NBA Draft combine more about questions than answers
In the process of reporting a story about a player with a long shot to be picked in this summer’s NBA Draft, I asked an NBA scout how important the Chicago combine, which took place last week, would be to clarify where that player’s draft hopes stood.
Having never been to the combine but also possessing at least a modicum of common sense and a fair amount of knowledge about the event, I assumed his answer would be neutral: It’ll give a better idea of where he stands, there will be some more definitive answers about his game, etc., etc., etc.
Instead, though, the scout offered this: “It won’t clarify unless he really, really sucks it up.”
I’d always known that the combine was pretty worthless for the top 10 or so picks, that they limit and train themselves to the point that there’s infinitely little they can say or do to hurt their prospects. But a player who’s on the fringe of being drafted, and even he would need an utter implosion to derail his chances at remaining in the conversation – sounds crazy, no?
Really, though, the combine is just the next step in that conversation, one that will continue Tuesday night with the NBA Draft lottery. It might be logical to think that the lottery is the next step after so much has been learned in Chicago, but really, most of the players who will be watching those ping pong balls and gathering at least a better guess at their fates would have had very similar guesses a week ago.
With 60 spots for 60 players, the NBA Draft makes no guarantees. A handful of those picked won’t go straight to the NBA. A handful of them may not ever play in the NBA, and those players were nonetheless in Chicago, nonetheless being reduced to a line of numbers, being quizzed with puzzles and problems and personality tests. Even the draft is just another step in the evaluation, so it’s hardly shocking, then, that four days in May might not make or break anyone’s career.
That’s not to say there isn’t value to the proceedings in Chicago. There are. Players are measured head to toe (seriously: it’s everything from hand length and width to wingspan to vertical reach), yielding a standardized spreadsheet of comparisons, and there are plenty of opportunities for them to impress at drills and other exercises. Plus, the 60 participants get a chance to interview with teams in a setting where teams can talk to anyone and everyone they please, quickly and efficiently.
That said, the four days of workouts hardly yield the watershed moments one might imagine. In fact, the workout portions are largely meaningless without 5-on-5 competition. Mock drafts have been out for months by mid-May point, with minor tinkering here and there, certain pundits in Team Nerlens Noel, others firmly entrenched in Team Ben McLemore, others in their own more obscure camps. Each can find reasons to justify his claim, each is right, each is wrong, and no draft combine is going to change that.
The problem with the combine, at its core, is that it’s a marketing tool for players as much as it is an evaluation session for teams, and everyone knows it. Most important and most obviously, agents know it. So, then, it’s reduced to something less, at least for the best players, the ones who have already proven themselves and who are firmly entrenched at the top of every draft board.
Every year, most of the highest-caliber players sit out the skill drills, instead just participating in interviews and measurements. Drills can only hurt them, they figure, when they’ve already been labeled the best. They’ll be measured, of course, which this year revealed letdowns for McLemore and Oladipo – both were two inches shorter than their 6-foot-5 listed heights – and a boost for Cody Zeller, whose 35-5 standing vertical jump was the highest ever by any player taller than 6-9 at the combine. Even so, it’s not like Oladipo and McLemore shrunk since the NCAA tournament. Zeller didn’t all of the sudden develop this vertical jump during workouts with his trainers. These players have been doing what they did all season with the same tools that were quantified at the combine, the only difference now being that their heights, weights and other specifications can be compared to NBA players at their positions.
Much of the information that might be valuable out of the combine should be taken with a grain of salt, as well, or at least considered from different angles. Think of it this way: Oladipo is shorter. Sounds bad. But he’s been doing what he did at 6-3, suggesting he makes up for his size. Maybe, or maybe being short is unequivocally bad.
Or this way: Most players are coached by their agents as to what to say in combine interviews, talked through answers to everything from the simplest questions to the most utterly abstract. (Reportedly this year there was one about the best way to escape from a blender.) They’re taught the value of “yes, sir, no sir,” of coasting over their weaknesses and hammering home their strengths. They’re taught to impress. T
his year, though, McLemore stood out, reportedly, for being as unpolished as they come. In a blog post by ESPN.com’s Chad Ford, an NBA general manager is quoted as saying that he could tell an agent hadn’t gotten to McLemore yet, touting it as a good thing: "I was really wowed by how candid and open he was. I felt like we got to see is heart a little bit. He's a wonderful young man. He's naïve and he really needs someone with some experience guiding him, but he was one of my two or three favorite interviews.”
Sure, the combine might yield some shuffling, but it hardly jettisons anyone from No. 25 to No. 5 or relegates a surefire lottery pick to the second round. Instead, it codifies and quantifies 60 players, and this week, many of the likely second-round picks will head to Brooklyn to another, slightly scaled-down, workout for all 30 teams. Then there will be another such event in Minneapolis and finally group and individual workouts for single teams.
The combine is just the start. It establishes a baseline, gives players a chance to royally screw up, which seems to be the only way it might utterly doom someone’s hopes. It is the first of many activities conducted in a relative vacuum after every other piece of evaluation was couched within the context of a game.
Its value lies in the fact that it’s different, at least somewhat individual, that it allows interaction beyond just videos of postgame press conferences. But really, to say it answers questions is too simplistic.
Instead, it creates them, and now NBA teams have a month to find their own answers.