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2021 NBA Draft: 4 Phenoms, 4 Paths

This group of stars will all grace the same stage tonight, but each one’s path to getting there is utterly unique. And it’s the NBA’s new normal.

As another NBA Draft arrives, there have never been more distinct, viable paths to the league than there are in 2021.

It’s the first draft of college sports’ NIL era. The first of the G League Ignite era. International players have never had this much visibility stateside. And before long, innovative programs like Overtime Elite and the Professional Collegiate League will join the party, too.

With the Detroit Pistons on the clock, let’s take stock of four players whose paths to shaking Adam Silver’s hand couldn’t be more different from one another.

The One-and-done

Age: 19
Height: 6-foot-8
Position: PG
Projected draft position: No. 1 overall
Previous team: Oklahoma State Cowboys
Agents: Jeff Schwartz & James Dunleavy, Excel Sports Management
Career achievements: Consensus 2021 First Team All-American, Unanimous 2021 NCAA Freshman of the Year, 2021 Big 12 Player of the Year, 2020 Naismith High School Player of the Year; 2020 Mr. Basketball USA

Cade Cunningham is a virtual lock to go No. 1 to the Pistons Thursday and secure a rookie contract worth upwards of $45 million over four years. 

Cunningham quickly drew comparisons to Mavericks phenom Luka Dončić thanks to a combination of size and scoring ability that screamed one-and-done. He averaged 20.1 points, 6.2 rebounds, and 3.5 assists for Oklahoma State, sweeping every national freshman award and First Team All-America nod.

As the presumptive No. 1, he was at the center of a major bidding war for a signature shoe deal, and on Tuesday, he signed with Nike. It’s expected to be the biggest shoe deal of the 2021 draft class, and it’s only the beginning for a rising superstar of the game on and off the court.

The Four-year Man 

Baylor Bears point guard and 2021 NCAA national champion Davion Mitchell

Age: 22
Height: 6-foot-1
Position: PG
Projected draft position: Top 10
Previous team: Baylor Bears
Agents Ty Sullivan & Richard BedaCAA Basketball
Career achievements: 2021 NCAA national champion, 2021 Naismith Defensive Player of the Year, Consensus 2021 Third Team All-American, 2021 First Team All-Big 12, 2020 Big 12 Newcomer of the Year

He’s 22 years of age with four years of college to his name, but Davion Mitchell isn’t a throwback — he’s a story of reinvention.

After coming off the bench as a freshman at Auburn, he transferred to Baylor and sat out a full year per NCAA rules. He re-emerged as a star, giving Scott Drew’s Bears a defensive jolt (and a real chance at a national title) before the pandemic shut down the 2019-20 season.

He added knockdown three-point shooting to his arsenal in an unforgettable farewell campaign and helped lead Baylor to the 2021 NCAA championship. 

Mitchell is no project. He’s ready to contribute right away.

Davion is a tremendously gifted athlete who became a household name while winning a national championship at Baylor. He is extremely well-rounded and mature – both as a player and a person. The experience he gained while playing for two different universities under two different coaching staffs, combined with his solid work ethic and dedication to improving throughout the past four years, has truly prepared him for life as a rookie in the NBA.

Ty Sullivan, CAA

The Igniter

Age: 19
Height: 6-foot-5
Position: SG
Projected draft position: Top 3
Previous team: G League Ignite
Agents: Drew Morrison & Aaron MintzCAA Basketball
Career achievements: 2020 McDonald’s All-American, 2019 FIBA U19 World Cup gold medal, 2018 FIBA U17 World Cup gold medal, 2018 FIBA U17 World Cup MVP

​​The No. 1 shooting guard in the 2020 high school class changed the game when he sidestepped the NCAA to secure the bag with G League Ignite. In addition to a $500,000 contract, Jalen Green became the first in this draft class to secure a sneaker deal, joining Adidas this spring, and he added a trading card and memorabilia deal with Upper Deck last week.

The wildly athletic wing led Ignite with 17.9 points, 4.1 rebounds, and 2.8 assists per game and earned widespread admiration for his wicked work ethic.

Projected to be taken as high as No. 2 overall, he’s set to see a healthy pay bump and plenty more endorsements. But even before the ink dries, Green has already made his mark as a trailblazer for alternate paths to the NBA dream.

To be the first G League Ignite player selected in the Draft is really special and will forever establish Jalen as a trailblazer. Through the great coaching of Brian Shaw and guidance from Shareef Abdur-Rahim, Rod Strickland, and their staff, Jalen got a crash course on NBA sets, terminology, and what it takes to compete against professional players and be a professional. This unique path enabled him to challenge himself and accomplish his lofty goals while truly preparing him for the NBA.

Aaron Mintz, CAA

The International

Beşiktaş center Alperen Şengün

Age: 18
Height: 6-foot-10
Position: C
Projected draft position: Top 15
Previous team: Beşiktaş (Turkey)
Agents: Sean Kennedy & Bora Sancar, Excel Sports Management
Career achievements: 2021 Turkish Super League MVP, 2019 FIBA Europe U18 silver medal, 2018 FIBA Europe U16 bronze medal

One of the draft’s most exciting overseas prospects,18-year-old Alperen Şengün, won Turkish domestic league MVP honors against grown men, much like Luka Dončić did as a teenager in the EuroLeague with Real Madrid in 2018.

Şengün averaged 19.2 points, 9.4 rebounds, 2.5 assists, and 1.7 blocks per game during the regular season, finishing No. 1 in made field goals, field goal percentage, and offensive rebounds and No. 2 in blocks, total rebounds, and points per game. He can play as an old-school low post banger, but few big men his age can pass the ball and bring it up the floor like he can.

About The Author
Sam Dunn
Sam Dunn
Sam Dunn is the Managing Editor of Boardroom. Before joining the team, he was an editor and multimedia talent for several sports and culture verticals at Minute Media and an editor, reporter, and site manager at SB Nation. A specialist in content strategy, copywriting, and SEO, he has additionally worked as a digital consultant in the corporate services, retail, and tech industries. He cannot be expected to be impartial on any matter regarding the Florida Gators or Atlanta Braves. Follow him on Twitter @RealFakeSamDunn.