The Missing Piece: Scouting the NBA Combine

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Published: May 11, 2013

By the time the next ‘Missing Piece’ is published, the NBA Combine will have come and gone and the draft lottery will be just three days away. On May 16th and 17th, the top NBA prospects will be put through a series of athletic tests and will have the opportunity to introduce themselves to some of the decision makers in the league. While the combine is only part of the draft process, it has been known to elevate some players draft stock and cripple the stock of others. Last year, Meyers Leonard went from a late 1st rounder to the 11th pick in the draft because of his impressive showing at the combine. Conversely, teams really started to question whether Jared Sullinger could defend in this league after watching his agility drills. As a result, he fell from a potential top 6 pick prior to the combine to the 21st pick less than two months later.

The 2013 draft class is not loaded with stars, but what it does have is a large number of fairly productive college players who have high floors and considerable upside. With the class so tightly bunched together, however, a player could theoretically jump to the top of the class or fall to the back with one great (or poor) combine appearance. There are a few guys, in particular, who will have ¬†specific parts of their games analyzed and those results will determine whether they will be in consideration when the Pelicans pick in June. Without further adieu, let’s talk a look at the key players at the combine and what talent evaluators will be picking apart this week.

Otto Porter, F, Georgetown

Important Tests: Standing Vertical Jump and 3/4 Court Sprint

Why: Otto Porter is clearly the top small forward in this class and has shown a much improved jump shot to go with his high basketball IQ and defensive tenacity. But the question is whether he is more Jeff Green or more Scottie Pippen and the answer lies in just how athletic and explosive he truly is at this point. Georgetown’s runs the Princeton offense, so Porter very rarely had the ball in isolation or the pick and roll this year, so there haven’t been many opportunities to see if Porter can explode by defenders. They also don’t get out into transition much, so evaluators don’t have any idea how productive Porter can be in transition.

A fantastic athletic showing at the combine can push Porter into the conversation for the number one overall pick. A poor showing, by contrast, could see him fall the same way Danny Granger and Kawhi Leonard fell in their prospective drafts. A standing vertical of 32-35 inches is probably what is expected. Below that could raise some concerns and a standing vertical higher than 35 inches could do wonders for his draft stock. For the 3/4 sprint, expect something in high 3.2’s, but if he can get under 3.2 (like MKG and Barnes did last year), he will put himself into that #1 pick conversation.

Trey Burke

Important Tests: Lane Agility Drill and Height/Wingspan

Why: At this point, nobody questions whether Trey Burke can be an impact player on the offensive end in the NBA. He is one of the craftiest players to enter the draft in the past few years and he has range that extends beyond the NBA three-point line. The question with Burke is whether or not he will be a liability on the other end of the court. Burke is officially listed at 6’0″, with a reported wingspan of 6’5″. As crazy as it seems, an inch one way or the other could mean the difference between Burke being a top-3 pick and falling to the back of the lottery. Ty Lawson and TJ Ford measured just a tad over six feet in shoes, and became first round picks. Meanwhile, Isaiah Thomas slipped all the way to the final pick of the second round in large part because he measured just under 5’11”.

Perhaps even more important, however, is the lane agility drill because it tests a defenders ability to stay in front of his man. It doesn’t matter how tall you are if your man continually blows past you. 11.15 seconds is average for a point guard, and the results of this drill have been a fairly good predictor of defensive success. Last year, Damian Lillard was exactly average, finishing in 11.15 seconds, while Kendall Marshall finished in 12.03 seconds. Lillard figures to be an average defender moving forward, while Marshall will likely always be a liability. For the record, Chris Paul ran an 11.09. Anything similar should bode well for Burke, but 11.25 or over, and teams might begin to worry.

Victor Oladipo

Important Test: Shooting Drill Results

Why: Even if he drills all of these shots, it is not going to completely eliminate concerns about his perimeter game, but it could take it out of the ‘weakness’ column and that could prove huge for Oladipo. But on the flip side, if Oladipo performs poorly in this drill, it will be a major red flag, seeing that good offensive players have either finished in the middle of the pack or higher ever since the combine has started this drill and released the results. Each player takes 25 spot-up NBA three’s, 25 spot-up college three’s, 18 shots off the dribble, and then have a times session where they get off as many 15-18 footers as possible.

Oladipo’s goal should be to shoot 65-70% on his spot-ups and at least 60% in the other two drills for GM’s to feel comfortable with him as a guy who is capable of having an impact in the half court offensively.

Shabazz Muhammad

Important Tests: Measureables and Bench Press

Why: GM’s need to figure out if Shabazz Muhammad can be a full-time small forward in the NBA. If he can, he will be much more sought after than if he is marginally athletic shooting guard with average perimeter shooting skills. Anything under 6’7″ in shoes will raise some concerns, but an exceptional reach can help offset some of their worries. According to the numbers, height and standing reach are the best predictors of how good of a defender a small forward will be. A standing reach of at least 8’6″ will be necessary to make GM’s feel comfortable about drafting him as a small forward.

Bench press sounds kind of arbitrary and pointless, but it is arguably quite important for Muhammad. Shabazz gets quite a bit of his points in the low post, and while he was able to push smaller defenders around in college, GM’s will have their doubts about him being able to do that in the pros. If he can show considerable strength to go along with solid measurables and athleticism, he can get himself back into that top-5 discussion now that Marcus Smart has pulled out of the draft and the big men are dropping like flies.

Cody Zeller

Important Tests: Wingspan and Lane Agility

Why: Cody’s brother, Tyler Zeller, started slipping right after the combine due in large part to his shorter than expected wingspan. Zeller’s wingspan was only 7’0″, which was actually a half an inch shorter than his height with shoes. That was more than six inches shorter than Andre Drummond and five inches shorter than Anthony Davis- two guys that measured in at similar heights. His seven foot wingspan was shorter than most power forwards as well, and was shorter than several small forwards like Quincy Miller, who had a 7’1.25″ wingspan. Teams are scared off by a big man with a short wingspan because it usually means that they are going to have a difficult time protecting the rim. The younger Zeller will need a bigger wingspan than his brother if he wants to get himself back into the discussion for a top-5 pick.

Lane agility will be important for Zeller as well, because he projects as more of a power forward in the NBA. He will have to show more in pick and rolls and defend stretch fours in the league, so he will be on the perimeter far more than he was in college. If he can show that he can be a smart, quick defender in the same way that Nick Collison has mastered that role in Oklahoma City, teams will feel more comfortable taking him high. If he has a short wingspan and can’t be one of the more agile bigs in this draft, he will fall in the same way that his brother did last year.

CJ McCollum

Important Tests: Everything

Why: McCollum hasn’t been seen on a basketball court since January, but reports are that he is 100% after surgery and rehab. Scouts and GM’s will be anxious to see him at the combine, and the fact that he is showing up will be enough to get him back in the discussion for the lottery. Prior to his injury, McCollum was arguably the best scorer in college basketball, and after watching Damian Lillard win Rookie of the Year and Stephen Curry dominate the postseason, McCollum will become a hot name yet again if he shows that he is all the way back on Thursday and Friday.

Other News and Notes

– Nelens Noel (ACL) , Anthony Bennett (Rotator Cuff) , and Alex Len (Ankle) will not be participating in any drills because they are all recovering from surgeries. None of them will be able to participate in individual workouts, either, or play in the Summer League. Basically, a team has to take these guys based on what they see from their college tape. All three of these young men are immensely talented, but bigs have the hardest transition from the college game to the pros, and GM’s need to use every means possible to evaluate their skill set, their work ethic, and their ability to compete. The last one is the most important in my opinion, because the big men in this league who fail often fail because they don’t have the love of the game or the ability to dig deep when the game gets physical. In individual workouts, teams love to pit these guys against each other and see how they respond in certain situations. They won’t get that opportunity now. Oh, and the other reason bigs usually bust? Injuries.

– Cody Zeller could see his stock rise now that these three bigs are unavailable to work out. If he dominates in drills and in workouts against less polished big men, he could become a hot prospect again. But then again, if he gets outplayed in workouts by second rounders, that would be much more detrimental for him than losing an individual workout to Alex Len or Nerlens Noel, so I suppose it could go the other way too.

– People often ask me who I think Dell would target if the Pelicans trade down or acquire another pick, and I think the answer is simple: Jamaal Franklin. There is nobody in this draft that fits what Dell and Monty like more than Franklin, with the possible exception of Victor Oladipo. Oladipo often gets compared to Tony Allen, but if I had to bet on one guy in this draft becoming the next Tony Allen, it would be Franklin. He is the shooting guard version of Kenneth Faried – non-stop energy and hustle, fantastic rebounding and athleticism, and remarkable toughness for a guy who is just around 200 pounds. His lack of offense keeps him from being considered at 5 or 6, but if the Pelicans move back or acquire a pick between 13 and 20, I think Franklin could be the pick.

– Ever since Chad Ford mentioned that the Pelicans have shown some interest in Dario Saric, I have been flooded with questions about him on Twitter. I covered him a bit earlier this year, and Chad Ford went all out hyperbole a couple of weeks ago in comparing him to Magic Johnson. Most mock drafts have him going in the teens, so picking him at 5 or 6 would be a stretch, but I have said for a month now that if the ‘Big Four’ were off the board, then don’t be surprised by anything the Pelicans do. Perhaps a trade down with Utah could work. Utah has picks 14 and 21, plus a young guy in Alec Burks that would be a great backup two. Saric might not be around at 14, but that would be a possibility. Saric at 14 and Franklin at 21 would be a home run for Dell and Monty.

Then again, if Saric can show a more consistent stroke in offseason workouts, or if the Pelicans like the idea of stashing a guy for a year, then maybe Saric could be the pick at 6. If they can stash him, that opens about $3 million in additional cap room and it allows Monty to focus his attention on developing Davis, Miller, and Rivers without having to dedicate extra time to another 19 year old. Bring in some young vets, win next year, then bring Saric over in 2014 after he has had another year of seasoning. Now he just has to be a small piece on a team that is already good, rather than a big piece on a bad team. That’s the way the Spurs do it, and they have been fairly successful I would say.

– Speaking of foreign prospects, most of the foreigners expected to go in the first round will not participate in the combine for a variety of reasons. The only ones who will be there are Rudy Gobert and Dennis Schroeder. Schroeder is one of the hottest prospects in the draft right now after killing it at the Nike Hoop Summit and Gobert is a 20 year old who will likely have the longest wingspan at the combine (7’9″). Both are currently projected to go in the middle of the first round currently, but who knows how high they could climb with impressive showings this week.

The Missing Piece is a weekly feature that you can find every Saturday only on Bourbon Street Shots. For previous articles in this series, click here. 

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