How teams and players alike benefit from the return of pre-draft workouts
Due to COVID-19, there was no combine or draft workouts last year and teams couldn't visit college campuses during the 2020-21 season.
Draft hopefuls are flying across the country, working out for teams, playing in front of executives and dining with team personnel.
Oh, how things have changed and improved over the last year.
While the NBA isn’t back to its normal season and offseason schedules just yet, the return of the draft combine followed by pre-draft workouts has been a welcomed sight for both sides, the next generation of players and those tasked with selecting them.
A year ago, there was not a traditional draft due to the COVID-19 pandemic. There were no visits or in-person interviews; those were all done over Zoom. There wasn’t even a combine in Chicago. Measurements were taken in local markets and shared with teams. And there was no NCAA Tournament to watch players on the biggest stage with the most pressure.
“I think last year it was just tough for players and agents to get a feel in advance where guys were going to go,” an Eastern Conference front-office executive told Fieldhouse Files. “There was such a vacuum of information because of the absence of a real combine and workouts. Most of the heavy lifting was done in November well after the deadline.
“And we were limited to only traveling to see 10 workouts so that hurt guys’ chances that might be right outside a range to improve their stock. You had to cover all your picks with those 10 visits.”
Ayo Dosunmu from the University of Illinois is prime example. The 6-foot-5 guard from Chicago was First-Team All-Big Ten during the 2019-20 season, but didn’t have the same level of impact. He entered his name into the draft less than a year ago after his sophomore campaign, but elected to return for another season.
“I honestly think I probably would have stayed in the draft, but we’ll never know,” he told me this week after working out for the Pacers. “We never know how those would have went. But I think I would have stayed in the draft last year if we had this opportunity to meet teams in person and compete in person.
Dosunmu, 21, stayed at Illinois and was a consensus first-team All-American selection. He won the Bob Cousy Award as the top point guard in the nation. He was USA Today’s National Player of the Year and a finalist for other prestigious awards.
He developed, became more confident and was central to how the Illini played.
“I’m most proud of how my body has changed,” he said. “I got bigger. My game got better, my jumpshot improved, my playmaking improved. I just got better as a player (with) another year in college.”
Indiana’s Trayce Jackson-Davis, named 2019 Indiana Mr. Basketball, was in a similar boat. He put his name in and sought out feedback from teams. But he would have made his strongest impression on teams during in-person workouts. And there were none.
During a normal college basketball season, scouts and executives make their way to schools to evaluate talent over the winter. They spend more than a year filling their draft binders with notes, observations and intel gathered. But they couldn’t go on campus during the 2020-21 season. Things were so tight that they were’t able to even sit in on practices.
Why is that important? The Pacers have several great examples in the last decade.
Paul George had incredible talent and ability at Fresno State, but he wasn’t special. Not yet. He averaged 16.8 points and 7.2 rebounds per game during his sophomore season and shot 35 percent from beyond the arc. But the Pacers saw something and drafted him 10th, which was met with a chorus of “WHO?” during the team’s draft party.
It was the same way five years later, in 2015, with Myles Turner. He started in just seven of 34 games. He averaged 10 points, 6.5 rebounds, and 2.6 blocks per game. What impressed them most was what they saw in practice. And if not for how Rick Barnes used him, Turner was likely off the board by 11 when the Pacers were on the clock.
We all have access to games and film, but it’s those touchpoint with players and more often, the behind-the-scenes experiences that help inform team decisions.
Like Dosunmu, Marcus Zegarowski put his name in the draft in 2020. For a short time. He’s a standout guard from Creighton, coached by Doug McDermott’s father, Greg.
“Of course I thought I was ready, of course I thought I had a really good year, but I also thought coming back to school could help me even more,” he said. “And I stand on that statement.”
Zegarowski uses the Pacers’ McDermott as a sounding board and a resource from time to time, along with his brother, Michael Carter-Williams. He shot better than 42 percent from distance in each of his three seasons and averaged 16 points per game last season. But he felt his biggest leap came from freshman to sophomore year.
“I was allowed to play through mistakes,” he said. “Coach gave me the keys to the offense and to the team. And my leadership role increased. I got to use my voice more often, I was trusted by everyone on the floor and the coaching staff.”
By the time players go through the combine and team-run workouts, teams already have a working draft board. They’re crossing out guys who are red-flagged. And they’re also hosting workouts for more than just their pick or two.
In addition to the elite group of players, they’re considering guys for two-way contracts, summer league and their G League team — sometimes all in the same workout. It is valuable information they can use when considering these players years later in trades or free agency.
Joshua Primo from Toronto was one-and-done at Alabama. He experienced a season unlike any other, played in the NCAA Tournament — which was in Indianapolis, by the way — and now looks forward to getting started in the NBA.
He’s just 18 years old, but played at Huntington Prep and with Team Canada. He recognizes the importance of this time and is grateful that he is afforded these workouts unlike his peers last year.
“That’s a big thing,” he said of visiting teams. “I think with a lot of the guys last year some people it helped, some people it hurt. Some people didn’t get to show exactly what they can do. I’m just blessed to have this opportunity — coming to the combine, coming to workouts like this and get to be in front of coaches to show exactly what I’m capable of. It’s been an amazing experience so far.”