Danny Ainge will be in Chicago this week for the NBA predraft combine, where a slew of NBA types, including several members of the Celtics’ personnel staff, will take a closer look at the latest crop of top prospects.
But three players the Celtics are considering drafting next month won’t be there.
Duke’s Jabari Parker and Kansas’s Joel Embiid and Andrew Wiggins, the top three prospects in the June 26 draft, are all skipping the league’s largest predraft showcase, which features 60 players invited to go through drills, physical measurements, medical examinations, and interviews.
Their absences leave lottery teams in something of a bind — and that includes the Celtics, who have a 10.35 percent chance of getting the top pick and a 33.4 percent chance of a top-three pick at next Tuesday’s draft lottery in New York.
“It might have an impact, and it might not,” said Ainge, the Celtics president of basketball operations.
It’s not unusual for elite prospects to skip the combine, which runs Wednesday through Sunday. Anthony Bennett, the No. 1 overall pick in 2013, missed last year’s combine with injuries, and for other potential top-five picks, attending isn’t considered vital, as it could perhaps only hurt their draft stock.
But the absence of the players expected to be drafted 1-2-3 in some combination is almost unheard of.
Though Ainge said he’s not sure what their absences will ultimately mean, he and others around the NBA said that, in general, the combine doesn’t typically do much to dramatically sway opinions on potential draftees.
“Well, it could sway it, even though it’s very, very rare that you go do an interview with someone at this stage of the season and you all of the sudden just have a drastically different opinion of a kid,” Ainge said.
“But the difference is that in most cases, with most teams, you’re only drafting one guy. So you may be having a hard time deciding between five or six different guys, and maybe there’s something said or found that becomes a tiebreaker. But it’s just a tiny piece of the whole puzzle.”
Perhaps the most intriguing piece of that puzzle is the health of Embiid, the 7-foot center who is still recovering from a stress fracture in his lower back that cut short his freshman season.
Teams hoped their doctors could examine Embiid at the combine, but those examinations will likely come after the lottery, when Embiid can selectively work out for teams.
“I doubt he’ll visit anyone but the top three teams,” said an Eastern Conference scout. “His agent doesn’t think he’ll slip past the third pick, so there’s no reason to visit the fourth team. And those top three teams will have their doctors examine him inside and out.”
The scout added that Embiid’s agents, Arn Tellem and B.J. Armstrong of Wasserman Media Group, could send teams a doctor’s report from a back specialist.
The Celtics have only one true center on their roster (Vitor Faverani) and Ainge has said they’re looking to add “rim protection,” meaning a defensive-minded post player, so they are certainly keeping a close eye on Embiid.
The 20-year-old from Cameroon is expected to make a full recovery, though he hasn’t yet been cleared for full-contact workouts. Still, back issues have long been problematic for post players, hence the concern.
“A back issue for a young 7-footer is a huge red flag,” the scout said.
Such health concerns don’t exist for Wiggins, a freshman guard and Parker, a freshman swingman, but teams weren’t surprised that both skipped the combine. The combine isn’t as useful as it was maybe a decade ago, when five-on-five scrimmages allowed prospects to be measured against each other.
“It’s not nearly what it used to be,” said a Western Conference executive.
As such, it’s much harder for teams to gather useful information.
“It’s staged at this point,” said an Eastern Conference scout. “The agents know exactly what drills their guys are going to do, so their workout guys are preparing them for that. They’re preparing them how to answer specific questions. At this point, it’s a very, very small tiny piece of the evaluating process.”
By this point, teams have done most of their homework anyway.
“We’ve watched these guys in some cases for a few years,” Ainge said. “We know all about them and we know their histories.”
Are the interviews helpful, especially when players are trained on what to say?
“You can rehearse answers all you want, but they don’t know what questions we’re going to ask,” Ainge said. “There’s 30 teams out there. They all ask different questions.”
In terms of on-court activities, an Eastern Conference executive said, “The workouts are just drills, a lot of full-court, three-on-two, two-on-one stuff and a lot of shooting — things that these kids have been doing since they were 10 years old.”
Good shooters might shoot poorly, and poor shooters might shoot well, so it can be hard to judge off those drills alone.
“As far as the basketball side, the combine really does nothing,” the Western Conference executive said.
Players can still help their cause with a strong performance.
“I remember a couple of years ago when [Damian] Lillard showed up and no one expected him to work out because he was one of the top point guards, but then he showed up and destroyed every drill,” said another Eastern Conference scout.
Players’ height, weight, wing span, and vertical leap will be measured, but physical attributes/measurements should be taken with a grain of salt, said an Eastern Conference executive, who noted that 2013-14 NBA MVP Kevin Durant famously couldn’t bench press 185 pounds at a camp before the 2007 draft.
“So it’s like, how much does that stuff tell you about a kid?” the executive said.
Looks can indeed be deceiving.
“You’re shooting the ball with nobody in your face, there’s no pressure, it’s not in a game, and the athletic testing, I mean, ask executives who were the last two players that tested athletically off the charts at the NBA combine the last two years in a row,” said an Eastern Conference scout. “I guarantee you they could not tell you who it was.”
If a prospect shows up in peak physical condition, it’s considered a sign of a serious approach, whereas the opposite can make teams question his commitment.
“You see more than just skill at the combine,” said an Eastern Conference executive. “You can get a good sense of what kind of players these guys are going to be just based on their work ethic, their motor, and then their personality in the interviews.”
But in the end, what can teams learn?
“Not a lot,” Ainge said. “A little, but not a lot.”