NBA talent evaluators are like most people when it comes to a purchase: If it's between a shiny new model or a better-known older one, the freshly minted choice gets the nod.
"Not to be indelicate, but it's why people have affairs," one front-office executive says. "You think the new thing is going to be better. You see a guy play 25 times for North Carolina and take issue with all the things he isn't doing. Then you see a guy who looks the part, plays four minutes for a Euroleague team and he gets a pass."
That approach, though, may change if the current limitations created by the novel coronavirus are still in place when the 2020 NBA draft, presently set for June 25, arrives. As it stands, teams are preparing to make their player evaluations and picks based largely on assessments already made and the review of games already played. Not expected to be part of the equation this time are the elements that often result in draft boards changing in the weeks leading up to the draft: interviews and up-close observations provided at the draft combine, private workouts arranged by agents or post-workout dinners, tours of the team facility and physical examinations.
"Teams put players in tiers or buckets at the start of the process," an Eastern Conference executive says. "The tiers aren't going to change. How players usually move up—the interviews, the one-on-one time with the GM, the private workouts—that's gone."
It's not as if the top-rated talent—prospects such as Anthony Edwards, LaMelo Ball and James Wiseman—won't still be among the first half-dozen players taken, but the exact order at the top, along with decisions made throughout the draft, could be based more on actual performance than perceived potential this year.
"This is a basketball person's draft, based on actual basketball play," the front-office executive says. "The high-ranking decision-makers who have been working all year aren't going to miss a beat. It's going to expose the GMs who were flying around with their teams staying in Four Seasons rather than going [to scout] in Dayton, Ohio, and staying at the Courtyard Marriott. If there are no more data points coming in, they're screwed."
Georgia's Edwards has vaulted into a No. 1-pick prospect largely because of the boxes he already checks, as opposed to all the ones he could potentially check down the line. Technically, he is another "one-and-done" player, declaring for the draft after one season as a Bulldog. But he played 32 games, averaged 33.0 minutes and scored 19.1 points per game, a body of work nearly twice that of Wiseman and Ball combined. Add that, at 6'5" and 225 pounds, he appears physically NBA-ready, and Edwards suddenly looks like the least risky choice of the three.
"The knock on him was that he was not consistent," one Eastern Conference general manager says. "I think he knew he was better than everybody else and turned it on and off. But if he put on an NBA uniform tomorrow, you'd think he's an NBA player. Is Ball physically ready? Probably not. And there are questions about Wiseman's motor."
The top executives potentially behind in their draft preparation were working under the assumption that they still had the college conference tournaments, the foreign league playoffs and the NCAA tournament, as well as the draft combine and whatever individual workouts they could schedule, to get ready. All of which were abruptly canceled to prevent further spreading the virus.
Timing, as they say, is everything.
The shutdowns across the basketball landscape began at the end of the second week of March, shortly after Commissioner Adam Silver announced the NBA's suspension of play. Had measures been delayed even a few more days, it would have made a world of difference for any late-preparing general managers because collegiate conference tournaments were just starting. Most NBA talent evaluators put more stock in conference tournament performances than NCAA tourney showings because playing against familiar opponents in familiar arenas—as opposed to luck-of-the-draw matchups in neutral sites—more closely mirrors playing conditions in the NBA.
"If they had just got through the weekend, it would've given all the guys cramming late a really important three, four days," the front-office executive says. "Obviously, teams have scouts and personnel experts who have been doing their due diligence all year, but how do you feel as an owner if lower-level execs are the ones who are in the best position to make a final decision?"
This promised to be a challenging draft even before social-distancing practices disrupted the usual basketball schedule this time of year. The general approach to the draft starts with every team composing a list of the top draft-eligible players and then organizing them based on where a team is picking and which players they expect to be available.
Last year, there wasn't an NBA team office in which you would've found anyone other than Duke's Zion Williamson and Murray State's Ja Morant at the top of any mock draft board. This year? There's no consensus about anything at this stage, including who will go No. 1.
"The first tier is personal choice or specific need," the Eastern Conference executive says. "Who is the No. 1 pick? There is no 'guy.' This is a weird draft that way."
The front-office executive compared it to the 2013 draft, in which the top four players to emerge went No. 15 (Giannis Antetokounmpo), No. 27 (Rudy Gobert), No. 2 (Victor Oladipo) and No. 10 (CJ McCollum). The players taken one spot ahead of each of them: Shabazz Muhammad (out of the league), Andre Roberson (hasn't played in two years), Anthony Bennett (out of the league) and Trey Burke (five teams in seven seasons).
"Landmines everywhere," the front-office executive says.
Generally, players who stay beyond their freshman year have seen their stock drop from the aforementioned hyper-scrutiny or questions about their overall potential. But if teams have to base their pick strictly on video and games already seen, players who have a greater body of work stand to rise while those who had limited exposure—due to playing overseas, injury or eligibility—could slip.
"Our league has generally devalued guys who are juniors or seniors," the Eastern Conference general manager says. "But [the current circumstances] might make them a little more valuable in this draft."
The Eastern Conference executive agrees. "Old-school guys who won't draft someone who refused to work out for them are going to go with the guys they know the best," he says. Several executives say staying for a second year could also benefit players such as Dayton power forward Obi Toppin and Villanova forward Saddiq Bey in this draft.
"This is a unique draft in that way," the front-office executive says. "They aren't home runs, but it's not clear that there are any. It comes down to what you're trying to do. Are you still trying to hit home runs or are you satisfied with a solid double?"
Point being, at the risk of taking the mixed-sport metaphor too far: There's no point in swinging for the fences (looking for a franchise player) when there isn't a pitch (player) that can go that far.
Player interviews will still be part of the process—especially with players overseas—but as they likely will be limited to interactions on Skype or FaceTime, they aren't expected to be as meaningful in the overall process. Taking into consideration that most agents prepare their clients to answer questions appropriately, teams assess players as much on non-verbal communication—facial expressions, body language and candid interactions before and after the actual interview. Far less of that is available in an interview over a computer or phone. Hence, some teams can be expected to place less value on them this time.
"The con man who can put on a suit and tie and sit in front of a computer terminal is less likely to move up," the Eastern Conference executive says.
Not having to conduct interviews and attend workouts leaves NBA general managers with plenty of time to track down and study all the game tape they can find on a player. With few other ways to assess a draft prospect, the more tape, the more comfortable a general manager is going to be when picking a player. Conversely, the less tape, the less evidence he has to present to the team owner to make his case for a particular pick, which then puts the success or failure of that player on the general manager more than ever.
Few players have a playing resume as thin as Wiseman, a 7'1" center who played three games as a University of Memphis freshman. He withdrew from school after the NCAA suspended him because his coach, former NBA All-Star Penny Hardaway, paid for Wiseman's move to Memphis in 2017 as a high schooler.
While he still has a shot at being the No. 1 pick—he averaged 19.7 points and 10.7 rebounds in those three games—the limited body of work, combined with the inability to grill him face-to-face with questions about why he opted to leave school and his dedication to the game in general, could result in him sliding a spot or two.
The same goes for Ball, who played a dozen games this winter in Australia's National Basketball League before a foot injury prompted him to return to the United States. His statistics were impressive—17.0 points, 7.4 rebounds and 6.8 assists in 31.2 minutes per game—but again, NBA executives say they'd feel more comfortable selecting him if they could study him in person when he talks about the anticipated involvement of his father, LaVar Ball, who became persona non grata with the Lakers after they drafted one of his other sons, Lonzo, three years ago.
"You're still going to investigate all that, but I'd want to meet with the kid and the dad, personally," an Eastern Conference general manager says. "The dad is such a wild card."
If health concerns keep current social-distancing protocols in place until June, other prospects who played overseas could see their draft stocks tumble, as well.
RJ Hampton played 15 games in the NBL, averaging 8.8 points, 3.9 rebounds and 2.4 assists in 20.6 minutes per game before a hip injury ended his season. He is expected to be selected anywhere from No. 8 to No. 20, a fairly wide range. Since some executives expected both him and Ball to play more than half the NBL's 28-game season, few apparently made it down under to see them play more than one or two games.
"If you loved 'em, you still love 'em," says the Eastern Conference executive. "If you didn't, there's a lot less film to change your mind. Most NBA people were planning to go back and see LaMelo and RJ again."
There's even less film of Aleksej Pokusevski, a 7-footer who played for Olympiacos Piraeus and has the look of a modern-NBA big man, complete with three-point range and the ability to handle the ball. But he averaged a grand total of 2.9 minutes in two games last season and played one minute and 49 seconds in his lone appearance for a 12-17 team before the coronavirus concerns shut down the Euroleague. He's the kind of player whose NBA stock would be bolstered by the chance to watch Olympiacos practice, which is no longer an option.
"It's going back to the old days," the Eastern Conference executive says. "You're guessing."
Deni Avdija has played a reasonable amount for a 19-year old—eight Euroleague games last year and an average of 14.3 minutes in 26 appearances this year for a powerhouse Maccabi Tel Aviv squad—but the increased playing time has coincided with a dramatic plunge in his shooting percentage from three-point range (50.0 to 27.7 percent) and at the free-throw line (100.0 to 55.6 percent).
At 6'9", he projects to be an NBA point guard or wing, where shooting touch is a prerequisite. Seeing him in a private workout against a top-notch NBA defender would do a lot to erase concerns that the small sample size from his first year (5-of-10 on threes, 2-of-2 on free throws) is misleading and his second year (13-of-47 on threes, 10-of-18 on free throws) is a better indicator of his talent.
As of now, no such workout can take place. Someone is expected to draft Avdija somewhere in the top 10, most likely sixth or lower. Will he prove to be worse than Hampton? Better than Bey?
"Someone is going to go eighth in this draft and be an All-Star," the first front-office executive says, "and someone is going to go ninth and not get their rookie contract extended. It's not as simple as going back to study more film because so many of these guys, Euro and American, didn't play. If ever there was a price to be paid for cramming late, this is the year."
This is why even teams that started scouting early are still holding out hope that the league adds a few more prep days if the national health concerns subside and the chance to get in-person answers is possible. "You don't have to do the draft in June," the Eastern Conference general manager says.
No, the league doesn't. But the date of the draft won't change the fact that some teams will choose new and unproven over less fresh but more familiar. And others will do the opposite. And no matter what, there will be teams that, in hindsight, will wish they had done something else.
Ric Bucher covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @RicBucher.
Bucher hosts the podcast, Bucher & Friends, with NFL veteran Will Blackmon and former NBA center Ryan Hollins, available on iTunes
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