My trip started off on Thursday with a rude awakening by my alarm clock at 5:30 in the morning. A not so quick hop up Interstate 75 found me at IMG's gorgeous facilities in Bradenton at 10 AM sharp, just in time for a workout with Matt Walsh, Ryan Gomes, South Carolina small forward Carlos Powell and Cookie Belcher, who played for Biella in the Italian first division last season.
Just to give you an idea about what these guys are going through everyday here, a stretching and warmup session kicked things off, followed by ball-handling drills, mid-range jumpers, college threes, NBA threes (all shooting drills from both static positions and off the dribble) and then some other skill oriented drills before the players went up against each other head to head for a bit.
After that hour long workout another one immediately followed, featuring high school blue-chip prospect Brandon Rush and the 7 foot West Virginia center D'or Fischer. Both players had just arrived in the past few days at IMG, and therefore weren't expected to look as good or in tune as some of the other players who have been here for much longer. This was Fischer's first day of workouts and Rush's second I believe. Both players have reputations for having less than stellar work ethics, but you would never have guessed that by how hard they were working right in front of my eyes. They clearly weren't in the same shape as some of the others who have been here for weeks or even months, but they kept fighting through for every second of their grueling workout regardless.
Everyone was free after that for a two hour lunch break before another workout session kicked off. This was a joint workout for all the players at IMG, dedicated to improving explosiveness, footwork and athletic ability, through all kinds of funny looking drills.
Almost immediately afterwards I had the treat of watching the players go up against each other in a pretty competitive five on five game, complete with a scoreboard, a 24 second clock, and a lot of hard fouls (especially on poor Brandon Rush). This lasted for about 45 minutes, four games to 20 and the deciding game to 10. Much to my delight, Sean Banks, formally from Memphis, joined in on the action here.
Monta Ellis was also supposedly roaming around IMG somewhere, but from what I was told he is still rehabbing his knee from the minor surgery he had a while back. Chris Thomas was hanging around the gym for most of the day, but didn't participate in any of the activities since he had just returned from three NBA workouts in three consecutive days with the Bucks, Pistons and Knicks, and his body needed some rest.
After the five on five scrimmage, the players were sent to IMG's very impressive weight room to lift and do all kinds of things that NBA draft prospects and healthy people usually do. I had to hit the road, so I did not stick around for this part of the day.
Player evaluations from the entire day:
Matt Walsh, 6-6, junior, shooting guard, Florida
Walsh surprised quite a few people by declaring himself eligible for the draft this year. I was definitely one of those people at first, but after watching him work out for almost the entire day he got me thinking that maybe that wasn't such a bad move.
The most recognizable difference between the Matt Walsh I have watched numerous times over the past three years and the Matt Walsh of Thursday, was the new and improved release he sports on his long-range shot. When Walsh came in to Florida as a freshman he was already known as a deadly, although quite streaky, shooter. His shooting mechanics were extremely unorthodox, with an average release that came from his chin. Walsh's mechanics have slowly improved over the past three years, to the point that he would likely be considered one of the top shooters in the country should he decide to return to school for his senior year.
His stroke is just a thing of beauty to watch, both in drills and during games. He receives the ball, steps in, elevates nicely and releases the ball in one quick and fluid motion, following through and usually resulting with the ball ending up in the bottom of the net after almost every shot. There is no wasted motion and his shot looks exactly the same every single time. He's a true competitor in everything he does, not being satisfied with himself unless he knocks down every single shot he takes, whether it's in drills or during an actual game. He had a lot of shots go in and out for him in the morning drill, but what was surprising was the fact that even when he stepped back to shoot the NBA three, his stroke looked identical and the results were too. He showed that he has NBA range numerous times during the season (especially in the finals of the SEC tournament against Kentucky), but its that much more impressive to watch in an almost empty gym right in front of your eyes.
Another noticeable difference was the fact that Walsh has now added a very effective pull-up mid-range jumper to his arsenal. It looked very good in the drills, but only fell for him about half the time in the pickup game. He appears to be in better shape than he was during the season as well, which is what lifting weights four days a week will probably do for you I hear.
In the one on one session at the end of his morning workout was where some of Walsh's weaknesses came to play. He was matched up with the extremely skilled and savvy Cookie Belcher, a 6-4, 27 year old combo guard who has been playing in Italy for the past few seasons. Belcher used his experience and smarts to get by and score on Walsh almost whenever he pleased, and then proceeded to get up right in his grill defensively and take away the option of shooting over the top of him on the other end.
Walsh looked exhausted, and reiterated this to me later, showing problems putting the ball on the floor and getting by Belcher, who is a very tough and crafty defender (third on the NCAA's all time steals list) that would probably give any guard in this draft trouble with the way he defends. I would say that overall Walsh looked average in the morning drill, but he made up for it in a huge way later on in the afternoon in the five on five game.
In the five on five scrimmage Walsh was absolutely on fire for the first 25 minutes or so. In the first game to twenty he simply refused to miss, scoring 18 of his team's 20 points to help them easily take the first contest. Most of his points were scored on the perimeter, catching and shooting in the blink of an eye (reminding a bit of Salim Stoudamire this year at Arizona) to drain three pointer after three pointer from NBA range. His matchup started defending him extremely close and Walsh would use a nice head fake to get him off balance and then drive towards the lane, either pulling up for a mid-range jumper or finding the open man with a beautiful pass (a specialty of his). He did not create his own shot an awful lot, but as IMG academy director Joe Abunassar correctly pointed out when you are shooting like that, who needs to put the ball on the floor? Defensively, Walsh once again struggled a bit to stay in front of his man. As the games wore on he grew a bit more tired and settled down a little, but still managed to show off his excellent ball-handling skills and creative passing ability. He hit a few more threes from NBA range for good measure as well.
On the day, he left a very strong impression with the way he played and conducted himself. In my mind he is one of the top 5 shooters in this draft along with Antoine Wright, Francisco Garcia, Rashad McCants and Tiras Wade. From the conversations we had over the day, Walsh made it sound like the chances of him returning to Florida next year are extremely slim, but that all depends on what happens in NBA workouts of course. He did not seem to be afraid of the possibility of going to Europe if things didn't work out, but had lots of faith in the progress he's made and the feedback he's received from NBA scouts so far.
Ryan Gomes, 6-8, senior, forward, Providence
One of the most pleasant surprises of the day, Gomes is one of the last players I expected to be surprised by considering how much of him I've seen over the past two seasons. That was hardly the case, though, and I think that NBA people who will be evaluating him over the next 7 weeks will be a little surprised as well.
The first thing you notice is his body, which looks absolutely fantastic. He has lost a lot of weight, now possessing an extremely cut body that is prototypical of what you look for in an NBA small forward, at 6-8, somewhere around 225 pounds, and with an outstanding 7-2 wingspan. Compared with the player that went into last year's draft at 248 pounds (according to the pre-draft camp measurements) and with a 33% (exactly one make a game) average from behind the arc, he's coming into this years draft as someone who's 100 times more ready to help an NBA team.
After watching him work out on Thursday, the second thing that really stood out is how much better of a shooter he's become. I watched him shoot at least 50 three pointers during the drills, and I don't think he missed more than 10 of them. Even when he stepped back to NBA range, he still hit a lot more shots than he missed. He doesn't have a ton of elevation on his jump shot, but it's extremely effective, particularly his pull-up jumper. His mid-range game as we all know from his college career is terrific as well, that certainly wasn't a surprise.
During the scrimmage the subtle Gomes didn't stand out in any one area, very often making great passes to a cutting teammate or nailing the open perimeter shot if it was given to him. He did show what a tough matchup he can be for an opposing team, though, as he's usually too big and strong for wing players to guard if he takes them close to the basket and too versatile and mobile with his off the ball movement for post players to handle.
The one thing that is really stopping him from being a surefire first rounder in this draft is the fact that he's not an explosive athlete. Gomes is the type of guy who will wow you more with his fundamentals, craftiness, toughness, intelligence and feel for the game rather than with his athleticism. There's only one real way to describe the kid: he's a basketball player. He managed to convince me personally that he is the type of player that will be in the league for a long time, regardless of where he ends up being drafted. Will NBA teams feel the same way?
Brandon Rush, 6-6, high school senior, shooting guard, ???
Rush was sent by his family to train here at IMG, which should probably tell you all you need to know about his plans regarding declaring for this upcoming draft. This was only his second day here, so I initially planned on not writing anything at all since that wouldn't really be fair to him. The way he played in the scrimmage changed my mind, though. It's really hard not to get excited about a kid who has as much talent as Brandon does with the ball in his hands. Even though he wasn't in great shape (considering that he just got here) he managed to make anyone that attempted to guard him look completely silly.
He's got a great frame and world class athletic ability on top of that. It's really just not fair how quick and smooth this kid is. Even though he's not a great ball-handler right now, he still manages to get into the lane almost whenever he pleases. How creatively he finishes is what really impresses, though. He's not just a run and jump type dunker who can't do anything else, he's extremely advanced for his age in creating shots for himself and finishing around the rim in traffic, thanks to his outstanding body control, the quickness in which he gets off the floor, and his gigantic vertical leap. Rush is the type of kid who can just nonchalantly jog towards the basket, hop with the type of effort you would put in if you are jumping rope, and then throw down a windmill. He just gets up that high, with that much ease. Even though he was exhausted at the end of the workout and out of shape, he still managed to throw down some highlight reel caliber dunks.
In terms of shooting, his mechanics need serious work, but he is surprisingly decent, even from NBA range. He's really streaky in the way that he can hit 10 straight threes and then miss all of his next ten (I'm exaggerating, but you get the point), but I'm sure that once his mechanics are tweaked a bit (particularly using his athleticism to get some more lift on his shot) he'll be fine. His defense is nothing to write home about either, but I'm not sure if anyone is really going to care about that. The trainers around me (Abunassar in particular) were all extremely excited about training him over the next month or so, they are certain that after working with him every day for a couple of weeks, the results will be very easy to notice and that he'll be making a lot of noise. From what I saw from Rush this early in the process, it's hard to disagree with that. There really aren't that many shooting guards that you can really get excited about in this draft, but there are a lot of teams who need one. Last year there were ten SG's drafted in the first round, the year before that there were nine. There is definitely room for a couple of 2 guards to move their way into the 1st round over the next seven weeks.
Sean Banks, 6-8, sophomore, SG/SF, ~Memphis
Banks has been working out at IMG for three months now, and obviously he's going to be in fantastic shape because of that. He didn't have a workout session scheduled in the morning, so I had to go strictly off what I saw during the five on five afternoon scrimmage. His ball-handling looks much better than I remember it at Memphis, and he was running the point and handling it fairly well, although it was evident that he probably doesn't have the instincts or playmaking skills (not to mention the shot selection) to do it in a real game. His shot was very streaky as well.
I am probably going to write this about a couple of dozen (or more) draft prospects in the next few months, but Banks is really one of the toughest guys to figure out in this draft in terms of where they might end up going. When it comes to pure physical tools, the only swingman that really comes close is Gerald Green. He is simply an incredible athlete with a perfect body for an NBA wing player. Everything beyond that is completely up to interpretation, though. He's put himself at a huge disadvantage with all the mess that's been around him since the season ended last year, and I can't imagine how that baggage won't scare off a few teams at least. Has he learned his lesson, though? Can you ignore that type of talent? These are questions that I am really glad that I don't have to answer. What I do know is that how he carries himself over the next 7 weeks will ultimately end up deciding where he gets drafted. He's got the talent to go into the pre-draft camp in Chicago and easily be the best player there.
Carlos Powell. 6-7, senior, small forward, South Carolina
Powell was probably the most intriguing prospect on his team (to me at least) at the Portsmouth Invitational Tournament, but unfortunately for him that team was pretty bad and they got kicked out after losing their first and only two games. Here at IMG he continued to drop some glimpses of potential with many of the moves he made during the scrimmage and during the drills. He's a very athletic small forward with a great body and plenty of strength to get to the hoop and finish at the rim. His ball-handling skills also help him out quite a bit in this area. His outside shooting leaves a lot to be desired, as does his perimeter defense, but he's a pretty solid player who should get some looks from teams in workouts and in summer league if he doesn't get drafted. I like his toughness and the way he can create his own shot and then either finish or find the open man. At the very worst he'll be a very good player for a team in Europe, good enough to get looks in a place like the second division in Italy (and outstanding place to play for college seniors), France, Turkey or for one of the better teams (besides Maccabi) in a league like the Israeli league. This kid can definitely play; he just needs to keep working on his perimeter skills. Someone in the NBA might fall in love with him and offer him a contract eventually, maybe even this summer.
If you are a player, agent, trainer or family member who is interested in having someone from the staff take a look and evaluate a draft prospect at a workout in a similar fashion, please email us.