The Flawed Pre-Draft Workout Process

“I’m from Oakland. Gary Payton was that kind of person, really competitive. Jason Kidd, Brian Shaw. I feel I have to bring that same thing to the table as an Oakland point guard. I want to compete and I feel I still have to prove myself playing against higher lever guys and I’m happy to have the opportunity.”

This was Weber State point guard Damian Lillard, explaining his decision to run through drills last weekend in Chicago despite being given the option to skip them altogether.

Less than a week later, in a private workout with the Toronto Raptors, who own the No. 8 over-all selection in the NBA Draft, Lillard was literally peerless – that is, he showcased his skills absent of any draft-eligible potential rivals.

So, was this a case of empty, meaningless words from a guy shying away from the same competition he supposedly embraces? Quite the contrary – this was one of the many league-wide examples of the power of NBA agents (in this case, Goodwin Sports Management CEO Aaron Goodwin).

As the logic goes, agents want to avoid exposing their clients to potential direct comparisons that could negatively impact their draft stock and, thus, cost them money. While mitigating risk is sound, sensible business, the flip side is problematic: instead of proving themselves through one-on-one competition, players are limited in what they can showcase and team personnel is limited in what they can learn.

Ed Stefanski, the Raptors’ executive vice-president of basketball operations, has been around the game too long to get too worked up over league business that falls outside of his control, but you can sense his inherent frustration as he struggles to evaluate prospects like Lillard.

“It’s a lot more difficult when the player goes one-on-none, not having any competition against him,” admits Stefanski. “[...] We bring him in, we interview him, we get to talk to him, we get to see the kid, we have a meal or two with him, so that’s probably the main reason we bring him in.”

Two days later, following a solo workout with UNC’s Harrison Barnes (whose agent, Jeff Wechsler, represents former one-on-none’er Kyrie Irving), Stefanski was more direct.

“One on zero is very hard to make any assessment,” says the former Nets and Sixers GM, before acknowledging that the club has seen much of Barnes during his two-year career at Chapel Hill.

For their part, even if the draft prospects understand the intentions of their representatives, it’s not as though they enjoy going at it alone.

Lillard’s decision to opt into the Chicago drills came on account of Goodwin giving him the option. The 22-year-old’s decision to participate looks like a good one in hindsight, as he left a positive impression about his character and work ethic, as well as answering some questions about whether putting up big stats in a weak Big Sky Conference inflated his value.

As ESPN Insider Chad Ford put it on Monday, “Weber State’s Damian Lillard was the real star of the draft combine. He was the best player to agree to do the drills and it paid off for him. Many of the NBA executives in attendance had never seen him play in person before and the rest had only seen him only a handful of times. Lillard shot the lights out, had a couple of terrific dunks in the drills and 3-on-3 play, played hard and was very good in interviews with teams.”

For Barnes, the lack of competition in his workout with Toronto was actually an obstacle to be overcome.

“Obviously, it’s difficult to work out by yourself – your legs are going to go a little bit quicker that you expect them to,” says the Tar Heels standout. “You’ve got to continue to stay positive, continue to grind it out, continue to work hard.”

To summarize, draft prospects are being protected in a counter-intuitive manner that isn’t preferred by team executives or even by the players, themselves (unless, of course, they are paying lip service to their desire for competition in a bid to appear tougher). At a defining time when many clubs are setting a course for the future of their organization, it’s the agents who call the shots.

Marshall, Lillard Have Questions To Answer

Kendall Marshall and Damian Lillard are both point guard, but that’s where the similarities end.

Marshall is the steady floor general – a pass-first playmaker who had more assists (9.8) than points (8.1) per game last season as the creator for the talent-laden North Carolina Tar Heels.

Lillard is tougher to get a grasp on, based on his do-it-all career as the first (and, really, only) scoring option as a member of the mid-major Weber State Wildcats. What we do know is that he is a fast-rising competitor with an NBA-ready shot who is coming off a four-year college career.

Awkward as comparisons between the two very different players may be, they are inherently necessary for lottery teams who may be in need of point guard help, such as the Toronto Raptors.

Executive vice-president of basketball operations Ed Stefanski, the designated team voice after draft workouts on Tuesday involving the two prospects, stopped short of drawing any comparisons, but highlighted their inherent differences in describing Marshall and Lillard individually.

“[Marshall's] basketball IQ is very, very good and he sees the floor well,” says Stefanski of the North Carolina product.

On Lillard, the former Nets’ and Sixers’ GM focused on an entirely different set of qualities.

“He’s a tough kid – he competes,” says Stefanski. “He comes from a smaller school than these other guys and I think that’s part of his competition and his willingness to work hard.”

That’s not to say that Marshall isn’t tough, nor does it suggest that Lillard isn’t a smart basketball player. It does, however, speak to the difficulties of the whole draft process, particularly when agents typically don’t allow for one-on-one workouts between similarly-projected players.

For example, Marshall appeared in an afternoon session against lower-rated prospects like Devoe Joseph, while Lillard’s workout saw him fly solo.

While they didn’t go up against one another on Tuesday (in a literal sense, anyway), they are both battling heavy scrutiny over perceived areas of weakness through the draft workout process.

For Marshall, the Toronto stop marked his first workout coming off a wrist injury that was actually revealed to be an elbow injury.

“I fractured my elbow as well,” acknowledges Marshall. “The doctors never looked at it until about three weeks ago, so it was a late development. I wish I could’ve started my rehab earlier, but thankfully it’s not something that would’ve took surgery, so it’s just a matter of time.”

The 20-year-old isn’t in denial about the effects of the injury, but he is encouraged by its early progress and believes that he should be ready to go sooner rather than later.

“It felt pretty good,” replies Marshall when asked about the arm after Tuesday’s workout. “Obviously there’s still some soreness, some pain, but I’m able to get through it. My conditioning isn’t where I want it to be, but it’s still at a good level so I’m excited about moving forward from here.”

For Lillard, it’s a question of competition – specifically how the level of competition he faced at Weber State will translate in the pros. The Wildcats, after all, went 14-2 in the notoriously weak Big Sky Conference last season before dropping the Conference championship 85-66 to Montana. Although, to be fair, the loss can’t be blamed on the 22-year-old, who tallied 29 points, 10 rebounds and seven assists in the game.

While Marshall played with three other potential lottery picks (Harrison Barnes, John Henson and Tyler Zeller), Lillard feels that he was able to develop a multifaceted game by being a do-it-all player. He does, however, acknowledge that it’ll be nice to take a slightly scaled back role on a more balanced NBA club.

“That’s something I’m looking forward to,” Lillard admits,” not having a huge responsibility and having to carry a team. I can show off other parts of my game.”

With no point guard expected to go in the top five and only two likely to be lottery picks come June 28, the ‘one’ isn’t exactly a strong position heading into the deep 2012 draft. No wonder, then, that the two top players at the position both face significant unresolved questions.

How Marshall and Lillard answer those questions will speak volumes of their maturity and preparation as NBA players.