It only takes one team to fall in love with a player for him to be selected significantly earlier than mock drafts predicted he would fall.
While mock drafts are an inexact science, they do offer a general range for where a player is expected to land on draft night. When a player is able to significantly outperform projections from well-sourced reporters, there will be some sort of compelling reason.
Those explanations vary, of course, and can sometimes be more shocking to fans than to rival front offices. But there are always going to be some twists and turns that raise some eyebrows. Some selections may be considered to be a reach — but they were all made with intentionality.
Here is our best guess as to why the following players were drafted so much earlier than expected:
Aggregate Mock Draft rank: 18
Actual draft position: 10
Ziaire Williams was a projected lottery pick heading into the season so this didn’t exactly come from left field. He was a high school star alongside the likes of Bronny James at Sierra Canyon and he was an AAU standout for the Oakland Soldiers.
But the year couldn’t have gone worse for Williams during his time at Stanford. He lost several family members to COVID-19. His team was not able to practice or play at their home facility to pandemic-related restrictions. He was essentially living fully in hotels for the first few months of the season and there was no sense of normalcy.
The freshman was also dealing with a knee injury, playing several games with a cumbersome brace that impeded his movement. During his one-and-done campaign, he was never able to put his best foot forward.
“As a young man, going through all that adversity, those trials and tribulations are only going to make me stronger,” Williams told HoopsHype on the night of the draft. “I was at the bottom but it can only start to go up from here. I didn’t necessarily get everything I wanted but I got everything I needed.”
He was able to explain all of those extenuating circumstances to NBA teams during the pre-draft process. He was also lucky enough to tell them that he had actually grown since high school and now measured at just a quarter-inch shy of 6-foot-10 at the combine.
That’s particularly attractive because Williams is someone who plays on-ball, not as much in the frontcourt, but was still taller than some of the big men in the class including Moses Wright and Jeremiah Robinson-Earl.
When you’re that tall and you can hit a pull-up jumper and you can handle ball screens, you’re someone who is going to be considered in the lottery.
Aggregate Mock Draft rank: 28
Actual draft position: 12
The biggest surprise of the draft came in the lottery when the San Antonio Spurs selected Alabama’s Joshua Primo.
HoopsHype was actually in the room with Primo when he was selected and even he didn’t believe his agent when he first heard that San Antonio pulled the trigger that early in the draft. But once reality settled in, the move made more sense.
Primo was the youngest player who was in this draft class and many believe that if he returned for another year of college, he would have been a lottery pick next season. If that’s the case, that makes him a lottery talent.
It’s too early to say what Primo is going to be in the NBA but what we do know is that he is 6-foot-5 with a 6-foot-9 wingspan. He averaged 1.25 points per possession on his jump shot this past season, per Synergy, which ranked 96th percentile among D-I players.
While he was mostly used as a floor spacer at Alabama, San Antonio likely believes he will be able an options to play several positions once he has more time to develop. But with maturity beyond his years and the right attitude that is needed to get better, once you chat with Primo it’s easy to believe in him.
Aggregate Mock Draft rank: 57
Actual draft position: 30
The Memphis Grizzlies didn’t just take a home run swing by going against the consensus opinion when they selected Ziaire Williams in the lottery. The front office also traded up to nab Santi Aldama.
Even though Aldama wasn’t someone who was mocked in the first round very often, his incredible body of work at his age made him a worthwhile sleeper candidate. Aldama won MVP at the U18 European Championships back in 2019, averaging 18.8 ppg with 7.6 rpg and 2.3 bpg en route to his medal for Spain. He also averaged more than two three-pointers per game during the tournament.
During his time in college, while he played in a lesser-known conference, Aldama was comparably dominant. He produced 21.2 ppg, 10.1 rpg, 1.7 bpg and 1.9 three-pointers per game while shooting 36.8 percent from beyond the arc as a sophomore.
Aldama joins Kevin Durant as the only underclassmen on record to ever average at least 20.0 points and 10.0 rebounds per game while also shooting at least 35 percent from beyond the arc (minimum: 3.0 attempts per game), per Basketball-Reference.
He is 6-foot-11 but has played like a wing as a sharpshooter who can even create his own basket out of the pick and roll every so often. If he is used as a draft-and-stash option, he can dominate overseas before beginning his NBA career. But his success shows that he can eventually make an impact at a high level.
Aggregate Mock Draft rank: 73
Actual draft position: 46
Nebraska’s Dalano Banton was one of the last players to declare early entry for the 2021 NBA draft, which led many people to believe he was just testing the waters.
Based on the scheduling, Banton wasn’t even originally invited to the G League Elite Camp. But he eventually secured an invitation, and when he did, he made the most of the opportunity. He recorded 8 points, 13 rebounds and 5 assists during his second scrimmage and he led the team in total plus-minus.
But this was nothing new for Banton. Among all players 6-foot-9 or taller who played at least 55 percent of minutes for their team last season, per Bart Torvik, no player recorded a higher assist percentage (27.5 percent) than he did this past season.
Banton became the first-ever Canadian player selected by the Raptors, which felt like fate. As he told HoopsHype:
“We knew the odds of us making it out were tough. I want to be a part of that. It would be crazy. I’m going to continue to put on from where I’m from. Over the years, Canadian basketball keeps showing what we can do. People will have to take that seriously at some point. We keep coming out with more and more guys.”
This was an impressive rise for Banton but a worthwhile pick for Toronto.