Eight days before the 2017 NBA Draft, the Indiana Pacers' seventh pre-draft workout seemed to have a clear focus.
The top prospects in Wednesday's workout group play the same position: point guard. That is also a position the Pacers must address this offseason.
Both starter Jeff Teague and Aaron Brooks are free agents. The franchise must also decide whether they want to pick up the option on Joe Young's contract. Young has played sparingly over his first two NBA seasons.
While the Pacers could still re-sign Teague or add another veteran point guard in free agency or a trade, it would not be a surprise if the Blue & Gold take a point guard next week with one of their two draft picks to add depth to the position. Indiana owns the 18th and 47th overall selections in the 2017 Draft, which will take place on June 22 at the Barclays Center.
If the Pacers opt to draft a point guard, two possible candidates could be Oklahoma State's Jawun Evans or Gonzaga's Nigel Williams-Goss, both of whom worked out for the team on Wednesday.
Evans would likely be an option in the first round. There are a number of point guards expected to be drafted in the lottery (Markelle Fultz, Lonzo Ball, De'Aaron Fox, Dennis Smith, and Frank Ntlikina) in this year's draft, but after that group, Evans might be the best option left at the position. NBADraft.net currently has him going to Oklahoma City with the 21st overall pick.
Evans declared for the draft after his sophomore season, where he was the catalyst to Oklahoma State's remarkable turnaround. The Cowboys went 3-15 in Big 12 play during Evans' freshman season. But under new coach Brad Underwood, Oklahoma State won 20 games in the 2016-17 season, earning an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament.
Evans was the biggest reason for the team's improvement. The 5-11 guard was the conference's second-leading scorer at 19.2 points per game (trailing only national player of the year Frank Mason III) and led the league in assists at 6.4 per contest.
Evans had a number of monster games over the course of the season. He had 35 points and six assists in an early-season victory over Connecticut, then scored 30 points a day later against eventual national champion North Carolina. He had 22 points and 15 assists in a narrow loss to top-ranked Kansas on March 4. Playing at Bankers Life Fieldhouse two weeks later, Evans tallied 23 points, seven rebounds, and 12 assists against Michigan in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
Evans excelled in pick-and-roll situations in college, as Underwood's offense employed the set (a dominant feature in modern NBA offenses) with great frequency to utilize Evans' quickness and passing ability.
"It played to my strengths," Evans said. "It helped me a lot (with the) transition to the NBA because I know that's all really they run."
Evans is a little undersized, but that is less of a concern in the modern NBA, where sub-6-foot players have thrived with greater frequency in the pace-and-space era (Boston's All-NBA guard Isaiah Thomas being the gold standard for smaller guards). He also has a 6-5 1/2 wingspan according to measurements at the NBA Draft Combine, something that should help him hold his own defensively against bigger point guards.
Evans is devoting a lot of his focus during the pre-draft process to his outside shot. Only three of his 15 attempts per game came from 3-point range in college, but with longer and more athletic players protecting the rim in the NBA, he will need to rely more on his jump shot to keep defenses honest.
He shot a respectable 37.9 percent from long range as a sophomore and his .812 free throw percentage suggests he can be a capable threat from beyond the arc, but Evans admitted it has been a bit of an adjustment moving to the NBA's longer 3-point line.
If he does go to a team like the Pacers in the first round, Evans likely won't be given the keys to an NBA offense right away, but could earn early playing time as a backup point guard. That is a role he would willingly embrace.
"I'm a great guy off the court, a great guy in the locker room," Evans said. "Someone who likes to work hard, get his teammates involved, likes seeing his teammates happy."
If the Pacers decide to wait until the second round to address their point guard situation, Williams-Goss could then be an option.
A consensus second-team All-American, Williams-Goss was the best player on a Gonzaga team that reached the Final Four for the first time in the program's storied history before falling to North Carolina in the national championship game.
In his lone season with the Bulldogs (he spent two years at Washington before transferring to Gonzaga and sitting out the 2015-16 season), Williams-Goss averaged 16.0 points, 6.0 rebounds, 4.7 assists, and 1.7 steals. The 6-3 guard doesn't do anything at an elite level, but his well-rounded game could help him latch onto an NBA team.
What he lacks in athleticism, Williams-Goss makes up for with his work ethic. Take, for instance, his improved shooting during his lone season at Gonzaga.
Williams-Goss had a .442 field goal percentage, .256 3-point percentage, and .763 free throw percentage as a sophomore at Washington. Last season, he demonstrated significant improvement across the board by posting a .486 field goal percentage, .368 3-point percentage, and .867 free throw percentage — an improvement he attributes to the work he put in during the season he sat out after transferring.
"I had a lot of off time to work on it," Williams-Goss said. "(I) went back and watched a lot of film from my freshman and sophomore year, kind of corrected things (mechanically)."
Much like Evans, Williams-Goss said that he would gladly embrace a backup point guard role initially. In fact, he thinks his mental makeup and style of play makes him an ideal fit for that role.
"I think a great quality in a backup is just being solid and knowing what you're going to get," Williams-Goss said. "I don't think you can be a high-risk/high-reward backup guard. I don't think that's what I am and I think that I've proven that over the course of my career. I think that I can step into any role and be effective right away."
Oregon's Dylan Ennis (left) and Virginia Tech's Zach LeDay (right) spent a combined 11 years in college, playing for five different schools.
Experienced Prospects Hope Knowledge Translates to Next Level
The remaining four prospects at Wednesday's workout — Oregon guard Dylan Ennis, Duke forward Amile Jefferson, Virginia Tech forward Zach LeDay, and Fresno State wing Paul Watson, Jr. — are all seasoned veterans of the college game. Each of them spent between four and six (yes, six) years in school.
While spending that much time in school can be seen as a negative in a draft process that puts a premium on youth and upside, each of the four prospects is hoping that lessons they learned in college can give them a leg up on adjusting to the NBA game.
Perhaps no player has taken a more unorthodox route through the college ranks than Ennis, the rare sixth-year senior. Now 25 years old, Ennis began his college career in 2011-12 — when Pacers center Myles Turner was just a sophomore in high school.
Ennis started his career at Rice, where he was named to the Conference USA All-Freshman team. From there, he transferred to Villanova.
After sitting out a year, Ennis was a valuable contributor for the Wildcats for two seasons. In his junior season in 2014-15, Ennis averaged 9.9 points, 3.7 rebounds, and 3.5 assists per game while helping Villanova earn a 1-seed in the NCAA Tournament.
Having earned his degree, Ennis elected to transfer again for his senior season, where he could be eligible to play right away under the NCAA's graduate transfer rule. He moved to Oregon, with the idea being that he could play more minutes at point guard than he would otherwise get in Villanova's crowded backcourt, but only appeared in two games for the Ducks in 2015-16 due to a broken foot.
Upon appeal, the NCAA granted Ennis an extra year of eligibility and he put together his best season as a sixth-year senior. Ennis — the older brother of Lakers point guard Tyler Ennis — averaged 10.9 points, 4.4 rebounds, and 3.1 assists while helping lead Oregon to its first Final Four appearance since the inaugural NCAA Tournament in 1939.
Ennis knows that a 6-2 combo guard at his age is not the type of prospect that scouts drool over, but he said on Wednesday that all the different experiences from his college career helped better prepare him for the uncertainties that await in the NBA.
"I've been a guy who did anything," Ennis said. "I've came off the bench. I went years where I didn't play, I went years where I sat out, I went years where I went to the Final Four and started.
"I bring more experience than a guy who went one-and-done or two-and-done and maturity. You know what you're going to get out of me."
Fellow transfer LeDay is also eager to prove that his experience can help him contribute right away to an NBA team.
LeDay was a role player for two years at South Florida before transferring to Virginia Tech. He blossomed in Blacksburg under the tutelage of head coach Buzz Williams, leading the Hokies in scoring and rebounding each of the past two years.
LeDay averaged 16.5 points and 7.3 rebounds per game as a senior, while shooting a career-best 53.8 percent from the field. Though he is under 6-7, LeDay played primarily at the center position in his final college season, using his 238-pound frame to bully taller players in the post.
At times, LeDay's toughness and energy allowed him to dominate games. One such example would be in the 2017 ACC Tournament against Wake Forest, when he outplayed consensus first-round pick John Collins. In that game, LeDay racked up 31 points and 15 rebounds (seven of them offensive), going 8-for-15 from the field and 14-for-18 from the free throw line.
LeDay felt that Wednesday's workout played to his strengths, as the Pacers coaches allowed the players to be "really physical" in three-on-three action.
"You could just play through contact," LeDay said. "They really wanted to see that. You could tell that they want toughness on the team and that's what I'm trying to sell."
One thing that LeDay does have working in his favor is that he is very coachable. Even though he was Virginia Tech's leading scorer, he came off the bench as a senior because Williams thought it was a better fit with the energy he brings to the game. LeDay willingly embraced that role.
But given his size, LeDay will need to show that he has other dimensions to his game. One possibility is a developing 3-point shot. Though he has an unorthodox release (a herky-jerky motion with a lot of moving parts), LeDay looked comfortable from behind the NBA 3-point arc on Wednesday, knocking down a high percentage of shots in the portion of the practice open to media.
"I've really been working at it," LeDay said. "I shot the ball a lot better my junior year when I played the 4. Playing the 5 this year, I didn't shoot as much...So I wanted to show teams that I've got soft touch, that I can step outside that line and if I have to — if I'm open — that I can knock it down."
Fellow big man Jefferson also spent five seasons in college, earning a medical redshirt after a foot injury limited him to just nine games in 2015-16. Returning as a senior on a loaded Duke roster, the 6-9 forward averaged 10.9 points, 8.4 rebounds, and 1.9 blocks per game last season.
Playing on a Duke team that featured four possible 2017 first-round picks (Jayson Tatum, Luke Kennard, Harry Giles, and Frank Jackson) and a preseason All-American (Grayson Allen), Jefferson was asked to play a hyper-specific role as a senior that should mostly mirror what an NBA team would ask of him.
In fact, Jefferson's role for the Blue Devils was mostly the same over his 150 career games in Durham, a program record.
Offensively, he was not a focal point, but thrived in limited opportunities by converting high-percentage shots at an efficient clip. Jefferson shot over 60 percent from the field in each of his final three seasons in college. He did not, however, take many jump shots — never attempting a 3-pointer over his entire career at Duke.
Jefferson's calling card came on the defensive end. He was a valuable rim protector for the Blue Devils last year, but also has the athleticism to keep up with smaller players on the perimeter, something he was able to showcase against the point guards in Wednesday's workout.
"I feel like I can switch, I feel like I can guard multiple positions," Jefferson said. "So being able to guard wings and guards was great today. I thought I did a good job at it, staying down on my feet, making them shoot over my length, just being smart."
The final prospect at Wednesday's workout was Watson. A 6-7 wing, Watson averaged 11.4 points, 5.2 rebounds, and 1.4 assists as a senior at Fresno State.
Though he played in relative anonymity in the Mountain West Conference, Watson is a good athlete (he took part in the college slam dunk contest during Final Four weekend in April). He did not put up huge numbers in college, but showed promise as a 3-point shooter, shooting between 34 and 38 percent from long range in each of his four seasons on campus.
Watson said Wednesday that he "takes pride" in his defensive abilities, something that he believes will be his ticket to a roster spot in the NBA.
"(I'm) a defensive presence, a longer wing that can guard multiple positions on the ball," Watson said.
"If I can showcase I can do that, I know that's what a lot of teams want. Defense is going to get you on the floor."
Though he was recruited to Fresno State as a small forward, Watson was asked to play a lot of minutes at power forward in his college career due to roster limitations. That experience matching up with bigger players in the post may ultimately have helped make him a more enticing prospect for NBA teams.
"It was kind of like a blessing in disguise," Watson said. "At first, I wasn't all for it. But now that I look back at it, it definitely made me become a more versatile player. It opened a lot of things up for me and it made me look at the game better."