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Why the 2021 NBA Draft gives the Cavs options for high-end talent

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The 2020 class doesn’t offer a franchise-defining player, probably. Next year might.

City Of Palms Classic Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

The Cleveland Cavaliers probably aren’t getting any top-end talent in the 2020 NBA Draft. Picking fifth isn’t a great way to pick up a certain franchise-changer, even if it happens on occasion. While it doesn’t have the maligned history of the eighth pick, only Trae Young, DeMarcus Cousins and Kevin Love have become All-Stars as fifth picks since 2007. All three have been flawed stars as team leaders; the jury is obviously still out on Young). History, as well as the Cavs’ draft history outside of two hits at number one, is not on the side of this year’s draft pick being a major fortune-changer.

However, that wasn’t going to be the case whether the Cavs picked first or 12th this season. The 2020 NBA Draft class doesn’t have top-end talent that’s obvious, or without significant flaws. With the Cavs picking at five, they’re missing out on LaMelo Ball or Anthony Edwards, but neither of those players are super enticing anyway aas both have significant fit problems in Cleveland. The path to top-end talent for the Cavs isn’t drafting high in 2020. Instead, it’s probably staying bad enough to be in top-five position in the 2021 NBA Draft.

It’s early on, and it’s always difficult to project with absolute certainty how good a draft class is going to be when they are a year-plus out from the draft. We all remember how hyped up the 2014 class was in high school. Look where Andrew Wiggins and Jabari Parker have ended up.

But based on what we know, 2021 is a breath of fresh air after two subpar classes in 2019 and 2020. The incoming class is very likely going to be on par with 2015 or 2017 in terms of top-end prospects, and it’s easy to argue based on our film so far that Ball might be the seventh or eighth best prospect in next year’s class. It’s a class that’s big on valuable assets for NBA team building: wing depth, wing scoring, and potential star-level two-way players.

If the Cavs are going to get the number one player for their next playoff run through the draft, that likely happens next year with the Cavs ending up in what figures to be a loaded top-five. All of these players probably won’t end up being ranked where they are right now, but there’s a good chance these are the Cavs’ best shot at stars moving forward.

Cade Cunningham, SG, Oklahoma State

Cunningham appears to be the early bet to be 2021’s top prize. He might be the best two-way perimeter prospect to come out since Ben Simmons, and his combination of impressive physical tools and advanced technique on both ends of the floor gives him a high likelihood of being a franchise changer at the next level. The base of Cunningham’s potential is his combination of size, shooting mechanics and passing technique — each of which are elite for his age and position. Particularly, Cunningham is an incredible passer, making some absolutely mind-bending reads when stuck in bad situations.

Defensively, Cunningham has shown the struggles with on-ball engagement and consistency that typically plague high school wings who are elite scoring prospects. But he also shows sound team defensive principles, and an innate awareness of some advanced defensive tools such as verticality, hedging one pass away, and affecting shots from behind defending ball handlers in pick-and-roll. Add in his frame at a likely 6’7” in shoes, and there’s reason to believe Cunningham has a pretty high defensive floor despite being a potentially elite on-ball creator.

The projection for Cunningham appears to be that he’s a high-floor, low-variance NBA prospect that provides a valuable role as a wing creator who can create his own shots and be serviceable on defense. Even if he doesn’t advance as a pull-up shooter or driver, he at least figures to be an elite secondary creation option that gives you a good baseline of defensive value. As far as the Cavs go, a two-way wing who can playmake is the perfect fit to plug in with the current core long-term, and Cunningham seems like the goal early on for 2021.

Jalen Green, SF, G-League

Green, meanwhile, is the high-ceiling prospect of the class, and is billed as the headliner despite Cunningham being the better player at this stage. That reputation comes from the development Green has gone through in the past two years as a shot creator and off-movement shooter, which has been significant enough to believe he might continue on an astronomical trajectory. A similarly sized player to Cunningham, Green is by far the best athlete in the 2021 class, and his vertical leap and explosiveness off the bounce make him an intriguing number one option as a driver if his shooting proves sustainable. It also helps him to look like a useful enough defender, showing good on-ball capabilities and creating havoc plays thanks to his length and explosiveness changing directions.

The major stumbling block for Green may be how he takes to the locker room mechanics of the NBA, and he will be a very interesting test case for the NBA’s new G-League venture. In theory, the G-League stint will be good for Green, who is a celebrity of sorts on the AAU circuit and seems to fully embrace the life of being an influencer as well as player. The tools the league wants to provide young prospects in terms of life skills in the league and leadership traits are what he needs to fully be unleashed as a star, and it will be interesting to see how well that takes. If it does, he has a great shot to be the best player from the class, which would be a huge win for the NBA long-term.

Jonathan Kuminga, SF, G-League

I said Green “might” be the best athlete in the class because that mantle could also very well go to Kuminga, a Congolese forward who reclassified into the 2021 class to join Green on the G-League team. The 6’8” Kuminga is a bullying driver who overwhelms fellow wings on drives to the rim, and his shooting and ball-handling are pretty advanced for a player of his size at this stage. The potential is there for Kuminga to be very versatile on the NBA stage, a big wing who can play some four and potentially create from the perimeter as a ball-handler. That will take development, though, as Kuminga is probably the least polished player among the top-seven or so prospects, and his passing technique, ball-handling, and defensive technique all need significant improvement.

But there’s a path to him becoming the top pick in the draft, thanks to his elite finishing and size/athleticism combination, and the opportunities for growth that provides. Kuminga is probably more of a long-term prospect than the previous two players, but he’s incredibly enticing for his physical tools.

B.J. Boston, SG, Kentucky

Boston is a poor man’s Cunningham, another high-floor prospect who looks well-developed on both ends of the floor. Boston has a very good handle for his size, and is comfortable handling an NBA-style creation role. His shooting is also fairly promising, with a good blend of pull-up mechanics and off-ball utility. While he’s probably not built to be a top overall scorer, he looks like a very good number two, someone who may blend into the background at the college level but will post excellent numbers and film to show he’s capable of much more. He also has a good reputation as an intangibles guy, which helps this assessment.

The major issue with Boston is his frame, at 6’7”, 175 pounds. He’s very thin, and there’s reason for doubt that he’s going to add the requisite strength to be able to score on the interior in the NBA. However, his skill set definitely lends to him playing as a full-time two guard, and he has shown the type of body control and touch needed by someone this thin to succeed at higher levels of basketball.

Boston might be available in the back half of the top-ten next season, but he’s probably the best bet in this class to be a high level complimentary guy who provides significant value without taking a ton of scoring load.

Usman Garuba, C, Real Madrid

It’s not all wings at the top of the class next season. While Evan Mobley gets a lot of fanfare domestically, and figures to be a top-five pick on most preseason boards, Garuba flies under the radar despite being perhaps the best defensive prospect at the five of the last five or so years. The Real Madrid big man is already getting Euroleague time, and he shows all of the tools you want from an elite defensive prospect: great size at 6’8”, 230 with a 7’2” wingspan, a body that projects further growth, excellent strength and a preliminary understanding of the execution of a lot of complex defensive schemes. Garuba’s shown the ability to defend multiple positions with his agility and strength, and he’s a pretty high level rim protection prospect as well.

Limited offensive capabilities are what keep Garuba lower on most boards at this point, but make no mistake: Garuba is almost certainly going to become an NBA-level defensive anchor. His biggest issues on the defensive end at this point are technique related, especially on the perimeter, and that’s something that can certainly be ironed out in the NBA. His size also isn’t ideal but he seems to be strong enough to be able to compensate in Europe. If the Cavs pass on Onyeka Okongwu this year, and Andre Drummond isn’t the long-term solution at the five, Garuba could be a high level talent that could have a significant impact to their roster construction.