The 2021 NBA Draft was filled with drama due to all kinds of trade rumors and the futures of multiple franchises hanging in the balance, but in the end, there were some clear winners and losers worth highlighting.
Check out which teams we believe won and lost the hardest on draft night.
NBA Draft winner: Detroit Pistons’ rebuild speeds up with No. 1 pick Cade Cunningham
Any time there’s a no-brainer pick at No. 1 overall, it takes some stress off, but the Pistons are actually headlining the winners of the 2021 NBA Draft for reasons beyond what just happened on Thursday evening.
With Cade Cunningham now in the fold, suddenly Detroit has a chance to make some serious noise in the East rather soon. Because the Pistons did so well in last year’s draft by acquiring Saddiq Bey and Isaiah Stewart, they have some great pieces in place — and that was with lottery pick Killian Hayes struggling through injuries as a rookie.
Cunningham is exactly the type of lead guard Detroit needed to take pressure off Hayes. The Pistons now have one of the longest guard tandems in the NBA, which is going to raise their defensive ceiling considerably. Jerami Grant is going to absolutely thrive with Cunningham and Hayes in place in Detroit’s backcourt.
NBA Draft loser: Toronto Raptors pass up Jalen Suggs for Scottie Barnes
The clear, easy, slam-dunk move for Toronto was to select Gonzaga guard Jalen Green No. 4 overall. However, the Raptors stunned everyone by taking Florida State forward Scottie Barnes instead.
Barnes does have excellent potential as a defender, yet he’s also a complete project in terms of shooting ability. He needs a lot of pieces around him to be successful, and while he can run the offense as a point forward, Barnes’ lack of a jumper limits him there.
Like, what was Toronto thinking here? This feels like a classic case of a team getting too cute. Kyle Lowry is hitting free agency and nearing the end of his career. Suggs was a great candidate to step in next to Fred VanVleet, and he’d be an incredible, cost-effective Lowry replacement.
Unless the Raptors have something else in mind, such as trading Pascal Siakam for a huge haul, this could be one of those moves that the franchise regrets looking back. Meanwhile, look for Suggs to be even more driven to thrive in the NBA after this.
NBA Draft winner: Cleveland Cavaliers may have landed biggest star in Evan Mobley
It made sense that the Houston Rockets went with Jalen Green at No. 2 overall, because he fits very well next to John Wall, and Christian Wood already gives the team plenty of firepower in the front court. Houston also wound up with three additional first-round choices.
All that said, sometimes it’s not about quantity of picks, but rather the quality. The Cavaliers made their only selection count — and had to be doing flips and cartwheels with USC big man Evan Mobley still on the board at No. 3 overall when it was their turn to pick.
Mobley might have the most potential of anyone in this 2021 class. He’s a 7-footer with guard-like ball-handling skills, and incredible versatility as an elite defender. He can dominate the paint on both ends of the court, or thrive as a playmaker on the perimeter.
Such an advanced all-around skill set and freakish physical tools give Mobley an edge other prospects don’t have. He’s also precisely what Cleveland needs in the post-LeBron James era. Mobley and Jarrett Allen up front, Isaac Okoro on the wing, and Darius Garland and Ricky Rubio at the guard spots give this team hope.
With Collin Sexton and Kevin Love probably getting traded at some point, Mobley is the type of player who can change the Cavs’ fortunes and attract other players to a city that’s not traditionally viewed as a premier free-agent destination.
NBA Draft loser: Golden State Warriors fail to pull off epic trade with 7th and 14th picks
It’s not so much that the Dubs whiffed in the draft, because NBA G League Ignite prospect Jonathan Kuminga seems like a fine pick at seventh overall, and Arkansas guard Moses Moody at No. 14 was a decent choice, too.
The Warriors are NBA Draft losers more because they couldn’t pull off a blockbuster trade with their package of assets. Trade rumors buzzed around Golden State leading up to draft night, but the team was forced to make picks instead.
For a team laden with veterans in Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green, this was the time for the Dubs to go all-in for a win-now move. It might’ve meant giving up on 2022 second overall pick James Wiseman or Andrew Wiggins sooner than they’d like, but another superstar could’ve been had.
Now, it’ll take something truly special for the Warriors to swing a big move at some other point this offseason. Look for them to be active on the sign-and-trade market in free agency.
NBA Draft winner: Orlando Magic scoop up Jalen Suggs as new face of the franchise
Well, this was probably predictable after the stunner the Raptors pulled. It seemed like Orlando was going to miss out on the consensus Big Four in this 2021 draft, winding up instead with Barnes or another unpolished wing like Jonathan Kuminga.
Now, the Magic have a real chance to build around Jalen Suggs. They may need to get rid of Markelle Fultz, and maybe that wasn’t the initial plan, but acquiring Suggs changes everything. Orlando also has young guards Cole Anthony and R.J. Hampton to work with.
Plus, with the eighth overall pick on Thursday, the Magic got to add another viable prospect to their youthful main core of Suggs, Fultz and Jonathan Isaac in Franz Wagner. The Michigan product is a versatile chess piece who still has room to grow as a perimeter shooter and can be a solid role player in the years to come.
Orlando has been notorious for botching the draft and generally treading water for many years. We might look back at Thursday’s draft as the turning point where the Magic dug themselves out of a huge rut.
NBA Draft loser: Oklahoma City Thunder still playing the long game
With the sixth, 16th and 18th overall picks in the draft, and Kemba Walker as a huge salary trade piece, the Oklahoma City Thunder are continuing to hoard draft capital and don’t appear intent on building a contender any time soon.
Australia prospect Josh Giddey is only 18 years old. He has a tantalizing skill set due to his 6-foot-8 frame and obvious ability to run the point. But when will Giddey pay off? It’s quite early to expect him to shine in the NBA, his Rookie of the Year campaign in the NBL notwithstanding.
Thunder general manager Sam Presti is probably frustrating the OKC fan base to no end with this perpetual tease of something special on the horizon. Presti traded the 16th pick to Houston, in yet another future-geared transaction.
Meanwhile, by the time Giddey, 18th overall pick Tre Mann and any other young Thunder players are ready to contribute, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander will probably be thriving elsewhere on a championship-caliber squad.
NBA Draft winner: James Bouknight, Kai Jones give Charlotte Hornets a huge spark
Let’s end on a high note. James Bouknight wasn’t the most efficient shooter at UConn. Part of the reason was the lack of help around him. Lots of highly contested field goal attempts. That won’t be as much of a problem in the NBA.
Bouknight fell a little further in the draft than expected, to No. 11 overall. No matter. He’ll embrace the opportunity to play on the Charlotte Hornets with reigning NBA Rookie of the Year LaMelo Ball, All-Star Gordon Hayward and Terry Rozier.
Since Ball and Rozier are pretty entrenched as starting guards, Bouknight is the ideal spark off the bench who can also work in plenty of minutes with the starters when he gets more comfortable. He’s also an excellent rebounding guard and brings a certain edge, toughness and explosiveness Charlotte will love to have.
As far as late lottery picks go, Bouknight is among the best-case scenarios the Hornets probably could’ve prepared for.
Then, Charlotte got even better up front in a trade with the New York Knicks for the 19th pick that got them Texas big man Kai Jones. He has so much more potential than outgoing free agents Cody Zeller and Bismack Biyombo, and will still have a capable mentor to learn from in Mason Plumlee.
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Author: Matt Fitzgerald