Dante Exum, the 6'6" Australian expected to be drafted this June in the first half of the lottery, wasn't the only big point guard making noise at the NBA draft combine last weekend in Chicago. The other was 6'5" UCLA freshman Zach LaVine.
"I think he's going to be a special talent and his stock is increasing," ESPN analyst Jay Williams said.
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LaVine showed off not only a 41.5" vertical leap and the best time in the lane agility drill (10.42 seconds), but also quick, fluid footwork moving into well-balanced jump shots with high arc. NBA execs and scouts took note of LaVine's form on those jumpers, with better off-hand guide control, and he was able to knock down a good number—in part a product of his recent work at the renowned P3 performance facility in Santa Barbara, California, where he's been training with Kansas freshman Andrew Wiggins (they share the same agent, Bill Duffy).
"I feel like I have pretty good range already on my jump shot," LaVine said. "But I just need to be more consistent, balanced, to always hold my follow-through and not lean back—just different little tendencies."
Adding to the intrigue over LaVine is that he has the potential to play either guard position. There's also the chance he'll eventually resemble 6'5" combo guard Jamal Crawford, who is a close friend from the Seattle area and one of his favorite players in the league.
"Zach is my guy," Crawford said by text message. "He has so much potential and he's a great kid as well."
"Jamal definitely helps and mentors me," LaVine said. "I try to mimic my game toward his because he kind of has the same type of body frame. It's definitely cool to have someone at that type of level there for you helping out."
For now, LaVine is positioned as a point guard heading into the draft, similar to the situation 6'5" Archie Goodwin faced last year. Because of some uncertainty, Goodwin, a one-and-done like LaVine, ended up being the 29th pick.
"[Archie] was all kinds of an athlete and he didn't shoot the ball really well, but Phoenix took a chance on him, knowing in two years he would have a better shot," said Steve Kyler, who runs the Basketball Insiders website and has covered the combine for the past nine years. "[Zach] is a great athlete, he's got great basketball IQ, really understands spacing and tempo. But if he's going to be a [2-guard] at the next level, he's got to work on his jump shot. If he's not a 2 at the next level, can he run a team?"
LaVine, one of the more intriguing prospects in the draft, met with 14 teams while he was in Chicago. He could go as high as the late lottery to the 25th pick, but likely not below that.
Training insights into the combine and pre-draft process
Last weekend marked the 18th straight year that longtime Denver Nuggets strength and conditioning coach Steve Hess, along with other teams' strength coaches, managed the physical testing drills at the NBA draft combine.
Born in South Africa and later spending time in Zimbabwe and London, Hess moved to the U.S. in the late 1980s and received sports medicine-related degrees from Ithaca College. Eventually, through a connection to former NBA executive Allan Bristow, he became the Nuggets' first full-time staffer in his current position in 1996.
Over breakfast during the 33rd annual combine, the high-energy Hess ("Just to see these young guys busting out, that gets me jacked up") shared his thoughts with Bleacher Report on the training keys of the combine and pre-draft process, next-level ways to track performance, the best indicators for talent evaluation and more.
B/R: A number of top prospects pulled out of drills last weekend (in addition to a few who didn't even attend). Combined with the absence of 5-on-5 scrimmaging, do you have any concerns about the combine's future?
SH: Absolutely not. The one brilliant thing about the NBA is that it is evolving. The NBA is always advancing with new technology and always looking for better ways. For example, we have more electronic timing through BAM, which we implemented about five years ago. Over a period of time, we'll slowly phase out the stopwatches. The other great thing about the evolutionary process of the combine testing is that the players come in better prepared every year.
Also, keep in mind that a main reason for the combine is the testing, and most of the prospects always participate. Then all of the data goes to each team, so it's available to all of [the strength and conditioning coaches]. That way, we don't have to keep retesting.
B/R: Beyond the core testing, are there advanced methods being explored for the future?
SH: The testing hasn't gone that far yet, but there is more analytical data at your disposal. Teams might use it for individual workouts [after the combine]. Some of the advances in technology include force plates; heart rate monitoring systems; monitors on the body that give physio loads or mechanical loads; sensors that can be attached to the body to give exact bio-mechanical measurements; and advances in video technology where you can film a player and then throw in different vector angles to look at what's going on in every joint.
There are even bikes now that determine exact wattage and can give you feedback as to how much wattage you're pushing with your left leg in comparison to your right leg. But it's imperative that we know what we're using the data for. Unless you can utilize the information and make it applicable to what you need it for, it's not always beneficial.
B/R: Is there one metric that makes the most difference to you when assessing a prospect?
SH: Generally speaking, the intangibles. How you do one thing is how you do everything. If I'm at the bench press station and someone gives 200 percent effort, that's more exciting to me than his numbers. But you want to know my best indicator as a strength coach? Watching them play. Some guys that came in and tested atrociously became some of the greatest players I've ever seen. In my opinion, the whole picture is their play.
B/R: What are you watching when they're on the court?
SH: Here's the thing: I'm a strength coach through and through. So I'm looking at what are his first few steps, second jump, his eye-hand coordination, his ability to explode, his strength, his agility, how he gets from one spot to the other, how he reads the game, how quick he moves from one spot to another. Sometimes you look at guys that you think are really slow, but they're not because their first few steps are incredibly fast.
Basketball is predominantly a run-and-jump game where change of pace and change of direction is often what separates good from great. Are they able to create space with their body? Are they able to create space with their reaction time? What does their motor look like? How do they look in the fourth quarter? I'm looking at the athleticism in every aspect. I get so excited about this stuff. I pinch myself every day.
B/R: In your estimation, what is the modern-day prospect template?
SH: I think it's more individualized based on what the team needs. [Teams] spend so many hours scouting and looking at video, and then taking all this data and putting it all together and looking at the analytics. But how does that fit into the team? I do not think there's one prototypical guy they look at. However, if a guy stands out and is heads and shoulders above everyone else—just a freak of nature—teams often may take that player.
Generally speaking, I've had some guys that killed these tests and just have been phenomenal in the NBA, and then I've had others that have not done well and have been unbelievable in the NBA as well. The thing about the combine is that it gives us a good part of the picture.
B/R: What's important for soon-to-be rookies to understand about their bodies as they transition to an 82-game schedule?
SH: A lot of the stuff is pre-hab. I still believe the mind is the strongest thing you have. We create a knowledge base and then we direct the players as best we can. We make sure there is enough recovery and get them performing at an optimal performance. It's a long, tedious season, so we prepare them for that.
B/R: What kind of mental testing do the prospects go through during the pre-draft process?
SH: There are psych evaluations and certain drills that you can do that directly impact cognition. The brain is a functional organization and you have to stress it out in order for it to improve. I think the realm of everything we do is tied into the brain, so we follow certain thought processes. The entire learning process of NBA basketball definitely requires a huge amount of brainpower. In my experience, some of the smartest players are often the best players.
The Greek Freak, Part 2?
You probably still don't know how to pronounce it, but you know the name by now: Antetokounmpo—the Milwaukee Bucks rookie sensation named Giannis who is still the youngest player in the NBA at 19.
Now, his 21-year-old brother, Thanasis, who's 6'7" and simply goes by "T," is on his way to getting drafted. A strong showing in Chicago revealed his swarming defense (he can guard 1 through 4), superb athleticism (a 39.5" maximum vertical leap), constant energy and improving outside shot.
All of those qualities Giannis knows well.
"With his game, he gives a lot of energy," Giannis said by phone from the Bucks practice center. "When he plays, he always plays 100 percent and he practices really hard. I think that's both of us—we play with a lot of energy. I think that's our strength—we just leave everything on the court by playing hard and good things are going to happen on the court."
Giannis, who was in Chicago one day to support his older brother, had one piece of advice based on his NBA experience.
"[Giannis] told me, 'Hard work pays off and they appreciate you being a good kid and good character,'" said Thanasis, who has tried to model parts of his game on the similar-sized Nicolas Batum, Kawhi Leonard and Thabo Sefolosha.
While there were reports that Thanasis had withdrawn his name from last year's draft, he said that wasn't the case: "I just felt like I needed more time because I'm not like my brother." So Thanasis spent a season in the D-League, averaging 12 points, 4.3 rebounds, 2.1 assists, 1.3 blocks and 1.2 steals per game.
"When you see my brother, you just watch him and you say, 'Draft him,' because he has long arms, his physique. You know this kid has the potential to be one of the best," Thanasis said. "When you see me, you [think], 'He looks normal.' But what you have to see in me is just the good work ethic I have, how good a guy I am, I'm a reliable person, because sometimes it's not always about talent. Some guys don't have the love of the game I have."
The brothers, who played together in Greece—"I was throwing him lobs and he was dunking, and he was throwing lobs to me and I was dunking it," Giannis said—will be training together this summer. They're each other's best test in many ways.
"When we play together, we always help each other," Giannis said. "He's helped me get better defensively and offensively. We're really competitive guys and we just go at each other and just play hard no matter if he's my brother. He's a very good defensive player. If you can go by Thanasis, I believe you can go by a lot of players in this league."
They're planning their workouts for Las Vegas during summer league, where Giannis will likely play and Thanasis may too, and back home in Greece, where they've become very popular among the youth.
"I feel proud," Thanasis said. "We're role models for everyone because if you work hard, you can get something done. People appreciate that."
So what would it mean to Giannis to have Thanasis join the family in Milwaukee, after he spent a year in Delaware playing for the 87ers?
"It would really mean a lot because we played good last year together [in Greece], and now we'd like to be in the city of Milwaukee together," Giannis said. "Let's grow here in Milwaukee and let our family be here for a long time. It would be nice to grow together as a team, as a family. It would be cool to both be Milwaukee Bucks."
The little engines that could
Today's NBA offers a bigger place for smaller point guards six feet or shorter, notably Ty Lawson, Kyle Lowry, Chris Paul, Isaiah Thomas and Kemba Walker. So for the 5'10" Jahii Carson and 6'0" Russ Smith, their NBA counterparts bring extra motivation heading into the draft.
"Height is definitely not considered a weakness any more," an NBA scout said. "This game is a pick-and-roll game and everything is based on speed, and the ability of the guards to execute the pick-and-roll because that's what everybody runs. And nobody seems to be able to defend it that well."
With better athletes and more calls for contact, the faster pace of today's game—unlike the physical play allowed years ago due to greater leniency in rules—has enabled the little, fast guys to thrive.
"If you let them do what they let them do to guys in the late 1980s, early '90s, I don't know that Ty Lawson and others like him would make it through a season," said Chris Ekstrand, a longtime NBA consultant and the former editor of the draft media guide. "As it is, he's a tough little nut, but I don't think he could make it through 82 games if Rick Mahorn and guys like that were able to just nail him. They don't allow that stuff any more."
There's also the different-look element, in which some teams like to transition from different-sized point guards to give them an advantage. The Toronto Raptors looked to do that this season with the 6'0" Lowry starting and the 6'6" Greivis Vasquez coming off the bench.
Another factor that's led to an increase in smaller point guards is that an increasing number of teams see value in defending opponents from the three-quarter-court mark. Shorter, quicker players can get lower on the ball, move like water bugs and make it harder for taller players to dribble up the floor to set up plays. With the added pressure, those extra few seconds off the shot clock are huge.
"I hear coaches talk about it, 'Can you pick him up a little bit further up the floor?'" the scout said. "Most guys don't want to do that, but the smaller guards can do it."
But most important, they have to be able to shoot to stick around, added the scout, as well as Ekstrand and Philadelphia 76ers coach Brett Brown.
"Inevitably they better be able to make a three-point shot, like [the Spurs'] Patty Mills. He's been a game-changer because he can shoot," Brown said. "I think shooting complements small and speed best. Those three things bundled up are a pretty dangerous combination."
How does Isaiah Austin do it?
During a routine dunk in middle school, Isaiah Austin suffered a torn retina that caused vision loss in his right eye. Multiple surgeries weren't effective. But now, after years of playing with a prosthetic right eye, Austin is nearly a month away from being one of only 60 players in the world to join the NBA.
"It's crazy because personally I didn't think I would ever make it this far, so to be in this seat right now is a complete blessing to me and I'm not going to take it for granted ever," the Baylor big man said. "So if, God willing, my name gets called on draft night, I'll be in tears. I can tell you that right now because it's such an amazing opportunity for me, and I'm honored and blessed."
Speaking with Bleacher Report, Austin, a 7'1" stretch-5 who's slated as a second-round pick, discussed how he's compensated for his sight issues to become a standout shooter.
1. Shooting well again after the accident took a while. "It definitely took plenty of time, plenty of reps, a lot of muscle memory. Even sometimes, like [at the combine], I'll shoot an airball on one of my first shots. So I just have to adjust to each building that I'm in."
2. Finally adjusting didn't happen until sophomore year. "My high school coach sat me down and he told me, 'You have all the skills, the talents and the abilities to go out there and become a great player, one eye or not, or two eyes.'"
3. When taking the court, the focus is depth perception. "First, I'm looking at where the wall placement is and where the basket is because that's really important. The next thing is when I'm shooting the ball, I want to make sure that I know the lighting. If it's dim, then I'll have to shoot a little bit harder because the basket seems like it's further away. But really it's just something that comes naturally to me now."
4. Personal spacing during a game is important. "I need to watch my release point on my shot and watch where I place myself on the court in a game. I really have to dedicate myself to watching where I am, especially if I miss a pass or something. I have to place myself at an angle where I can see the pass coming and I can catch it and still finish."
5. Regardless, making quick reads comes naturally now. "I would say it only takes me a couple shots to get going. [One day at the combine] I airballed my first shot, but right after that, the next one was right on target. So I adjust my shot and I get into a flow of things."
"The Mayor" of Chicago
After Markel Brown's impressive 43.5" maximum vertical leap was recorded—tied for the highest with Carson's—word of it not only spread throughout the combine, but also all over social media. Brown, who received the nickname "The Mayor of LobStilly" for his dunks at Oklahoma State, was actually trending nationwide on Twitter.
"It was crazy," Brown said. "As far as the vert thing, man, I'm kind of a little disappointed. I felt like I could've gotten a couple inches higher. I jumped a 46" before. I just felt with a couple more steps, I could've gotten a little bit higher."
Brown, who was a college teammate of likely lottery pick Marcus Smart, said he met with at least 12 teams in Chicago. Brown, a 6'3" combo guard, is viewed as a first-round bubble prospect. He has a decent jumper and can create his own shot, but he needs to work on his passing and ball-handling to play point guard consistently in the NBA.
Brown, who will be working out with renowned trainer Joe Abunassar at his Las Vegas-based Impact facility, left Chicago upbeat.
"I was happy about the energy that I showed during the camp," he said. "I was also happy about all my interviews that I had with the individual coaches. And the testing I felt good about. Pretty much every category I was in the top five."
Which teams, players and strategies have they been applying to the development of their own games? For starters, everything about the Spurs. Here's what four prospects had to say:
Isaiah Austin: "The Spurs just amaze me at how they always handle their business in the playoffs. They're a great team, they're well-coached and they share the ball. I would love to play for a team like that."
Jahii Carson: "I've been watching Chris Paul and Tony Parker for the most part. I watched how Paul organized and managed the game. I was also looking at the way he guarded Kevin Durant. He played the game at his pace. Even though [the Clippers] lost the series, I think he controlled the tempo a little bit. Parker definitely controls the pace. He has a great supporting cast around him. He uses the pick-and-roll well. He takes what the defense gives him—jump shots, to the basket, floaters."
Nick Johnson: "I had a chance to go to the Portland-San Antonio game in Portland. It seems the Spurs are clicking on all cylinders right now. They're like fine wine; they get better with age. First, how they defend: everybody is helping, everybody is talking, nobody misses a rotation. And then on offense, they're just making the extra pass and actually one more after that—just making the right play. And it doesn't hurt that you've got Manu Ginobili coming off ball screens and Tony Parker being unstoppable and Tim Duncan doing whatever he wants. He's playing like he's 25 when he's 38."
Zach LaVine: "I was watching the three players that I feel like I play like: [Russell] Westbrook and his athletic ability, Stephen Curry and his dribbling and shooting ability and then my boy Jamal. I was also watching Chris Paul's reads. I was watching the way Tony Allen plays defense. Kevin Durant, the way he comes off of picks and scores. A lot of different things. I'm just a student of the game."
The "combine" continues
Even though the combine has concluded, about 20 draft prospects are still using the 65,000-square-foot Quest Multisport facility, and a host of NBA scouts and executives have stopped by to evaluate. Agents or trainers typically buy private court time for their clients at the center, where there's also a hydrotherapy room and cardio and strength equipment.
"We're a full boat right now," Quest's manager, Jerry Hardin, said. "We've got all four courts filled with draft prospects right now. We have professional trainers, strength and conditioning coaches, and player development coaches on the court right now."
Hardin said Quest, which was formerly Tim Grover's Attack Athletics facility until Dec. 2012, offers an ideal location for the workouts.
"Chicago is a good hub. It's centrally located," he said. "[The players] are coming in from across the country to be here, and the trainers that come here are super professional guys."