The number of Draft candidates who used the NBA’s Undergraduate Advisory Committee broke triple digits this year for the first time, a sign of how prominent the program has become combined with the impact of a change by the NCAA that allows prospects to wait until 10 days after the Chicago combine before deciding whether to return to school.
The UAC has become such a layer to the Draft behind the scenes that the numbers have gone from 50 players requesting feedback from front offices in 2007 to an average of 82 per year and all the way to 107 in 2017. The names have included everyone from lottery picks to relative unknowns turning pro even after being told they probably would not be selected.
“The ultimate goal is to get the best information to the players,” said Kiki VanDeWeghe, who oversees the program as the NBA executive vice president of basketball operations. “As you know, we just modified with the NCAA, and I have to compliment the NCAA on this, the date that (players) can go back to school, so they can now participate in the combine. This is part of a process.”
VanDeWeghe has seen the Draft from every angle, as a player (the No. 11 pick in 1980), a general manager making the selections (the Nuggets in the early 2000s) and, now, as a league executive.
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NBA.com: Lets start with the basics. When and why did the NBA form an advisory board?
Kiki VanDeWeghe: It’s been in existence for about 20 years, since 1997. It was really at the NCAA’s request. They wanted to provide early-entry candidates with a range of where they may go and if they may get Drafted. That was really the genesis of this undergraduate advisory board.
NBA.com: How many people are on the board?
KV: We have the majority of the teams represented. It will vary year to year, but the majority of teams. Basically, the head basketball person from each team.
NBA.com: Take me through the process. Player A says, “I would like to get some feedback from the NBA on my hopes for the Draft.” He sends a letter? He makes a phone call? How does it begin?
KV: A phone call. It really begins with a consensus among the committee on where these players may go. They provide ranges of where they may go. “You’re going to be in the high-lottery,” “top 10,” “first round,” “late first round,” “undrafted” – there’s a number of ranges for a player. Once we get that consensus, players will call in or their college coach can call in and say, “Hey, where do you think the player may go?” We’ll give him the range. You’re aware of the change of rule where the players can go through the combine and then make a decision 10 days after the combine ends. They have a certain time period they can go visit teams, expand their knowledge. Really, all this is done to help players make a better decision. Should they go back to school? Are they ready to turn pro? Really get the decision directly from us and we get it directly from the people who are going to Draft the players. So we think it’s a pretty good pipeline.
NBA.com: So you will have a consensus in mind for every player? You don’t wait for them to reach out first and ask for that consensus? Because I can’t imagine every player asks you.
KV: We’ll have a pretty good idea on almost all the players that are in the Draft. As you’re well aware, all these players get scouted. When you’re with a team in a Draft room, you have an idea of basically where everybody’s going to go. You have a good idea from most of the teams.
NBA.com: When do you get this feedback from the teams? When do you have your consensus set?
KV: It’s fairly early in the process. Generally kids will declare and it will be within — I don’t know the exact time — a couple weeks of that.
NBA.com: How often do you think a team is lying to you to not tip their hand on whether they like a player a lot more than they’re letting on? That they’re going to declare somebody an early-second-round pick and actually be looking him at the end of the lottery?
KV: These things are surprisingly consistent, so I would say not very often, if that really happens at all. I think everyone understands it’s a consensus and everyone’s trying to, basically, just help these players make a better decision at the end of the day. I think the gamesmanship is saved for talking right before the Draft where you may Draft somebody.
NBA.com: Which is a polite way of saying “lying.”
KV: Obviously teams don’t want to tip their hand on where they’re actually going to Draft somebody. But as far as this process goes, I think that the teams are very straightforward. We obviously appreciate their input. It’s pretty consistent over the course of years.
NBA.com: Are you the one who collects the information and then the player or college coach gets in touch with you, then you say, “Here’s what we know”?
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KV: Right. We’ll send out (a list of) a group of players, they’ll (teams) send in their ranges. I’m the point person. If not me, then Shareef Abdur-Rahim (the associate vice president of basketball operations) or another senior member of our staff.
NBA.com: Is it always one person per team? Or are there situations where a former executive or a former scout, maybe someone you have a relationship with? Do they ever get any input? Or lets use you as an example. You did talent evaluation for many years as a former general manager. Shareef has been in a front office and also had a long-playing career. Do you get other input or is it strictly from people currently employed by teams?
KV: It’s strictly by the teams. We rely on them. Almost all the teams participate just about every year. Just so you know, it’s a team’s choice whether they want to participate or not. Just about all of them do. But we rely on them to give us this information because they’re the people who are going to actually Draft the players.
NBA.com: Is there any team that has consistently said, “No thank you”?
KV: Not really. And that wouldn’t be fair for me to reveal anyway. Teams for the most part participate in this process because I think at the end of the day when we went through letting players go back to college after going through the combine and getting workouts and things like that, that’s not always totally positive for college coaches. They don’t know who they may recruit or who put their name into the Draft, so it’s well into recruiting season. That’s not always in their best interest to do it, but they did it because they think that this help their player make a better, more-informed decision. That’s really where the teams come in. We’ve spent time talking about it. I think they really do want the player to make a good decision.
NBA.com: Does the advice come strictly with a bottom-line recommendation of “You’re going to go in the lottery,” “You’re going to go in the second round,” whatever the decision may be? Or is there sometimes more to it, that you will give actual feedback on the player’s game? What they need to work on, their strengths, their weaknesses.
KV: We tend to stay away from that. We try to give them just an informed decision on where the committee thinks that they may go. It’s part of a system. Inviting them to the Draft combine, again decided by the teams who they want to see. That’s another filter that tells players, “If you’re invited you may have a decent chance of getting Drafted, if you’re not invited, we invite 70-plus players so that should give you an idea as well.” We try to really give them a good idea where, by consensus, we think they may go.
NBA.com: Have you ever gotten any harsh reactions? Maybe you told a player it sounded like he was the end of the second round and he just refused to believe it. He either wanted to argue it or he got upset.
KV: Not really. Sometimes you’ll tell a player or a coach that, “Hey, look, it’s probably the second round” and a player will stay in the Draft.” Or, “We don’t know if you’ll get Drafted.”
NBA.com: But nobody’s wanted to argue the point.
KV: Nobody’s really argued the point. This is just adding up the answers from the people who are going to do the Draft. It’s a case-by-case basis, as you’re well aware, and this is a big decision for these young kids. I don’t want to go into too many specifics on that in particular.
NBA.com: How about the other way? How often have you given somebody much better news than maybe they expected and you sort of sense that they were like, “Really? That high?”
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KV: We’ve had a number of players over the course call us and perhaps we told them they had the potential to go in the first round or mid-first round or late-first round and they decided to go back to school. Which, honestly, for underclassmen, truly I’m in favor. I’m a big proponent of school. But we just relay the information and they will use it as they will.
NBA.com: Do you ever, after the fact, go back and compare how the Draft turned out to the information you gathered for the advisory committee and say, “Everything went basically according to plan” or maybe there was a year or two where things completely went in a different direction than had been projected?
KV: Good question. I would say these ranges, whether it’s a swing from late-lottery to lottery to mid first round, mid-to-late first round, the ranges tend to be very accurate over time. Certainly, there’s some outliers, but that is very, very rare. This group is very, very accurate on where these guys get Drafted.
NBA.com: And do you share this consensus with the other teams? Or this is strictly for the players?
KV: This is for the players.
NBA.com: So you may have a better handle on the direction of the Draft than a lot of the teams.
KV: We have the consensus and we will relay it to individual players. At the end of the day, that’s the goal. That’s what we focus on.
NBA.com: What’s the biggest bribe offer you’ve received to let go of this consensus information?
KV: (Laughs) I don’t know. I haven’t received any. Are you offering?
NBA.com: That could be valuable information in some cases.
KV: I guess it could.
NBA.com: Ballpark it for me. How many players will completely the ignore every year? That you’ll tell them “Second half of the first round” and they’re thinking that they’re a lottery pick or you tell them “The consensus is you’re not going to get Drafted” and they’ll be insisting they can get to pretty high in the second round. How often does that happen?
KV: It does happen, certainly. But we don’t try to get into a kid’s head because most of the time if we tell him, “Well, you’re a late first round,” he won’t come back and say, “No, no. I’m not. I’m something else.” I would say that you do have some kids that obviously expect to get Drafted and don’t get Drafted and then come in as underclassmen. That doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily unsuccessful for them. They have the option to go into what’s now the G-League (the re-named D-League) and make their way that way. We’re just trying to give them the consensus information so they have it and are able to make the best decision that they can. And there’s a variety of reasons for the decisions that they make.
NBA.com: Some of these guys have so many different people in their ear as the Draft approaches. Friends. Family members. People at school, whether it’s teammates or the college coaching staff. Sometimes it’s hangers on that want a piece of them. Does it ever happen that somebody is in such a panic or is so freaked out by this decision that when you’re talking to them they just flat out say, “Please tell me what to do. I’m stuck.”
KV: It certainly in the past has happened where we may say, “We don’t think you’re going to get Drafted. The consensus says that.” And they say, “Geez, I don’t understand. What should I do?” Those particular cases, I don’t think we’re afraid of saying, “Look, go back to school.” But we try not to give too much advice in that direction, except I’m not afraid to say that I like kids to stay in school.
NBA.com: Can you hear panic in the voice of some players?
KV: Certainly nervous. Entering the NBA is just about every basketball player’s dream. When you start playing basketball, whether you’re on a playground, on the AAU team, in school, it doesn’t matter. Your dream is to play against the best in the world and the best in the world play in the NBA. I can tell you, having done it, it’s a surreal experience going through the Draft. This is really a gateway to the NBA. When I went through the Draft this didn’t exist, so you were really much more on your own and dependent on your coach’s advice or whatever teams may be telling you. Of course, not that many underclassmen went. It’s much more now. But, again, you can tell. Kids are nervous. This is, at this point in their lives, one of the biggest things that happen to them. That’s one of the reasons we have this. We want to help. We want to help them make a good decision here and ease some of the unknowns for them.
NBA.com: We’ve talked about the reaction from players. What about from coaches? It’s obviously in their best interest to have their top players play for their school as long as possible. Have you ever given a player a very promising viewpoint on where they would be Drafted and have the coach call you up after the fact and get upset about luring his player away from school?
KV: No. That has never happened. What’s interesting is the only feedback that I’ve ever received from college coaches is “I want to do what’s best for my player. I really want to know the best advice to give to them.” I think most of them look in the long term. They know if they give them the right advice and do what’s best for the kids that’s going to be best for the school program in the long run.
NBA.com: Have you ever been surprised by anybody that wanted the advice? “Hey, this is Karl-Anthony Towns calling and I’m curious if you think I’m going to be a top pick.” Or, “This is Anthony Davis and I want to know what I’m looking like in the Draft.” Has there been a time where you said, “C’mon. What are you doing”?
KV: Off the top of my head, not really. I think that the very, very top of the Draft that they know who they are. They may not know if they’re going top one or two, or four or five, but they know they’re right there at the top of the Draft.
NBA.com: So generally you’re not hearing from people going in the first half of the lottery?
KV: Oh, no. We’ll hear from them. But you asked me if I’m surprised hearing from them. We generally hear from most of the players in the Draft.
NBA.com: Even if a guy is clearly headed toward the No. 1 pick?
KV: Not always. Occasionally. Sure.
Scott Howard-Cooper has covered the NBA since 1988. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.
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