The NBA’s annual draft combine is underway in Chicago, with 67 players invited to take part in several days of workouts, drills, scrimmages, medical testing and interviews, all under the watchful eye of talent evaluators for the league’s 30 teams. That group, however, will not include many of the players widely expected to be selected with lottery picks in June’s 2017 NBA draft, including the prospects most frequently projected to go with the No. 1 overall pick.
Sources: Possible top pick Lonzo Ball formally informed NBA today he will skip the Draft Combine. Several top prospects expected to do same.
— Shams Charania (@ShamsCharania) April 29, 2017
Sources: Josh Jackson, Jayson Tatum, Lauri Markkanen, Jonathan Isaac, Dennis Smith, Malik Monk, along with Ball, skipping NBA Draft Combine.
— Shams Charania (@ShamsCharania) May 3, 2017
Among those most often identified as this draft’s top prospects, only Washington guard Markelle Fultz and Kentucky guard De’Aaron Fox attended the combine. But Fultz traveled to Chicago to meet with lottery teams rather than participating in on-court activities, while Fox came to meet with teams and take part in measurements and athletic testing, but not do five-on-five work, according to Jonathan Givony of DraftExpress.
This broad opt-out of combine work among top draft prospects isn’t anything new. Plenty of top talents in recent years — Anthony Bennett, Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker, Joel Embiid, Karl-Anthony Towns, Jahlil Okafor, Emmanuel Mudiay — have chosen to decline invitations for one reason or another.
Last year, Ben Simmons didn’t go to Chicago, and wound up going first overall. Neither did Domantas Sabonis or Dejounte Murray, both of whom wound up coming off the board in the first round and going to playoff teams (the Oklahoma City Thunder and San Antonio Spurs, respectively). Several others — Brandon Ingram, Jamal Murray, Buddy Hield — attended, but didn’t get active on the floor, and all of them still went in the top 10.
When Kevin Durant was about to enter the draft after a historically brilliant freshman year at Texas, skipping the combine hadn’t yet become a popular option for top players. He wishes it had been; the Seattle Times reported on a confidential report from the predraft camp that Durant “was the only player who could not bench press 185 pounds at least once.”
The report caused the then-18-year-old forward plenty of grief, and it still burns him to this day. Ten years later, Durant made no bones about advising prospects of the future to blow off the dog and pony show in a chat with ESPN’s Chris Haynes:
“Stay your ass home, work out and get better on your own time,” Durant suggested to potential top prospects. […]
“I remember it like it was yesterday,” Durant said, as he adjusted his body to get comfortable in his seat. “All the strength coaches were laughing at me and s—. They were giggling with each other that I couldn’t lift 185 pounds, and I was like, ‘All right, keep laughing. Keep laughing.’ It was a funny thing, because I was the only one that couldn’t lift it and I was struggling to lift it. I was embarrassed at that point, but I’m like, ‘Give me a basketball, please. Give me a ball.'” […]
“I knew nobody in that draft could guard me one-on-one,” Durant said. “I knew that for sure. I knew that. And I knew that you don’t need to [bench-press] to lift a basketball up. And I knew that this wasn’t football, where that stuff matters. I knew as a basketball player I had a lot of skill, more skill than anybody in the draft. And I knew that if I worked as hard as I could, then that s— wouldn’t matter at the end of the day. It still doesn’t matter. I was ranked the last person in camp, drills-wise. I was the worst player, and the first player didn’t get drafted. That tells you a lot about the significance of that s—.”
The bench-press issue didn’t impact Durant’s draft stock too much. The Seattle SuperSonics picked him second overall, and he promptly began incinerating defenses, winning Rookie of the Year honors to start a career that has thus far included eight All-Star berths, six All-NBA selections, four scoring titles and the 2013-14 Most Valuable Player award. (Thanks, in part, to years of work in the gym.)
A couple of days of poor workouts resulting in an “overall performance ranked 78th out of 80 prospects” in attendance didn’t derail any of that, or even come close. Still, Durant would’ve preferred avoiding the pain in the neck all together, and he can’t blame the expected top prospects who take advantage of that opportunity today. More from Haynes:
Asked what advice he would give to a potential lottery pick, he responded without hesitation, “Don’t go [to the combine].” […]
Durant acknowledged that the combine is good for players who are trying to fight their way into the first round.
“But if you’re like a top pick and you know you’re going to be a top pick, just work out,” he said. “Just work on your game, and then they’ll see you in the individual workouts, and they’ve been watching you all year, so your whole body of work is more important than just going there for a couple of days.”
There’s another element for top prospects to consider, too, one that Givony laid out in discussing prospects passing on the combine last year:
The reason for [players skipping out]? Agents would prefer not to have their clients go through the exhaustive medical screening the NBA puts every Combine participant through, especially now that the Combine is held before the official order of the NBA draft is set at the Lottery […] The physical is an incredibly important component to most team’s decision making process, and is one of the few pieces of leverage agents have.
That, as Givony wrote, makes it tougher on teams to glean as much information on prospects from the pre-draft combine as they might like:
Instead, agents are telling NBA teams that their best chance of seeing first-round prospects on the basketball court (outside of private workouts) is at another scheduled setting.
[…] almost every major agency will be conducting pro days in New York, Los Angeles, Sarasota, Fla., Chicago and Las Vegas. All 30 teams will travel to these different settings to watch agencies put their players through very light workouts designed to highlight their clients’ strengths and hide their weaknesses. NBA executives will be there because they don’t want to miss out. But will they actually learn anything?
There is at least some skepticism that they will:
The NBA draft combine: Where every player would love to play for every team and feels they would be a perfect fit in [insert team] system.
— Chris Mannix (@ChrisMannixYS) May 11, 2017
… which is why there have been rumblings about reorienting the draft calendar and procedures:
Also hearing moving the NBA Draft lottery date to before the NBA Combine, and high number of top-10 picks declining invites, also brought up https://t.co/vqLJVISW1p
— Jonathan Givony (@DraftExpress) May 10, 2017
Some GMs concerned about Combine being devalued by elite prospects declining invites. One solution: tie Green Room to NBA Combine attendance
— Jonathan Givony (@DraftExpress) May 10, 2017
Until or unless the NBA can find a way to make attendance and participation all but compulsory, though, top prospects and their representatives have to decide for themselves whether it’s worth their while to show up and show out. If the best-case scenario is that they dominate and cement their already-likely position, and the worst-case scenario is that they stumble down the board and/or have to deal with an embarrassment that might stick in their craw a full decade later, you’d have to imagine that many of them will take Durant’s advice.
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