You'll be super surprised to hear this, but people tend to overreact to the results at the NBA draft combine.
Held last week in Chicago, the two-day event puts players in a series of positional drills, scrimmages and athleticism testings that has very little correlation to NBA success. While not quite the Underwear Olympics that takes place every year in the NFL, it's very hard for a player to come out of obscurity to wow scouts at the NBA combine. The player pool is just too small and teams have watched enough tape to know what they're getting for the most part.
For fans, that can be frustrating. Arguably the most important aspect of the entire process—the team interviews—happens behind closed doors. So even though you'll hear about players "impressing" certain squads in interviews, it's impossible to know just how much tangible evidence you can take away.
However, that's not to say combine results are meaningless. They're far from it. Last week's festivities in Chicago were an opportunity for teams, scouts and analysts to start gathering a consensus. And even though many top prospects chose not to participate in the positional drills—mostly at the behest of risk-controlling agents—last week's action still had some very good takeaways.
Namely, there were a few players who were just good enough to send their stock on the upward swing. With that in mind, here is a look at a few first-rounders who had excellent stays in Chicago.
Steven Adams (C, Pittsburgh)
You don't have to look hard to find warts in Adams' game from his one-year stop at Pittsburgh. The New Zealand-born center arrived in the States as a seven-foot mass of potential and athleticism, but with plenty of work left on, you know, playing basketball.
Averaging 7.2 points, 6.2 rebounds and two blocks a night, Adams was everything scouts thought he was and nothing more as a freshman. Those hoping to see Adams develop an offensive game other than "dunk" were sorely disappointed. He was deer-in-the-headlights scared outside the restricted area on offense and thus only received a little over 23 minutes per game.
There were a few tangible positives, most notably his rebounding and shot-blocking prowess. But as the season progressed, it was clear Adams wasn't getting any better. He left Jamie Dixon's stead arguably looking no better than when he arrived.
Heading into the combine, most of the focus was on Adams' offensive game and the colorful adjectives used to describe it. None were positive and the most frequent was possibly "broken." Seriously, Adams looked like a three-year-old playing NBA 2K13 for the first time in his worst moments.
Well, it seems the 19-year-old has already improved more in the two months since the college basketball season ended than he did his entire time at Pitt. Adams was arguably the biggest "winner" of this year's combine, as he confirmed all the good things about him (size, athleticism, etc.) while showing a vastly improved touch around the basket.
He measured in at a full seven feet with shoes and had 11-inch hands, which was tied for the second-widest hands of anyone at the combine. While his leaping numbers were only middle of the pack, where Adams most helped his stock was in the individual offensive drills.
Jonathan Givony of Draft Express noted how much better Adams was than most expected:
Steven Adams continues to show a better than expected skill-level in the drills. Doesn't seem to be thinking as much. Just competing hard.— Jonathan Givony (@DraftExpress) May 17, 2013
Meanwhile, Sports Illustrated's Chris Mannix said that NBA general managers are "tantalize[d]" by the center's potential:
Steven Adams continues to tantalize GM's with his potential. Having a very good two days here. His high skill level is real.— Chris Mannix (@ChrisMannixSI) May 17, 2013
A first-round lock before heading to Chicago, there's some real lottery buzz about Adams now. His collegiate production doesn't justify it whatsoever—Adams' decision to go pro seemed jarring at the time—but he's true evidence of how much the combine can help an already-intriguing product.
If the draft were held today, don't be surprised if he landed somewhere in the back half of the lottery.
Tim Hardaway, Jr. (G, Michigan)
Adams spent his time in Chicago flashing skills few thought he had. Hardaway spent his time again flashing skills everyone already knew he had—and still amazing scouts in the process.
Overshadowed this past season by Trey Burke, Glenn Robinson III and even Mitch McGary during the tourney, Hardaway's NBA stock was a collective "meh" at this point a week ago. He was in no danger of going undrafted by any stretch, but was a victim of a phenomenon we see every year around draft time—scouts had seen so much of him they stopped caring.
It's easy to say the fans at home have inherent biases toward major conference players because they see them play on national television. But what goes unmentioned is that most teams send their top scouts to the same games the Regular Joe fan—generally because that's where top talents will take on the best opposing competition.
Of course, I'm speaking in generalities here and NBA teams have far greater resources to scour the world for the Giannis Antetokounmpos waiting in second-division clubs overseas. Teams and scouts still in get "bored" of a player like Hardaway, simply because any average college basketball fan has a general idea of what he's good at and what he's not.
In a draft so filled with uncertainties, though, Hardaway came into Chicago and reinvigorated his stock simply by showing up as a better basketball player than his buzzed-about contemporaries. Hardaway was among the most comfortable shooters among 2-guards during drills, with Allen Crabbe of Cal also impressing Jonathan Givony of Draft Express:
Allen Crabbe and Tim Hardaway Jr seem to be showing the highest skill-level in the shooting guard group. Caldwell-Pope struggling again.— Jonathan Givony (@DraftExpress) May 17, 2013
And after performing excellently for a guard in the athleticism drills—besting similar borderline first-rounders like Reggie Bullock—Hardaway's name looks like it's creeping into the first round. Seth Davis of CBS Sports "can't think of one" reason why the former Wolverines star shouldn't go ahead of players like Archie Goodwin, who boast a ton of untapped talent but little in the way of performance:
NBA Draft thought of the day: Can someone give me a reason why Archie Goodwin is rated higher than Tim Hardaway Jr? I can't think of one.— Seth Davis (@SethDavisHoops) May 19, 2013
I tend to agree with Davis. There's a time to jump at the potential in Goodwin, and that's in the second round where contracts are non-guaranteed. Hardaway solidified himself as a back-half first rounder for me in Chicago and he'd be a great fit at No. 27 for the Denver Nuggets, a team in need of some shooting.
Cody Zeller (C, Indiana)
Zeller's performance in Chicago was a combination of a little Hardaway in reinvigorating his draft stock and a little Adams in showing off some unforeseen skills.
The former Indiana center's stock heading into the combine was in something of a malaise. An expected top-five pick prior to the 2012-13 college basketball season, the zest had almost completely evaporated from Zeller's name. His overall lack of improvement from his freshman year to his sophomore year was apparent simply by looking at a stat sheet:
All advanced stats via Ken Pomeroy.
By the end of the season, it was clear that Victor Oladipo was the top NBA prospect on the Hoosiers roster. And as Zeller's campaign concluded with a disappearing act against Syracuse in the NCAA tournament, plenty of folks wondered whether he could even stick in the lottery.
Fast-forward to lottery selection day and Zeller is almost firmly a top-10 selection again. Though Zeller did not perform in the position drills in Chicago, he had arguably the best athletic performance of anyone—and most certainly among big men.
As Jeff Rabjohns of Peegs.com notes, Zeller had the best standing vertical, sprint and lane agility drill numbers among big men:
Indiana's Cody Zeller has the best standing vertical, sprint and lane agility drill of the big men at the NBA Draft Combine.— Jeff Rabjohns (@JeffRabjohns) May 17, 2013
And Zeller's standing vertical of 35.5" is the best in a decade among players 6'9" or bigger, per ESPN's Chad Ford:
Cody Zeller's standing vert of 35.5" was highest ever recorded for player 6-9 or taller in last decade.#NBADraftCombine— Chad Ford (@chadfordinsider) May 17, 2013
Now, these test results should come with enough grains of salt to fill a Brinks truck. The standing vert is more meaningful for big men because it helps grabbing rebounds underneath, but this is still the equivalent of vaulting an NBA player simply because he had a good 40-yard dash time. There are plenty of other factors.
Zeller deserved to be a top-10 pick based on merit before the combine. He's always been the second-best center in this class behind Nerlens Noel, and the growing talk of him becoming a 4 at the NBA level is intriguing. If Zeller can flash some versatility and increased shot-making in individual workouts, you may see him claw his way back into the top-five discussion by mid-June.
Follow Tyler Conway on Twitter: