With so many of the top names pulling out of the on-court portion of the NBA Draft Combine—if they attended the event at all—the majority of the players doing drills were realistically second-round prospects. Still, there was talent to evaluate and with NBA teams having decision-makers present, it was an opportunity to make a positive impression.
UCLA’s Zach LaVine was arguably the biggest eye-opener, confirming that not only did he have the massive upside that he displayed early in the college season, but his current ability might mean that he’s more ready to contribute early in his NBA career than expected.
“Me and Russell Westbrook compare in a lot of different ways. He’s a lot more physical than me, but with our speed and athleticism,” said the explosive point guard with the feathery shooting touch. “I also feel like I play a little bit like Steph Curry. I’m actually not comparing myself to them. I just feel like I have parts of their game, like his ability to shoot off the dribble.
“One of my good friends, Jamal Crawford, as well. We both have like a loose handle, but still tight, have a lot of moves and can shoot the ball really well. So if I keep working on that, put parts of all three of those dudes’ games in mine, I feel like I’ll have a really good career if I work hard enough,” continued the Seattle-area native, which also where the former Bulls’ draft pick and two-time NBA Sixth Man of the Year winner hails from. “I feel like the scouts notice that I have athleticism. I’m a big, lanky point guard that can shoot the ball. I want to let them know that I can play the point guard position. It’s fluid to me. I played it my whole life and I can see the floor, and I can also play defense, as well. So I feel like I have the tools to be a very good defender at the next level, so I definitely want to work on that.”
LaVine, who needs to add strength, improve his defense and work on his floor-general instincts, left school after an up-and-down freshman year that saw him come off the bench, excel early in the season and then see sporadic playing time toward the end, as UCLA coach Steve Alford opted to feature fellow draft prospects Kyle Anderson and Jordan Adams more, while using his son, freshman Bryce Alford off the bench, something that may have played a part in LaVine’s decision to declare for the draft.
“You have to deal with it. He’s the coach. He didn’t tell me specifically why. The year was a little frustrating for me because I’m a very competitive person. I just want to be on the floor to help my guys win and we had such a good team, I felt like I didn’t have the right opportunity to help. But stuff like that happens sometimes and it teaches you life lessons,” explained LaVine, who could end up being selected in the middle of the first round or even late lottery. “My agent, Bill Duffy, grew up with my dad and at the end of the year, he told me, ‘I feel like it would be a better situation for you to go to the NBA than the situation you’re in now,’ and I have full trust in him and all my family thought the same.”
Another point-guard prospect with good size and athleticism, but who is also transitioning into playing the position on a full-time basis is Missouri’s Jordan Clarkson. Clarkson was more of a scorer in college, but with his strong frame, explosiveness and ability to get into the paint, projects as more of the NBA’s new wave of point guards than a shooting guard.
“I feel like I’m a point guard. I can play off the ball, I can guard multiple positions,” he said. “I’m versatile on the defensive end, but on the offensive end, I’m a point guard.”
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Perhaps just behind LaVine when it comes to who captured the attention of the scouts and executives in attendance was swingman P.J. Hairston, who played for the D-League’s Texas Legends after being dismissed from the University of North Carolina. A strong wing with tremendous range and a quick trigger, Hairston overpowered defenders at the rim and knocked down shots from deep with equal aplomb, but his biggest test could come when teams interview him about his college transgressions.
“I had to go through the D-League and do different things just to be here. Whatever it took, I did it and it wasn’t easy. Workouts, getting up every morning, early in the morning and I’m not a morning person, so that was one of the hardest things to do for me. But at the same time, I had to do it. I wanted to be here, so in my mind, I told myself, ‘If I do this every morning, one day my name will be called and I’ll walk across the stage,’” Hairston explained. “You play with other pro guys, guys that actually played in the NBA, that were sent down to play in the D-League for a few games. For example, I’ve had [Dallas Mavericks players] Bernard James, Jae Crowder and Shane Larkin come down and play on our team. Just playing with those guys, you can just tell how their mentality was and how they have such a pro outlook on things, and how they see the game. And playing against guys—one of the best defenders in the D-League was DeAndre Liggins, and he played pro. He played for OKC a couple years. Just playing against guys like that really prepare you for the next level.
“It’s a professional league. It’s not college. You don’t have anyone holding your hand, telling you not to shoot this, not to shoot that. Basically, it’s up to you. You’re a man. You have to take care of your business off the court,” he continued. “Things I didn’t do a lot at North Carolina, I did in Texas. That’s really the way I showed my improvement in becoming a versatile player.”
Another pure shooter who fared well was C.J. Wilcox of the University of Washington. Wilcox, a four-year senior, could be a borderline first-round pick, and although he isn’t great off the dribble, he’s a relatively mistake-free player, an underrated athlete and a knockdown shooter who believes his experience will benefit him on the next level.
“I think my athleticism goes unnoticed, my understanding of the game and my quickness,” Wilcox said. “You just see a lot of guys through ‘U-Dub.’ There’s been a lot of pro players that have came through and I’ve been able to be around them, and see how they go through the process, so I think I’m just that much further ahead going through this because I’ve been around it for a while and just more mature coming in.”
The older brother of Bucks’ rookie Giannis Antetokounmpo, Thanasis Antetokounmpo played for the D-League’s Delaware 87ers this past season. While not quite as tall or as skilled as his younger brother, one of the top rookies in the league and one of Milwaukee’s few bright spots, despite not having the same ceiling, the native of Greece appeared to have a niche as an athletic, high-energy defensive player with a chance to develop his raw offensive tools.
“I always play 100 percent and give a lot of energy on the court, so that’s mostly what I tried to do,” the elder Antetokounmpo said. “I don’t have any expectations. I just want an opportunity. That’s what I mostly want, is to show people the hard work I’ve done and show my personality.
“Everyone says my best skill is being athletic or a versatile, but I would say work ethic, character, a reliable person the team can rely on to always give 100 percent,” continued the personable wing. “I think here, if you’re athletic, everything’s easier. So I’ve got to work on everything. Shots, defense, skill set, terminology, how you play defense. Because here, it’s different than Europe.”
Antetokounmpo believes his D-League experience really benefited him and as evidenced by Hairston’s performance, his exposure to the high-level professional league seemed to be reflected in his sense of urgency on the court, particularly on the defensive end of the floor.
“I think it was great because—people don’t see it now, but basketball-wise—I had the privilege of playing with pros, because if I was playing college basketball, I’d be playing with college kids,” he explained. “I had the guys who were draft picks and came down to the D-League because they want to go to the NBA, guys who already played in the NBA with a lot of experience came to the D-League, so it was really good for me and the whole team really helped me adjust.”
Antetokounmpo also talked about working out with his brother in Milwaukee and ironically, learning from his younger sibling.
“We worked on a lot, mostly what’s the NBA because we grew up different. We grew up in a different culture, Europe, how it was to the American style of basketball,” he said. “He explained to me that they appreciate hard work and being a good kid, and having good character.
“Me and my brother, we have two rules. One is, wherever we go, we’re the worst player. If he works twice, we have to work four [times]. Wherever I go, that’s the first rule,” the likely second-round pick went on to explain. “I don’t think it’s easier for me because I think he has more strengths than me. He got people to come and see him because he’s 6-10, long arms. For me, I’ve got to show people what I can do and have a lot of energy on the court. That’s the reason I came here, to the States, so people can see me easier.”
Some of the better frontcourt players in the draft declined to participate in anything except the measurements and athletic testing—including Kentucky’s Julius Randle, Arizona’s Aaron Gordon and Indiana’s Noah Vonleh, while Kansas’ Joel Embiid didn’t even show up—which gave Tennessee’s Jarnell Stokes an opportunity to shine. Regarded as an undersized bruiser, Stokes showed that he could score over length in the post, proved to be more agile than believed, displayed some crafty moves on the interior and even stepped out to hit some jumpers.
“I think I’m one of the best bigs in the draft, top-four at least. I think it showed this season and I think people are questioning the things that I’m able to showcase in events like the combine,” Stokes said. “I’m definitely trying to show I can shoot the ball. I’m trying to show I’m more versatile than most guys think and I’m trying to show that I can move my feet. But I never want to get away from bread and butter, and that’s powering through guys.”
Michigan’s Nik Stauskas, a player who didn’t participate in the drills, shared his rationale for taking a pass.
“Just watching the drills before the combine started, knowing what the drills were going to be, I felt like a lot of it was just jump-shooting and obviously that’s the strongest part of my game, and I feel like teams already know I can shoot the ball. So coming in, even if I had a great day shooting the ball, it wasn’t really going to do much for me because teams already know that’s my strength,” the sharpshooter explained. “As far as the physical testing goes, I think I can surprise some people. I don’t think people realize I can jump the way I do or run the way I do, so I’m really looking forward to [Friday] getting in there and working.”