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The Winners and Losers of the 2021 NBA Draft

Draft night featured a blockbuster Lakers trade, a slew of lottery surprises, and nothing egregious from the Knicks. Who came out on top? The Ringer’s NBA crew helps you sort through the chaos.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

About three hours before NBA commissioner Adam Silver announced Cade Cunningham to the Pistons at no. 1, the Wizards shipped Russell Westbrook to the Lakers, leaving jaws agape and minds blown, and setting the tone for what would be an eventful draft night.

No, there wouldn’t be any other blockbuster trades (Daryl Morey continues to ask for the moon and the stars), but there would be plenty of surprises, continuing with the Raptors taking Scottie Barnes at no. 4, the Warriors keeping both of their first-round picks, and the Grizzlies nabbing a sleeper at no. 10. To sort through all the draft picks, decisions, and newly created dilemmas, The Ringer’s NBA staff teamed up to name the night’s biggest winners and losers.

Winner: Toronto Raptors

Seerat Sohi: Before we jump in, a caveat: My enthusiasm for Scottie Barnes is not a value judgment on Jalen Suggs. The Raptors made that. I’m just here to tell you why it makes a ton of freaking sense.

I’d love to say the Raptors zigged when everyone thought they’d zag, but honestly, Barnes is such a Raptor: Like Kyle Lowry, who gave him the seal of approval months ago, he has the kind of infectious, unteachable energy that can start a positive feedback loop, as well as a hard-to-quantify but undeniable impact on winning (three gold medals, two state championships). Like Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby and Chris Boucher, he covers enough space to make you feel like he’s in two places at once. He’s also going to need time to develop his jumper, and actually seems excited about it.

Barnes is 6-foot-8 with a nearly 7-foot-3 wingspan, a 39-inch vertical, and hands just half-an-inch smaller than Kawhi Leonard’s. He has the tools to be the best defender in this draft. More importantly, he wants to be the best defender.

A lot of versatile forwards can pick up point guards. Few instinctively pick them up full court without being asked. He doesn’t block a lot of shots because he’d rather get stops. Watch this video of him breaking down his game with ESPN’s Mike Schmitz. Barnes knows the scouting report. Cold.

Like Patrick Williams, who also went no. 4 last year, Barnes won ACC Sixth Man of the Year with Florida State. He’s a natural playmaker, the multi-outlet plug in Florida State’s connected offense. He turned down Duke and Kentucky to play for Florida State, where his size and athleticism thrived on a roster filled with similar players.

His fit might seem redundant on a team with Siakam, Anunoby, and Boucher, but let the Bucks, who just built a spider web around Chris Paul and Devin Booker, be a lesson: long arms feed off of each other. With Barnes, the Raptors doubled down on defense, they doubled down on their developmental program. They doubled down on themselves. Ten years from now, it might turn out they were really just feeling themselves. But I’m betting the synergy pays off.

Winner: Orlando Magic

Rob Mahoney: The Magic win, in a way, by Suggs losing out—though you wouldn’t have known it from the way he stood to applaud the Raptors’ selection of Scottie Barnes with the no. 4 pick, in a slot that had been earmarked for Suggs leading into Thursday’s draft. Toronto could have used Suggs, but Orlando needs him. The Magic aren’t exactly a franchise burdened by a stable backcourt. They have a reclamation project in Markelle Fultz, who is on his way back from a torn ACL; a charismatic work-in-progress in Cole Anthony; stop-gaps in Gary Harris and Michael Carter-Williams; a firestarter swingman in Terrence Ross; and a wild card in R.J. Hampton, acquired at last season’s trade deadline. Now they have a blue-chip prospect to add to the mix in Suggs, a confident and accomplished all-around guard who could change the team’s entire trajectory.

It’s hard for any young, growing team to find its proper course without a steady hand initiating the offense, and Suggs has the profile of a playmaker who could give the Magic that sort of structure from day one. All of which makes it that much more exciting to wonder where he and Orlando could be a few years down the line, when healthier, settled, and more fully developed. There’s a pretty talented core here, all told. It can be hard to see sometimes, especially while Jonathan Isaac is sidelined, but Suggs might have it in him to bring the whole rebuild into focus.

Loser: Golden State Warriors

Logan Murdock: For an organization desperate to get back into contention, the Warriors took two prospects—Jonathan Kuminga and Moses Moody—who even team executives aren’t sure can contribute by the season opener.

Kuminga, a 19-year-old who played for the G League Ignite in nearby Walnut Creek last season, has a ton of raw ability that’s ready to be cultivated over the next five years. Moody scored a lot in college, but there’s mixed reviews on how his ability will translate to the next level. All of which could present a problem for the elite, but aging core led by Steph Curry, who wants to win now. Since Kevin Durant left, and Klay Thompson became chronically injured, team brass has tried to buy time to develop a contender. They flipped D’Angelo Russell for Andrew Wiggins and hoped their young talent could mature quickly. That’s resulted in two straight missed trips to the postseason and the Bay Area wishing for a splashy move. But on a day when the Lakers traded for Russell Westbrook and Washington’s disgruntled trade target, Bradley Beal, has momentarily decided to stay put, the Warriors are again in the same position they’ve been in for years: hoping unproven assets will be enough to help them get over the top.

Incomplete: Philadelphia 76ers

Matt Dollinger: I, like you, wanted to see Ben Simmons traded on draft night. It’s not that I have some hidden agenda (#PivotToShake), I just wanted to see it purely from an entertainment standpoint, both for Thursday night and for all of next season. Alas, we’re all going to have to wait a little longer.

There’s no good reason for the Sixers to rush a trade. After all, Simmons is under contract for four more years. But there’s no coming back at this point. Not from the way Simmons finished the playoffs. Not from the way his name has been plastered in trade rumors ever since the Sixers were eliminated. Everyone knows it. Daryl Morey knows it. Ben Simmons knows it. And most importantly, the general managers trying to get him know it:

So we’ve got an old-fashioned stalemate on our hands. History shows us that once stars like Simmons hit the trading block, they eventually get moved and that the 76ers will likely not get back as much as they wished. Basically, what I’m saying is that Ben Simmons will be traded for CJ McCollum or Malcolm Brogdon somewhere in the next ... one to nine weeks. Like you, I will devour every trade rumor until then. Like you, I’ll imagine Simmons on the other 29 teams in the meantime.

Winner: Memphis Grizzlies

J. Kyle Mann: I’ll be transparent: Kind of like Matthew McConaughey at the end of the first season of True Detective, there have been times when I’ve wondered whether I am going insane in my defense of Ziaire Williams.


Before the draft, I checked and double-checked and triple-checked the footage to see whether there was something I was missing, but I never felt compelled to come off of the idea that Ziaire absolutely is a legitimate NBA-level two-way wing. Clearly, based on their behavior, the Grizzlies believe that as well.

I made my mind up about this a couple of years ago at a summer event. Imagine walking into a gym and having one of the first players you see be a near 6-foot-10 kid running like a gazelle, hounding the ball at the point of attack, comfortably hitting stepback 3s and catching lobs. I was excitedly texting friends, I was tweeting. From that point on, I just couldn’t erase that experience from my memory.

My big thing is that people went too wild with his one disappointing season at Stanford. Sure, he was inefficient from just about everywhere (47.3 percent true shooting), he looked chaotic and clumsy attacking the rim, but I think a lot of that was erratic decision-making. The flashes were still there.

This draft was a coup for Memphis. Santi Aldama (drafted at no. 30) was a heavily-slept-on commodity, but if Williams’s upside plays out the way I think it could, he could climb as high as the fourth-best player in this class when we look back at this draft. He’ll slot in well next to the Grizzlies’ current talent and give them a defensive tool to throw at the bigger scoring wings in the West. He’ll give Ja Morant another lob target, and he’ll be a credible spacer who could eventually create on his own. If I’m the Grizzlies’ front office, I’m ecstatic.

Winner: Los Angeles Lakers?!

Sohi: The Lakers didn’t get Damian Lillard or Bradley Beal, but they got more than they should have after dangling a package centered on Kyle Kuzma and a late first-round pick to just about every team in the league: Russell Westbrook.

Ironically, Westbrook’s reputation is a lot like Chris Paul’s was when the Rockets traded the latter for the former in 2019. Westbrook has been around long enough without winning a ring that we tend to define him more by his weaknesses than his strengths. These days, we emphasize the former in MVP and All-Star, and while the 32-year-old has certainly lost a step, he’s still Russell Westbrook. He put up 22.2 points, 11.7 assists (a career high), and 11.5 rebounds per game last season.

Let’s flash back to the year the Rockets traded for Russ: After the trade deadline, they made another deal, trading Clint Capela to the Hawks and slotting 6-foot-5 floor-spacer P.J. Tucker at center, opening the floor for Westbrook to wreak havoc in the paint. He stopped shooting ill-advised 3s. The small-ball experiment was suddenly working. James Harden and Westbrook were clicking. Then, COVID-19 happened. Westbrook, after recovering from the virus, looked disjointed and frustrated in the bubble, and so did the Rockets.

Time will tell which version of Westbrook the Lakers will get (or whether they’ll have anything close to the spacing to unleash him), but this isn’t the same guy who looked off Kevin Durant to clank midrange jumpers five years ago. In the interest of winning a championship, Russ can be malleable.

I could see the Lakers keeping Marc Gasol around, adding a few more floor-spacers, and driving and kicking the ball to oblivion, attacking the glass with two triple-double kings alongside, oh, Anthony Davis. I could also see them picking up a few more lob threats to really put pressure on the paint, missing a ton of shots, but winning anyway. Either way, getting Westbrook is a good start.

Winner: Charlotte Hornets

Dollinger: After the eventual Rookie of the Year fell into their laps at no. 3 last season, the Hornets benefited once again from letting the draft come to them, stealing James Bouknight at no. 11 and scooping up Kai Jones via trade at no. 19. Bouknight, the sixth overall player on Kevin O’Connor’s Big Board, is a dream backcourt partner to LaMelo Ball and should feast on the plethora of open looks he’s about to get in Charlotte. And our own Jonathan Tjarks tabbed Jones as arguably the biggest sleeper in the draft and Texas’s best product since Kevin Durant. Both players should thrive in the go-go system installed around LaMelo, with Bouknight projecting as the team’s leading scorer and Jones as a potential two-way threat at the rim.

Ball should be salivating at the chance to run in the open floor with these two.

With Malik Monk and Devonte’ Graham headed for restricted free agency, and Bismack Biyombo and Cody Zeller hitting the open market, Charlotte could look drastically different next season. Gone are the dark days when it seemed like the Hornets took the best college senior year in and year out. In its place, a stunningly bright future for a team that seemed trapped in mediocrity not that long ago.

Loser: Davion Mitchell

Mahoney: Teams may draft for the best player available, but players hope for the best possible fit. Sacramento is a tough draw for Baylor’s Davion Mitchell, who won a national championship and cracked the top 10 in the draft only to land with a team already invested in developing other guards. Tyrese Haliburton had to compete for minutes throughout his standout rookie season. Mitchell will presumably face the same logjam (give or take Buddy Hield, who was reported to be in failed trade talks with the Lakers) plus Haliburton, whose size (6-foot-5) offers positional flexibility that Mitchell’s (6 feet) doesn’t.

Put another way: Mitchell is a point-guard-sized player on a team already building around its point guard. There’s no budging De’Aaron Fox; so where will Mitchell’s minutes come from, much less his shots? The Kings may once again need to turn to three-guard lineups to get their most promising players on the floor this season, even though those constructions can’t accommodate for the fact that Fox is best as a lead guard and Mitchell projects as one, too. Sometimes, basketball positions are merely a construct—a stodgy idea in a league that has evolved beyond them. Yet in other cases, they represent real logistical challenges that keep a freshly drafted prospect from getting the opportunities he’s surely after.

Winner: Houston Rockets

Dollinger: The Rockets will lose a boatload of games next season, but they’re arguably the biggest winners of draft night. After all, you can’t lose when you look this good:

Jalen Green brings a lot more than just a Silk Sonic vibe to the Rockets, though. He’s the best pure scorer in the draft. And for a team that needs, well, everything, you could do a lot worse than taking a bona fide hooper (note: not a basketball player) that you can build the offense around from the get-go. But Houston’s big night didn’t end there. It traded two future first-round picks to … (come on, I’ll give you one guess. Who else?) the Thunder for the no. 16 pick, which it then used to nab Alperen Sengun, who was free-falling after slipping out of the lottery.

Sengun, who might be the most skilled big man in the draft, won the Turkish league MVP at just 18 years old. He’s drawn comparisons to Nikola Vucevic and Enes Kanter and could prove to be the steal of this class if he lives up to his immense potential. Houston won’t miss those two first-round picks if Sengun is averaging 20 and 10 in a few years and pairs with Green to get the Rockets out of the West’s cellar.

Houston also got great value by taking Usman Garuba at no. 23 (no. 15 on KOC’s Big Board) and a potential backcourt partner to Green with Josh Christopher at no. 24. It’s been six long months since James Harden forced his way out of town, but Rockets fans genuinely have a reason to be optimistic again. The road back to relevancy will be long, but at least they’re laying down pavement.

Loser: New York Knicks

Dollinger: Look, maybe New York should be classified as “winners” just because it didn’t do anything to destroy the franchise on draft night. But Knicks fans took wayyy too long of a victory lap last season for us to treat them like a downtrodden franchise any longer. The Knicks are back! And so too are the unreasonably high expectations. (Dan Devine, if you’re reading this, I’m sorry.)

“Loser” is a bit strong here, but New Yorkers have thick skin. There was no egregious reach in this draft, but rather an aggressive move away from the table. Rather than package their picks to move up or take an intriguing player who fell in their laps, the Knicks traded away both the no. 19 and no. 21 selections, trading for a heavily protected future first-rounder with the former, and moving down to nab Quentin Grimes (no. 43 on KOC’s Big Board) with the latter. Chances are, the Knicks didn’t lose out on the future of the franchise by making either of these trades, but they did pass on several high-upside players—Kai Jones, Jalen Johnson, and Keon Johnson—that could have been worth a swing late in the first. Ultimately, New York’s offseason is just getting started, but it’s clear the draft won’t be the story of its summer.