With the number of one-and-dones, overseas unknowns and now players who decided to skip college to turn professional, the NBA Draft has become a total crap shoot.
Now add the limits of the pandemic to the evaluation process and this could be the most unpredictable draft in league history.
First, this draft isn’t considered strong and could be analogous to navigating a minefield of prospects to unearth a hidden gem with star potential. Second, NBA teams have had an extremely limited opportunity to evaluate players following the college season because of COVID-19 issues.
NBA prospects have been allowed to work out in gyms around the country where those sessions were recorded and sent to NBA teams for their assessment. Draft prospects also could conduct personal workouts for a handful of teams and conduct Zoom interviews with others.
A major drawback to those workouts is they are solo functions, meaning there are no three-on-three sessions teams like to plan so they can determine how prospects fare against players of equal talent.
The Celtics have three first-round picks (Nos. 14, 26 and 30) in Wednesday’s draft and this would be considered an ill-favored time for club to lack all the opportunities to see prospects. Of course, the Celtics and other clubs have been scouting players for years, seeing some as early as high school.
But with no NCAA Tournament, which allows the nation’s best players to play on the biggest stage, and no in-person combine, the resources are limited and there could be more mistakes made than usual. Also, NBA teams may be more open to trading for a first-round pick next year because of the increased certainty and better prospects.
Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge openly said the club has been trying to make trades, perhaps using their first-round picks to trade up. The question is whether teams are willing to take chances on players such as 19-year-old R.J. Hampton, a 6-foot-5-inch guard from Dallas, who played last season for the New Zealand Breakers, or LaMelo Ball, who did not play in college, or others who played limited college games with no tournament.
The lack of evaluation has definitely hindered the draft process.
“It’s been difficult,” Ainge said. “Because, as you guys know, guys that we have seen and worked out in the past, those workouts mean a lot. It doesn’t mean everything. We certainly know what they’ve done throughout their college career and through high school careers.
“But I think getting to meet people and get up close personal contact and watching them working out against other players you may be weighing them against is very helpful. So we haven’t been able to do none of that.
“I think we’ve seen eight individual workouts, one coach, one player shooting in a gym and that’s about it. That’s not ideal. But it’s the same for every team. We’ll do the best we can. That’s why we scout all year and watch players throughout the course of the season and try to prepare for this moment.”
What hinders the process even more are the draft-eligible college players who have played limited minutes. Many of these players rely on personal workouts and competitions to showcase themselves against other prospects and boost their draft stock.
For example, Kentucky’s Devin Booker did not start in any of the Wildcats' 38 games and played just 21.5 minutes per game during his lone season. That Kentucky team featured eight players who played in the NBA, so Booker was overshadowed.
What made an impression on then-Phoenix Suns general manager Ryan McDonough was Booker’s workouts.
“What stood out is he played competitively in a workout,” McDonough said. “He played two-on-two, one-on-one and he was dominant, not just shooting and scoring off the catch. He was making plays off the dribble. He was creating shots for himself.”
In the long term, the postponed draft — by five months — and the extra workout time may benefit the prospects and, by extension, teams in their evaluation process. Usually, college players rush from their seasons directly into the draft evaluation process, exhausting themselves with coast-to-coast workouts. The last organized college game was March 12, meaning no US prospect has played a game in eight months.
The learning curve will be short with no team summer league play before training camp, which will begin two weeks after the draft. Summer league allows draftees an opportunity to play in NBA-style games in front of crowds and against other top picks. It serves as a helpful transition to the league.
Prospects are saying the time off has been helpful. The long pause has allowed them to work on weaknesses in their game and also play extensively against current NBA players. Dayton’s Obi Toppin is considered the most draft-ready player in the lottery.
“Playing in games I’ve missed a lot, but this extra time is only helping me,” he said. “This extra time I’ve had to be able to get into weight room and get on the court with NBA guys, I feel like I’m more prepared for when the time comes. I’ve been waiting so long, it’s going to be an amazing feeling.”
Vanderbilt’s Aaron Nesmith, who suffered a stress fracture in his right foot in January but still decided to enter the draft, said prospects have no idea what they’re missing with the past draft process because they’ve never been through it. They are adjusting well to the 2020 NBA Draft — COVID-style.
“We’ve been spending the last six months at home, working on our games being able to turn our weaknesses into strengths, the quick turnaround after the draft isn’t a big deal for me,” he said. “I haven’t played basketball since January. I’m just ready to go.
"Even though it’s not the typical draft process for me and the rest of the draftees, I’m still having fun because I don’t know any better.”