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NBA Draft Expert's Notebook: Combine Edition Starring Prospect Zach LaVine

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NBA Draft Expert's Notebook: Combine Edition Starring Prospect Zach LaVine
Jeff Gross/Getty Images

CHICAGO — The first person I saw when I walked into the gym Thursday morning was Boston Celtics general manager Danny Ainge, who was sitting courtside next to Brad Stevens, who was sitting adjacent to Tom Thibodeau, who was alongside Jerry West, who was across from Daryl Morey, Allan Houston and Jerry Sloan.

Even Stan Van Gundy showed up Friday rocking a $35 million smile.

The gym was loaded with high-profile NBA executives and decision-makers despite many of the top prospects choosing to sit out.  

However, there was one kid on the floor who was generating some major buzz from the sidelines, something he did in doses while coming off UCLA's bench. Zach LaVine looked like the clear-cut standout of the group, from his play and shooting numbers to his measurements and athletic tests. 

LaVine decided to declare for the NBA draft despite averaging 9.4 points per game and scoring 11 total points over his final five games, including just eight in three NCAA tournament matchups. Some had criticized his decision to leave school, given his lack of apparent NBA readiness and production in just one college season.

Harry How/Getty Images

But LaVine, who was glowing with confidence throughout his time in Chicago, said he, his family and agent felt the best place for him to develop would be in the NBA. 

"I'm ready to step in and take somebody's job," LaVine said when I asked about how prepared he is for the next level. 

You couldn't miss him during drills—he actually ran with the point guards, where he was constantly reminding viewers of his near-6'6" size and 41.5-inch vertical leap. 

He threw down a couple of slams that just made you giddy. 

LaVine also looked sharp in the limited time instructors ran prospects through two-on-twos and three-on-threes. He was creating his own offense and elevating over defenders for jumpers. 

During shooting drills, he went 14-of-25 on NBA three-pointers, 14-of-18 on jumpers off the dribble from 15 feet and 21-of-32 on shots on the move from the same range. 

From an offensive standpoint, LaVine looks like some kind of weapon. 

He mentioned he likes to compare himself to Jamal Crawford for his ability to score. He also threw in Russell Westbrook for his explosiveness and Stephen Curry for his handle. 

Donald Miralle/Getty Images

"Potential" is the term thrown around most frequently when breaking down LaVine. But as of May 2014, he actually looked like the best player among those who participated at the NBA combine. 

He's got lottery upside, and after seeing it up close, I wouldn't be surprised if a general manager chose to chase it with a top-14 pick. 

But the big storyline of the event was the lack of participation from so many highly touted prospects. Agents apparently feel their clients have more to lose than gain by playing, and it's a trend that's likely to continue moving forward. I'm not even sure how you fix it unless they make participation mandatory, though that seems unlikely. 

You have to wonder how much stock the NBA guys will be putting in the combine in the future if most of the prospects participating in drills are probable late first- or second-round options. 

Still, there was a decent amount of talent on the floor this year, except at the center position, which looks awfully thin heading into June. Instead of having one group for the centers, they actually combined the 4s and 5s to form the "bigs."

 

The Other Guys

Duke's Rodney Hood was able to stand out from the pack, and that's to be expected: Hood was one of the higher-rated prospects who participated, and that he was a cut above wasn't tough to ascertain. He was getting buckets during two-on-twos and three-on-threes, and he finished with the fourth-best percentage during shooting drills. 

Gary Dineen/Getty Images

Missouri's Jordan Clarkson was a guy who really aced the eye test while running with the point guards. He measured in at 6'5" with a 38.5-inch max vertical and the third-best agility time in the gym. Clarkson told me he was hearing his draft range was 20-35, and that he plans on selling himself as a point guard. The guy he likes to compare himself to? George Hill, a pretty accurate comparison if you ask me. 

Creighton's Doug McDermott didn't play in drills, but he did participate in athletic testing, and many scouts will be pleasantly surprised by his results. McDermott registered a 36.5-inch max vertical and a better agility time than guys like Tyler Ennis, Cleanthony Early, Rodney Hood and T.J. Warren—an encouraging sign, given his perceived defensive limitations. 

With athleticism being the major hole in his profile, McDermott actually put up some decent numbers during tests. I also thought it was interesting when he mentioned whose game he's been studying. 

"It might sound crazy, but I watch a lot of Paul Pierce, just because I like his footwork," McDermott said. "He's not the quickest guy in the world, but he really knows how to use his body and how to use angles to score."

Sounds familiar. 

Michigan's Glenn Robinson III was impressive as well in Chicago. He was able to match LaVine's 41.5-inch vertical, and he finished No. 1 among small forwards in spot-up shooting. At one point, he threw down a nasty alley-oop in front of a row of scouts and executives. 

Andy Lyons/Getty Images

"They told me between 20-40, but that was before the combine", Robinson said of the draft range he'd been hearing. "But I've talked to my guys, and I believe I can be higher than that." 

He also mentioned he was hearing top 15 at this time last year. "I could have definitely played better this season."

The Chicago Bulls have two first-round picks this year, and it's a possibility they use one of them on a point guard for some backcourt relief. Syracuse's Tyler Ennis had some interesting things to say about his potential fit in Chicago.

"Going forward, the success teams have had in the playoffs going with two point guards is really going to open people's eyes. ... I think with me and Derrick Rose on the floor together, I think you wouldn't have any offensive struggles, and I think we're both able to guard our positions. I think we'd be able to play together."

UCLA's Jordan Adams looked great during drills, where he finished second among 2-guards in spot-up shooting. Although he trimmed about 11 pounds from his weight at the start of his final collegiate season, he still tied for the lowest vertical at 29.5 inches—something you don't normally see from a guard. Adams' game is predicated more on strength than athleticism, but it was still bizarre to see a vertical-jump number that low. 

With his leaping ability in question, teams will probably think they can't count on Adams for rebounds or many easy buckets.

Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Adams had originally hinted at staying at UCLA for his junior year, but he ended up choosing to declare after hearing some teams picking late in the first round might be interested.

They should be. Though he plays mostly below the rim, Adams has unteachable scoring instincts and a 6'10" wingspan that led to 168 steals in two seasons. 

"I had two productive years at UCLA, and I didn't think I'd get much better as a basketball player staying there," Adams said Thursday at the combine.

From here on out, prospects will be traveling from city to city to work out for as many teams as possible. Interviews will also play a big role during the evaluation process.

Louisiana-Lafayette's Elfrid Payton said that teams asked if he smoked weed. Rodney Hood was asked to draw up a last-second play. Zach LaVine was asked how many pennies were in $100 million.

The NBA guys will try to learn anything and everything they can about these prospects before making their important draft-day decision. 

2014 NBA Draft Big Board
Rank Prospect School/Counrty Position Year
1 Joel Embiid Kansas C Freshman
2 Andrew Wiggins Kansas SF Freshman
3 Jabari Parker Duke SF/PF Freshman
4 Dante Exum Australia PG/SG 1995
5 Noah Vonleh Indiana PF Freshman
6 Julius Randle Kentucky PF Freshman
7 Marcus Smart Oklahoma State PG/SG Sophomore
8 Dario Saric Croatia SF/PF 1994
9 Aaron Gordon Arizona PF Freshman
10 Zach LaVine UCLA PG/SG Freshman
11 Tyler Ennis Syracuse PG Freshman
12 Nik Stauskas Michigan SG Sophomore
13 Doug McDermott Creighton SF Senior
14 Jusuf Nurkic Bosnia C 1994
15 James Young Kentucky SG/SF Freshman
16 Gary Harris Michigan State SG Sophomore
17 Adreian Payne Michigan State PF Senior
18 Rodney Hood Duke SF Sophomore
19 Elfrid Payton Louisiana-Lafayette PG Junior
20 Shabazz Napier Connecticut PG Senior
21 Clint Capela Switzerland PF/C 1994
22 P.J. Hairston Texas Legends (D-League) SG (Junior)
23 Kyle Anderson UCLA PG/SF Sophomore
24 T.J. Warren North Carolina State SF Sophomore
25 Jordan Clarkson Missouri PG/SG Junior
26 Jordan Adams UCLA SG Sophomore
27 Glenn Robinson III Michigan SF Sophomore
28 Mitch McGary Michigan PF Sophomore
29 Bogdan Bogdanovic Serbia SG/SF 1994
30 Cleanthony Early Wichita State SF Senior

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