The 2021 NBA Draft is just days away, set for Thursday, July 29 at 8 p.m. ET.
With rumours flying around in the week leading up to the tentpole event, there are plenty of storylines to follow surrounding the teams in the lottery and top prospects in this year's class.
Take a look at some of the key topics to keep an eye on.
Biggest storylines of 2021 NBA Draft
Where the draft "begins"
Every year around the time of the draft, you'll hear the term "where the draft begins," which is code for, "where do things become less predictable?"
Less than a week out from draft night, it's becoming increasingly likely that the top four picks are set, with even the No. 5 pick appearing to take shape. The Detroit Pistons are believed to be locked in on Oklahoma State star Cade Cunningham with the No. 1 pick. After him, it appears as though the Houston Rockets will target G League Ignite guard Jalen Green with the No. 2 pick and the Cleveland Cavaliers are expected to seek out USC center Evan Mobley with the No. 3 pick.
The Toronto Raptors are the first wild card at No. 4, as reports have surfaced that they are weighing all of their options, from Gonzaga guard Jalen Suggs to Florida State forward Scottie Barnes and G League Ignite forward Jonathan Kuminga. I still believe they'll stand pat and select Suggs - the potential successor to franchise floor general Kyle Lowry.
With that being said, some could say the draft "begins" at pick No. 4 with the Raptors.
NBA DRAFT CENTRAL: 2021 NBA Draft Guide | Irving: 2021 NBA Mock Draft 2.0 | Most intriguing teams in the draft
Personally, I would say it "begins" at pick No. 6 with the Oklahoma City Thunder. The pairing between the rebuilding Orlando Magic and Florida State forward Barnes seems like a match made in heaven at No. 5, assuming the first four picks shake out as mentioned.
That leaves the Thunder, who have six picks (three of which are in the first 20 selections) in this year's draft, to get the unpredictability going.
Is No. 6 where G League Ignite forward Kuminga's slide stops? The 19-year-old prospect was once believed to be a lock for a top-five pick, with some seeing him as high as first overall at one point after a blazing start to the G League bubble. Oklahoma City has also been rumoured to be a huge fan of UConn guard James Bouknight, who has rapidly increased his draft stock during the pre-draft process after flashing his elite athleticism, clean shooting stroke and deep shot-creating bag at the Draft Combine and at individual workouts.
While the Raptors could shake things up as early as No. 4, look for the Thunder to get the madness going on draft night at pick No. 6.
Which teams could be on the move?
With that being said, who better to be on the move than the team that has 36 (!) draft picks over the next seven years?
While it doesn't seem as though any team in the top three is willing to move back for extra draft compensation, who knows what could happen if the Thunder start waving around future first-round picks like it's nothing.
For a team that is clearly set on building for the future, with more draft picks than they would be able to retain on a roster, it's only a matter of time before they start lumping them together to take a big home run swing on a top prospect or certified star to pair with players like Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Luguentz Dort. Why not as soon as this season?
Another team to look out for is the Golden State Warriors. With two picks in this year's lottery (Nos. 7 and 14), the team that is just three years removed from a dynastic run with a rapidly closing championship window could look to sell both of those selections to a rebuilding team for a more solidified piece to complement Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green. There will certainly be a promising young player available at No. 7, whereas No. 14 could be used on a stabilizing piece for rebuilding teams.
Pairing those two picks with, say, a player like last year's No. 2 overall pick James Wiseman, could land the Warriors a big name to make a few more title runs before their star trio fizzles out.
One deal has already reportedly been made, with the New Orleans Pelicans sending Steven Adams, Eric Bledsoe, picks Nos. 10 and 40 in this year's draft and a 2022 protected first-round pick (via LAL) to the Memphis Grizzlies in return for Jonas Valanciunas and picks Nos. 17 and 51 in this year's draft. It appears as though the Grizzlies have their eyes set on a player at No. 10 that they do not believe will fall to No. 17, so the question shifts to, "who is that player?"
Also, will this set off a domino effect of deals before the draft?
If so, a few other teams to watch out for: the Orlando Magic (picks Nos. 5 and 8), Sacramento Kings (pick No. 9), New York Knicks (picks Nos. 19 and 21) and Houston Rockets (picks Nos. 2, 23 and 24).
The Magic, Knicks and Rockets are all teams that could look to package their multiple picks to move up in the draft, if they can find a suitor. The Kings have been reportedly looking to move back or out of the draft to acquire a more established piece to expedite their next playoff appearance.
Ranging prospects: Risers and fallers
One thing that makes the 2021 NBA Draft class so unique is outside of the top four prospects, the group of the next 20-or-so players has a range of volatility like you've never seen before.
As mentioned, G League Ignite forward Kuminga was once a lock for a top-five pick but could now see his name slide to the 7-to-10 range. Players like UConn guard Bouknight were once seen to be closer to the late-lottery, early-20s range and are now reportedly being considered as early as No. 6 to the Thunder. Turkish star center Alperen Sengun is considered a top-10 pick to some but outside of the lottery to others. Someone like Stanford freshman Ziaire Williams could find his name in the late 20s on some Mock Draft boards, but there are also reports that have surfaced that the Magic could be interested in the development project as early as No. 8. Australian jumbo guard Josh Giddey was once questioned as a lottery pick but now seems to be a lock to go in the top-14.
Then there's the group of upperclassmen who are being considered in the lottery in this draft - something that is uncharacteristic in this day and age. Gonzaga's Corey Kispert, Baylor's Davion Mitchell, Oregon's Chris Duarte and Virginia's Trey Murphy III are all in the mix to be selected earlier than usual for players their age because all four have the potential to come in, contribute and fill a role immediately at the next level.
And if some prospects' stock are rising, others have to be falling.
Someone like Tennessee's Keon Johnson could have found his name just outside the top-five during one point of this draft process but is now falling to the back-end of the lottery and potentially even further than that. The same could be said for Duke's Jalen Johnson.
All of this to say: after the first handful of picks, be prepared for chaos when it comes to trying to predict where some of these players might land. Don't be surprised when a "top-10" player falls to the 20s or when a player that was a "fringe first-rounder" all of a sudden becomes a lottery pick.
It'll make for a thrilling viewing experience.
Teams to watch outside of the lottery
Although the draft is typically about rebuilding teams adding potentially franchise-altering talents to brighten their future, we can't forget about the contenders with picks late in the first round, looking to add pieces to take a step closer toward a title.
As already mentioned, the Knicks have two picks (Nos. 19 and 21) that they could package to either move up in the draft or move out of the draft and add an established piece to build on their impressive past season. With a newfound culture and cap space at hand, New York could use the draft to try and enter its name in the conversation for some of the stars who are rumoured to be available on the trade market.
The Atlanta Hawks are another team to keep an eye on, as the Eastern Conference runner-ups will have a lot of pressure to replicate the Cinderella run they made this past season. With some tough decisions on the horizon - headlined by an extension for superstar Trae Young and the pending restricted free agency of rising star John Collins - the Hawks are reportedly shopping some of their younger assets, like former No. 10 overall pick Cam Reddish, to avoid having to pay up on all their young talent.
Could they be a potential suitor for a team with multiple picks looking to add more mature pieces?
Lastly, the Los Angeles Lakers are always worth highlighting. With the No. 22 overall pick, will the Lakers stand pat and try to add a prospect that would complement their core of LeBron James and Anthony Davis? Or will that pick be used to fluff up a trade package for an established player who better suits their win-now timeline?
Los Angeles has reportedly already been very active on the trade market and with draft night typically marking the offseason's first day of big moves, expect the 2020 NBA champions to be working the phones all night to take a step closer to title contention once again.
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