Anthony Edwards didn’t play in the 2020 NCAA Tournament, nor did any of the 47 other college basketball players selected in the 2020 NBA Draft because there wasn’t a 2020 NCAA Tournament. But had there been a tournament, Anthony Edwards and his 14-win Georgia team wouldn’t have played in it.
With Edwards’ selection as the No. 1 pick in the 2020 draft and the subsequent selections of James Wiseman and LaMelo Ball, it was the first time since 2001 that none of the top three picks played in that year’s NCAA Tournament. Twenty years ago, none of the top four picks even played college basketball: Kwame Brown, Tyson Chandler, Pau Gasol, and Eddy Curry. That won’t happen in 2021 as several NCAA Tournament players sit atop draft boards, including the presumed No. 1 overall pick, Cade Cunningham.
Months before playing his first game at Oklahoma State, Cunningham was floated as the potential No. 1 pick in the 2021 NBA Draft. But the Texas native and five-star recruit (247Sports) wasn’t the presumed No. 1 when he committed to Oklahoma State in 2019 during his senior season at Florida prep power Montverde Academy. He wasn’t the presumed top pick upon arriving at Oklahoma State that summer, nor was he presumed top pick after opening his college career with back-to-back 20-point games.
“Right now it’s a debate between Jalen Suggs, Cade Cunningham, and Evan Mobley for No. 1,” an NBA scout told ESPN’s Paul Biancardi on Dec. 19, one day before Cunningham scored 25 points against Texas.
The debate ended sometime in the last two months as Cuningham led Oklahoma State to 11 wins in 14 games and a climb up national championship odds. It wasn’t until the 6-foot-8 guard showcased his size, handles, and shooting in scoring 26 points against Kansas, 40 against Oklahoma, and 29 against Texas did he become the presumed No. 1 pick. And he’ll join Zion Williamson, DeAndre Ayton, and 10 other former No. 1 picks who played in that year’s NCAA Tournament.
Jalen Suggs and Evan Mobley are the other top-three NBA prospects in the 2021 NCAA Tournament. And they could meet in the Elite Eight (and win you $2 million in the BetMGM Bracket Challenge) if Gonzaga reaches the regional final for the fourth time since 2014 and USC does so for the first time since 2001. They were teammates, along with Cunningham, on the 2019 U19 World Cup team that won gold in Greece. If another U19 teammate, G League star doesn’t crash the party, Suggs and Mobley could join Suggs in the top three of the 2021 draft.
“He’s the guy who raises [Gonzaga's] ceiling to being the title favorite … Jalen Suggs on the floor in crunch time, you’re damn near guaranteed to get a good shot,” an NBA scout told The Athletic before the Bulldogs’ 22nd consecutive tourney appearance.
Gonzaga forward Corey Kispert can get a good shot, too. Not a highly ranked recruit like Suggs, Kispert has transformed from a 6-foot-6 tweener forward into a top-10 prospect. The best perimeter shooter in college basketball, Kispert could give the program two top-10 picks in the same draft for the first time ever. And if junior guard Joel Ayayi declares and is selected in the second round, the Bulldogs could also have three picks in the same year for the first time.
Several other potential non-tournament players could join Green in the lottery, but the 2021 class heavily tilts toward Cunningham, Mobley, Suggs, Kispert, and other tourney players, including Tennessee’s Keon Johnson, Arkansas’ Moses Moody, and Illinois’ Ayo Dosunmu. Moody, a teammate of Cunningham at Montverde, was a 2020 four-star recruit ranked outside the top 40 who passed on Michigan and Ohio State to return to his home state. He has since blossomed into a long 6-foot-6 guard with “3-and-D” NBA potential as a sharpshooting defender.
"You can see the impact of that length on the defensive end of the floor,” ESPN draft analyst Mike Schmitz said of Moody Has similar measurements to Mikal Bridges, who is carving out a nice career for himself with the Phoenix Suns. He can really shoot it from three but also has a little bit more game than your typical three-and-D style wing."
Elsewhere, Florida State’s Scott Barnes could go in the top five, Michigan’s Franz Wagner could be the program’s first top-10 pick since Nik Stausksa in 2014, and Kai Jones and Greg Brown are seeking Texas’ first Sweet Sixteen since 2008 before potentially declaring for the draft. UConn’s James Bouknight, LSU’s Cameron Thomas, Oregon’s Chris Duarte, and Florida’s Tre Mann are among the other top prospects in the 2021 NCAA Tournament.
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Andrew Doughty is a writer for BetMGM and host of High Motor by BetMGM, an NFL and college football podcast available on Apple Podcasts and everywhere else. He has written for Sports Illustrated, HERO Sports, Bleacher Report, and SB Nation. Follow him on Twitter: @DoughtyBetMGM