2014 NBA Draft Combine | Day 1
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What a day at the NBA Draft Combine in Chicago. Lots of information, lots of interviews and lots of getting to know some of these high-profile collegiate athletes who will, in about a month and a half, fulfill their dreams of becoming professional basketball athletes. Each one brings unique and different skills to the table, and throughout the next six weeks Timberwolves.com will go further in-depth investigating what strengths, weaknesses and other intangibles many of these players can bring to the NBA. And as we go along, we’ll look at what these players can do for this Timberwolves organization should they be selected.
But for now, we’ll start with the basics. I, personally, am just getting to know these guys as I meet with them along with the rest of the media in Chicago. I figured you’d like to do the same.
So tonight, I put together a few notes about each of these top prospects that I listened to today in Chicago at the Quest Multisport Complex. As background, today was very much an interview day. Tomorrow will be a chance for me to see these players in action on the court, so that’s what I’ll focus on in tomorrow’s update.
Today, however, let’s break down the basics about some of these top prospects.
To start, it should be noted that Kansas’ Andrew Wiggins, Kansas’ Joel Embiid and Duke’s Jabari Parker each did not participate this weekend. They’re sitting as the projected Top 3 picks heading into the draft, and while this might not be the reason why they’re not here it’s certainly valid that they have more to lose than gain by being here (see Ben McLemore’s drop to No. 7 from the top 2-3 slot last year as proof). But by my count, of the 30 projected first rounders I talked with 19 today—about 23 total prospects.
So here we go:
Zach LaVine – UCLA | PG/SG
LaVine is a wing player who said he feels like his biggest asset is a gym-rat philosophy that was highly touted during fellow-UCLA product Shabazz Muhammad’s Draft workouts last year. He did well during his shooting drills on Thursday, nailing the majority of his mid-range shots that I watched, but he said he’s never satisfied with his workouts due to his perfectionist mentality. “I feel like if I miss 2-3, I get mad at myself. But I feel like I had a good workout and look to build on that tomorrow.”
Speaking of tomorrow, LaVine said he has an interview with the Timberwolves scheduled for Friday. He’s trying to emphasize that he’s quick and fast, that he can be a menace on defense if given the opportunity, and that he can do it as a combo guard playing both the 1 and the 2.
He said he loosely compares parts of his game to Russell Westbrook, Stephen Curry and Jamal Crawford.
“I’m always going to be in the gym—I will do whatever it takes to win,” LaVine said. “I really feel like I can benefit whatever position they put me in. I’m going to go out and work my hardest and do whatever the team needs me to do.”
Aaron Craft – Ohio State | PG
One thing that stood out about Craft is his demeanor. He was soft-spoken and thoughtful in how he approached his answers, and he gave insightful responses regardless what the question was. One inquiry, for instance, was about the sting of the Buckeyes’ early NCAA tournament loss this past spring.
“I’ve lost four NCAA tournament games by nine points—every one of those is a one-possession game, and every one of those I can tell you there are possessions I could’ve done something different,” Craft said. “It’s going to be with me the rest of my life, but those experiences have helped me, helped me grow. Showed me what I need to do as a person and as a player to get better. If anything, it’s motivation to keep getting better and moving forward.”
Craft is a point guard, plain and simple. There are no combo aspirations here, but he does feel like he can be a serviceable asset to a team like Kirk Hinrich has been in his career—a player who can be a rotation game manager that has a steady presence when he comes in the game.
His main thing he wants to do moving into the Draft season is show that he’s being a consistent shooter while also being comfortable taking care of the ball and playing good defense.
“Defense, absolutely,” Craft said. “I think I can guard anyone if I need to keep anyone in front of me. It’s just who I am.”
Shabazz Napier – UConn | PG
Napier became a household name during the NCAA tournament as he led the Huskies to another national championship. He showcased Kemba Walker-like leadership during that title run, as UConn (despite having the program recognition) made a Cinderella run to the title.
And now, here in Chicago, he’s hoping that winning philosophy carries over as he tries to find a home in the NBA.
“[Winning] should be right No. 1—at the end of the day, winning gets you whatever you want,” Napier said. “It gets you more fans. It gets you what the team needs. I think it should be No. 1. Certain guys know how to win, certain guys know what to do at certain times of the game. There are guys that understand the game. And my knowledge of the game has come from being in college for four years. Me seeing the ups and downs, me being a national champion and me being in the lowest low not winning many games. You learn a lot when you’re in college. You experience a lot, and I think winning is the reason why I’m [here], because I understand.”
He said that last run to the title helped shape who he is during this Draft process.
“Every game teaches you something new,” Napier said. “You’ve got to be open to understand that.”
Marcus Smart – Oklahoma State| PG
Smart is one of the biggest, most physical point guards in the Draft. And he’s had hype surrounding him at OK State to make him a noteworthy player to watch in this draft. He’ll be off the board before the Wolves pick at 13, but he’s certainly a player to watch because he can make some significant noise in the NBA with his physicality and his determination.
You can tell in how he talks that he can certainly be an impact player if he works hard at his game.
“I’m just going to go out and play my game,” Smart said. “My game’s going to do it for me. You can sit here and talk all you want but it all comes down to actually going out there and doing the work.”
Smart said his three calling cards heading into the NBA are his defense, his playmaking ability and his leadership. And when it comes to players he models himself after, he said Derrick Rose and James Harden both because of how they play downhill ball in the back court as well as Deron Williams for his physicality.
Soon, he’ll get his chance to do the same. And he’s not concerned with the bright lights on the stage.
“I was very anxious and very ready to get out there and play,” Smart said. “Intimidated, I didn’t seem to be.”
Elfrid Payton – Louisiana Lafayette | PG
Payton is another true point guard with nice size and has the belief that he can come in and play strong defense when called upon. So his whole goal at the Combine is to come in and facilitate that to the teams who are watching in the stands. If he can make others on the court better in the process, he feels like he’s doing his job right.
But it’s certainly a dream come true to be participating in the process.
“It’s going to take some time [to sink in], though,” Payton said. “I’m just trying to live it right now. But when I look back, I think it’s something I can be proud about.”
Jahii Carson – Arizona State | PG
Give charisma points to Carson, who was certainly someone who brought that to the table at the combine. And he also had what is, for me, a top 3 quote of the day. He was asked what the craziest question he received from a team was, and he didn’t disappoint.
“How many ping pong balls can fit in this room?” Carson said. “I’m like ah, you know I didn’t know. It was like 7,129. Crazy questions. But hey, they knew and I didn’t.”
The best part about that is the team actually had an answer.
As for Carson’s game, he said the biggest thing he’s hoping to showcase is his competitive nature. If he can let that shine through, he feels like he’s going to be in good shape.
He said a lot of guys know he can score the basketball, but he’s realistic that at his size (5-foot-11, 167 pounds) that’s not going to be his main role. What he needs to do is show he can be a “human organizer and a game manager.”
And, as he said, he realized early you need to be honest when you’re meeting with teams.
“They know so much about you—they find out so much information,” Carson said. “Things that you even forgot about yourself.”
James Young – Kentucky | SG/SF
Young is one of the Wildcats’ one-and-done stars. His teammate, Julius Randle (who is also at the Combine), said he was an underrated player who works like crazy on his game. Young views himself as a 2-guard in the NBA, and he’s got a 6-foot-7, 215-pound frame with a 7-foot wingspan that can really do some things on the court.
He’s confident in scoring the ball, including coming off screens, and he said he’s also comfortable on the pick-and-roll. His defense is improving, he said, and his footwork during the summer workouts has become much improved.
“You can always get better, so that’s what I’m trying to do over the summer—just get better,” he said.
Young said he views his game comparable to Tracy McGrady. He tries to model his game after him.
The key for him is to continue improving his ball handling, he said, and he also needs to get accustomed to the style and speed of the NBA game at the shooting guard position.
“I’m used to the fast-pace, so whatever offense is fast-paced, I feel like I could be good in transition,” Young said.
Gary Harris – Michigan State | SG
Harris is a strong shooter in this draft and learned from one of the great collegiate system coaches in Tom Izzo. He feels like he’s prepared for what’s to come because he was given the baseline to succeed in East Lansing.
“I feel like the physicality of the Big Ten and the competition, it was one of the best leagues in the country,” Harris said. “I feel like the competition, the number of guys you’re going against every night was definitely a grind.”
One interesting thing about Harris was his philosophy on this entire process. It’s refreshing to hear a player distinguish between the whirlwind of the Draft season grind and the subtleties that happen along the way.
“I think I’m surprised at how quick it’s going but how long it seems,” Harris said. “It just seems like yesterday we were playing against UConn, but that was a decent amount of time ago. It’s going quick but it’s going slow at the same time. It feels like June is forever away, but it’s really not.”
Nik Stauskas – Michigan | SG
Stauskas was smooth in his interview after his workout. He had a level demeanor and emphasized the importance of character when it comes to why teams should consider picking him to join their team.
“I come from a good family—I think that’s important for people to know,” Stauskas said. “And I’m not doing this because I want money or anything like that. Obviously the money’s great. But I’m doing this because I love the game of basketball. It’s what made me happy since I was 7-8 years old, I think teams will get a vibe like that.”
Stauskas became known as a sharpshooter for the Wolverines, and he came through the program during a stretch of time when Michigan returned to national prominence and sent a collection of top-end recruits that piqued the NBA’s interest. He, personally, enjoys watching Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson in Golden State and views himself as a guy that tries to model his game after those two.
His main goal is to show NBA teams that he can immediately stretch the floor and make shots. It’s what he did at Michigan, and he said teams will be surprised at what he can do when he has the ball in his hands and is coming off ball screens.
He said he’s working on his ball handling and improving and tightening up his game all-around.
“If I can get my hands to that next level, it’s going to allow me to play a little point guard,” Stauskas said. “That’s going to allow me to play more minutes at the next level as well. I know that’s something teams have talked to me about.”
Stauskas said Minnesota was one of the teams he’s already talked to at the Combine.
Dante Exum – Australia | PG
Exum will most certainly be off the board by the time the Wolves draft, but he’s worth watching regardless where he lands. He’s an Australian who picked up a ton of attention during international play and has become a prospect most feel will go right after Wiggins/Embiid/Parker in late June.
He’ s a smooth operator, a player who has body control and a solid handle while also having solid size at 6-foot-6. And he said he views himself exclusively as a point guard.
“They’re trying to get a feel for where I am, and a lot of them put me as a 2,” Exum said of his team meetings. “I said straight up that I’m a 1, that’s the one position that got me here and that’s what I’m going to keep going forward with.”
He did provide arguably the top story of the day:
“Australia and America are similar—the biggest thing for me is we travel on different sides of the roads,” Exum said. “I haven’t been driving yet, but when my mum came she was caught driving on the opposite side of the road. It was a scary situation for me. She’s adjusting well.”
Kyle Anderson – UCLA | SG/SF
Anderson has very nice size and can be versatile on the wing at 6-foot-9 and 233 pounds. He was open about saying he feels confident guarding the 3 or the 4, but he also think she can play the 2. He doesn’t label himself one position, although he actually has played a decent amount of point guard in his day and feels most comfortable with the ball in his hands.
The numbers back it up. He was one of the top players in the Pac-12 in assists, and he helped the Bruins to an elite finish nationally in assist to turnover ratio. He feels most comfortable passing the ball, which he said if you watch the elite teams in the league that’s the one thing that is universal.
He also talked about playing at a slower pace than what might be traditionally viewed on the basketball court.
“It’s just the way I’ve always played the game,” Anderson said. “I like to move at my speed, I like to control the game, and it’s just the way I’ve always played the game with my mind.”
The Wolves were scheduled to talk with Anderson on Thursday, he said.
K.J. McDaniels – Clemson | SF
McDaniels felt confident with his workout on Thursday, shaking off early nerves and playing the style of ball he hoped to play. He said he thought he did a good job defending bigger players, and he felt like he shot the ball better than people might have anticipated.
His biggest hope is that he can showcase he brings a defensive presence that can help a team—guard multiple positions while also being a good spot-up shooter on the other end.
He said his background at Clemson was a big help in preparing him for this day.
“I feel like it helped a lot,” McDaniels said. “I mean, my coaches, they told me what I need to work on. Before my junior year, I did a lot of working out. Just doing a lot to shape my game and overall good play.”
Rodney Hood – Duke | SF
If anyone knows about the pressures of succeeding while facing the ire of every opposing team in the country as well as the living up to the tradition so many Blue Devil alums have set before. The nice thing is Coach K and the rest of the Duke fraternity, past and present, are there to help navigate those turbulent waters together. Hood said he’s had the chance to talk with Mason Plumlee, Gerald Henderson, Grant Hill and others about making the jump from Durham to the NBA as best as he can.
But even without that guidance, he has the background playing for Duke to help him find his way.
“It helps a lot, knowing you have a bulls eye on your back,” Hood said. “You kind of scrutinize because you play for Duke and you’re always on TV. But it’s great. I learned a lot from Coach K and the coaching staff. The things he taught me are things I’m facing now with the workouts.”
Hood feels like he’s a guy who can space the floor and can come in ready to produce. He feels confident he can defend multiple positions, and he’s certainly got the hunger to win.
He said he likes watching players like Paul George, because George has a similar build as he does. He also likes watching Manu Ginobili since he’s a left-handed player who is crafty at what he does.
“Wing players that can shoot the ball, that’s what I’ve been watching,” Hood said.
Glenn Robinson, III – Michigan | SF
Robinson III is another Michigan product at the Combine, but the best story surrounding him is the fact that his dad, Big Dog Glenn Robinson, paved the way for his son to have great childhood memories of his game while helping craft the next generation of NBA play.
Robinson III said he remembers watching his dad play memorable games for the Bucks, including contests against Jordan’s Bulls and Iverson’s Sixers, and he’s hopeful that he will be able to follow in his footsteps. He said he feels like he has the work ethic to make it happen.
“I just remember him having a great career with the Bucks and of course winning a championship with the San Antonio Spurs,” Robinson III said. “Him telling me about all the hard work he’s done, but yet I could be more of a hard worker than him because sometimes in the offseason maybe he wasn’t getting up shots as often as I do.”
T.J. Warren – NC State | SF
Warren was a scorer for the Wolfpack, and he said he feels like he can come in and score for an NBA team in a number of ways. He feels like he excels in transition, he can hit mid-range jumpers as well as 3s, and he said he feels like his shooting percentage from deep is a bit better than the stats might indicate.
On defense, he said he can come in and defend great players. Contested shots in the NBA are a main reason for strong defense, and he said he feels like he can make that happen.
And his experience playing in the ACC is a big help in being able to play two-way ball.
“Going to play in one of the best conferences in the country in the ACC, it really helped me a lot,” Warren said. “They have a lot of NBA talent guys, my last two years I’ve played against a lot of NBA talent guys. I feel like I’ve taken the step and I’m ready to play against NBA teams.”
Doug McDermott – Creighton | SF/PF
If you’re looking for a shooter in this draft, Doug McDermott might be the most intriguing and polarizing prospect out there. He’s a guy that can put up big numbers—he averaged 26.7 points per game last year at Creighton, but he’s also viewed as someone who might not be more than a one-dimensional player. Being able to keep up with players defensively in the NBA might be a challenge.
McDermott said it’s all fair criticism.
“I think everyone has something to prove,” McDermott said. “Not everyone’s perfect, not every player’s perfect. Everyone’s got to get better at something. That’s part of the reason why we play this game. Not everyone’s perfect. We want to get better every day. That’s something I take a lot of pride in, when someone’s making knocking me in one area I’m going to work my tail off to prove them wrong.”
McDermott’s strengths include his ability to read screens, he said, and he also said his ball handling is sometimes overlooked. He feels like he has a great feel for the game, and he continues to improve his ball handling as well as his foot quickness—that’s an essential part of an NBA player’s success.
McDermott is an intriguing prospect and could definitely become a scorer as part of a NBA team’s rotation. He said the Timberwolves were one of the teams that talked to him, and he said it was very casual and conversational because some of the members of the Wolves’ organization know his dad, Greg, who was his coach at Creighton. He said the Wolves hope to get him in for a workout.
Aaron Gordon – Arizona | SF/PF
Gordon talked a lot about ensuring his shooting motion was the same regardless of where he put the ball up on the court. He had been a player who shot differently at the line, from 3-point range, from mid-range, etc. Now, he’s overhauled his shooting touch so it’s one fluid motion.
He realized he needed a little tweak in his mechanics while shooting from the NBA 3-point line.
“When you shoot from the NBA line from the NBA 3-point line, you need more power in your jumper,” Gordon said. “What was happening was the end of the workout would come around I’d hit the front rim, and it would aggravate me. Basically it just clicked one day to have more power you have to shoot your way up better. The free throws are just smoother, it’s one string up and in. If you shoot the ball the right way, it should go in. If it misses, at least you’re shooting the ball the right way.”
Gordon said he doesn’t see himself as being one position. He can be versatile at the next level.
“I see myself as a forward, I see myself as a basketball player,” Gordon said. “Obviously you have to play a position in the NBA, but I’m going to be out there, I’ll be able to do a little bit of this, a little bit of that. Post ups, knock down jumpers, hit 3s, get by people. I feel very confident in myself that I can put 4 and 3 and whichever somebody wants to play me at is fine.”
Adreian Payne – Michigan State | PF
Payne views himself as a well-rounded player both on and off the court. A good teammate, a good locker room presence and a guy who can knock down a shot and play defense. He emphasized he loves playing defense, and he’ll do whatever it takes to win.
And as a power forward in this Draft, he feels like he’s one of the prospects most ready to immediately contribute.
“I think I’m ready to contribute right away,” he said. “I think I have a lot of experience. I feel like I can come in and play and do whatever it takes for this team to win.”
Payne said he’s fought misconceptions about his ability to engage and handle his team’s system since his freshman year, but he proved throughout his collegiate career that he’s more than capable of not only executing the system but thriving along the way.
“A lot of people said that I can’t pick up on the systems and plays, but at Michigan State we ran an NBA system, and coach Izzo we ran over 100 plays,” he said. “And I did fine with theirs. So it’s just a matter of me, if I put my mind to it, I can do it. I graduated, and it shows.”
Cleanthony Early – Wichita State | SF
Early had an exceptional year (and career) at Wichita State, and as he enters into the NBA he hopes teams pick up that he can play solid defense, continue to get in better shape, knock down shots more consistently, handle the ball and come off screens.
He sees himself as someone who can be a multiple-position player in the league.
“Small forward, I think I could play the 2,” Early said. “Wherever they ask me to play I’ll go out there and play. I’m all about winning. Obviously I’m not going to be a 5 man. There’s 4 men. I could gain a couple pounds and go out there and bump with the 4s. But I have to stretch the floor with my shot. I think I can put the ball on the floor. It’s just multiple things, aspects of my game. I’m very versatile, and I’ll be able to do what I need to do in the NBA.”
Defensively, he’s ready to guard multiple positions, too.
“I’m fast enough, I continue to get my hands movement, my feet moving,” Early said. “Lateral quickness, vertical, contested jump shots, I’m there, boxing out, help-side defense. It’s basketball baby.”
Noah Vonleh – Indiana | PF/C
Vonleh is young and has the upside to be a strong player in the NBA. He’s talked with the Wolves, as well as other teams, and he’s hoping to showcase that he has versatility as well as strong ball-handling capabilities and inside/outside presence. He didn’t shoot a lot of 3s per game, but he was efficient when he did at Indiana. And he said he thinks he can be far more versatile than his collegiate positions dictate.
While he played some 4 and 5 with the Hoosiers, he said he thinks he can expand out to the perimeter in the pros.
“I think a lot of teams see me as a stretch 4. But I really want to be able to play the 3 in the league,” Vonleh said. “I’m just going to keep working on my skill to get to that point.”
Meanwhile, he’s 18 years old and has the frame (6-foot-10, 242 pounds) to be a tough guard if he does transfer out into a wing position. He said he came to college at 220 pounds. He’s put on a significant amount of bulk since.
His biggest asset in the NBA?
“I rebound at a high rate, Rebounding is natural for me,” he said. “I handle the ball pretty well for a guy my size. I’m pretty good in the post, also. I think that will translate and I’ll add different things to my game as I get there.”
Julius Randle – Kentucky | PF
Randle hopes to bring the lessons he learned at Kentucky to the NBA—the ability to handle adversity, sacrifice for the betterment of the team, and dealing with tough situations. He said one thing he’s learned is that at Kentucky he had to let certain parts of his game go in order to help the team succeed overall. One of those things was his outside shooting.
“When you go to Kentucky, you sacrifice a lot,” Randle said. “Everybody sacrifices for the betterment of the team. I sacrificed a lot, and I think that’s one thing I sacrificed. I’ll be able to get back to it at the next level.”
Randle said he feels like he and Zach Randolph do have similar attributes as players, particularly how they can handle themselves inside and hit the glass. But he doesn’t compare himself to Z-Bo.
“Zach’s a great player,” Randle said. “Like I said, I see a lot of similarities between us but I’ve never really tried to emulate him.”
Alec Brown – Wisconsin Green Bay | C
I occasionally covered Brown’s high school games when he was playing for Winona High School and I was covering Big 9 sports for the Faribault Daily News. We wondered all those years ago if Brown would one day have a shot at the NBA because of his length. Today, I got my answer.
Brown got the invite and was genuinely grateful for the chance to showcase his skills against some of the top prospects in this year’s Draft. He hopes to bring his ability to shoot, be a stretch 4 or a 5, and his ability to block shots to an NBA team. Rebounding is also a key to his game. He said he can pick-and-pop as well.
He said he’s been training in California for the Draft, and he’s worked on everything from agility training to on-court production and more. And he said if, by chance, he got a shot to play for the Wolves, he’d love the opportunity to play for his home state’s team.
“That would be nice, I mean dealing with the weather for another however many years would be tough, especially because I’ve been in California for the past month and am getting used to that,” Brown said. “But no it would be a huge honor playing for the team I grew up idolizing, watching KG as a young kid on the T-wolves, that was awesome. To be able to play on the Timberwolves would be a great honor.”
James Michael McAdoo – North Carolina | PF
McAdoo said he knew this was the right time for him to come out and try to find a home at the NBA level. His projected draft status could be anywhere from mid/late first round all the way to being undrafted, but he’s confident that he can showcase that he belongs.
He said his biggest strengths are he can compete against bigger opponents, showcase his versatility, put the ball on the floor and create scoring opportunities. He said he’s capable of making things happen for himself and his teammates, and he can be a consistent shooter while working on his ball handling.