It has been a year since Devin Booker’s first face-to-face interview with the Suns’ front office, but assistant general manager Pat Connelly still remembers the impression made by the then-18-year-old.
“He definitely stuck out in the interview,” Connelly recalled. “It’s not an easy thing to go into a room with a bunch of people you don’t know. We’re just one of the teams there. We had our early prep feel for Devin, but he came in and he was very confident. He answered questions really well, never got flustered in a situation. Some of the stuff you saw on the court with him now – walking into a new situation or being put in a new situation and looking like he was comfortable – it was the same thing there.”
“There” is Chicago, where the annual NBA Draft Combine begins on Wednesday. From prospects who are considered shoe-ins as first-round picks all the way through second-round hopefuls, it’s a gathering place for the faces and names that have been in scouts’ books for years on end.
It is also where, for the first time, the rigid lines and boundaries that separate NBA personnel and prospects is finally removed.
“We have done our homework, so we know a lot about them already,” Connelly explained, “but it’s the first time to actually see how they are as a person and talk to them and get your independent feel on how they are as a human being.”
That conclusion is drawn from several factors and sources. According to Connelly, “hundreds and hundreds of hours on the phone” are spent talking to personal acquaintances of the prospects under consideration. College coaches, high school coaches, academic advisors and more are consulted to unearth more about the player in question.
Devin Booker at the 2015 NBA Draft Combine
No stone is left unturned. Does he have a good work ethic? How do they treat people on an everyday basis? Are they punctual? What is their personality like after a win? After a loss?
All of that takes place before the interview with the athlete himself. The research serves as a base on which a strong scouting report is formed. X’s and O’s have been on that report for months. Now, the blanks of the individual -– not just the athlete –- will begin to be filled in.
“This is when we deep-dive into what makes them [who they are],” Connelly said.
At Chicago, the Suns will interview roughly 20 prospects for one half-hour block each. Odds are good that many of them will interview in Phoenix again when individual pre-draft workouts take place. The Windy City serves as their first impression.
For many of the prospects -– many of which are 20 years old or younger –- this is uncharted territory. Strip away the allure of the sport itself, and you’ve got multi-million-dollar companies interviewing teenagers for a long-term job. That reality is never more apparent than in a hotel conference room with several new faces staring you down.
The onus is on the Suns to make the process as low-key as possible so that each prospect feels at ease. Doing that allows him to be himself, rather than be intimidated or, worse, give off a false and inaccurate impression.
“Going into Chicago, we’ve got an idea of how these guys are ranked. It could get impacted by medical information or other things that come up, but there’s a good sense of the guys we kind of like right now. The next stage is to narrow it down again.”
— Pat Connelly
“We want it to be a natural interaction, not feel like they’re in a boiler room,” Connelly said. “We’ll ask them tough questions, but we’ll also ask them other things that might not be hardball kind of stuff.”
Connelly is especially adept at this. Current Suns forward T.J. Warren is naturally shy, but the Suns assistant general manager was able to draw out his personality by focusing on the 6-8 forward's passions. Those included fashion, 1990s hip-hop and, of course, his beloved North Carolina State Wolfpack.
If a prospect strikes a good, genuine chord in his interview, his name remains on Phoenix's ever-narrowing draft-night list that began with “hundreds of names” a year ago.
With two of their own picks and two more obtained via previously made trades, the Suns could pick four of those names on June 23.
“Our guys have worked incredibly hard,” Connelly said. “They’ve watched a ton of games live. They’ve done a lot of video supplementing. They’ve made a million [phone] calls. Going into Chicago, we’ve got an idea of how these guys are ranked. It could get impacted by medical information or other things that come up, but there’s a good sense of the guys we kind of like right now. The next stage is to narrow it down again.”