On Friday morning, the Pacers held what is believed to be their final pre-draft workout before the 2016 NBA Draft next Thursday. Indiana welcomed six more prospects to Bankers Life Fieldhouse on Friday for drills and interviews. The Pacers, who have the 20th and 50th overall picks in this year's draft, have officially held seven workouts with a total of 42 players over the last month.
For the local media, the obvious headliner in attendance on Friday was Park Tudor and Indiana University alum Yogi Ferrell, who Mark Montieth wrote about for this site. But aside from Ferrell and fellow point guard Kyle Collinsworth, the workout featured four big men, making it the most interior-focused collection of players from any of the seven workout sessions open to the media.
Those big men can be divided into two clear camps. On the one hand, you had a pair of four-year college stars in North Carolina forward Brice Johnson and Iowa State star Georges Niang. On the other hand, you had a pair of 19-year-old prospects with rawer skill sets but greater upside in Cheick Diallo, who played sparingly in one season at Kansas, and Ante Žižić, a 7-footer from Croatia.
In many ways, the collection of talent on the TCU Practice Court on Friday was perfect metaphor for one of the biggest questions scouts and general managers face every June: Do you put more value in a draft prospect's potential or in their proven track record?
On the whole, draft analysts tend to value potential over production. ESPN.com's Chad Ford ranks Žižić as the 21st-best prospect in this year's draft class and has Diallo 27th. Ford ranks Johnson 37th and Niang 67th. DraftExpress.com has similar rankings, with Žižić (23rd) and Diallo (25th) again ranking ahead of both Johnson (30th) and Niang (70th).
While draft analysts' rankings are a good gauge for a general range in which a player might be drafted, NBA teams' evaluations and player rankings can vary widely based on what each particular front office values most. The Pacers' recent draft history is mixed, for example, with Indiana using its last two lottery picks on early entrants (Paul George in 2010 and Myles Turner in 2015) but taking four-year college players with their last two picks in the latter half of the first round (Miles Plumlee in 2012 and Solomon Hill in 2013).
Of the four big men at Friday's workout, Diallo quite possibly has the most potential, but he's also the greatest unknown. Diallo grew up playing soccer in Mali and only picked up basketball after a growth spurt in his early teenage years.
Shortly thereafter, Diallo traveled to the United States, his departure hastened by the outbreak of a civil war in his native land in early 2012. He enrolled at Our Savior New American School in Centereach, New York, where he took ESL classes and played basketball.
"When I came here in 2012, it was so hard for me," Diallo said. "...I wasn't speaking English, just French...Even basketball-wise, it was really, really tough because you've got to know how to speak English so you can communicate with your teammates."
As Diallo's English improved, so, too, did his play on the court. His athleticism and all-out effort earned him numerous accolades and a scholarship to Kansas. He was named MVP of the 2015 McDonald's All-American Game after an 18-point, 10-rebound performance. He also drew rave reviews for his play at the Nike Hoop Summit last April, where he teamed with players like Ben Simmons, Jamal Murray, and Skal Labisserie to lead the World team to a win over the USA Junior National Select Team.
But eligibility concerns stalled the start of Diallo's career. The NCAA conducted a lengthy investigation into his high school transcript and initially barred Diallo from all team activities before clearing him to practice with the team on Oct. 1. They ultimately suspended him for the first five games of the regular season.
All of that turmoil put a hamper on Diallo's development. He found himself buried behind talented upperclassmen like All-American Perry Ellis on the Jayhawks' depth chart and struggled to grasp all the nuances of head coach Bill Self's offensive schemes. As a result, he played sparingly, averaging just 3.0 points, 2.5 rebounds, and 0.9 blocks in 7.5 minutes per game. He didn't even appear in a handful of contests, including two of three games in the Big 12 Tournament and three of four games in the NCAA Tournament.
Still, Diallo was efficient in his limited time on the floor. His field goal percentage was .569 and his averages on a per-40-minute basis were solid: 15 points, 13 rebounds, 4.5 blocks per game.
Diallo really helped himself at the NBA Draft Combine in Chicago in early May. He measured out at 6-9 with an exceptional 7-4 1/2 wingspan and a 35-inch vertical. But he was most impressive in 5-on-5 scrimmages, where he held his own against more seasoned players. Diallo posted 18 points (on 7-of-10 shooting), four rebounds, and four blocks in his first scrimmage and nine points (on 4-of-8 shooting), 10 boards, and two blocks in his second.
"I didn't get a lot of opportunity to play in college the way I wanted to play," Diallo said. "So in the Combine, I just came (to) show everybody what I can do best. That's why in the Combine I was going 120 percent."
Diallo's calling card is his effort, which he attributes to his days playing as a defender on the soccer fields in Mali, where he developed good footwork and the ability to, in his words, "run all day." His relentless hustle, combined with his length, should allow him to make an impact at the next level as a shot-blocker and rebounder, but his offensive game is still very raw.
Nonetheless, Diallo is confident that he can grow into a valuable contender at both ends. He said his biggest focus during the pre-draft process has been on improving his jump shot and he did knock down a high percentage of mid-range shots during shooting drills at the end of Friday's workout. Media members weren't allowed to watch early portions of the workout, but Diallo said he thought it was his best workout to-date just because of how well he competed in the trenches against bigger players like Johnson and Žižić.
Friday's workout was the first for Žižic, a 19-year-old Croatian center coming off a stellar European campaign.
While many younger players don't see a lot of playing time in the European professional ranks, Žižic saw plenty of minutes for Cibona Zagreb in the Adriatic League. The 7-footer averaged 13.4 points and 8 rebounds while shooting 63.9 percent from the field in 21 games last season.
"I'm an energy guy, I'm always 100 percent," Žižic said. "I try to catch every rebound and finish with strong dunks."
Žižic had the unique opportunity to spend the past season playing alongside his brother, Andrija, who has enjoyed a long professional career in Europe and with the Croatian national team (where he played alongside former Pacers forward Damjan Rudež). Andrija is 17 years older than Ante and in the last stages of his career, so he signed on with Cibona to backup and mentor his little brother.
"He's my biggest support and I'm thankful because we spent the last season together," Ante Žižic said."(It was a) big experience for me."
Like Diallo, Žižic figures to first make an impact with his effort and energy, but needs to expand his offensive repertoire to earn consistent playing time in the NBA. He said he's working on both his post-up game and his mid-range jumper as he prepares for next week's draft.
Given his status in Europe, Žižic is a potential "draft-and-stash" candidate, meaning that a team could take him with a first-round pick and maintain his draft rights but let him return to Cibona for another season. But if a team wants him to come to the NBA right away, they could do so simply by buying out his contract overseas.
While Diallo and Žižic might not be able to make a significant impact in the NBA next season, Johnson and Niang could contribute right away. Both forwards enjoyed decorated college careers and were among the best players in the country as seniors, earning AP All-American honors (Johnson was on the first team, while Niang was a second-team selection).
Johnson steadily grew into a bigger role in his four years at North Carolina. The 6-11 power forward increased his scoring and rebounding averages in each of his four years on campus and finished his senior season averaging 17.0 points and 10.4 rebounds per game.
He said on Friday that he was initially overwhelmed physically as a 187-pound freshman, but put on over 30 pounds of muscle during his time in Chapel Hill that allowed him to emerge as a go-to player in the post for the Tar Heels. Johnson had several monster games as a senior, including a 39-point, 23-rebound performance at Florida State and a pair of games against Duke in which he averaged 24.5 points and 20 boards.
Most impressively, Johnson's offensive efficiency got better even as he took on a larger workload. His field goal percentage rose from .511 as a freshman to .566 as a sophomore and junior to .614 as a senior. Johnson made a living using his speed and athleticism to score seemingly at will in transition and runs to the rim, but he also has an effective post-up game.
The most glaring weakness on Johnson's résumé is an outside shot. He didn't attempt a single 3-pointer in his four years in college, something that puts him at a disadvantage as he transitions to a league that increasingly
values big men who can stretch the floor. That said, Johnson has solid mechanics on his mid-range jumper and shot over 78 percent from the free throw line as a senior, so he could develop more range over time.
"I have a great touch," Johnson said. "I'm able to shoot the jumper, that just wasn't my role in college. We had guards that were able to go out there and be able to shoot the ball. My job was to play in the post and be able to shoot mid-range jumpers here and there."
Niang, meanwhile, played a major role in each of his four seasons at Iowa State. His numbers as a senior were outstanding, as he averaged 20.5 points, 6.2 rebounds, and 3.3 assists per game while shooting extremely efficiently across the board (54.6 percent from the field, 39.2 percent from 3-point range, and 80.7 percent from the free throw line).
"I couldn't have done anything without my teammates," Niang said. "They do a great job of making me look good, putting me in the right spots. All the credit goes to them. They did a lot for me in my four years at Iowa State."
Niang mostly manned the power forward position in college, but he is a little undersized for that spot at the next level. He measured out at slightly under 6-9 at the Combine with a 6-10 wingspan (over half a foot shorter than Diallo's).
Niang's size has some scouts thinking he might be a better fit as a small forward in the NBA. He certainly has the offensive playmaking ability to succeed at that spot, but there are questions about his quickness defending perimeter players.
As a result, Niang finds himself receiving the dreaded "tweener label" from many draft analysts, which is a big reason why he ranks comparatively low in their draft class rankings. But the 23-year-old Massachusetts native insists that not having a natural positional fit is actually a positive in today's NBA.
"That tweener label is great," Niang said. "That means I can guard and play multiple positions. I think that's the unique part of me is that I have a high basketball IQ, I'm versatile, I'm unique, I can guard multiple positions. I think going forward I can be a luxury to the coach where he can put me on multiple spots on the floor."
Collinsworth Hoping Game Translates to Next Level
The final prospect at Friday's workout, Kyle Collinsworth, has one thing no one else to visit Bankers Life Fieldhouse during the pre-draft process can claim: an NCAA career record. Collinsworth registered 12 triple-doubles in his time at BYU, more than any other player in Division 1 history.
As a senior, the 6-6 point guard averaged 15.3 points, 8.2 rebounds, and 7.4 assists per game. His size was a big plus for him at the college level, allowing him to collect plenty of rebounds and then push the break himself, seeing over the defense to find open teammates.
Those are all attributes that make Collinsworth an attractive prospect to NBA teams, but he has one glaring weakness: his jump shot. Collinsworth never shot more than 37 3-pointers in a season and never made more than nine, shooting under 29 percent from beyond the arc in three of his four years in Provo.
As a point guard, Collinsworth knows that he needs to overhaul his shot to have a chance of sticking in an NBA that places such a premium on outside shooting.
"It's a challenge," he said. "It's a little deeper (line). But I think for me it's more of a mindset right now (to just) shoot it. I didn't shoot a lot and then you get used to not shooting a lot. So (I'm) just changing my mindset, tweaking a few little things, and getting a lot of shots up."
Another factor working against Collinsworth is his age. He actually began his college career in 2010, acting as a role player on the BYU team that featured 2011 national player of the Year Jimmer Fredette. Collinsworth then spent two years in Russia on a Mormon mission before returning to Utah for his final three collegiate seasons.
Though he'll turn 25 before the start of his first professional season, Collinsworth feels his maturity would make him a welcome fit in any locker room.
"When things go bad, I know how to handle it well," he said. "I've been away from home, away from everybody, (part of) different cultures."
Note: Watch one-on-one video interviews with all six prospects at Friday's pre-draft workout in the video player below.