Updated: Oct 9, 2021
It’s April 3, and Johnny Juzang—UCLA’s fearless leader throughout the NCAA March Madness tournament—has just tied the score against Gonzaga in overtime at 90-90. With 3.3 seconds left, Gonzaga has to make a miraculous basket. Or else, the Bruins and Bulldogs—already having gone blow for blow for nearly 45 minutes— would fight for a spot in the National Championship in double overtime.
Corey Kispert inbounds the ball for Gonzaga and fires a pass to Jalen Suggs, who sprints down the court knowing it’s now or never. Just inside halfcourt to the right of the logo, he fires a prayer toward the basket. He banks it in from 40 feet as time expires and immediately leaps onto the scorer’s table, arms raised and fists pumping in celebration.
“I’ve always wanted to run up on the table like Kobe and D-Wade and go like that, and that’s the first thing I did,” Suggs said after the game, his voice shaky from the adrenaline.
He’ll have many more of those moments in the NBA.
Though the Bulldogs failed to complete an undefeated season against Baylor in the National Championship, their starting roster was absolutely stellar. They have NBA potential written all over them, with Kispert and Suggs both projected as lottery picks in the 2021 NBA draft. But the latter is the one that has the best outlook in the pros.
Suggs is simply an electrifying player to watch, from his crafty passes to his shiftiness around the basket. He was able to show off his athleticism in high school, where he led the Minnehaha Academy football team to three consecutive Minnesota 2A state titles. As a senior, Suggs became the first athlete in Minnesota history to win Mr. Football and Mr. Basketball in the same year. He received offers from top football programs like Georgia and Ohio State to play quarterback, but he ultimately chose to pursue basketball at Gonzaga.
It was no secret that Suggs is a talented basketball player. People already had him going in the top-10 of mock drafts before he played a single game in a Gonzaga uniform. But as the season progressed and the Bulldogs never took their foot off the gas, it became clear that Suggs was a special talent. He finished the season as a consensus second-team All-American with averages of 14.4 points, 5.3 rebounds, and 4.5 assists per game on an efficient 50.3% shooting from the field.
The offensive numbers are impressive, but his defensive intensity was an underrated part of what will almost certainly be Suggs’s only collegiate season. He averaged almost two steals per game and jumps passing lanes with nice anticipation.
Suggs plays with unending confidence and a competitive spirit. That grittiness was evident in the title game, as he battled to the very end despite Baylor’s suffocating zone defense. He riled up the crowd after an and-one opportunity even though they trailed for the entire game. That’s one of the intangible qualities that NBA teams highly value—an unrelenting motor and the drive to always strive for greatness.
One NBA general manager seems to love Suggs’s traits, enough to warrant the first overall pick in the draft in July. Jordan Schultz of ESPN reported that “it’s because Suggs possesses a rare combination of special tools: Elite playmaking, lockdown defending and an overall competitiveness that helps transform an entire team’s DNA.”
Suggs certainly has top-three talent and potential, but if I had the first overall selection in July, Cade Cunningham would still be my choice. Cunningham didn’t have the March Madness run with Oklahoma State that he would have liked; the Cowboys were upset by the 12th-seeded Oregon State Beavers. But the 6-foot-8 guard is a perfect fit in today’s NBA. He can run an offense in his sleep, and he has enough touch from outside to keep defenders honest.
It really depends on how the draft order shakes out. The Timberwolves currently have the worst record, followed by the Rockets and the Pistons. They have the best odds at landing the first overall pick at 14 percent, and I can see all three of them taking Cunningham in a heartbeat. Some teams like the Magic and Cavaliers could very well pounce on Suggs if they land the second pick. They have young big men they want to build around in Wendell Carter Jr. and Jarrett Allen, respectively. Adding a lead guard in Suggs would be a great addition to both cities.
Suggs will be a surefire difference maker in the NBA, no matter what team is lucky enough to draft him. He may not be the first overall pick come July 29, but his March Madness performance gave a glimpse of what the league will be getting next season.