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2021 draft profiles: A clear top-6

While unlikely the C’s trade their way up, there are six prospects who make this a potentially elite draft class

NCAA Basketball: Big 12 Conference Tournament-Oklahoma State vs Texas Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

Draft season is upon us, ladies and gentlemen. It’s that time where hot takes, exhaustive rankings, unfounded rumors and jumping to conclusions off little information is the daily routine.

For Boston Celtics fans, it also marks the first NBA Draft in 18 years where Danny Ainge isn’t seated at the head of the table. Brad Stevens slides down a few seats, tasked now with constructing a roster built to win around Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. Stevens knows the cupboard isn’t bare and there’s a clear playoff team here, which is why he moved out of the first round to offload Kemba Walker and make aggressive moves this summer.

That doesn’t mean the Celtics will stay out of the first round, though. Other moves or deals could be on the horizon. Which players stand out as potential fits to trade back in for? What positions do they need? Between now and the NBA Draft on July 29th, we’ll bring you answers to all those questions. We recently set the table for this discussion by previewing some of the Celtics' most glaring needs this summer.

Despite the fact Boston has little cache to trade into the elite tiers of this draft, I think it’s prudent to stop at the top of this draft and examine the clear-cut top-six prospects in the class. That tier could impact the Celtics in two ways. First, the slew of draft day trades from franchises trying to trade into those spots means other first-round selections could be on the move, changing hands and provide an opportunity for the C’s to get back into the top-30.

Second, the big trade chip the Celtics currently possess is the remaining $11 million on the Gordon Hayward trade exception. While the rest was used on Evan Fournier (and the Celts are likely to do whatever they must to retain him), that $11 million is ideal for bringing in another veteran. Players may become available if their franchise seeks to trade into this top tier and would need to clear salary space to do so. Suddenly, the C’s become a great partner and option to offload a proven veteran onto.

In comparison to prior drafts, this year’s group has an awful lot of star power. At the top are six guys, all of whom would make a strong case to go first overall last year. It’s been since 2018 with DeAndre Ayton, Luka Doncic and Trae Young that so many budding superstars are available in the same year. While this class doesn’t have an absence of depth, its highlighting factor is the strength of that top-six. Landing one of those picks changes a franchise, while being in the 8-to-14 range could bring a relatively disappointing return.

Cade Cunningham - 6’8” wing, Oklahoma State

By all accounts, Cade Cunningham is the runaway top selection in this year’s draft. A prolific passer, the modern build of Cade’s game is tailored for NBA success. He’s a tall, long alpha who functions as a point guard. With a 7’0” wingspan, excellent fundamentals and solid strength, he creates offense in a variety of ways — through the pick-and-roll, in isolations, off post-ups, in transition and spotting up from 3.

There’s a hybrid of Grant Hill and Luka Doncic in his game, blending cerebral high-IQ passing with polished, clutch shot-making.

Going into his freshman season at Oklahoma State, the big question mark for Cade was his 3-point shooting range. He answered those doubts by shooting 40% from 3 on 5.7 attempts per game. He was top-five in the nation in scoring despite being the sole focus of every scouting report. He carried a subpar Cowboys roster to the NCAA Tournament and first-round victory.

Assist numbers don’t do Cade’s passing justice. He is instantly one of the better playmakers from the moment he steps into the NBA. College teammates missed shots or turned over gift-wrapped opportunities in ways that dragged down his passing metrics. There’s little downside to taking a polished, big guard with the first overall pick. Expect Cade to be off the board first to whichever team is fortunate enough to snag him.

Jalen Green - 6’5” guard, G-League Ignite

After Cade, the race for number two is on. Jalen Green impressed enough in the G-League bubble to be a legitimate candidate for the designation and has the highest shot-making ceiling of anyone in this group. An elite athlete both in terms of his vertical posterizing and blazingly quick first step, Green puts defenders in a no-win position. Play off him and he’ll drill jumpers, shooting 36% from 3-point range inside the G-League bubble, with most shots coming off the dribble.

Play him tight and he’ll blow past his man, something he did routinely against already-proven NBA athletes and G-League competition. He has the potential to be an elite finisher due to his leaping ability and coordination, as well as one of the most jaw-dropping step-back scorers in the league:

Green’s upside is only marred by the lack of consistency to his playmaking for others. He’s certainly a score-first option, and with the tools he’s shown, the lack of polished passing isn’t a reason to pass on him. If drafted into a situation where he’s given the keys to an offense right away, Green will immediately be on Celtics fans radar atop an opposing team’s scouting report.

Jonathan Kuminga - 6’8” forward, G-League Ignite

The other top-five prospect to forgo college for the NBA pathways program, Jonathan Kuminga seems to be most firmly entrenched at the fifth spot on most consensus boards. Kuminga’s performance inside the G-League bubble was inconsistent at times but showed incredible flashes that draw him comparisons to names like Kawhi Leonard and Pascal Siakam. At 6’8” with a 6’11” wingspan, strong physique and alpha scoring traits, there’s a ton to like about what he brings to the table.

At 18 years old and one of the youngest players in this draft, seeing the upside in Kuminga despite his inconsistent G-League play is why he’s considered in this top tier of prospect.

The shot-making in the low post is made for playoff basketball. He’s polished with post moves, loves to play one-on-one in the mid-range areas, has long strides to take guys off the bounce and, most importantly, draws a ton of fouls. The jump shot is relatively unproven, but strong reviews about his work ethic and character give confidence that he’ll be passable at worst.

With so much raw upside, Kuminga is the ideal fit for a team entering a rebuild, with patience to develop him and the opportunity to give him steady playing time. It’s hard to envision him slipping past the 5th spot in the draft, although that could become one heavily brought up in trade talks.

Evan Mobley - 7’0” post big, USC

Think of evaluating NBA big men like searching for a “five-tool” baseball player. In the modern NBA, those five tools for centers are rare: rim protection, switchability on defense, pick-and-roll finishing, top-of-the-key playmaking and 3-point shooting. Very few bigs possess all five.

Evan Mobley has shown flashes and potential in all five categories. While he may never be a 20-point per game scorer or true offensive hub, the rarity of his combination of skills makes him an instantly intriguing top pick. Combine that with the amount of defensive polish he’s already shown and some team will take a chance on him becoming the franchise anchor of the future.

Defense is where Mobley stands out most. He blocks a ton of shots, can be used in many different pick-and-roll coverages and showed an ability to guard smaller guys for stretches. His mobility has even drawn comparisons to Anthony Davis and give some analysts hope that he can play the 4 and not solely be stuck at the 5.

On the offensive end, I’d say Mobley’s best skill is the off-the-dribble playmaking potential. He can thrive in the open floor by pushing the ball after a rebound, finding open shooters off the short roll or taking his man one-on-one. If the jumper extends out to 3-point range and he starts creating his own shot, look out: Mobley will be a terror who is worthy of those lofty A.D. comparisons.

Jalen Suggs - 6’4” point guard, Gonzaga

An underemphasized part of the pre-draft process is on finding winners. That “it” factor is hard to describe or quantify, but some guys just have it.

Jalen Suggs has been such a winner, propelling Gonzaga to a nearly unbeaten season and coming up with clutch play after clutch play when their season was on the line. His individual numbers weren’t breathtaking, as he played in the balanced Zags offense that set record after record this year and rarely played over 30 minutes a night in conference action. What Suggs can boast is being an elite pick-and-roll guard, a trait that should see his skills pop even further in the NBA.

The pace Suggs plays with is hard to replicate. He has tremendous burst whenever there’s a small opening in the lane; while he isn’t an insane above-the-rim dunker, there’s something reminiscent of a young Derrick Rose in how hard he attacks the hoop. Surround Suggs with shooters and give him the keys to a pick-and-roll offense and he’ll make the right play nine times out of ten.

The knock on Suggs has been his outside shooting, as he finished the season only 33.7% from deep. The first half of the season, he was above 36% and only a subpar NCAA tournament performance dragged down his percentages. The saving grace for the ultimate competitor is that he’s a tremendous perimeter defender. Blessed with lateral quickness and tremendous instincts, Suggs will at worst be a physical guard who can play multiple spots. He could go anywhere from 2nd to 5th on Draft Night.

Scottie Barnes - 6’9” athlete, Florida State

There really isn’t a good label for Scottie Barnes other than “athlete.” The guy is a physical freak of nature, standing 6’9” with a 7’2” wingspan and elite combinations of speed and vertical athleticism. Barnes has snuck himself into this top group with a unique combination of skills to blend with that athleticism and chiseled frame. This past year at Florida State, he functioned as the team’s de facto point guard.

Barnes makes terrific passes to involve others and has a ton of upside as a pick-and-roll creator. He’s fantastic in transition, pushing in the open floor after cleaning the glass. There’s a baby Giannis Antetokounmpo element to his game, thanks to the similar physical tools and ability to function as the top creator in an offense.

However, Barnes and Giannis have the same fatal flaw: their jump shot. Scottie was 4-19 on dribble jumpers and only shot 30.8% on catch-and-shoots. It’s a really tough skill to lack, though the development plan of watching Giannis win MVP awards without one means there’s a chance Scottie can take over games without it. The combination of those factors has propelled a guy once outside this top-five into legitimate discussions to leapfrog a guy or two on July 29th.

Barnes projects as a multi-positional forward who can guard 1 thru 4 without problem and should be fine guarding smaller 5’s. He picks up the ball far from the basket and isn’t afraid to pressure, slides his feet with elite guards and has great instincts to challenge shots or swipe for on-ball steals. Even if the offense doesn’t pan out, there’s a pretty high floor for a guy who impacts the game like that on defense.

The Celtics would be incredibly fortunate to have one of these guys fall into their lap, though the likelihood of me marrying Kate Upton is greater than that happening. Still, there will be plenty of other suitors calling around the league to trade into this elite tier of prospects. One domino could fall to impact how the Celtics approach this summer, free agency and their $11 million trade exception.

This tier of prospects really is that good.

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