I felt a palpable sense of excitement walking into the Quest Multisport Complex for Day 1 on the 2018 NBA Combine. Media availability schedule in hand, I immediately began plotting which players I would try to get some sound bites from. After checking in and grabbing some lunch (boxes of Jimmy Johns were provided for us) I took a moment to soak everything in and get my bearings.
The first thing I noticed was how small and quiet the media room was. Everyone had to squeeze in and out of the tiny folding cheers and good luck typing if you had someone sitting next to you. There was about maybe 80-120 journalists there from various mediums and each person had a different angle to cover. The main topic discussed all day was how cold the gym was. It was freezing. Walking down the hallways, I often overheard, “Woo, it’s cold in here”. I wondered if the gym deliberately cold as a form of stress test for the combine participants and how it would affect their performances.
I was surprised by how quiet and casual an atmosphere it was. A lot of former players, team reps, other media members and sponsors seemed more interested in hobnobbing than evaluating performances. Former NBA and Duke player Cherokee Parks probably set a record for most handshakes and high fives doled out while walking through the gym. The layout of the complex also made it somewhat difficult to keep track of what was going on. The media were confined to the bleacher seats where we could essentially only watch the main court where the scrimmages and standard drills were held. There was another court primarily used for warm-ups. The physical measurements took place off to the side which was difficult to observe but you could see some players sprinting or doing the vertical tests intermittently.
There was about 60 NBA combine drill participants and that did not include presumptive top ten picks, Mohamed Bamba, Jaren Jackson Jr., Michael Porter Jr. and Trae Young. They were only there to be interviewed by teams and the media and will be having their own private workouts later. After watching the shooting drills it quickly became apparent why the players at the top of the lottery don’t participate in the combine anymore. The performances were underwhelming, too many of the players were rushing their shots during the shooting drills and you could feel an increasing sense of desperation as each shot clanked off the rim. “I’m better than this I know it! Why am I shooting like this?” is what probably ran through the heads of a lot of the players.
Shooting drills are an interesting practice to evaluate because it’s meaningless if you make most of the shots but carries more weight with each miss. Landry Shamet performed well during the shooting drills showing a natural stroke but that’s common knowledge and expected of him. Now if he under-performed in the shooting drills then teams could potentially slide him down their draft boards. For this simple reason there’s no advantage to be gained from a shooting prospect like Trae Young to participate as there no outcome that would benefit him but several outcomes that could harm his draft stock. Kris Wilkes and Kenrich Williams were amongst the worst performers in this drill and Landry Shamet, Gary Trent and Tyus Battle also performed well.
For the scrimmages the participants were split into 4 teams of about 10 players. The scrimmages were untidy and play were not cohesive which is understandable since they do not have much experience playing with each other. It created an interesting dynamic where players were often trapped in the predicament of whether to play selfish or selfless. This was seen time after time when multiple players battled their own teammates for free defensive rebounds. The scrimmages were done at a frenetic pace more akin to a hockey game. The coaches of each team tended to have them play in 3 minute bursts and then do a full team substitution, so there was some issues with fluidity. Ball control was also an issue with a lot of the point guards seemingly uncomfortable with the high level of pressure applied on them constantly. Tony Carr seemed to have extra difficulties keeping control of the ball. Some odd quirks started to emerge as well as there was a particular part of the floor that players kept stepping out of bounds from. This happened about 4 times in an eight minute span.
The scrimmages looked closer to the Royal Rumble in wrestling rather than an actual basketball game at times with many players taking hard falls. I heard some people exclaim that they were surprised that more players don’t get injured playing basketball. This was pretty eye opening to me and it confirmed my earlier observation of the risks associated with elite prospects taking part in the combine. Sure, DeAndre Ayton could dominate in the scrimmage but why would he want to risk being injured in an ultimately meaningless game?
Even though the games were about showcasing skills and not necessarily about winning, Sagaba Konate brought his signature exuberance and defense to the floor. If drafted he will would immediately be one of the most physically imposing players in the NBA and the primal screams he emitted after each of his blocks served as perhaps a mating call to NBA front offices that could use and injection of vigor and personality of the court. He could quickly become a fan favorite and it’s easy to see a team taking an early second round flier on him and hopes that he develops some semblance of an offensive game.
An essential part of the combine is getting to hobnob with team reps, apparel companies and other journalists and the topic du jour was the Cleveland Cavaliers. Their name came up the most in trade chatter and the fate of their 8th pick should serve as some indication of whether LeBron will resign. The Cavaliers poor performance in the first two games of the Eastern Conference Finals was also a common topic yet nobody seemed to be surprised.
Due to a combination of a deep draft, increased player movement and a lower than expected cap, this NBA draft seems to be one in which there will be many trades. Since the Golden State Warriors have essentially set the market on buying a late 1st round/early 2nd round pick we can expect to see a flurry of activity on draft night as undoubtedly great prospects will slide on June 21st. We will most certainly see teams having extensively scouted players in the lottery trading back when they see a player that they would not think would be available that late in the draft.
A lot of prognosticators tend to declare winners and loser of the NBA combine. I think as a concept t’s pretty overblown as most players by virtue of being invited to the combine has shown to be worthy of consideration. We tend to get overly excited by measurables but max vertical jump and wingspan have shown to be pretty irrelevant to a player’s success after they have been drafted. Similarly, less heralded prospects can increase their visibility by a good combine showing but unless they have great team interviews and lots of great tape, a good combine can only go so far. In this era of misinformation a players height should really be tracked more accurately prior to the combine and no player should ever be measured to be shorter than their listed height.
I was surprised by how polished the players were during their media sessions. It’s easy to forget that they are still teenagers due to their abnormal size but the sheer poise and presence Mohamed Bamba, Jaren Jackson Jr, Trevon Duval and Khryi Thomas, to name a few, showed during their interviews were amazing. Their responses were thoughtful and in depth and even though they benefited from media coaching they were still able to showcase their personality. The NBA is first and foremost a business and poise in front of the media goes a long way into convincing a team into choosing you to be the face of their franchise. I think the 2018 NBA draft will be one to remember .