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Cunningham Headlines 2021 NBA Draft Class

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Cade Cunningham on the red carpet during the NBA Draft at the Barclays Center on July 29, 2021 in New York. (Arturo Holmes/Getty Images/TNS)

By Anthony Clark Jr.

The 2021 NBA Draft took place on Thursday, July 29, with the draft order and last-minute trades raising a few questions along the way.

Prior to the official start of the draft, the Detroit Pistons (unsurprisingly) made the decision to use their No. 1 pick to select Oklahoma State University’s Cade Cunningham. The 6-foot-8 guard averaged 20.1 points, 6.2 rebounds, and 3.5 assists per game in his first and only season for OSU, making him a highly targeted draftee.

The Pistons also selected the University of Michigan’s Isaiah Livers (42nd) and the University of Iowa’s Luka Garza (52nd); two offensive threats that offer fresh legs and leadership qualities to a young roster. The selection of Cunningham and two bonus components may have given a small sense of hope to D-Town fans. The organization has only clinched one-winning season since the 2007-08 season (2015-16). Pairing Cunningham with verteran forward Jerami Grant could allow the surrounding cast to fill the remaining holes while led by talented shot creators.

Oklahoma State’s Cade Cunningham during an NCAA Tournament game against Oregon State at Hinkle Fieldhouse in Indianapolis on March 21, 2021. (Andy Lyons/Getty Images/TNS) TNS

As the No. 1 prospect for the 2020 recruiting class, Jalen Green was anticipated to commit to a prominent Division I university. However, the consensus five-star recruit shocked basketball fans with his decision to join the NBA G League Ignite – a professional pathway team structured as a development program. The program allows “elite players” to undergo development (and earn a salary) while they wait to become eligible for the NBA draft, instead of partaking in a one-and-done year of college ball.

There was hardly any doubt Green would maintain his status as a future lottery pick, which subsequently became a fact as the Houston Rockets used their No. 2 pick to draft the skilled guard. The Rockets also traded a future draft pick to snag the Turkish League MVP, Alperen Şengün; a 6-foot-10 phenom that adds more depth to a roster full of potential. This gives Houston two spark plug players (with professional experience) off the bench into the mix of Christian Wood, John Wall, Kevin Porter Jr., and company – barring any unforeseen trades.

Since the (second) LeBron James era came to an end, the Cleveland Cavaliers’ stock has plummeted. In the midst of a massive rebuild, the Cavs utilized their No. 3 pick to select Evan Mobley from the University of Southern California. The one-and-done 7-footer averaged 16.4 points and 8.7 rebounds per game on a 57.8% field goal rate. Mobley’s presence off the bench could give a boost to the starting cast’s paint efficiency on both ends of the floor, but the team has a long road ahead of them to regain their respect as playoff contenders.

Scottie Barnes was selected as the No. 4 pick by the 2019 NBA World Champion, Toronto Raptors, to the surprise of some. However, the lengthy defensive presence and court vision of Florida State University’s star forward was recognized and rewarded. The Raptors also made history by drafting their first-ever Canadian to the organization from the University of Nebraska, Dalano Banton (46th), and used the very next pick to select David Johnson (47th) from the University of Louisville.

The Raptors could be considered as an organization in the middle of an identity crisis, as the last three seasons have been nothing short of a rollercoaster ride. The team went from first-time world champions, to an upsetting second-round exit in the 2020 playoffs, to placing 12th overall in the Eastern Conference in the 2020-21 season (24th of 30 teams overall). The addition of these draftees has the potential to provide depth inside the perimeter and more respect on the defensive end.

Gonzaga University’s Jalen Suggs was a player that was projected to be a top-three lottery pick, but instead fell a few places lower in the draft order. The No. 5 pick for the Orlando Magic was part of the historic 2020-21 season for the Zags as he averaged 14.4 points, 5.3 rebounds, and 4.5 assists per game (50.3% FG). Drafting Suggs and Michigan’s Franz Wagner (8th pick) adds two skilled players with leadership qualities to an organization undergoing an immense rebuilding process.

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver paused the draft in order to take a moment to recognize the death of Terrence Clarke. The former University of Kentucky player was expected to declare for the 2021 draft but died in a car crash in April 2021.

“Please know that he (Clarke) will forever be part of the NBA family,” Silver said moments before drafting Clarke as an honorary selection between the 14th and 15th picks.

Of course, these draftees are not the only ones who are owed their recognition for being part of the less than 2% of college athletes that enter a draft each year and turn professional – but the list is far too large to deconstruct at once.

An entire recap of the draft results can be found here.

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