Optimism is at the core of the NBA Draft. Every team, regardless of market size, has the opportunity to “choose” the players with which they can build around. Hope springs eternal at the draft each year, and that is part of what makes it such a special night.
Additionally, there is an incredible degree of uncertainty that makes the event so spectacular. You never know who a team is going to pick until Woj or Shams tweets it (ugh) and even then, it is impossible to know which careers will pan out or who will be labeled the next great bust.
There are surprises in every draft. Perhaps the first major one in 2021 was Jalen Suggs slipping to No. 5 after previously being seen as a universal Top 4 prospect. There were also the eye-popping selections of projected late-first-rounders Ziaire Williams (No. 10) and Josh Primo (No. 12) in the lottery. And while some selections could be deemed as “reaches”, many others fall under the “steals” category.
These steals do not always pan out, but they occur when the perceived value of a player is far higher than the pick number in which they were selected. Sometimes they are simply the best player available and dropped a few spots, whereas other times they are clearly the player with the highest ceiling late in the draft.
While it is impossible to know if a draft-day steal is actually going to be realized until they take the court, let’s take a dive into some players that — on paper — appear to have been drafted much later than they could have been.
1. Jared Butler, Utah Jazz
Guard | Baylor | No. 40 overall pick
Medical concerns were a driving factor in Jared Butler’s fall from projected first-round pick to his eventual landing spot at No. 40. Those concerns, though, are nothing new; they date back to his initial commitment to Alabama out of high school, which never materialized due to Butler’s preexisting heart condition, for which he has since been cleared. He has performed exceptionally well over the past few years and was recently given another round of clearance to play in the NBA, by the league’s Fitness to Play panel. A national champion, knockdown catch-and-shoot option, strong playmaker, and solid defender, Butler is the steal of the draft to fall this far. As long as the health concerns don’t resurface, he should be a rock-solid piece in the NBA. With his shot-making and creation as a pick-and-roll guard, he should fit excellently in Quin Snyder’s offense with Rudy Gobert as his roll-man.
2. Moses Moody, Golden State Warriors
Wing | Arkansas | No. 14 overall pick
Moses Moody has been one of my favorite prospects in the class since the onset of his collegiate career. The extremely long 6-foot-6 wing is the prototype for a rock-solid 3-and-D rotation player. He is a talented shot-maker that is unfazed by contests; tough-shot-makers are incredibly valuable in the NBA. Put simply, Moody is a bucket-getter with elite defensive potential. Those types of players do not come along all that often, and I have drawn a comparison to Mikal Bridges in that way. He’s young and polished, but also with room to grow. Moody is both a short and long-term impact player that fits perfectly in Golden State. Allowing him to learn from Klay Thompson could do wonders for his growth.
3. Sharife Cooper, Atlanta Hawks
Guard | Auburn | No. 48 overall pick
There’s an argument to be made that Sharife Cooper is the best playmaker in this class, better than both Cade Cunningham and Josh Giddey, and yet, he plummeted on draft night. I understand being dissuaded by his size (even listing him at 6-foot might be generous) and shooting troubles, but his dynamic lead guard skills should not be overlooked. He is a “pass on him at your own risk” type of player, and several teams did. Cooper ranked tops in the SEC in assist rate (53.3 percent) last season while displaying a turnover rate lower than Cunningham, Suggs, Barnes, and Mitchell. He was eventually selected by the Atlanta Hawks, a potentially perfect landing spot for him. He can learn behind another shorter guard in Trae Young while being a high-usage backup. If he can improve as a jump-shooter, watch out.
4. Jalen Suggs, Orlando Magic
Guard | Gonzaga | No. 5 overall pick
Orlando has had capable, even star, bigs over the last several years. Dwight Howard was a mainstay for a long time, then Nikola Vucevic filled the void. The biggest thing missing was a true magician in the backcourt. Enter Jalen Suggs. The Gonzaga product boasts superb size at 6-foot-4 and is a constant attacker. He loves to get downhill and can finish above-the-rim with ease. His playmaking can be a tad risky but he makes some eye-popping reads and dishes. 3-point shooting (33.7 percent) needs to improve to round out his game, but that is the only major hole. He plays with a strong motor and can be superb defensively. Suggs only slipped from No. 4 to No. 5 but can still be regarded as a steal; he is a two-way stud of a lead guard that has the potential to be the face of the Magic for years to come.
5. Jaden Springer, Philadelphia 76ers
Guard | Tennessee | No. 28 overall pick
Jaden Springer always seemed like a sleeper throughout the draft process. An elite on-ball defender with remarkably quickness and strength, he has All-Defense potential at the next level. He uses his muscle very well on both ends of the floor. Springer finished on 65.8 percent of his at-the-rim shots last season and shot the ball well from the 3-point and free-throw lines. Shooting won’t necessarily be his calling card in the league, but it’s hard to argue with the numbers to date. Springer loves to play off two feet and is unafraid of contact. He is at the very least likely to be a big-time defender. As one of the youngest players in the draft, there is a lot of time for him to develop as well.
6. Ayo Dosunmu, Chicago Bulls
Guard | Illinois | No. 38 overall pick
Ayo Dosunmu easily had first-round talent but slipped to No. 38 on draft night. Landing in the right place, though, is far more important than the pick number. A star at Morgan Park HS before becoming a Fighting Illini, Dosunmu will be loved by the Bulls as a hometown player. He is an aggressive attacking guard that gets out in transition in a hurry, plus is deadly as a pull-up mid-range shooter. He needs to improve as a 3-point shooter to reach the next level but is a high-motor player with a winning reputation. This is very strong value in the second round, especially given his ability to play multiple positions. The hometown factor will also lead to some solid jersey sales for the rookie and increased fan interest, though perhaps not quite as much as when Derrick Rose was drafted by the Bulls.
7. Miles McBride, New York Knicks
Guard | West Virginia | No. 36 overall pick
A big-shot maker and elite defender, Miles McBride fits the mold of a likely rotational guard in the NBA. He dramatically improved as a shooter during his sophomore season (+6.6% FT, +11% 3P) and rose up the draft boards as a result. His assist rate also climbed from 17.2 percent to 28.2 percent, all while lowering his turnover rate. McBride boasts a stellar wingspan and he is very active as a point-of-attack defender. The all-around skill is obvious, though he is only 6-foot-2 and not a particularly elite finisher (only 72 at-the-rim attempts). McBride could have easily gone in the 20s but dropped to No. 36, making him a high-value selection for the Knicks. He makes a lot of sense to play under Tom Thibodeau.
8. Brandon Boston Jr., Los Angeles Clippers
Guard | Kentucky | No. 51 overall pick
Brandon Boston had a shaky freshman season at Kentucky. He entered college as a five-star prospect with a stellar scoring reputation. In his lone season in Lexington, however, he averaged just 11.5 points per game on poor shooting splits of .355/.300/.785. His minutes waned as the season progressed, and it was just an all-around rough year for someone who was previously projected as a lottery pick. Still… falling to No. 51? This is a *huge* upside value pick, in my opinion. If he does not pan out, there weren’t many other great options this late in the draft anyway. But if he does figure it out, he will be easily the biggest steal. Boston is a lengthy 6-foot-7 and can create his own shot. In order to break out, he needs to both improve his shot-making and also add a bunch of muscle. The floor is low, but the ceiling is high. The 19-year-old is a great “flyer” pick.
9. Keon Johnson, Los Angeles Clippers
Guard | Tennessee | No. 21 overall pick
While his stock did sour a bit leading up to the draft, Keon Johnson could have easily heard his name called in the Top 10. The fall dropped in the Clippers’ lap, though, and he could be an excellent fit there. He is already a very gifted defender and will be able to learn from some other elite stoppers in LA. Johnson is arguably the top athlete in this draft class and that is evident defensively; he blocks shots, switches excellently, and plays with a superb motor. Johnson shot just 27.1 percent from three and 70.3 percent at the foul line as a freshman, though, as his offensive game needs more polish. He is mostly a finisher and interior passer on that end. Still just 18-years-old, Johnson is an impact defender *now* with a high overall ceiling.
10. Jalen Johnson, Atlanta Hawks
Forward | Duke | No. 20 overall pick
Red flags have followed Jalen Johnson dating back to high school. He spent two years at Sun Prairie (WI), then transferred to Nicolet (WI), then IMG Academy (FL) (though he never actually played there), before finally returning to Nicolet. The five-star recruit then only competed in 13 games for Duke. There are a lot of questions here, but he is also likely a Top 10 talent in the class in terms of his playing ability. He brings good size to the floor at 6-foot-9 and is an excellent playmaker. He shot the ball well in limited time with Duke, but that isn’t necessarily a strength of his. Johnson can be a secondary creator as a point-forward alongside Trae Young and Sharife Cooper in Atlanta – which feels like a very fun fit for him, especially if he can push back against the aforementioned worries.