Sunday Shootaround

Does the NBA Draft Combine still matter?

by Paul Flannery

CHICAGO — John Calipari was holding court by the baseline with a small group of writers. On the court behind him players wearing unfamiliar numbers and matching gear ran up and down in an endless 5-on-5 scrimmage while the men who hold their professional fate in their hands watched intently from the bleachers.

Surreal only begins to describe the NBA Draft Combine, a curious blip on the annual calendar in which the whole league gathers for two days at this West Side gym for the ostensible purpose of working out, measuring, and evaluating prospects. At its heart, the combine is a networking event wrapped around the middle of the playoff calendar. Everyone who is anyone in the NBA is here, and even unattached evaluators roll through town for the annual meet and greet.

Reporters position themselves for a bump and a side chat with GMs and information is the only viable currency. Writers want to know what the GMs are going to do, GMs want to know more about the players, and the players want to protect their interests. The players (via their agents) have come to understand that their information is so valuable that much of is not worth disclosing at the combine. It all makes for an awkward dance.

What was notable, but not surprising, about this year’s combine was who wasn’t here. Markelle Fultz, the likely No. 1 overall pick had already skipped town after a handful of private meetings with teams. Lonzo Ball, Josh Jackson, and Jayson Tatum didn’t even show at all. De’Aaron Fox, Calipari’s latest point guard prodigy, was in attendance and agreed to be measured but talk to the press until Friday.

Tough break for the scribes scrounging for a story, but then Cal appeared and all was well in our world. Observing the impromptu scene gathering around the Kentucky coach, New Orleans coach Alvin Gentry asked Cal in his deadpan manner if he could get him a chair. No need, the man was in his element delivering a delightful 20-minute back-and-forth that was part recruiting bluster and part improv comedy act for the grateful gaggle.

Cal pitched his players, sold his program, and even invited a writer to call him if he wanted to come to Kentucky to see the Wildcat madness for himself. He sliced his distinctions so thick he left a vapor trail of pithy spin and sharp-elbowed one-liners.

“I would never lie, but I’m not tilting it,” Calipari said about his conversations with NBA people. “There may be information that I’m not going to give them, but I’ll never lie.”

How do you do that, Cal?

“Have you ever been around me before?” he answered in mock seriousness to the writers who were clearly gathered around him. “You’d figure I’d have a way of doing it where nobody would be offended and they walk away saying, ‘What did he just say? Did he really say that? I don’t even know what he just said.’ Then they call me and I won’t pick up the phone.”

And if they lie to you about where one of your players might get picked?

“Then I won’t let them in the gym,” he shot back.

Cal held forth on Malik Monk: “Malik Monk is special, folks. Special.” He endorsed his big man Bam Adebayo — “I’ll be stunned if he’s not a lottery pick” — and made the case for Fox by casually reminding us that he also coached John Wall and Eric Bledsoe without so much as taking a breath in offering this breathless critique:

“I asked John Wall about that. I said, ‘John, is he as fast as you?’ He said, ‘Naaah. I asked Eric Bledsoe. He said, ‘Naaah.’ But he’s fast. Let me say this, John Wall uses his speed as a weapon. Wasn’t as good with the ball, scoring wise at that age. De’Aaron has floaters. He’s not a great 3-point shooter. Neither was John. John’s thing was ‘I’m going to that rim and I’m going to dunk on you.’ This kid didn’t use it as a weapon. The whole thing all season, sprint the ball for layups and when he did it was like, ‘Oh my god.’ He doesn’t view it as a weapon. Yet. When he views it as a weapon, it’s a wrap.”

Then there was the curious case of Hamidou Diallo, a preps-to-pros prospect who enrolled at Kentucky but didn’t play. Because he’s a year removed from his high school class, Diallo is eligible for the draft but he hasn’t signed with an agent yet and is keeping his options open.

Diallo wowed observers with his 44 1/2-inch vertical leap, but that’s just about all that anyone knows about the kid. Oddly enough, that may be his biggest advantage heading into the draft, along with that jaw-dropping vertical.

“Hami, they don’t know. Well, don’t show them,” Cal said. “They all like you right now without watching you. Good! The more you don’t play the more they like you, so don’t play! If someone takes him in the lottery, I will retire. There’s nothing more I can do. Four months, doesn’t play, lottery pick. I’m stopping.”

He’s not stopping, of course, not when he keeps churning out a steady supply of NBA prospects year after year. But then someone asked him the key question about this year’s combine. This week no less a figure than Kevin Durant suggested that the whole thing was a waste of time. Durant still harbors bad feelings about being embarrassed after he was unable to bench press 185 pounds a decade ago. There’s no way that in 2017 a player like Durant sets foot in Chicago, let alone subjects himself to a strength test.

“He may be right,” Calipari said. “For the guys if you think there’s anything here that will hurt you, don’t come. If there’s anything here that will help you, come. If you have to play to help yourself, come. If it doesn’t help you playing then don’t play. My job is to protect my guys. The job of these NBA teams is to get as much information as they can to get a great pick. So they would like to see every one of them play 5-on-5. It’s not the way it is for these kids.”

No, but then not everybody here is a top-5 pick and not everybody is a 5-star Kentucky recruit. For everyone else, which is most of the players here, this is a job audition. It’s the first step in a month-long evaluation process that will include countless meetings and coast-to-coast flights for individual workouts.

There are 30 guaranteed contracts on the line and 30 more opportunities after that to be chosen. The odds are stacked against many of these players having a career at all, let alone one that will endure. Emerge here with good measurables, solid play, and strong interviews and those odds can increase ever so slightly in their favor.

For a team with multiple picks, the combine is as good a chance to see these players up close. Nail these picks and a franchise’s fortunes can improve tremendously. Mess one up and it becomes that much harder to breakthrough in the future. So, yes, the combine still has value. It just depends on who you ask.

Consider Ivan Rabb, a 6’10 sophomore from California who was part of a celebrated recruiting class that included Celtics’ forward Jaylen Brown. Viewed as a potential lottery pick last year in a weak draft, Rabb went back to school and is now looking at the latter half of the first round. No regrets, though.

“I thought I needed it,” Rabb said. “The plan is to stick in the league for a long time, not get there as soon as possible. So I feel like I made the best decision for me.”

He added a bit of range, but his numbers didn’t improve noticeably and the Bears had a disappointing season. Without the proven ability to stretch the floor, Rabb lacks an obvious offensive role in the NBA. But he can rebound and rebounding translates across all levels. This is a chance to tell his story and he came across as prepared and focused.

“I changed my mentality a lot,” Rabb said. “I’m way more mature off the court, being able to say no to people. And on the court just knowing how to work. I did before but now it’s on a whole different level. I think people don’t know I got better. I was doubled every game so it was hard to show what I can really do. Now when I get in a setting where I’m not being doubled I can showcase my game.”

Then there’s Justin Patton, a 7-footer from Creighton who grew from 6’2 to 6’9 before his sophomore season in high school and took a redshirt season while he grew into his body. If Rabb is poised and confident, Patton is endearingly earnest. He plans to wear a bowtie on draft night because, “It’s kind of my signature.”

Patton needed to be here because even though he’s viewed as a mid first-rounder, nothing in his basketball career has ever been guaranteed. He was barely recruited out of high school and as he noted, if he didn’t have that growth spurt he wouldn’t be here at all. His one season with the Blue Jays was a revelation, showcasing a long, skilled player doused with that magic pixie dust of upside.

“I wasn’t focused on anyone else,” Patton said. “I was just focused on coming here, getting better and putting my results in. It’s a good experience. I’ve never been through an experience like this. I have the chip on my shoulder because people didn’t think I was good enough. There’s still some doubt in people’s mind. My job is to do as best I can to eliminate everyone’s doubt.”

During his interview process, one team asked him what he would do if he was driving and came upon a yellow light. Would he put his foot on the gas or slow to a stop? “Depends on where I’m going” was his answer, which seemed like a clever enough response. (Pressed on which team asked the question, Patton gave up the Timberwolves to which the assembled Chicago writers answered on cue, “Thibs!”)

Even as the top prospects were nowhere to be found, the combine endures with all of its fixation on wingspans, vertical leaps, and shuttle run times. For players like Patton and Rabb it’s their showcase and their stage to make a lasting impression. I asked Patton what he learned about himself during that redshirt season and he had a great answer ready for that one, as well.

“My potential is unfathomable,” he said. “I can go as far as I want to go. I learned there’s really no limit. I learned I can be ready for this.”

The List Consumable NBA Thoughts

The top prospects may have skipped the Combine, but most of the projected first rounders did show up in Chicago to be measured and tested. Here are five to keep an eye on during the draft process.

Zach Collins

The one-and-done big man didn’t even start for Gonzaga but he was their most talented player and he was awesome on a per-minute basis. Collins is a 7-footer who runs the floor, rebounds, and has a versatile offensive game with an ability to post-up and shoot from range. A strong NCAA Tournament run pushed him from the lower half of the first round into the lottery on mock drafts and he seems likely to continue rising during the pre-draft process.

OG Anunoby

The Indiana wing missed the second half of his sophomore season after injuring his knee, but he never disappeared from the NBA’s radar. Anunoby was an unheralded recruit who made a strong impression as a freshman, particularly on the defensive end where his size and athleticism are ideal for the NBA. He’s a work in progress offensively and his shooting needs work, but he still made 70 percent of his field goals for the Hoosiers before his injury.

Terrance Ferguson

The shooting guard class is notably light this season and Ferguson is an intriguing prospect. The Tulsa native was a big-time recruit who skipped college and played professionally in Australia where he played a limited but meaningful role for his team. Ferguson is a bit of a mystery — a shooter who didn’t shoot that well in Australia — but he’s 6’7 and certainly looks the part.

Donovan Mitchell

Speaking of shooting guards who look the part, the Louisville star is four inches shorter than Ferguson, but has a longer wingspan stretching out to 6’10. Mitchell also has a track record, averaging 15 and 5 for the Cardinals with an improved 3-point shooting stroke. Comparisons have been made to Victor Oladipo and it’s a measure of how deep this class is that Mitchell is thought of as a mid first-rounder.

Harry Giles

One of the nation’s top recruits even with a pair of knee injuries, Giles had a limited role in his one season at Duke. His skillset appeared limited and he was often tentative in small minutes. Giles offers way more potential than production, but he has the size and length to make it in the league. He also has enormous hands, for whatever that’s worth. Giles is a fascinating prospect for a team picking late in the first round.

By The Numbers The stats that explain the week

28

We all expect to get Round 3 of the Cavaliers and Warriors in the Finals, but it’s still jarring to watch how dominant each team has been through two rounds of the playoffs. Neither team has been threatened at any point during their respective match-ups and the handful of relatively close games are notable mainly for their scarcity. Together, the Cavs and Warriors have been 28.4 points better than their opponents per 100 possessions. Of the two, Golden State has the higher number (17.4), but what’s no other team is even close to their output. They are the two most dominant teams by a wide range, and here are four more numbers that explain how they have both ratcheted up their games for the postseason.

8

The words ‘transition defense’ qualified as reasonable shorthand to describe the Cavaliers’ play down the stretch of the regular season. Highlight after highlight of the Cavs getting burned in transition reinforced the impression that they were on auto-pilot. They’ve been much better in the postseason, allowing just over eight fast break points per game. That’s a 5-point improvement and in line with their overall defensive surge. Some of that has to do with their phenomenal shooting — you can’t run when you’re taking the ball out of the basket — and some of it has to do with being locked into the task at hand. Regardless, the Cavs aren’t giving away points anymore.

11

If the Warriors have an Achilles heel offensively, it’s their penchant for throwing the ball away. The Dubs can be both careless and overly ambitious. It rarely catches up with them because they can shoot their way out of most problems and their ambitious confidence is a huge part of what makes them great. There is a balance to be struck, however, and the postseason Warriors have found it. They ranked 20th in turnover rate during the regular season, giving away over 14 percent of their possessions. That number has been reduced to just 11.4 percent of their possessions during the playoffs;the best in the league.

14

The Cavs are a really good shooting team that has become great during the playoffs. They’ve made an average of 14 3-pointers per game, which leads all teams. With Kyle Korver and Deron Williams joining Channing Frye, J.R. Smith and Kyrie Irving, the three has become a vital weapon in their attack. How many times did the Raptors see a hard-earned lead turn into a deficit in a matter of minutes? That series might have been an extreme example, but the Cavs loaded up on shooting for this very reason. No lead is safe and no game is ever close unless you can match them from behind the arc.

82

The Warriors were were the second-worst defensive rebounding team (ahead of only the Celtics) during the regular season allowing a quarter of the available boards to go the other way. In the postseason, the Dubs are clearing 82 percent of defensive rebounds. Again, that’s the best number in the league. Draymond Green and Kevin Durant have both been monsters on the glass and everyone from guards to role players have done their part. What all of this comes down to is that both Cleveland and Golden State have minimized their weaknesses and capitalized on their strengths. It’s an unbeatable combination, until the Finals when something has to give.

Say What? Ramblings of NBA players, coaches and GMs

“I thought teams would compete a little harder. I just watched San Antonio-Houston. I like to watch good basketball. When you watch Cleveland play, you’re only watching one side of the good basketball. That’s kind of weak.”

— Warriors forward Draymond Green.

Reaction: Draymond’s troll game was functioning at an all-NBA level this week.

“All I know is what we have been doing has not worked. And I have to look at that, we have to take a serious look at that. Because we’ve tried it and tried it and tried it and tried it and you know what? It hasn’t taken us to the highest level. It’s gotten us to a good place as a team but it hasn’t worked for us.”

Raptors GM Masai Ujiri.

Reaction: When the boss is questioning the team’s playing style and throwing around words like ‘culture reset’ it’s not hard to see where this goes from here. The Raptors as we knew them are dead. What they’ll be in the future is an open question.

“A ring. Nothing else. I just want a ring. I think I can do that anywhere I play. That’s just how confident I am. I’ve got to get better and I want to beat the best. Whatever it takes to beat the best, that’s what I’ve got to do.”

— Raptor free agent Kyle Lowry.

Reaction: It’s dangerous business to hold comments like this against a player in July when they make their decisions, because there are so many variables in play. What if the Raptors balk at a fifth year and a ring bearer doesn’t materialize leaving Lowry to sign a max deal with his hometown 76ers (to cite one possibility)? Lowry is 31 and likely looking at his last chance at max money.

“It’s been so much fun for me here in Utah and growing up here, starting a family, growing from a basketball standpoint, growing from just a man standpoint. I have nothing but love for everybody in Utah.”

Jazz free agent Gordon Hayward.

Reaction: This is Hayward’s first chance at unrestricted free agency and he will be one of the most coveted players on the market. Even if he doesn’t make an All-NBA team Hayward is is that class and in his prime. One would think the Jazz would do everything to lock him in place, but Utah has other free agent concerns, including George Hill, heading into the summer.

“I don’t feel like I had a huge game. I felt better than the previous ones, that’s for sure, but I guess the standards are a little lower than before.”

Manu Ginobli after leading the Spurs to a win in Game 5.

Reaction: We must cherish any and all Vintage Manu games.

Vid of the Week Further explanation unnessecary