With the draft less than two weeks away, NBA gossip is getting louder, particularly when it comes to the top half of the lottery.
Let’s start with the first pick. This week there were reports that the Rockets, who hold the no. 2 pick, may want to trade up to no. 1, currently held by the Detroit Pistons. Houston would love to select Cade Cunningham, a 6-foot-8 playmaker from Oklahoma State. But league sources have emphasized in recent days that it’s highly likely the Pistons will just stay put and take Cunningham.
Teams think Cunningham will go first, whether or not a trade were to happen. But the selection at no. 2 will cause ripple effects throughout the draft. Will the Rockets’ choice be Jalen Green, a 6-foot-5 scorer who played in the G League? Evan Mobley, a versatile big man out of USC? Jalen Suggs, a floor general from Gonzaga? Or will they trade down?
League sources say the Rockets prefer Green. Selecting him would make perfect sense: Not only is scoring a premium skill, he’s also flashed playmaking ability. Green is raw, but the Rockets have a young team that doesn’t need to worry about contending anytime soon. He’s a hard worker, and at just 19 years old, he’s only starting to tap into his full potential as an elite athlete with shot-creation skills. It would not be a shocker if he ends up as this draft’s best player.
Though Mobley and Suggs remain in consideration, teams are planning for scenarios in which Houston will pick Green. But it’s Mobley who’s ranked second on the draft boards of most executives, scouts, and draft analysts. He has the potential to be a multi-positional defender who can switch on the perimeter or anchor the paint, while also having flexibility as a scorer and passer on offense. To some scouts, Mobley is a can’t-miss prospect.
The Cavaliers have the third pick, and Mobley could be a perfect fit next to Jarrett Allen in their frontcourt. It has been reported that the Cavs are exploring trades involving point guard Collin Sexton; if he got flipped, drafting another guard in Green or Suggs would be reasonable. But if Mobley is available, the Cavs might just take him and call it a night.
If not, the Raptors, picking fourth, could add Mobley to their young core of OG Anunoby, Pascal Siakam, and Fred VanVleet. Suggs would also work great in Toronto as a replacement for or successor to Kyle Lowry—he has a similar game, with clutch shot-making and hard-nosed defense.
Teams around the league consider picks 2, 3, and 4 as target spots for clubs looking to trade up. Since 1980, teams with a top-five pick have traded down 14 times. It has happened twice recently. In 2017, there was the Fultz-Tatum trade, wherein the Celtics sent the no. 1 pick to the Sixers for no. 3 and a 2019 Kings first. And in 2018, there was of course the Luka-Trae deal, in which Atlanta flipped no. 3 to Dallas and received no. 5 and a first in 2019. The basic construction of the deal is a nearby pick, plus another pick or a young player. That was true even in 1980, when the Celtics sent the top pick, Joe Barry Carroll, and the 13th pick to the Warriors for the third pick (which was used to select Kevin McHale) and a 27-year-old Robert Parish.
With teams like Orlando, Oklahoma City, and Golden State having multiple first-round picks in this upcoming draft, executives aren’t ruling out anything yet, but there’s always more talk than there is action. No matter who’s picking where, the top four seems solidified with Cunningham, Mobley, Green, and Suggs going in some order.
Jonathan Kuminga, ranked fifth on most big boards after playing one season in the G League alongside Green, has been scarcely mentioned in league circles as a favorite to be selected by Orlando or Oklahoma City. Could he slip seventh to the Warriors? Kuminga is a high-upside prospect—an elite 6-foot-6 athlete who flashes advanced shot-creation abilities. But he’s a raw shooter and a ball stopper who needs to be better at playing within the offense. Still, teams willing to take a risk could be rewarded down the line if he’s able to refine those skills. At his size, with his fluidity and moments of brilliance, the wait could be worth it.
Golden State doesn’t have much time, though. With Stephen Curry and Draymond Green welcoming the return of Klay Thompson, the Warriors are gearing up to pursue another championship. League sources say Golden State is exploring all opportunities to trade out of the draft entirely for veterans.
The rest of the teams picking at the top of the draft will have to be patient. A Finals berth won’t be coming soon for the likes of the Pistons, Rockets, and Cavs, but the prospects likely to be selected early on draft night could put them back on the path to getting there.