Jalen Suggs' journey to the NBA started as a 5-year-old in St. Paul, playing opponents twice his size and age. Already taking 1,000 shots a day and training for hours, he didn't know how far basketball could take him.
"But with my competitive spirit, I always wanted to play with the best and against the best from when I was a little kid," he said.
Proving he could play with anyone well beyond his years, Suggs just kept getting bigger and better. And now the 20-year-old former Minnehaha Academy and Gonzaga standout has a chance to be a top-five pick in Thursday's NBA draft at the Barclays Center in New York.
"I've been waiting for this for a long time," said Suggs, who will be joined by his parents and sisters at the draft. "Being able to work and get ready to turn these dreams into the reality … it's been a blessing."
A year after a record four Minnesotans were drafted, Suggs leads another group of local hopefuls, but he'll be the one likely making Minnesota hoops history. Fourth overall to the Toronto Raptors is the consensus among mock drafts where he'll get picked; no Minnesota-born player has been selected among the top four picks as a freshman.
The highest drafted player from the state was ex-Gophers star and Hibbing native Kevin McHale, who went third overall to the Boston Celtics in 1980.
A 6-4, 205-pound former high school quarterback, Suggs is supremely confident in his ability to lead and become the next NBA star from the Land of 10,000 Lakes. He says "sky's the limit" for his potential.
"I know I'll thrive in whatever system and whatever city I end up in," Suggs said. "I will say the ones who do pass up on me and take another prospect, it'll come back. It will be to their detriment."
During a memorable freshman season, Suggs earned All-America honors while leading 31-1 Gonzaga to the NCAA title game. His half-court buzzer beater to thwart UCLA in the Final Four semifinals became an instant classic. His NCAA tournament, though, could be defined by more than one iconic shot.
Suggs averaged 16.2 points, 5.2 assists, 4.8 rebounds and 1.8 steals in the last five NCAA tourney games, including 22 points in the loss to Baylor in the national championship.
"He elevated us tremendously," Gonzaga coach Mark Few said at the Final Four. "I mean, he's electric. You know, especially when you get him out in transition. He's confident enough … he's got a knack, again, for just fitting [passes] into small windows."
Almost any other year, Minnesota's brightest hoops star would easily be in the running for the draft's top spot. But Oklahoma State's Cade Cunningham, NBA G League Ignite's Jalen Green and Southern Cal's Evan Mobley all have No. 1 pick potential and are slated to go 1, 2, 3, respectively.
Suggs has the utmost respect for his peers in a loaded 2021 draft class that some analysts say could rival the 2003 NBA draft, which produced LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.
"As good as the top is the rest is amazing as well," Suggs said. "You look at the top five, it's me, Jalen, Cade, Scottie [Barnes] and Evan. All guys who I played with in USA Basketball. What great talents they are, but they're even greater people. I think that's what makes us so special. Our talent on the floor speaks for itself, but off the floor and in locker rooms, we're guys who lead."
As arguably the best leader, perimeter defender, and facilitator in the 2021 draft, Suggs is being compared with great pure point guards of the past, including a former Timberwolves player and NBA champion with the Detroit Pistons.
"I'm a big fan," ESPN college basketball analyst Fran Fraschilla said. "To me, he's Chauncey Billups, what he became at Minnesota and Detroit. Jalen is definitely a point guard, but he's big enough to be a [shooting guard]. He can shoot it. He defends it. He's competitive. I just think he's got all the attributes of being an NBA star."
Stardom isn't new to the Suggs family. His cousin, Terrell, is a two-time Super Bowl champion and was the NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 2011. His uncle, Rickey, was runner-up for Minnesota Mr. Basketball in 1980. And Jalen's dad, Larry, was a high school standout at Woodbury in the 1990s.
"When you talk about the family, they're really athletic and really well known," Suggs said. "I'm looking to carry that on."