Each year, the upper-echelon of NBA Draft prospects — so-called lottery picks who are touted as potential franchise saviors and generational talents — dominate the headlines.
But if this past season has taught us anything, it’s that the rest of the draft warrants greater consideration.
The newly crowned NBA champion Milwaukee Bucks were not built from lottery picks but rather hidden gems.
Two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo went 15th overall to the Bucks in 2013. His sidekick, Khris Middleton, didn’t hear his name called until the Pistons selected him with the 39th pick in 2012.
Jrue Holiday, the final piece to Milwaukee’s superstar trio, went 17th overall to the 76ers in 2009. It’s through these non-lottery picks that franchises have a prime opportunity to separate themselves from other teams.
With that in mind, here are five sleeper and under-the-radar prospects to look out for in the 2021 NBA Draft.
Jalen Johnson, Forward, Duke
Perhaps the biggest wildcard in the 2021 NBA Draft, Johnson may very well hear his name called in the lottery come Thursday.
A consensus 5-star prospect out of high school, Johnson once seemed destined to become the next great Duke forward in a long lineage of Mike Krzyewski disciples.
But that never happened.
Johnson played only 13 games at Duke, putting up modest numbers — 11.2 points and 6.1 rebounds. His season ended prematurely when he opted to leave the program in January, citing health reasons amid the pandemic.
The 19-year-old certainly possesses plenty of upside.
At 6-foot-9, he is already a deft passer and ball handler, skills that young forwards tend to struggle with. Though he needs to become a more well-rounded scoring threat, he didn’t have a true college season to sharpen his arsenal.
Ayo Dosunmu, Guard, Illinois
Dosunmu nearly made the leap to the pros last year, but opted to return to Champaign for his junior season.
It’s safe to say the decision paid off, as Dosunmu cemented himself as one of the best players in the country, averaging 20.1 points, 6.3 rebounds and 5.2 assists while leading the Illini to a 24-7 record, the program’s best season in 14 years.
Dosunmu, who is 6-foot-5, has the ability to play both guard positions in the NBA. He proved himself to be a big-time shot-maker in college and should have little trouble functioning as a facilitator in the pros, especially given his wealth of pick-and-roll experience.
His jump shot remains a work in progress, though he improved drastically this past season, shooting a career-best 39 percent from distance. If Dosunmu continues to progress, he could provide supreme value for a late first-round pick.
Jared Butler, Baylor
Although Butler’s backcourt mate at Baylor, Davion Mitchell, is the more touted NBA prospect, Butler is no slouch. The first-team All-American averaged 16.7 points, 4.8 assists and 2.0 steals while leading the Bears to their first NCAA tournament championship in 2020-21.
There may be concerns over Butler’s health, as he had to be cleared by the NBA’s Fitness-to-Play panel, for an undisclosed reason, in June.
“I am fully healthy and cleared to play in the NBA!” Butler tweeted earlier this month.
It’s unclear whether his health concerns will lead to a slide come draft night. Whichever team selects Butler will reap the benefits of a bona fide first-round talent.
Ziaire Williams, Stanford
Like Johnson, Williams is a former 5-star prospect who underwhelmed during his lone season at the college ranks.
He proved to be an inconsistent scoring threat at Stanford, averaging 10.7 points while shooting 37.4 percent from the field and 29.1 percent from distance last season. At 6-foot-8, Williams oozes athleticism, but he’s far from a finished product and not the type of prospect who can contribute immediately to a winning team. Yet his upside as a formidable two-way player will make it difficult for teams to pass over him on draft night.
Isaiah Livers, Michigan
Livers would have been a candidate to go in the first round had he not suffered a stress fracture in his foot in March.
Now he is projected to be a late second-round selection, if picked at all, after injuries shortened Livers’ last two college seasons.
While healthy, Livers established himself as one of the best pure shooters in the country last season He shot 43.1 percent from beyond the arc at a high volume, taking five 3-pointers per game.
At 6-foot-7, he possesses the versatility to guard multiple positions and prides himself on defense. Teams may view Livers’ age — he’s 23-years-old, older than most other prospects — as a downside. On the other hand, with four years of college experience under his belt, he could find his niche rather quickly, so long as he is healthy. It wouldn’t be surprising to see Livers contribute to an NBA team next season.