Isaiah Livers, Michigan (No. 42 to Detroit): “The guy I’ve always felt was undervalued is Isaiah Livers. He’s 6-foot-7, can really shoot the ball, plays hard, rebounds. He’s never going to be a star, but like, can he be P.J. Tucker? Why not?”
Kessler Edwards, Pepperdine (No. 44 to Brooklyn): “I think he’s one of those guys that will stick in the NBA. He’s got the length, he’s got the prototypical length of a 3-and-D guy. Little bit of an awkward release on his 3-ball. But he had a hell of a combine and he’s able to increase his stock throughout that process.”
Filip Petrusev, Gonzaga (No. 50 to Philadelphia): “Two years ago, he was WCC Player of the Year. If he stuck around, I’m not saying he would’ve gone 15 like Corey Kispert, but if he stuck around, would his stock have gone through the roof like Kispert’s did?”
Jericho Sims, Texas (No. 58 to New York): He’s just a guy that has a tremendously high ceiling. Freak athlete. He can come in and affect the game on the defensive end of the floor. We’re talking about the 58th overall pick. He can not only make a team, but make a rotation.”
As far as undrafted players, multiple coaches mentioned Oklahoma’s Austin Reaves and Gonzaga’s Joel Ayayi as surprises.