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.”