Numbers Crunching

Combine athletic testing a tool – one of many – in shaping draft decisions

John Henson is a possible name for the Pistons to pick at No. 9.
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images Sport
As NBA teams burn the midnight oil with the clock ticking loudly now on the draft, the boss should pull his staff aside in the 28 franchises where they’re not competing for a title and impart this object lesson: We’re putting together a basketball team, not a track club.

The two teams deciding the 2012 NBA championship are led by players at the opposite end of the athletic spectrum, at least athleticism as they measure it at the Chicago draft combine. The numbers from last week’s combine for this year’s draft came out Tuesday and you can bet teams were poring over the results.

The smart ones, after the poring over is complete, will fold them into context and not let those raw numbers overwhelm what their eyes and their gut tell them about the players they’ve scouted in person, watched exhaustively on tape, arranged individual workouts with and interviewed in many cases at the Chicago combine.

The smart ones will remind any naysayers that while LeBron James could have won Olympic gold in the decathlon, Kevin Durant would be challenged to make a living in athletics if James Naismith hadn’t tacked a peach basket to the wall and implored students at Springfield College to throw a soccer ball into it.

Durant failed miserably five years ago at the Chicago combine, finishing near the bottom in speed and agility testing. He couldn’t hoist the 185-pound bar on the bench press even once. Of 80 prospects tested that year, Durant’s composite score ranked 78th. If Seattle management had drafted based off Chicago testing alone, Durant would have been off the board completely. Overcoming his impairments, he’s led the NBA in scoring three straight seasons and poured in 36 points on Tuesday to stake Oklahoma City to a 1-0 lead in the NBA Finals.

Pistons vice president Scott Perry was Sam Presti’s No. 2 at the time of that 2007 draft. As Presti began to gain notoriety for putting together a rising NBA power a few years ago, I had a long talk with Perry about Presti’s reputation for heavy reliance on analytics.

Perry lauded Presti’s acumen and spoke of the value of seeing how another organization went about its business, but he made it clear as we wrapped up that talk: When it came time to draft No. 2 after Portland took Greg Oden, it wasn’t analytics that led them to Kevin Durant – it was what their eyes told them after watching him play, what their gut told them as they talked to him, dug into his background and got a feel for his desire to be a champion.

There are going to be numbers from the combine that raise questions about a few of the prospects on the Pistons’ radar at the No. 9 pick. North Carolina’s John Henson, at 216 pounds feared too light to step in at power forward, bench pressed 185 only five times and had modest vertical leap numbers. Jared Sullinger, with questions about his lateral movement for what it says about his ability to defend the pick and roll, had the slowest time in the lane agility drill.

Let’s step back for a moment here and recall an interlude from the “State of the Pistons” event held last month at The Palace for season ticketholders and corporate partners. Among the questions fielded by Tom Gores and ownership was one that asked how Platinum Equity’s well-chronicled faith in the value of analytics had been applied to basketball operations. Phil Norment, one of Gores’ longtime partners, gave a measured response, underscoring that faith while making it clear that while the numbers are critical to inform decisions they do not supersede all other available evidence.

In other words, it would have been A-OK with ownership if the Pistons had drafted Kevin Durant despite placing 78th in athletic testing out of 80 prospects.

It’s fair to guess that Joe D and his staff have had more than one discussion about Henson’s strength and Sullinger’s foot speed. I don’t imagine those numbers from Chicago registered any shock in the offices at 6 Championship Drive. Come the night of June 28, after the first eight picks are off the board, those Chicago numbers will help inform their decision when the Pistons are on the clock. But they won’t overwhelm all other available evidence.