Denver Nuggets front office reveals NBA Draft 2020 adjustments due to COVID-19 Pandemic

by Alex Labidou Staff Writer

In years past, Tim Connelly had a set routine for getting to prospects ahead of the NBA Draft. 

The Nuggets President of Basketball Operations would host a player in Denver, have him in the team’s training facility for a few hours and then take him on a walk before heading to one of the city’s finest restaurants. For Connelly, it was a way to learn about the human side of the men he was considering adding to the organization. 

Even if the player ultimately didn’t land in the Mile High City, it was a way for Connelly to introduce them to what his team and town were all about in case the pair might work together down the road. 

 “It’s the first chance they get to see the city and get to see our organization and get to know us,” Connelly told “Some of the relationships, they develop and prove pretty beneficial down the line – if he’s available in a trade or free agency.” 

 With the ongoing reality of the COVID-19 pandemic, those types of meetings have had to be scaled back dramatically. For the Nuggets, it’s an added challenge for an organization that has placed a premium on character over the past five years in regard to adding players to its roster. In light of those challenges, Connelly and his front office staff have had to be creative in evaluating fit. With teleconferencing, one of the more cumbersome sides of 2020, being the bulk of the interactions with these prospects, the group has also had to exercise patience and humor throughout the process. 

 “We had a situation where a player came early into the [Zoom meeting] early and it was his mother there waiting [for her son to arrive before swapping places],” Nuggets Director of Scouting Jim Clibanoff recalled with a laugh. “That kind of caught us off guard and it was comical.” 

 The interactions can be awkward on both sides, something the Nuggets front office is aware of and has tried to resolve by trying to find a player’s comfort zone. 

 “Just think back to when you were a freshman or sophomore in college and imagine being in a room with seven to eight grownups, it can be kind of intimidating,” Clibanoff said. “We try to do our best to disarm them and make them feel comfortable with us.” 

One of the methods which they’ve seen some success with is a game of Guess Who. After the front office introduces themselves, Connelly will ask a prospect to guess which front office staff member is a Cattleman, which one used to manage a rap group, and who was a former Olympian. 

 “I think one guy got all three,” Connelly said with a smirk before revealing the answers to the three questions. “Jon Wallace [Basketball Operations Associate] hails from Alabama and has a bunch of heads of cattle in Alabama. Martynas Pocius [Scout] played for the Lithuanian team in the Olympics and Clib [Jim Clibanoff] managed, briefly, Ultramagnetic MCs an old-school rap group.” 

It might sound silly on the surface level, but it is a way for Connelly and his staff to avoid having dive headfirst into more difficult questions about a player’s background. NBA teams usually get full dossiers and background checks into the player they are evaluating. For example, they know if a player has been kicked out of class or if he was seen on a night on the town ahead of a big game. So, the key is to address what needs to be addressed but make sure the conversation, in fact, feels like a conversation. 

“It wouldn’t be fun if someone asked me about everything I did wrong when I was like 16 through 21. So we try to lighten the mood up a little bit,” he explained.

Connelly added, “Hopefully, they disengage the pre-canned, the scripted answers and you start to see the real person.”

COVID-19 has not only affected the team’s approach to predraft interviews but how it handles scouting and its war room on Wednesday as well.  With March Madness being canceled due to the coronavirus and the draft being moved from June to November, it has created an eight-month gap in action for all of the domestic prospects on offer. NBA hopefuls have gotten creative in showcasing how they have improved in that timeframe.

“What we’re doing now is just evaluating so much on video, not just games that were played eight, nine, 10 months ago, but we’re also evaluating recorded workout shooting sessions of a guy one versus zero in a gym, “ Clibanoff said.

He added, “It’s just hard to ascertain how much of that is fluff. How much of that is window dressing. You can’t turn a 22 percent three-point shooter into a 45 percent one in a matter of two months and I don’t think you can do it in eight months either.”

And then there is just the matter of how a guy looks in person versus on film. Clibanoff humorously pointed out a number of workout videos he received where a prospect was filmed in a certain to be more generous to that player. 

“Nowadays, it’s amazing what a video shot from iPhone can do,” he said.

Fortunately for the Nuggets, once they’ve determined who their top 10 prospects are, they are allowed to fly for a brief in-person session. But even that provides its share of obstacles.

“We were trying to see a kid the other day and the flight, everything is set up, and then kid tested positive,” Connelly said. “It further complicates an already complicated process.”

Connelly alluded to the fact that this has happened several times during the predraft process, muddling the waters on figuring on what makes sense for his organization in regards to fit. Then there has been maneuvering from agents to secure positioning for players who they think should be picked higher than 22 or might be drafted in a position the team is already deep in.

“If we’re doing all of the work [in scouting the player], why can’t we go watch him shoot,” Connelly explained. “Why can’t we do a zoom interview with him?”

If on-hand scouting logistics can be daunting, then just imagine what Wednesday night’s draft will look like. Teams have five minutes per pick in the first round and just two in the second round. In a typical situation, the Nuggets would have almost their entire front office on hand to utilize the full contingent in making quick decisions. That won’t be the case this year due to travel restrictions and being cautious. Some members of the front office will be at Ball Arena, others will join the group via Zoom.

Connelly revealed he’s reached out to the front offices of teams in other sports who have already held drafts this year, including the Avalanche, Rams and another NFL team to see how they fared. Despite gaining some valuable advice, the situation is still very fluid.

“We’re still not certain [how the War Room will be set up],” Connelly said. “We’re going to do in a big, big room with masks and practice social distancing.”

This is the reality of 2020.

“This is the wildest draft I’ve ever been in and I would expect it to be the most unpredictable,” Connelly noted. 

Altitude's Chris Dempsey contributed reporting to this article


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