What Separates Top Prospects? Possibly a Meal

Indiana guard Victor Oladipo talks to the media after his pre-draft workout while fellow Hoosier Cody Zeller watches.
Jeramie McPeek/Suns.com

Have you ever sat in a job interview and wondered exactly what the person across the desk was judging you on? If you’re anything like me, millions of questions probably run through your head. Things like; is my choice of wording in answering the question making me look good or bad? Is there something in my teeth from lunch? Are they looking at my outfit funny?

While you never really get the answers you’re searching for, you know there are a number of factors other than your on-paper qualifications that help determine whether you get in or you’re left out.

NBA pre-draft workouts are no different. When you’re a team like the Suns, picking in the top half of the lottery, the athletic abilities and skills of the players are all relatively close, particularly this year. It’s the reason the prospects were the best of their college class and why you have them in to run through drills in the first place.

What could make one guy stand out above another? It could come down to the same kind of tiny factors that propel or prohibit normal people from getting a job.

“On the court there is only so much you can do [in workouts], but for most of the top prospects, we have our guys meeting with them for breakfast, lunch or dinner, or a combination of all those,” Suns General Manager Ryan McDonough told Suns.com. “Me, Jeff (Hornacek) and the staff spend a lot of time with them and get to know them. When you’re investing millions of dollars in a player you want to know exactly what you’re getting.”

Don’t expect McDonough to pull a Don Quixote and look for things that aren’t there though. He draws certain lines with his analysis of the players during meal time meetings.

“I try not to critique his food choices too much,” he said with a chuckle. “I wouldn’t want them to judge mine.”

Personality in a more casual setting can provide invaluable insight into how a player may or may not respond when the time comes to lace up the shoes and tip-off an NBA game.

“As a coach you want to know if they’re quiet,” Hornacek said. “The real quiet guys, you start to wonder if they can really be a leader if you want them to be. If he’s really quiet, it gives you an idea that it’s probably not his role or forte to be a leader for the team. That’s why we take them out and we visit with them as much as possible on the court and in the locker room.”

Little things like whether a player is more Steve Urkel than Stefan Urquelle off the court aren’t enough to prevent a player from being drafted, but they could make the difference when a team has two prospects rated similarly and both are on the board when it comes time to pick.

“None of those things are like ‘That guy didn’t talk, so we’re not taking him.’ It’s just a little piece of the big puzzle,” Hornacek shared. “Our staff accumulates all the information. We all have our thoughts about guys. When it comes down to this guy or that guy, that’s when those little things come into play.”

In other words, like a watch repairman, the Suns’ brass wants to get inside and see what makes them tick.

“The great part about it, is it is one-on-one,” McDonough said. “You can ask them anything with no cameras around. Players aren’t distracted. Most of them I’ve been very impressed. They give you good honest answers. They’re thoughtful. Given how old they are and all the pressure on them, they’ve done a great job generally of handling everything we’ve asked them.”

It’s not just the Suns’ brass that they meet with. One of the things they are asked to “handle” is a meeting with a team appointed psychologist to get a better overall picture of the player as a person.

“We have a psychologist who sits with the players and gives us his read on them,” McDonough said. “He does some pretty interesting and unique stuff.”

While most of the headlines from the more than 20 workouts the Suns will host will be dominated by how a player looks being run through the gauntlet of drills on the court, the mental hurdles they have to clear during their visits can be just as telling for an NBA team. They’re being looked at from every angle because, just like an everyday person, they have to interview before they get the job, too.