The 2021 NBA Draft is almost here, set for Thursday, July 29.
This tentpole event is monumental for a handful of NBA franchises looking to brighten their future, with some hoping to take a step closer to contending for a title and others aiming to find a franchise cornerstone or promising complementary piece in a rebuild.
But which teams are the most intriguing in this year's NBA Draft?
There were six franchises that stuck out to me for various reasons, so I ordered them in tiers below. Take a look at the teams with the most to gain in this year's draft.
Getting back to title contention
Picks: Nos. 4, 46 and 47
Toronto's streak of eight consecutive playoff appearances was snapped in what was a turbulent 2020-21 season. After a favourable draw in the NBA Draft Lottery, the Raptors snuck their way up to the No. 4 overall pick in the 2021 NBA Draft, immediately becoming one of the most interesting teams on this marquee night.
Although the Raptors finished this season with one of the league's worst records, they're not exactly in a rebuild. With key, young pieces like Fred VanVleet, Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby all under contract for the foreseeable future, Toronto is in place to remain in the hunt for years to come, and adding a top-five talent will only help its case.
With Kyle Lowry set to hit unrestricted free agency, that No. 4 pick could act as a safety blanket. My Mock Draft board (and just about every other Mock Draft board you can find) projects the Raptors to target Gonzaga freshman guard Jalen Suggs with their first-round pick, as the perfect successor to Lowry should he leave in free agency.
But if Toronto's front office knows something the masses don't in regards to Lowry's free agency plan, it could always go with versatile two-way wings like G League Ignite's Jonathan Kuminga or Florida State freshman Scottie Barnes, both of whom would be strong skill and culture fits with the Raptors and head coach Nick Nurse.
If the Raptors make the right play with this selection, they could find themselves right back in the mix as a top team in the East as soon as next season.
Golden State Warriors
Picks: Nos. 7 and 14
The question of the draft just might be, "what do the Warriors do with their two first-round picks?"
Just a year ago, we saw Golden State opt to keep its No. 2 overall pick, selecting an athletic center in James Wiseman. The 19-year-old had some promising moments during an injury-riddled rookie season, but a torn meniscus cut his campaign short and he didn't turn out to be the ceiling raiser the Warriors had hoped he could be in Year 1. That, along with All-Star guard Klay Thompson suffering another season-ending injury before training camp even started, resulted in Golden State missing the playoffs for the second consecutive year, falling in the Play-In Tournament.
That explains the No. 14 overall selection, but because of the trade in 2020 that sent All-Star guard D'Angelo Russell to the Timberwolves in exchange for Andrew Wiggins and a first-round pick, the Warriors lucked into Minnesota's selection (No. 7) this year.
With Thompson expected to return for the start of next season, Golden State's title window is now cracked open again, although it may be closing fast with all three members of its core now in their 30s.
With that in mind, will a team looking to make one last championship push really use two lottery picks on young prospects after seeing how that unfolded last season? It's hard to believe the answer is yes, which is why we've already seen rumors about packaging their picks and Wiseman to get established players that fit around Thompson, Stephen Curry and Draymond Green.
If the Warriors elect to stay put (at both or either picks), I love the idea of them selecting reliable upperclassmen like Baylor's Davion Mitchell or Gonzaga's Corey Kispert.
If they end up moving those picks, that could end up being the story of the draft, depending where they send them and who they get in return.
On the fringe of something special
New York Knicks
Picks: Nos. 19, 21, 32 and 58
I'm surprised the Knicks aren't getting more attention in this upcoming draft.
After a stunning season that saw their seven-year playoff drought come to an end, New York appears to be closer to a complete product than one would have thought. Now that the Knicks have established themselves as a tough, hard-nosed team with some promising pieces in place, don't be surprised if they become a free agent destination in the near-future. And with two first-round picks and one early second-round pick in this year's draft, they have an opportunity to add more young talent to their growing roster.
We didn't see all that much from Obi Toppin, the No. 8 pick in the 2020 NBA Draft, in his rookie season, but it's clear the Knicks hit on pick No. 25 with Immanuel Quickley. Can they repeat that late-first-round magic this year?
Regardless of unrestricted free agent Derrick Rose's decision, it became clear in the playoffs that New York could use more scorers, shooters and offensive initiators. Luckily for the Knicks, there's plenty of players who fit that mold in the late teens and early 20s.
Prolific scoring LSU freshman guard Cameron Thomas would be an ideal selection for the Knicks, but they would also be wise to look at Baylor junior guard Jared Butler, who was just recently cleared to play after entering the NBA's "Fitness-to-Play Panel" due to a heart condition earlier in the draft process. Oregon senior wing Chris Duarte would also be a strong fit, both in terms of need and culture, as an NBA-ready 3-and-D prospect.
New York will have options at Nos. 19 and 21. If it can hit on at least one of those picks, it will take another step closer to contending sooner rather than later.
Picks: Nos. 5, 8 and 33
You might be thinking, "Orlando? On the fringe of something special?" But hear me out.
If the Magic can go 2-for-2 on their two top-10 picks, this team will be in the mix in the East before you know it. That's what makes them so intriguing in this year's draft.
Trading All-Star center Nikola Vucevic to the Chicago Bulls at the deadline earned Orlando a protected first-round pick, which conveyed at the Draft Lottery, giving it the No. 8 overall pick, in addition to its own No. 5 overall pick.
The Magic will look to add two top-10 talents to a young core of promising players that includes Jonathan Isaac (who tore his ACL in the bubble, carrying over into this past year), Markelle Fultz (who tore his ACL eight games into this season), Wendell Carter Jr., Cole Anthony, Chuma Okeke, Mo Bamba and RJ Hampton, all of whom are under the age of 24.
So who will they select with these picks?
Orlando is in a tricky spot in the draft. If things fall into place the way it's projected to, it will be faced with one of the most pivotal decisions in the first round. Will it be Kuminga or Barnes at No. 5? Or will one of those two get surprisingly selected in the top four, leaving the Magic with the option of picking a player they didn't expect to be available?
Luckily for the Magic, they're still within the top tier of prospects at pick No. 5 and no matter how things shake out ahead of them, they will land a player who is expected to one day reach All-Star status.
At No. 8, however, they could go a handful of different routes. Will they make a safe play for players like the aforementioned Mitchell or Kispert? Should they roll the dice and target a high-risk, high-reward prospect like Tennessee's Keon Johnson or UConn's James Bouknight? Don't sleep on them reaching a bit for an NBA-ready 3-and-D player like Arkansas' Moses Moody, either.
It's going to be interesting to see what Orlando's roster looks like after the first 10 picks of the draft.
The start of a rebuild
Picks: Nos. 2, 23 and 24
Unless the Detroit Pistons shock the NBA universe and don't select Cade Cunningham with the No. 1 overall pick, the draft really begins at No. 2 with the Rockets. There, they'll make by far the hardest decision in the draft, likely choosing between USC center Evan Mobley and G League Ignite guard Jalen Green.
MORE: Mobley or Green? And other pressing questions in the 2021 NBA Draft
Mobley is a mobile and versatile interior threat on both ends of the floor, giving the Rockets their frontcourt of the future. Thanks to his ability to play the four and the five, he would fit in seamlessly with Christian Wood, who is coming off of a breakout season that saw him average 21.0 points and 9.6 rebounds per game. As for Green, he would give Houston a prolific perimeter scorer that it so desperately needs.
In my opinion, if Green and Mobley each reach their full potential, Green will be the bigger star, so that's why I would lean toward the Ignite guard at No. 2 if I was making the decisions for the Rockets. But who they select at No. 2 could have an earthquake-like impact on the rest of the lottery.
And then they also have two more picks, Nos. 23 and 24, where they'll look to bolster their roster for the future. With Houston's need to acquire talent at every position, you'd have to assume it'll go with whoever it believes to be the two best players available there, but it wouldn't hurt to take a roll of the dice with one and a safer option with an established role with the other.
Regardless, the Rockets rebuild begins as soon as they make their selection at No. 2.
Oklahoma City Thunder
Picks: Nos. 6, 16, 18, 34, 36 and 55
And last but not least, the draft pick-hoarding Thunder, who will have a league-high six picks in the 2021 NBA Draft.
Things didn't pan out the way they had hoped, falling outside of the top five, but the Thunder will still have a high-upside player remaining at No. 6 - they will likely get whoever is left from the Cunningham, Mobley, Green, Suggs, Kuminga and Barnes crowd, and there's really no bad options there for a rebuilding team that could use help at every position.
Assuming it's between Kuminga and Barnes, both would fit perfectly next to Shai Gilgeous-Alexander as one of the headliners of this historic rebuild. With 36 (!) picks over the next seven years, expect the Thunder to be aggressive in taking chances on some development projects who could potentially turn into stars down the line.
Names like international prospects Turkey's Alperen Sengun and Spain's Usman Garuba are two that come to mind immediately, should they be available at picks Nos. 16 and 18. I also like Stanford freshman forward Ziaire Williams, a former five-star prospect and top-10 ranked player in his high school class, as a high-risk, high-reward option for OKC at one of those two slots.
The Thunder are going to be taking a lot of swings in the draft over the next few years. Let's see how many home runs they can hit.
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