Risky Business

The NBA Draft is, at its core, one big educated guess.

A team scouts, interviews and works out potential draftees in order to project how they fit within the pro game and what their prospective ‘upside’ might be. One the day of the draft, teams select their chosen player (or second choice, or third choice, etc), who then typically says all the right things about working hard and being happy with where they ended up.

Yet for all the hype that goes into the event, these selections simply exist as hopefuls until they can prove their value (or lack thereof) as key contributors in the NBA. This is particularly true of those considered ‘high-risk, high-reward’ prospects. That is, players with a high ceiling who give team executives pause with notable weaknesses that could ultimately lead them towards ‘bust’ territory.

In recent draft history, these picks have played a hand in transforming the direction of their team, for better or for worse. The risky selection of Brandon Jennings, who had struggled while playing overseas with Italian club Lottomatica Roma, by the Milwaukee Bucks last year resulted in the team’s first play-off appearance in four years and an NBA Executive of the Year award for GM John Hammond. The big question in Jennings’ case was one of maturity, a question which he seems to have answered by embracing his prominent role in the Bucks’ offence while also creating for teammates.

On the flip side – or maybe the ‘flop’ side – prioritizing raw talent over character can lead to damaging draft decisions. Only in recent years has Portland has moved past their “Jail Blazers” period in which they seemed to attract troublesome talents whose on-court skill could not outweigh their off-court woes. Between 1999 and 2004, Portland drafted Bonzi Wells, Zach Randolph, Qyntel Woods and Sebastien Telfair, all of whom ran into legal trouble or clashed with fans and teammates.

The maturity question holds particular significance this year, with several prospective lottery choices facing some scrutiny over how the will handle themselves in the NBA and whether they will put forth the effort required to realize their potential. Guys like DeMarcus Cousins, Ed Davis and Hassan Whiteside have the physical tools to succeed, but their perceived character flaws will go a long way in determining both where they get drafted and how well they can adapt to the NBA game.

It could be argued that Cousins doesn’t have as much to worry about as the other two. After all, you won’t find a mock draft out there that projects the Kentucky product slipping past Golden State’s No. 6 slot. But the 6’11” power forward won’t get very far without some real dedication to improving his game, most notably his penchant for foul trouble that will only be made more glaring as he prepares for the faster, more physical NBA game. The fact that conditioning is a widely held concern in Cousins’ scouting reports also points to a player who simply hasn’t put in the work needed to allay concerns relating to maturity and commitment.

Like Cousins, Davis has faced questions regarding his motor, particularly in light of a disappointing sophomore season at UNC when he was expected to step out of Tyler Hansbrough’s shadow and lead the team as a dominant inside presence. After all, a 6’9” left-hander with length who can finish above the rim offers reason for optimism. Instead, he seemed content to rely on his physical gifts rather than assert himself in the paint, play aggressively and improve his game. Whether his flaws can be attributed to a lack of killer instinct or simply a relatively passé approach to the game, Davis will continue to leave people wanting more if he doesn’t put the necessary effort into improvement.

Whiteside, meanwhile, could be the biggest enigma of the draft as someone whose suspect work ethic and emotional maturity issues could keep him waiting until the end of the first round to hear his name called. It takes some major red flags for any GM to steer clear of a shot-blocking seven-footer with a 7’7” wingspan, but it’s hard to look past weaknesses when they include academic issues, questions of toughness and concerns over how much coddling and hand-holding he will require. That Whiteside is already 21, after being academically ineligible for college in his first year following high school, is another strike against him.

Talent talks in the NBA, and the bottom line is that these players will be drafted on Thursday. The question will then be, what happens next?

In The Scrum With Ernie Grunfeld

On the eve of the biggest draft pick the Washington Wizards have had in nine years, Team President Ernie Grunfeld took some time to speak with the media. He spoke about his impressions on John Wall, the limitations of player workouts, what positions he’s looking to upgrade in the draft, JaVale McGee’s summer plans, and what moves the Wizards may make tomorrow night.

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Catching Up With Courtney Fortson

Over the past few week I’ve been dropping hints and teasers on Twitter about having some players keep journals on Hoops Addict over the next year about their experiences.

The problem is I’m horrible at keeping secrets.

So, with that in mind, I want to formally introduce you to former Arkansas Razorbacks point guard Courtney Fortson. He’s one of the players who has agreed to keep some video journals on Hoops Addict this summer about his experiences in the Vegas Summer League and he’ll continue to do so next season.

Even though he’s been busy working out for NBA teams this month, he took some time to chat with me about how he feels the workouts have gone, what some challenging aspects of the workouts have been and what he’s learning for the entire pre-draft process.

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60 Minutes With John Wall

Prior to the 2007 NBA draft, aside from Greg Oden and Kevin Durant, one of the most intriguing  players available was Yi Jianlian.  He was 7’0″, 250lbs, with a deft shooting touch, he had averaged 24 points and 11 rebounds in the Chinese basketball league and the general feeling was that he was the second coming of Dirk Nowitzki. 

Yi and his handlers organized an individual workout in Los Angeles, so that coaches and scouts who may have been skeptical about this talent, could see him up close and do their own evaluation.  Yi went through a series of shooting, dribbling and agility drills against nothing more than a chair, but still seemingly did enough to wow the scouts into saying he was a top 10 draft pick. 

Sure enough, just a few weeks later, Jianlian ws the sixth pick in the 2007  NBA Draft by the Milwaukee Bucks.

I remember hearing about that workout, and wondering how so many respected NBA scouts, front office folks and coaches could be convinced of a player’s greatness on the strength of an individual workout with a chair.  Although Yi had been dominant in China, the level of competition and the quality of players is much higher in the NBA.  I also remember thinking if I was a GM, and I only saw this guy against a chair, and not NBA-ready players, I’d be inclined to take him lower in the first round–not in the lottery.  To me, basketball is a team game and is best evaluated as such, not with an individual workout.

So all these thoughts were in my head when the Washington Wizards PR staff announced that former University of Kentucky All-American, John Wall would be worked out individually.  Unlike Yi, Wall played with and against NBA-ready talent during his one year of college, and he thrived by averaging 16 points and six assists.  The sense from NBA people in the know, was that Wall had merely scratched the surface of how good of a point guard he could be.  Still, I was highly skeptical of what, if anything, could be gleaned from an individual workout. 

After a brief 30 minutes, I realized that my Yi Jianlian-influenced skepticism about individual workouts was justified.

In front of audience that included Wizards forward Andray Blatche, Team President Ernie Grunfeld, Owner Ted Leonsis, bloggers, beat writers and Wizards coaches, Wall did his best to dazzle in an individual workout. 

The first drill I saw Wall performing was a pick and roll drill where he would come off a pick and then pull up for a jumpshot, but the shots were not falling consistently.  He then moved on to a drill where Coach Flip Saunders would throw the ball, and Wall had to let it bounce twice, before he picked it up and shot it.  Wall shot the ball a little better, but he still appeared to be fighting with his shot–much like Ray Allen did throughout the NBA Finals.

When head coach Flip Saunders asked Wall to dunk the ball from each side of the floor, he seemed to come alive a bit.  Initially he just did two, one-handed Jordan style baseline dunks a la  Michael Jordan, but towards the end he got fancy and did a Dominique Wilkins style windmill.  The thing that struck me the most was how easy it all seemed to look and how little he seemed to phased by all the eyes that were on him, and only him. 

The workout was ended prematurely, and Wall later admitted that his back had stiffened a bit.

Still, this was still an individiual workout, and even though former NBA player and current Wizards assistant coach Sam Cassell was in attendance playing “defense”, it was hardly enough to glean any additional information about Wall’s game or abilities.  

Less than 30 minutes after it all began, the workout was over and Wall was whisked away to an undisclosed location.  The Yi rule was still in effect as far as I was concerned.

But after about a 12 minute wait, Wall re-emerged in the media room to answer questions, and this is where I got an education about his game and where he wants be. He answered questions about playing with Gilbert Arenas, how it feels to be the center of attention, how it feels to be the number pick in the draft, and his assessment of the workout.  But there were two basketball-related answers of his that stuck out.

The first answer was in response to a question I asked him about watching Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals.  The Lakers were taking on the Suns, and Wall was lucky enough to be sitting courtside.  I asked him what he learned from Kobe Bryant and/or Steve Nash.

“I was a fan, but I was also a student of the game trying to learn a lot,” Wall explained to me.  “Kobe has great footwork and every chances he gets the ball he knows the spot he wants to get to and that’s the key in the NBA, you have to know the spots and certain angles to beat guys.  He’s [Kobe] not as explosive as he was when he first got to the league, but now his footwork is so good, he knows how to get certain angles and get people off their feet.  That’s what I’m looking to do and try to get better at”.

The second response that impressed me came from a question courtesy of Mike Prada from Bullets Forever.  Prada asked Wall how comfortable he felt running the pick and roll, when that style of offense was not often run in the college game. 

“The key in the pick and roll is you have to be able to knock down shots, if not, you have to set the pick and roll a little lower, so you can get into the paint easier,” Wall told Prada.  “You see how guys are guarding [Rajon] Rondo off the pick and roll, and I want to be the type of player who can knock that [shot] down.”

Wall’s answer about Kobe Bryant’s  footwork  and angles demonstrated to me that he’s seemingly dedicated to making the game easier for him in preparation for the next level.  His observations on the pick and roll, and the way Rondo is handling it, tells me that he is interested in improving not just as a player, but as a point guard.  Amid the cliched questions and answers, it was quite refreshing to hear a top draft prospect actually break down the game of basketball.

18 minutes after he first sat down in the media room to answer questions, and after erroneously picking the Celtics to win Game 7 of the NBA Finals, Wall was ushered out by the PR staff.  The first 30 minutes had been relatively uneventful, but the last 30 had me even more intrigued about his capabilities in a Washington Wizards uniform.

Luckily for me, I only have less than a week to wait.

For the full audio of John Wall’s post-workout press conference click hereAnd please stay tuned to Hoops Addict for full NBA Draft coverage.

In The Scrum With John Wall

Washington Wizards Owner Ted Leonsis, Team President Ernie Grunfeld, and Coach Flip Saunders have remained relatively reticent about who the team’s number one pick will be.

But realistically, barring a turn of events of epic proportions, the Wizards will draft University of Kentucky All-American guard, John Wall.

Today, Wall participated in an individual workout in front of a rather large group of media, front office personnel and coaches on the Wizards practice court, and after he met with the media.  He discussed how his workout went, advice he got from LeBron James, what he learned by watching Kobe Bryant, the possibility of playing with Gilbert Arenas, and much more.

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In The Scrum With Patrick Patterson

Patrick Patterson talked with the media in Toronto following a pre-draft workout about what it was like to play on a talented Kentucky team last summer, the areas of his game he is trying to improve, the benefit of returning to Kentucky last season on his game and a host of other topics.

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In The Scrum With Xavier Henry

Xavier Henry talked with the media after a pre-draft workout in Toronto about how his workouts have gone, the importance of finding the right fit, what he’s doing to help teams “fall in love” with his game, the disappointing end to his season and a host of other topics.

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In The Scrum With Eric Bledsoe

Eric Bledsoe talked with the media following a pre-draft workout in Toronto about how he’s going to cut down on his turnovers next season, what he’s doing in these workouts to prove he’s more than just a jump shooter, if he’s more comfortable playing point guard or shooting guard and a host of other topics.

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In The Scrum With Paul George

Paul George talked with the media in Toronto following a pre-draft workout about being a little bit banged up, what parts of his game he’s trying to show in these workouts, his focus on the defensive end and a host of other topics.

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NBA Draft Chat With Aaron Torres

With the NBA Draft just over a week away, I took some time this evening to chat with Hoops Addict’s resident NCAA expert Aaron Torres. During our chat we debated who the top few picks in the draft should be, which players are getting too much or too little love from the media, some second round sleepers and a whack of topics surrounding the draft.

Trust me, this is a must-listen if you’re looking for insight into the 2010 NBA Draft.

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Alabi’s Journey To The NBA

It’s amazing how your life can change so drastically after a small turn of events.

Growing up in Africa, Solomon Alabi was a huge soccer fan. But, as legend has it, one afternoon he was out looking for a soccer match to join but found a pickup basketball game instead.

The rest, as they say, is history.

In an ironic turn of events, the man who helped Alabi grow as a player, Toronto Raptors assistant general manager Masai Uriji, may just be part of the NBA front office that helps Alabi’s dream of playing in the NBA come true.

“Masai (Uriji) means a lot to me,” a humble Alabi told the media this morning after his pre-draft workout in Toronto. “When I first started playing basketball in a small town where nobody really knows much about basketball – and only a few people played – he held a camp in my town and he invited me. He only invited two players who played basketball in my town and that is when I started to get exposed to basketball. Since then I’ve taken basketball seriously.”

It was there at this camp that Alabi made an impression and earned an invitation to a Basketball Without Borders camp being run by Uriji. After hearing both men talk this afternoon it became clear it was the invitation to Basketball Without Borders that got Alabi hooked on basketball.

“Basketball Without Borders is the first time I was exposed to organized basketball and that really encouraged me to play basketball more,” Alabi explained to the media huddled around him. “Through Basketball Without Borders I came to America and I was offered a scholarship to go to school to play basketball.”

Shortly after taking part in Basketball Without Borders he moved to Orlando with his family and a couple years later he received a full scholarship at Florida State.

Even though it’s only been a few years since Alabi was introduced to Uriji, there’s already been tremendous growth in the his game.

“It’s funny because Alex English was at Basketball Without Borders when Alabi came and he was in shock to see him today,” Uriji told the media. “Lots of coaches saw him in Basketball Without Borders and now they see that he’s really grown. We’re really proud of him.”

Even though basketball has taken Alabi far from where he grew up, Africa still has a big place in his heart.

After talking with him this afternoon it’s clear he wants to return to Africa this summer to take part in Basketball Without Borders with Uriji and Dikembe Mutombo.

The only reason he won’t fully commit is he needs to see what his future NBA team has to say about him committing to this program when they would more than likely prefer to have him working out with their coaching staff.

“Kids look up to me because I’m the only person to come out of my town to play basketball,” a proud Alabi boasted to the media. “Kids are now starting to play basketball because of me. So, I want to give back to them.”

After hearing him talk about his love of Africa and helping young kids I wouldn’t be surprised if returning to Africa for Basketball Without Borders is something he chooses to do often during the course of his NBA career – even if that doesn’t happen this summer.

While doing so it would be pretty ironic if he’s able to shape young players much like Uriji, English and Mutombo did for him.

In The Scrum With Hassan Whiteside

Hassan Whiteside talked with the media about what kinds of things he would bring to the Toronto Raptors, his decision to make the jump to the NBA, what kind of work he has been doing this summer with Hakeem Olajuwon, the need to bulk up this summer and a host of other topics.

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In The Scrum With Solomon Alabi

Solomon Alabi chatted with the media about the role Toronto Raptors assistant general manager Masai Uriji had in his development, how taking part in Basketball Without Borders helped him grow as a player, how sitting out a year in college helped him grow as a player and a host of other topics.

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In The Scrum With Lance Stephenson

Lance Stephenson chatted with the media after a workout in Toronto about his pre-draft workout in Toronto, what he’s learning about his own game during these workouts, who he models his game after and why he chose to leave Cincinnati after one year.

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Catching Up With Dominique Jones

This afternoon I had the chance to chat with Dominique Jones about why he didn’t return to school for his senior season, how playing for Stan Heath helped him grow as a player, his plans for the summer and a host of other topics.

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