While the 5-on-5 scrimmages at Chicago’s NBA draft combine draw the most attention from fans and media members, the most important parts of the event, from the teams’ perspective, happen in private, far away from the spotlight.
The most crucial element is the physical, conducted by league-appointed doctors, in which players have everything (especially prior injuries) poked and prodded with X-rays and MRIs. Every year, a number of players fall unexpectedly in the draft based on the results of these medical examinations, even though it is far from an exact science and there is often quite a bit of disagreement among team doctors about the prognosis.
There are also measurements conducted to get an updated (or sometimes first) look at players’ true heights, weights, wingspans and standing reaches, as well as their body-fat percentages, which can provide some insight into a player’s body type and how seriously he has been training for the draft process since the season ended. Separately, players undergo a barrage of athletic testing intended to measure their speed, lateral quickness, agility, leaping ability, reaction time and strength. Teams don’t put a great deal of stock into these types of tests, but some interesting information can be gleaned from the outliers on both ends of the spectrum.
Another important part of the week: 13 hours of interview sessions scheduled in three batches over three days. All 30 teams submit in advance lists of players they would like to sit down with — a process that is reminiscent of speed dating, with players (who are typically well-prepared by their agents) going from hotel room to hotel room to meet NBA executives, coaches and team psychologists.
Finally, 40 of the players will play 5-on-5, while others will elect to participate only in shooting drills. This is a little more useful for coaching staffs and other NBA team representatives who weren’t able to evaluate players live throughout the year than it is for scouts who have followed these prospects for much of their careers. But it certainly does have an impact, even if just to confirm what people already thought about prospects going into the week.
Schedule and logistics
Monday and Tuesday: Players arrive. Elite prospects conduct physicals/medical testing. Combine participants are invited to watch NBA draft lottery show.
Wednesday: Measurements. Medical testing. First batch of NBA team interviews from 2-8 p.m.
Thursday: Second batch of NBA team interviews (8:30 a.m. to noon). Shooting drills, athletic testing and competitive 5-on-5 scrimmaging (1:45-6:30 p.m.). Elite prospects depart.
Friday: Final NBA team interviews (8:30 a.m. to noon). More drills, testing and scrimmages. In the evening: Remaining combine participants meet with players association (NBPA) representatives.
Saturday: Medical testing. Meeting with NBA player development group and NBPA.
Sunday: Medical testing.
Monday: Players depart, many to NBA team facilities for private workouts.
Players who can help or hurt their stock the most
Players rarely get drafted significantly higher than they were projected off a strong week at the combine, just as a poor performance is unlikely to move the needle too far in the other direction. Significant medical red flags or an usually bad series of interviews are much more likely to affect a players’ standing than a particularly hot shooting day or impressive vertical leap numbers.
That said, certain players have more to gain in Chicago than others, usually based on past exposure. Teams have extensive scouting evaluations on Devonte’ Graham, who spent four years at Kansas, took his team to the Final Four and went up against most of the top prospects in the draft.
Billy Preston, Graham’s former teammate at Kansas, is a different story. Because he was deemed ineligible and elected to leave the team midseason, very few of the hundreds of talent evaluators in Chicago have had a chance to watch him in person. A particularly excellent showing could resonate much more strongly. The same goes for Brian Bowen, who was swept up in the FBI’s investigation into college basketball corruption and was able to practice at South Carolina only during the second semester. Since the NCAA has yet to make a ruling about his eligibility for next season, Bowen might not have a choice but to keep his name in the draft and start his professional career by trying to earn a spot in the second round — or prove to be worthy of a two-way contract.
The 20-year-old Mitchell Robinson faces some of the same challenges, as he voluntarily elected to withdraw from Western Kentucky in the preseason and has been completely off the radar of NBA teams. He is largely an unknown, as teams are not allowed to send executives to high school or AAU games, with one impressive showing at the Jordan Brand Classic last April being the extent of Robinson’s live-scouting résumé. Because he’s a projected late first-round pick, Robinson might elect to preserve his mystery man status and not put himself out for all to see against players who are significantly stronger and more experienced in such an important setting. Instead, he could wait for private workouts.
This is the type of cat-and-mouse game that goes on among agents, players and teams throughout the months of May and June. A handful of players, such as Deandre Ayton and Robert Williams, elected not to participate in any part of the combine, as they (perhaps rightfully so) feel they have nothing to gain and everything to lose by being forthcoming with their medicals, interviews, measurements and athletic testing data — let alone touching a basketball.
High school post-graduate Anfernee Simons declared his intentions to enter the NBA draft back in November, and he has been scouted extensively all season by teams, though perhaps not by GMs. The league initially asked him to compete in the 5-on-5 sessions, but his representation understandably balked at that, as he’d likely be woefully overmatched physically against the many NCAA seniors in attendance. — Givony
Testing the waters, with decisions to make
A number of intriguing prospects enter the combine retaining their college eligibility, and they’ll have until May 30 to decide whether to fully enter the draft or withdraw. Here are the five most interesting players to NBA teams, plus a few more to watch.
Tyus Battle | Syracuse | SG | Age: 20.6
Teams want to see Battle in a different role outside of Syracuse, where he was a ball-dominant shot-creator who posted a true shooting percentage of 52.9 largely because of late-clock, contested jumpers. Can Battle have an impact playing off the ball? Does he have any untapped playmaking potential, or is his wild style of play simply who he is? How will he look defensively outside of Syracuse’s zone? How does his hitchy 3-ball translate to the NBA line? Battle is a fringe first-round prospect who could potentially play his way into a guarantee with a strong showing.
Donte DiVincenzo | Villanova | PG/SG | Age: 21.2
DiVincenzo is also considered a fringe first-round prospect who could gain some fans in Chicago by proving his worth outside of Villanova’s system. He had the luxury of playing off veterans such as Jalen Brunson and Mikal Bridges, worrying mostly about making shots and defending his position. Teams will be interested to see whether DiVincenzo, who is a capable passer but prefers quick-hitting jumpers, can run a team if asked to do so. After a monster NCAA tournament, DiVincenzo’s stock might never be higher.
Omari Spellman | Villanova | C | Age: 20.8
Some teams see Spellman as a sure first-rounder with lottery potential, while others aren’t quite ready to ride his NCAA tournament wave. Spellman, who was as heavy as 287 pounds and seen as a bit lazy just two-and-a-half years ago, has done an excellent job getting in shape and buying into Jay Wright’s system at Villanova. After an up-and-down start to his redshirt freshman season, Spellman averaged 16.6 points and 13.0 rebounds per 40 minutes over his last five games while shooting 40 percent from 3. If Spellman does indeed play at the combine, teams will want to see him unleash the motor he showed for flashes in college while defending in space and displaying some level of feel on offense (more turnovers than assists last season). Should he play well in Chicago, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Spellman, who turns 21 in late July and has rising momentum, keep his name in the draft.
Josh Okogie | Georgia Tech | SG/SF | Age: 19.6
One of the youngest players to take the floor in Chicago, Okogie has the physical profile, defensive versatility and motor to thrive in a junk-it-up setting during 5-on-5 play. Tasked with more shot-creating duties than his skill set suggests, he should carry at Georgia Tech, it will be beneficial for teams to see Okogie in what’s likely more of a 3-and-D role. He isn’t the most gifted ball handler, on-the-move shooter or facilitator, but as long as he keeps it simple and shows his competitive nature, he could end up leaving Chicago in much better standing than when he arrived. While Okogie has everything in place to hear his name called in the first round next season, it’s fair to wonder how much he’ll improve in a similar role with the Yellow Jackets next season.
Kevin Huerter | Maryland | SG | Age: 19.7
The 19-year-old wing has the positional size and skill set to emerge as a late first-round pick with a strong performance in Chicago. At 6-foot-6 with a readymade stroke and a strong feel for the game, Huerter is the type of wing NBA teams want. He doesn’t need much volume to impact the game offensively (64.2 true shooting percentage as a sophomore), which could work in his favor in 5-on-5 settings. He’s also a much better passer than he gets credit for, something that he might be able to unleash with more talent around him. Teams will be watching how Huerter holds up defensively, as well as his ball skills and confidence level in a setting such as the combine as a 19-year-old. Huerter has the potential to develop into a high first-round pick next year should he opt to return to Maryland to turn around what was a disappointing 2017-18 season for the Terps.
More prospects to watch
Brian Bowen: Likely the first time teams will have seen Bowen since the 2017 Jordan Brand Classic, this will be a good gauge of how the 19-year-old has developed physically and skill-wise. Bowen doesn’t have much momentum behind him at the moment, so any production in Chicago is a positive, but building his résumé at South Carolina next season is likely his best bet.
Jontay Porter: Among the youngest players slated to play in the combine, Porter will have teams watching his physicality and whether he can hold up on the defensive end. He’s ultra-skilled as a stretch 5, but he struggles to guard in space and needs to tone up his frame.
Sagaba Konate: The high-motor center has the energy level and defensive acumen to shine in a helter-skelter setting such as the combine. Teams will be interested to see if he’s as effective defensively without West Virginia’s press funneling everything to him. They’ll also have a watchful eye on his temperament and offensive skill level with more freedom.
Kris Wilkes: Scouts will be watching to see if Wilkes’ 3-ball can translate to the NBA line, if he can think the game at a high enough level and if he’ll be able to defend with toughness and consistency against other highly touted prospects. Wilkes has some tools and skill to work with, and he proved capable of occasional scoring outbursts as a freshman, but he’s a long way from being able to impact an NBA game.
Jaylen Hands: One of the combine’s most surprising invites, Hands could be this year’s Kobi Simmons: a touted high school prospect who frustrates teammates and staff members with his selfish play while in college, yet intrigues an NBA team enough to earn a late second-round pick (or two-way deal) based on sheer ability. Should Hands stay in the draft, he’s likely destined for a couple of years of seasoning in the G League.
Cody and Caleb Martin: They are known pickup basketball junkies who have the approach to thrive in this type of setting. This is a great opportunity for scouts to tell the twins apart. For Caleb, scouts will want to see how his funky stroke translates to the NBA line and whether he’ll be willing to get others involved. Cody, the more feel-based player of the two, will have to prove there’s enough to work with as a shooter and overall scorer in the half court to warrant a draft pick.
Bruno Fernando: It will be interesting to see if the strong, mobile center has any more untapped skill than he was able to show at Maryland, where he averaged more than twice as many turnovers (53) as assists (21) in 30 games as a freshman.
Udoka Azubuike: Scouts will be watching to see if any aspect of Azubuike’s power-oriented game can translate to the NBA, as he’s strictly an offensive rebounder at this stage.
How much do the 5-on-5s actually matter?
With statistics dating only to 2015, we don’t have enough data to make a final conclusion on the importance of combine performance. However, we can still pick up on trends for certain prospect types.
Small school prospects
This is an excellent chance to show you can hang with high major players physically, athletically and skill-wise. Historically, players such as Pascal Siakam (New Mexico State, 27th overall), Larry Nance Jr. (Wyoming, 27th overall) and Richaun Holmes (Bowling Green, 37th overall) all helped their stock by proving their worth against prospects from blue-blood programs.
Outside of collegiate role
Kyle Kuzma is a perfect example of this. More of a roller and post-up player throughout his career at Utah, Kuzma came out firing during his lone combine appearance, helping answer questions about his perimeter shooting. He knocked down 4-of-5 3s in just 22 minutes, scoring 20 points and dishing out two assists while posting a one-game player efficiency rating (PER) of 38.1. Of course, Kuzma needed to continue making shots in private team workouts to secure his first-round selection, but being able to prove himself in a role outside of his rigid collegiate system was the first step.
On the flip side, there was a lingering belief that a prospect such as Jordan Bell benefited greatly from being able to roam defensively in Oregon’s zone scheme — something he wouldn’t have the luxury of doing in the NBA. At last year’s combine, Bell not only showed that he can thrive in a man-to-man defense both on the ball and in help situations but also unleashed his passing acumen, which wasn’t always on display with the Ducks. Bell, who was drafted 38th overall, proved to be one of the biggest steals of the 2018 draft.
Established college players
Unless collegiate vets show that they’re just physically not good enough — like a Melo Trimble in 2016 and 2017 — two uninspiring combine games aren’t going to tank a prospect’s draft stock. Josh Hart looked extremely out of place in 2016 and didn’t play at the 2017 combine, but teams were familiar with him, and he turned in a productive rookie season after being drafted 30th overall. Wesley Iwundu posted the worst combine PER in our database and was still drafted No. 33 overall and given a guaranteed contract.
There are also productive college players who can help solidify their standing as potential NBA players with standout performances, including Frank Mason (2017), Dillon Brooks (2017), Davon Reed (2017), Sheldon McClellan (2016), Joe Young (2015), Andrew Harrison (2015) and Pat Connaughton (2015).
Fool’s gold scorers
Of course, there are always a few shot-happy prospects who shine in the go-get-a-bucket setting and get drafted off that, but that doesn’t usually result in a long, fruitful NBA career. Of the top 15 per-game combine scorers since 2015, only four played in an NBA game last season. It’s important for teams to have a grasp on a player’s entire scouting file rather than putting too much stock in these 5-on-5 games, as drafting combine standouts such as Ben Bentil and Rakeem Christmas doesn’t always work out. — Schmitz