How Jalen Green, Cade Cunningham compare in the early race for No. 1 in the 2021 NBA Draft


Cade Cunningham and Jalen Green are the Nos. 1 and 3 overall recruits in the high school class of 2021. They are, by a near consensus among NBA talent evaluators, the early co-favorites to be the No. 1 pick in the 2021 NBA Draft. And they’ll both be taking different routes in their respective quests to the top of NBA Draft boards over the course of the next year.

Green announced on Thursday that he will bypass college entirely — punting on opportunities at Memphis, Auburn and overseas — to instead spend next season playing in the G League, the NBA’s developmental league, as part of a newly formed team in Southern California that will pay him in the ballpark of $1,000,000 in an enriching compensation package. Cunningham, meanwhile, has committed and signed with Oklahoma State, profiling as just the latest blue-chipper over the years expected to be one-and-done at the collegiate level.

How the next 14 months unfold leading up to the 2021 draft for Green and Cunningham will be a fascinating case study in the trend of how elite high school prospects decide to get themselves to the NBA. Cunningham will be the best prospect and player on a team likely to enter the season unranked. Green will be the best prospect in a league full of former draft picks, draft hopefuls and veterans still clinging to the hope of an NBA future. Cunningham will be the face of the Big 12, and those in Stillwater hope that of college, too. Green will be the face of a rise in G League popularity as part of the NBA’s initiative to provide top-level recruits with a paid gig in place of college. 

Two different one-and-done routes. Two similarly high-profile prospects. Both with one goal: to be the No. 1 pick in the 2021 NBA Draft.

Jalen Green’s path

Players have been drafted into the NBA out of the G League before, most recently Alen Smailagić last year, but never has a player gone from playing in high school to the G League. 

Two years ago Syracuse pledge Darius Bazley committed to becoming the first. He spurned college for the G League and a $1 million deal with New Balance. But Bazley never played a minute in the G League and spent the year training and preparing for the 2019 NBA Draft instead. He was selected 23rd overall by the Oklahoma City Thunder after a strong pre-draft process.

Green isn’t Bazley, either, which is to say Green’s pro prospects are entirely different than Bazley’s. He’s an elite talent and a potential No. 1 pick — a combo guard NBA scouts have been salivating over for years. At 6-foot-5, 170 pounds and barely 18 years old, he’s an explosive leaper with a drop-your-jaw-on-the-floor first step, scoring and touch to boot. His prospects aren’t his problem. The visibility of his prospects, however, might be.

The G League isn’t exactly the NBA: fans are sparse, gyms are small, exposure is limited. You won’t be finding him on CBS on a loaded Saturday of sports. His highlight-reeling ways are sure to land him a few rounds on the social media circuit, but becoming culturally relevant in the G League like NBA or college players is an uphill climb. Even for as unique a talent as Green, it’s unlikely fans of basketball are going to be tuning in to watch his L.A. team take on other opponents. 

That could serve as another speed bump for him: competition. The G League is full of grown men, but it’s not the only competition he will face. As ESPN reports, the venture Green is committed to features competition from NBA academies, foreign national teams and G League teams. The competition will be tough and physical. Green’s a prolific talent, but the odds of him dropping 20 and 10 every night the same way Zion Williamson did at Duke are slim to none.

Still, the appeal of setting a trend and going the G League route is undeniable. He’ll be a pro and get a year practicing what it’s like to be an NBA player. He won’t have hour limits dictated by the NCAA, nor eligibility to maintain, nor classes to attend. Further, he’s not joining a traditional G League team, but rather an affiliate of sorts custom-fit to his development. Combine that with a whopping salary no college player can touch, and it’s easy to see how Green’s decision-making process might’ve unfolded.

Even if he’s not putting up big numbers in his new environment, context will be key to scouting Green, especially if — and likely when — he’s not matching the same counting stats as those of his college counterparts.

Cade Cunningham’s path

The path of a one-and-done college player is far more worn out than the one Green is aiming to etch out for himself. The last 10 (!) No. 1 overall picks were one-and-done college players. That’s a list that includes Zion Williamson, John Wall, Kyrie Irving, Markelle Fultz and Ben Simmons, among others. And of those 10, four were point guards like Cunningham.

Most of the prior one-and-dones who went on to be No. 1 picks were success stories in some form. Anthony Davis won a national title then declared. Zion Williamson won National Player of the Year honors, became perhaps the most famous college athlete of the decade, then declared. DeAndre Ayton was a consensus All-American before he declared. Even Ben Simmons, whose lone season at LSU was pretty rough, had individual success as a consensus All-American and showcased his skills as a top pick. Cunningham following that lineage isn’t hard to imagine.

You’ll notice a trend though: most of those players hailed from blue-bloods. Five of the last 10 one-and-dones were either from Kentucky or Duke. And those that struggled either as a team in college or as an individual at the next level — Simmons, Anthony Bennett or Markelle Fultz — came from non-traditional college powers like Cunningham will be doing with Oklahoma State. Coincidental, perhaps, but it’s a lens through which some may view him.

The stars are aligned for him to shine though. Being a 6-foot-6 prodigious playmaker helps. So does a 7-foot wingspan, lockdown defensive skills and passing that will be among the tops in the sport next season. He should put up gaudy numbers for a potential tournament team that is positioned to thrive with him running the show.

The best-case scenario for Cunningham far exceeds that of Green’s over the next year. If he’s as good as advertised, he’ll be a Player of the Year contender on a nationally relevant team, with the Zion treatment as a celebrity college star to boot. The worst-case scenario for him is less exposure — comparable to Bennett or Fultz — on a team that ultimately underachieves, perhaps through no fault of his own. Oklahoma State hasn’t been to the Big Dance since Brad Underwood left for Illinois in 2017, so even getting into the field of 68 may be considered a reasonably successful season.

Positioning for No. 1 in 2021

Jalen Green’s at an advantage monetarily with a robust package that could earn him $1 million over the course of the coming season. But he’s at a disadvantage when it comes to exposure, visibility and overall relevance. Even for as popular as the NBA is, its developmental league doesn’t have fans camping out overnight for games ready to rock their alma mater. The No. 1 pick race isn’t a popularity contest, but popularity influences the exposure and, ultimately, how many people view the draft.

He’s also attempting to be the first of his generation to pull this off. Perhaps that’s why he’ll be treated with an abundance of admiration from the G League and the NBA. But maybe the coaching, training and rigorous development he would get from a college program is something he misses out on — even if the competition he faces in the G League is stiffer than that Cunningham will face in college.

Ultimately, though, Cunningham’s advantage comes down to talent. He’s a more polished player at this stage. His feel for the game as a passer, playmaker, shot-creator and defender is unmatched. Even if the roles were switched — Cunningham in the G League and Green at Oklahoma State — I’d give the edge to Cunningham because of that. The additional exposure he’ll get from the NCAA season on a good Oklahoma State team will simply be gravy.

There is, of course, time for all of that to change. Green could assert himself as the No. 1. Evan Mobley could dominate at USC and inject himself into the race. There’s always an unknown when you’re making projections this far out. But comparing styles, impact and situations, Cunningham’s immediate outlook looks to be the safest, with his positioning to become the 11th consecutive one-and-done player to become the No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft.





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