Detroit Pistons guard Cade Cunningham
Detroit Pistons guard Cade Cunningham (2) in the second half of an NBA basketball game Sunday, Jan. 23, 2022, in Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)


Mike Shara

The 2021 NBA Draft has a chance to be historic. 20 years from now there is a strong chance that basketball fans will look back in awe at what riches that year’s draft class offered, even well beyond the first few picks.

In my opinion, here are the top three NBA draft classes in history:


1984 – Hakeem Olajuwon, Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley, John Stockton, Kevin Willis, Otis Thorpe, Sam Perkins, Jerome Kersey, Michael Cage and Alvin Robertson.

1996 – Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash, Allen Iverson, Ray Allen, Marcus Camby, Peja Stojakovic, Stephon Marbury, Shareef Abdur-Rahim and Jermaine O’Neal.

1985 – Karl Malone, Patrick Ewing, Detlef Schrempf, Terry Porter, Joe Dumars, Charles Oakley, Chris Mullin, Hot Rod Williams, A.C. Green, Tyrone Corbin

(In case you’re wondering/flummoxed/considering an angry tweet, I’d rank the 1985 draft higher than Lebron and D-Wade’s 2003 draft class because after the top four players from 2003, the depth falls off of a cliff. 1985’s group ended up being much deeper.)

Obviously, this year’s class has some serious work to do to be mentioned among any of those classes and time will tell. Consider, though, how many players from this most recent draft are already making huge contributions for their team that will receive zero (or…almost zero) serious consideration for this year’s ROY award:

CHRIS DUARTE, Indiana – Canadian SG has started 29 games, averaging 13.6 points and a steal and two assists per game while shooting over 35% from behind the arc.

OMER YURTSEVEN, Miami – The Turkish big man has been a revelation for the Heat, who missed All-Star center Bam Adebayo for months due to a thumb injury. His value and playing time have predictably taken hits since Adebayo’s return.

ALPEREN SUNGEN, Houston – Turkish big man #2 has averaged nearly 20 minutes per game, with his advanced stats saying he’s already an above-average NBA player right now.

HERBERT JONES, New Orleans – due to Zion’s injury, he’s been thrust into a huge role for the Pels, starting 35 games including one where he had 26 points, 9 rebounds, 5 assists, 5 steals and 3 blocks. Not too shabby for a second-round pick.

JALEN SUGGS, Orlando – the fifth overall pick out of Gonzaga has struggled with consistency after a thumb injury cost him six weeks, but his astonishing athleticism will buy him plenty of opportunity to improve his outside shooting. He’s already had a 22/9/9/4/2 game.

DAVION MITCHELL, Sacramento – after leading Baylor to a National Championship last year, he’s forged a nice role in Sac-Town, averaging 9.3 points, 2.3 rebounds and 3.3 assists while backing up De’Aaron Fox.

JALEN GREEN, Houston – The second overall pick is already the first Rockets rookie ever to have over 30 points and 8 three-pointers in a game. His outside shooting and defense will have to improve before he’s recognized among the elite from this class, though.

JOSH GIDDEY, OKC – The youngest of all these kids (he just turned 19, FFS), he’s already averaging 11.5 points, 7.4 rebounds and 6.2 assists while starting every single NBA game he’s played. In two decades, he may be viewed as the steal of this class.

IMO these are the real contenders:

4. FRANZ WAGNER, Orlando (best odds: +3000 at Caesar’s)
It seems like the Magic are perennially rebuilding, but Suggs and Wagner could mark a turning point for the woebegone franchise. Wagner has been incredible this season so far, with the former Michigan small forward already among the NBA’s top 100 in average points, rebounds and assists per game. He already had 38 points, 11 rebounds, 10 assists, 6 steals and 2 blocks in a game though Orlando still managed to lose that game by 17. At home.

3. SCOTTIE BARNES, Toronto (best odds: +1200 at Caesar’s)
Out of the gate, he looked like he could actually steal the award, playing big minutes and contributing on both sides of the floor for a young Raptors team right away. The league has caught up with him a bit, but he’s still third in scoring, second in rebounds and fourth in assists among rookies. Advanced metrics show that Toronto were probably right to select him over Suggs with the fourth overall pick – a move that surprised many pundits at the time.

2. CADE CUNNINGHAM, Detroit (best odds: +650 at DraftKings)
This year’s first overall pick out of Oklahoma State, Cunningham had a slow start to his season after missing the entire preseason and first few regular season games due to an ankle injury. Now entirely healthy, he has proven Detroit was wise to make him the pick. A few nights ago he became just the second NBA rookie ever to have 30 points, 8 rebounds, 8 assists and 4 blocks in a game. The other rookie to do that? Some dude named Michael Jordan. I’d say he’s a close second in this race right now and he plays on a much worse team than the current clubhouse leader, but I’d bet on him continuing to fill up box scores and close the distance in the second half.

1. EVAN MOBLEY, Cleveland (best odds: +800 at Caesar’s)
Part of the impressive thing about Mobley’s rookie year is how seamlessly he’s fit into the Cavs’ lineup (he’s started every single game) and how much better Cleveland has been this season than last despite losing both Ricky Rubio and Collin Sexton. The third overall pick out of USC has averaged 15 points, 8 rebounds, 2.6 assists and 1.7 blocks per game and Cleveland has already won 8 more games than they did all of last season. His production has been as steady as a metronome, he has rarely if ever had an unproductive night and is already a plus at both ends of the floor. He won’t do anything to lose this award so much as Cunningham’s current streak of huge performances could take it away from him.

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