But Can He Play? Analyzing the NBA Pre-Draft Combine Results

But Can He Play? Analyzing the NBA Pre-Draft Combine Results
Jun 05, 2007, 12:44 pm
He has a 7-6 ¾ wingspan, and a 9-3 ½ standing reach. He jumps out of the gym with a 39 inch one-step vertical, bench presses 185 pounds 24 times and runs a 3.3 in the three quarter court sprint. But can he shoot? Dribble? Catch a rebound? Play? Do we even care?

It’s that time once again, our favorite time of the year of course; a few weeks before the draft when everything logical in regards to analyzing basketball gets flushed down the toilet. Instead we focus on superficial things that have proven again and again to have very little correlation with actual success in the NBA.

This player is superior to that player because his standing reach is two inches longer. That guy is a better prospect because he bench pressed 185 pounds 19 times instead of the 8 someone else did. Let’s just forget irrelevant things like how many points and rebounds a player averaged, what kind of drive he has to improve or how many games he helped his team win, because those obviously have no bearing on a player’s success.

Who was the top athlete in the 2003 draft? Thinking logically about that draft, you’d probably assume it was a toss up between Dwyane Wade and Lebron James. But in fact, it was 6-2 shooting guard Troy Bell, who did not make it past his rookie contract before being cut by the man who reached badly to draft him in Jerry West. Bell was affectionately nicknamed “Troy Airbell” by ACB Spanish league fans he horrified with the air-balls he jacked up playing for Real Madrid, and struggled this past season to run a D-League team. Bell measured a 41 inch vertical leap (which would rank 1st in this year’s combine), ran a 3.06 in the ¾ court sprint (also 1st), and bench pressed the 185 pound bar 17 times (fourth amongst guards). If Bell were eligible this year, he most likely again would be deemed the top athlete in this year’s draft too.

Who was (supposedly) the 2nd best athlete in that draft? Brandon Hunter, an eventual late 2nd round pick who was relegated to the 2nd division in Italy this year playing for Livorno. Dwyane Wade, possibly the best overall athlete in the NBA today, ranked 14th. Chris Bosh finished 51st. Chris Kaman 45th. In that same year, TJ Ford measured in as being slower in the various footspeed tests than Chris Kaman, Kirk Penney and Carmelo Anthony. Huh? Anyone that has ever seen him play would tell you that he is one of the fastest players in the NBA, if not the fastest.

In 2004, we found a similar story. Kirk Snyder came out as the top overall athlete, while players like Andre Iguodala, Luol Deng and Al Jefferson’s draft stock supposedly took a hit by measuring out as relatively poor athletes. That same Andre Iguodala who was robbed of the slam dunk championship a year ago, only recorded a 34 inch vertical leap, one inch more than J.J. Redick last year. Rickey Paulding, Timmy Bowers and Luis Flores were all declared amongst the top 10 athletes in the draft. One averaged 13 points per game this past season in France, one came off the bench in the Israeli league, and the other finished just a notch ahead of Brandon Hunter’s team in Italy and was also relegated to the 2nd division.

The 2005 draft combine was equally as pointless. Monta Ellis ranked as the worst athlete of all the players measured, coming out slow, weak and with very little leaping ability. Once the NBA season started and the ball actually rolled out on the court, though, he magically transformed into a spectacular athlete who can get his shot at will and dunks anything and everything that is remotely close to the basket, despite only being 6-3. Eventual rookie of the year Chris Paul was declared only the 15th best athlete amongst the players tested, and was somehow deemed slower than Deron Williams, Sean May and Wayne Simien. The athletic tests also led you to believe that Andrew Bogut was some kind of stiff who would never be able to keep up with the speed of the NBA--that is, until the players actually started playing basketball and we found out that he is actually a fine athlete for a player his size. Julius Hodge is out of the league thanks to a bad attitude, awful shooting mechanics and some very average athletic ability, but don’t tell that to the people who tested him out as the 26th best athlete in that draft, with a ¾ court sprint that would rank him amongst the fastest players in 2007.

In 2006, we again found some head-scratching results that made us question the validity of the NBA draft combine, and even make us wonder why exactly it’s even held. At the top of that list was Marcus Williams, who was, according to the combine results, probably one of the most unathletic guards to ever be considered a first round pick. We’re talking about a player that played in the best conference in America and got into the lane and created offense for his team almost whenever he pleased against the top defensive guards the NCAA has to offer, and then continued to do so in the NBA playing for the New Jersey Nets this season. All it took was five minutes watching him on tape or in person to realize that, but the results of the combine would never tell you that. The top ten athletes in the draft last year were, in this order: David Noel, Ronnie Brewer, Dwyane Mitchell, Daniel Horton, Rodney Carney, Randy Foye, Taquan Dean, Brandon Bowman, Nik Caner-Medley and Louis Amundson.

This year’s combine has to take the cake, though. Kevin Durant, who wowed NBA scouts and basketball fans around the world all season long with an incredible skill level and extremely impressive agility for a player his size, measured out as essentially the worst athlete in the draft. Just a few days ago we sat alongside those same NBA scouts drooling over the way he soared above the rim dunking the ball and running the floor like a gazelle…but the tale of the tape tells us that that was all a mirage. If there was ever a case to be made for the waste of time known as the NBA combine, it’s right now.

The combine results are hardly the Holy Grail in the evaluation process as far as NBA decision makers are concerned from what we are told, but people who did not pay much attention to how players performed during the season seem to place a much larger emphasis on them then they probably should. As one NBA scout told us last year “it’s not really something we take into our war room and make decisions off of. It’s more something to glance at and use as another small part of the complicated puzzle that ends up telling you what we’d hope is the entire picture.”

The main point we are trying to hammer across here is that there are major concerns about whether or not the tests that are being done on the players at the pre-draft camp are actually transferable to a real basketball setting. The overwhelming amount of possessions in the NBA are played in a half-court set, which means that there really isn’t any valid measurement tool that is being utilized right now to properly evaluate how well a player will actually be able to create a scoring opportunity for himself or his teammate, how well he’ll be able to react defensively on the perimeter or whether or not a player will go out of his area to track down a rebound.

Measuring how fast a player gets from the free throw three quarters down the court to the basket is a tool that is very much non-transferable to an actual game setting. Evaluating lane agility speed only tells a small part of how well players are able to actually stay in front of someone on the perimeter. Assessing a player’s height, standing reach or vertical leap tells very little about how likely a player is to box out his man, anticipate where the ball will come off the rim and have the desire and tenacity to go get it.

There is more to slashing to the basket than just having an incredibly explosive first step to help a player get by his man. Players like Dwyane Wade and Chris Paul use a wide variety of hesitation moves and quick changes of direction to first get their man off balance and then blow them once they are on their heels. Knowing how and when to slow down and then speed up, change gears and use crafty ball-handling skills simultaneously is what will eventually decide whether or not a player will be successful in creating space to operate.

Once they get to the basket, having a 40+ inch vertical leap isn’t enough to actually put the ball in the hoop either. They’ll need to rely on their instincts, feel, touch, and body control to compliment their leaping ability and either get to the free throw line or finish the play.

Things like timing and instincts are what make the great athletes truly great basketball players, which is why indicating that one player is somehow superior because he has better pure physical attributes seems like a complete waste of time and money.

In the much more scripted and mechanical NFL, this may be a valid way to draw some noteworthy conclusions, but the results of the past few combines show that this isn’t the case are far as basketball goes. Some players are naturally incredible athletes, but only a handful of them actually know how to take fully advantage of their athleticism and translate it out on the court. Too many of them are spending their valuable time and resources on testing out well in the outdated evaluations that the NBA looks at during the combine, rather than working on actually becoming better basketball players in their rookie season.

The fact that the NBA does not to conduct a scientifically valid psychological test at the pre-draft camp to evaluate some key “intangibles” is a bit surprising. Being able to bench press a 185 pound bar 25 times is not going to make the difference in whether or not a player is able to come down with a rebound or come up with a loose ball, but hustle, timing, fundamentals, instincts, footwork, reflexes, tenacity and anticipation skills are. Having a tool at the NBA’s disposal to measure things like work ethic, motivation, leadership skills, coachability, decision making on and off the court, ability to fit in with a team structure, pressure situations and temptation, and other quote unquote “intangibles” would be a much more effective way to properly evaluate a player’s likelihood to succeed in the NBA. If the league is unable to put the top players in a competitive situation where their true basketball ability can really come out, their time and money might be better spent looking at other aspects of a player’s overall makeup to complete the entire picture.

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