Eighteen years ago, four players now in the Hall of Fame or likely heading there were taken with the first five picks in the NBA draft, a quintet of selections that would impact the league in the decades to come.
That evening has yet to be replicated. But Thursday night, history could be repeating itself at Barclays Center with a top of the draft that scouts, executives and analysts think could rival the selections of LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade.
“I really believe that this is the deepest overall draft since I’ve been doing this [in 2003],” longtime ESPN draft and college basketball analyst Jay Bilas said over Zoom. “Look, having LeBron [James] in a draft was certainly better, Zion [Williamson] made it more interesting that year, but none of the drafts that I can remember since 2003 have combined power at the top and depth of really good talent like this.”
Bilas thinks the top four of Cade Cunningham, Jalen Green, Evan Mobley and Jalen Suggs are all No. 1 pick-caliber, a notion another noted draft analyst, Fran Fraschilla, supported. Two NBA scouts agreed that the top of the draft is the best they have seen in years. Of the top six — that includes wings Scottie Barnes and Jonathan Kuminga — there are four or five future All-Stars, according to one of them.
“At every [exposure] camp we’ve been to, any time I saw those guys we always pushed each other,” Cunningham said. “It was kind of an unwritten rule: We always made sure we guarded each other at AAU tournaments.”
The players at the top of the draft talked about each other’s character as much as their basketball talents. They all played together for Team USA basketball, winning gold medals in the 2017 and 2019 FIBA World Cups.
“We’re guys who lead and guys who you want in your locker room,” Suggs said. “We definitely have a chance to rival that 2003 class that was so legendary.”
It’s led by Cunningham, a 6-foot-8 play-making forward who led Oklahoma State to its first NCAA Tournament in four years, shot 40 percent from deep and averaged 20.1 points, 6.2 rebounds and 3.5 assists. The soon-to-be face of the Pistons is expected to be followed by shooting guard Jalen Green. The 6-6 ultra-confident Californian took the new lucrative G-League route and is an offensive maestro, a three-level scorer scouts see as the most scoring-ready prospect in the draft.
In Mobley, there is the first player ever to be named the Pac-12 Player of the Year, Rookie of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year in the same season, a 7-footer made for the modern NBA game with his absurdly long 7-4 wingspan, perimeter skills and rim-protecting acumen. Rounding out the top four is Suggs, a star quarterback at the high school level who led Gonzaga to the national championship game in his first year solely focusing on basketball.
“At the top, you have at least four guys who some day you can visualize being all-NBA players,” Fraschilla said.
Mobley and Suggs both suggested they should be considered to be the top pick. The 6-4 Suggs pointed to how high his potential is, since he only began to put all of his energy into basketball.
“I would say the [teams] that do pass up on me, and take another prospect, it’ll come back,” the gifted and fiercely competitive point guard said. “It’ll be to their detriment.”
Expected to go in the top three, Mobley considers himself a “generational player” at the next level who hasn’t been seen before. When asked about the loaded top of the draft, one NBA scout said he believes Mobley is the least likely to be a disappointment.
“He’s the one guy that I’m dead-sure is only going to get better. His work ethic, his skill level, his timing [are unrivaled], and he doesn’t have the same kind of warts the other guys have,” the scout said. “You can never question his competitiveness. It’s there every night.”
Arguments could be made for all four, similar to 2003 after James. For instance, Bosh over Wade wasn’t a bad pick, even if Wade had the better career. The only true mistake that year was the Pistons taking Serbian bust Darko Milicic over Anthony.
As Bilas noted, this draft isn’t necessarily top-heavy. It has a little bit of everything. Older guys who can make an immediate impact, like Baylor point guard Davion Mitchell, a likely top-10 selection, and Oregon wing Chris Duarte (mid-teens). Impressive international imports, such as Australian playmaker Josh Giddey, 18-year-old Turkish Super League MVP Alperen Sengun and rugged and versatile defender Usman Garuba of Spain.
There will be real value into the mid-20s, accomplished prospects available in the form of Associated Press first-team All-American Ayo Dosunmu of Illinois and one-and-done scoring machine Cameron Thomas of LSU.
Add in the usual draft craziness of trades and teams switching picks — big-name stars like Ben Simmons of the 76ers and Bradley Beal of the Wizards could be on the move — and Thursday night at Barclays Center promises to be a draft night that will be remembered for years to come.