By David Aldridge, TNT analyst
Posted May 31 2009 4:58PM
CHICAGO -- The craziest question, Jordan Hill surmised, was if he went out to dinner, what beverage would he order? It was not a trick question designed to trip up an underage drinker; Hill, the University of Arizona forward, is already 21, among the oldest underclassmen here.
"I said 'water. With lemon,'" Hill answered.
And so it went here at the NBA's pre-draft combine, a camp in which the campers don't actually play basketball anymore. The league decided to eliminate the day-long scrimmages that were the staple of former pre-draft camps, hoping to eliminate the excuses given by an increasing number of players as to why they weren't showing up. The real reason, of course, was to protect perceived draft position, an agent-fueled gambit that had reduced the guest list in recent years to a handful of likely late first-round picks, a lot of second-rounders and too many guys that weren't likely to be drafted at all.
But this year, knowing they'd just be weighed, measured and take part in a few 45-minute drill sessions, almost all the top players expected to be drafted showed, from likely first pick Blake Griffin on down. (Spaniard Ricky Rubio didn't come over, and point guard Brandon Jennings opted to stay over in Europe in preparation for next week's Reebok Eurocamp in Treviso, Italy. Israeli forward Omri Casspi did come to Chicago.) In return, the wannabes made themselves available for detailed interviews with teams, and that was the true highlight of the weekend.
Each team was allowed a "wish list" of 18 players it could interview out of the 52 invitees, for up to 30 minutes apiece. Those 18 names were divided into "priority" lists of six apiece, with the six players teams most wanted to speak with at the top. In most cases, most teams said, they got to sit down with the players they wanted. It wasn't the same as watching them rotate and help, but it helped. Even if a team wasn't likely to draft a player now, it can keep the info gleaned from the interviews for down the road, if it wanted to pursue a trade for the player or sign them as free agents.
It made for an up-and-down week for the players, who had to cram six and seven of the 30-minute meetings into each day. They did the best they could to keep their answers fresh to the same questions, over and over.
"I think at this point, everybody's seen what you did on the court," said Syracuse guard Jonny Flynn, who cemented his rise up the charts in the first round with a strong week featuring his lightning-quick handle and winning personality.
"Everyone knows what you did in college," Flynn said. "All this, the combine and the meetings and things like that, is just getting to know the person behind the basketball player. That's a big thing for these teams, investing a lot of money into these young guys. They want to know what they're investing money into."
Still, the elimination of even a cursory last look at most of the likely draftees next month in New York in actual game competition brought the expected grousing from management and personnel types. The phrase "a complete waste of time" was a popular one. Their arguments have some merit. Agents so thoroughly control the pre-draft process these days that it's a wonder they don't demand their charges refrain from playing in college at all, lest they endanger their draft status.
Of course, there are millions of dollars at stake. Losing even one spot in the draft could cost a player -- and his family -- a lot of money. But a player who's reached this stage is one of the most confident and successful basketball players in the world. If it were up to the players, they'd be out on the court playing.
"We've played against these guys the last three years, four years, however long you've been in college," said Davidson guard Stephen Curry, a likely top 10 pick. "Nothing should intimidate you. You've just got to be confident in what you can do and go out and do it. That's what we're going to do for the next however many years we're going to be in the NBA. Why not start now?"
But the agents aren't going away, and it would make sense for the league in future years to embrace them rather than continue to keep them at arm's length. There's no way the league can make players play; as more than one guy pointed out, agents who wanted to keep their guys off the floor could contoct sudden "injuries" that would keep their guys in street clothes. And what would happen if someone played against their will and then was injured?
There has to be a meeting of the minds in the future.
"We need to go to [the agents] and say 'what do you need?,'" one team executive said.
And yet, almost everyone showed up. There was Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak, who stayed for part of Friday morning's session before getting on a plane to Denver to watch the Lakers close out the Western Conference finals. (His Nuggets counterpart, Mark Warkentein, stayed in Chicago, too nervous to go back home and preferring to watch the proceedings on television.) Riles came, as did Larry Brown. They came with stopwatches and vertical jump poles and safety cones for the shuttle drills.
And they came with their questions.
"A team asked me, 'how would you stop yourself?,'" Flynn said, laughing. "If you're a player, you're never going to say you can stop yourself. So I had to stop. I paused for about three minutes, and I'm just shaking my head, thinking. And I finally said, 'well, I don't think I could stop myself, but if I had to slow myself up, I would let me shoot the jump shot.'"
Lakers assistant Kurt Rambis has the inside track to the Kings' vacant job. Rambis will interview a second time for the job, probably on Monday, now that L.A. has secured a berth in The Finals. Former Suns coach Paul Westphal is the only other contender at the moment now that Eddie Jordan has taken the Philadelphia job. Speaking of which, Jordan will get $2 million next season from Philly (with another $2 million coming from Washington, which owed him $4 million for 2009-10), $3 million in 2010 and $3.1 million in 2011...
With the caveat that there can be no consensus among 30 teams, and that there can thus be wild disagreement on players depending on who you speak with, here are some observations from the personnel types I trust:
Rock solid Lottery guys other than Blake Griffin who did nothing to hurt themselves: Arizona State's James Harden, Curry, Hill, Memphis guard Tyreke Evans, USC swingman DeMar DeRozan, Connecticut center Hasheem Thabeet, UCLA guard Jrue Holiday.
Guys who will be drafted, probably in the first round, but who should think about going back to school to improve their draft status for 2010: Wake Forest guard Jeff Teague, Kentucky guard Jodie Meeks, Gonzaga forward Austin Daye (who checked in at just more than 190 pounds).
Guys who could get drafted, but should go back to school to improve their games: Tennessee forward Tyler Smith, Texas forward Damion James, Notre Dame forward Luke Harangody, Georgetown forward DaJuan Summers.
Measurables: PIttsburgh power forward DeJuan Blair measured just 6-foot-5 1/2 in shoes (um, do they play games in their stocking feet?). But with a 7-foot-2 wingspan, Blair is still an intriguing NBA prospect at the four, with teams divided on whether he'll be able to rebound at the pro level as well as he did in college. Curry measured out at 6-foot-3, with a 6-foot-3 wingspan, which is already more than tall enough to be an effective NBA point guard. But he has size 14 feet, and doctors think he might have one more growth spurt in him. Louisville forward Earl Clark is a solid 6-foot-10, with a 7-foot-2 wingspan...
New Timberwolves president of basketball operations David Kahn made his first rounds in his new job, trying to evaluate players while deciding Kevin McHale's fate (McHale has a one-year offer on the table) and taking offers on the Wolves' three first-round picks. Kahn said he is not adverse to sticking with the plan McHale hatched while he was the GM to max out room for 2010, but that he'll make a move this summer if the offer is good enough.
"We've got to be prepared," Kahn said. "Because I think a lot of things are going to come our way. Not only because of the picks, but because we have a lot of roster flexibility with the cap. We have a lot of one-year contracts (including forwards Mike Miller, Brian Cardinal, Craig Smith and Mark Madsen, and guard Bobby Brown). So these next four weeks are all about getting ourselves in position to really make informed decisions, and make sure we've looked under the proverbial rock for everything."
A lot -- a lot -- of responses to the conspiracy column, which will be addressed this week, before The Finals. There was other correspondence, too:
Since I happen to be European, Greek, to be exact, I know a lot about European basketball. Now I understand this year's draft is kind of weak, but Ricky Rubio CANNOT be drafted second. He was supposed to be the greatest talent three years ago when he first went pro at 16, and now at 19 he has shown minimal improvement. I understand the fact that he is 19 attracts a lot of attention but Rubio is not that amazing a material...since I've been watching Euroleague for a couple of years, I am in position to say that Rubio is overrated (comparing him to [Jose] Calderon, who is an average NBA player, Rubio is really really small in fact).
We will all find out about Rubio together, Pelo, whether it's this year or later. All I can tell you is one of my guys, who was intimately involved, shall we say, with the U.S. Olympic team, always says this to me: "You wanna know if Rubio can play? Just put in the tape of the gold medal game. That's all you need to see."
You refer to Boston as the World Champions. The last I looked Boston wasn't even a country.
Spain is the World Champion. Boston is the NBA champion.
On that note, why do Americans tend to exaggerate their accomplishments?
A good question, Peter, which I can answer because of the vastly superior U.S. education system. I am writing this answer on a Dell Computer (corporate headquarters in Round Rock, Texas, the biggest state in the world) while looking out at the American sky, which was discovered by Carl Sagan (born in Brooklyn, New York, part of the greatest city on earth). My beautiful, American-born wife is getting dinner and paying for it with indominable U.S. dollar bills. I am about to watch an NBA playoff game, which is the best basketball in the world...again. Hope this answers your feeble, not-American question.
My writing of this e-mail stems from my curiosity. Your analysis of Allen Iverson and other player movements is among the keenest by anyone anywhere. Consequently this question always pops into my mind whenever I hear or read your analysis:
"Why not become a GM?"
As Joan Cusack said in Working Girl, "Sometimes, I sing and dance around the house in my underwear. Doesn't make me Madonna. Never will." I'm sure there are some writers and commentators with the hubris to think they could do the job. God love their delusions of grandeur.
Send your comments, corrections and snark to firstname.lastname@example.org. If we pick your e-mail you will get a DVD of Swept Away and the Material Girl's next Greatest hits album, set for fall, 2009 release. Well, actually, you won't get the DVD or the CD. But we will publish the e-mail.
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