CHICAGO – NBA scouts, general managers, coaches and team presidents sat in two rows of folding chairs around the court at the Quest Multisport Gym on Thursday at the NBA’s annual scouting combine. Some clacked away on the keyboards of their laptops, other scribbled notes on legal pads as many of the world’s top basketball prospects ran up and down the court in front of them.
This wasn’t the first time these observers have seen these players.
As they prepare to invest millions of dollars in their top draft picks, NBA teams spend years tracking and analyzing dozens of prospects. Their scouts travel across the country and around the world to watch these players two, three, four and more times. GMs tap their connections to get insight on what DeAndre Ayton and Michael Porter Jr. are like in practice. Dozens of league personnel and media members converge on the gym on Chicago’s West Side for the annual gathering, a three-day series of scrimmages and interviews that allows teams an up-close look at their future building blocks.
“People don’t like to look at it this way,” Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry, who is in Chicago for the combine, said. “But you would not go out and look at a car and go, ‘OK, I’ll take that one,’ without driving it and seeing what the history of the car is.”
The value of the combine, which is not mandatory for prospects, has been debated. Last year, Kevin Durant, who performed poorly in the draft drills, encouraged projected lottery picks to skip it. Ayton, Marvin Bagley III and Luka Doncic, who are all expected to be top picks, are not participating in this year’s combine that runs through the weekend.
Bulls executive vice president John Paxson and Knicks GM Scott Perry both said the interview sessions – the first time teams have direct conversations with many of the players – may be the most useful part of the event. More than two dozen rooms at the InterContinental Chicago Magnificent Mile are cleared of the normal furniture and it’s replaced with conference tables before draft prospects are brought in for 30-minute sessions.
“It’s almost like speed dating,” said a scout for a Western Conference team, who is unauthorized to speak on the record. “Basically, you get to know these guys and the questions will range from, ‘Tell me about your upbringing,’ to, ‘What happened in this situation in such-and-such game?’ There could be questions about ball screen coverage. Then, of course, personality questions.”
The personality questions (example: “How would you be a leader in the locker room?”) have gained popularity in recent years. Around the league, the process is known as “gathering intel.”
“Intel”, which the Spurs made popular around the league in an NBA context, involves more than interviews. Some teams hire private investigators to observe players off the court. Waiters and hotel concierges are asked how prospective players behave while they are eating at restaurants or milling around hotel lobbies. Teams even asked drivers who chauffeur players from one event to the next how they acted on the ride. Sports psychologists are brought in to consult.
“It’s basically like doing an FBI background check,” the scout said.
An unlimited number of team personnel are permitted to participate in interviews. For the most part, teams stay away from asking players about romantic relationships and how they have voted. There are nine people per team allowed in the gym during combine workouts.
One annual challenge for scouts is determining which players can make the transition from collegiate success to the pro style as the games are drastically different. In the NBA, for instance, the game is 8 minutes longer, the shot clock is 11 seconds shorter, teams rarely play zone defense and the 3-point line is farther from the basket. Scouts will try to determine whether a player is comfortable shooting from the NBA distance and which positions they can guard successfully 1-on-1.
Many scouts say because of those differences, college games don’t always provide the best opportunity to track some skills. For those reasons, these combine scrimmages, no matter how short, can be helpful. It is the first time that players can be evaluated on a court full of high-level players.
“The thing you always like to see are guys who are competitive, but it’s the other stuff that matters most,” Paxson said between scrimmages Thursday.
The players who elected to participate in 5-on-5 scrimmages were divided into four teams. Some players just did shooting drills and others only took part in sprints or agility drills. A few players didn’t participate in on-court activities and only did interviews. Official wingspan and height measurements, which are valuable numbers for teams, also are recorded.
“It is not a perfect science,” an Eastern Conference scout said. “You want to avoid mistakes and hopefully get lucky, but the hard thing is just to predict the emotional stuff. How is he going to handle the money? How is he going to handle the pressure? Is he mature enough? That stuff is impossible to figure out until after the fact.”