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Why this year’s NBA draft process is shrouded in more secrecy than ever before

The pandemic has altered the way NBA teams are going about pre-draft routines, with teams and players exhibiting more discretion than is usual.

An NBA logo is displayed outside a basketball arena Friday, Aug. 28, 2020, in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. Thanks to the pandemic, preparations for the NBA draft are also a “whole new game”
AP Photo/Ashley Landis, Pool

There is always a certain amount of secrecy within the NBA when the draft starts drawing near. But, in the year 2020, everything has been flipped upside down, twisted and changed in some way or another.

While team plans are usually masked by the hullabaloo leading up to the draft, there is no such mask this offseason. So the cloak of secrecy is even heavier.

Every year, as NBA teams prepare for the draft, they bring in droves of players to work out at team facilities. They evaluate their movements, their shot, look at tape, and run prospective players through multiple interviews with executives, coaches and team sports psychologists.

A large percentage of the players brought in for workouts likely won’t even be considered as draft prospects for the team. Sprinkled in there are players that pique interest, but even then, it doesn’t tell the whole story.

After draft workouts, which are often done in groups, players line up to meet with local media members and they’re always asked the same kind of questions.

How do you think you would fit with this team?
What other teams have you worked out with?
What were you hoping to show the team today?

The answers are almost always generic. They list a handful of teams they’ve worked out for, say that they think they can fit in anywhere they’re drafted, and that they want to show a little bit of everything.

Then the media gets some comments from someone in the front office. They also have very generic things to say and will sometimes offer a few names of players that stood out at that day’s workout.

Behind the scenes there is a lot more going on.

Sometimes when a team is really high on a particular player, they’ll try to have the workout in secret; often executives will go outside their market to see the player work out rather than bring the player into the local market in order to keep things hushed. Sometimes they may promise a player that they’ll pick them, even if it means they have to trade up to make it happen.

This year, ahead of the Nov. 18 draft, there’s no commotion to hide behind. There was no NCAA Tournament, game tape is limited, there was no real combine and there haven’t been highly publicized workouts.

Kentucky guard Tyrese Maxey said on Thursday that he’d been interviewed by the Jazz but also said he had worked out in person for just one team, but didn’t want to say which team it was.
James Crisp, Associated Press

For months there have been heavy restrictions on the amount of contact teams could have with draft prospects, and only recently have those restrictions lifted, allowing teams to bring in players that aren’t geographically close or travel outside their market to conduct in-person workouts.

But with travel being risky these days, no media availability requirements with players who work out for teams, and no reason to bring in players en masse to throw off the scent of who they’re really interested in, teams have kept things very quiet, which has led to players keeping things quiet, too.

On Wednesday and Thursday, a handful of draft prospects were made available to reporters by the NBA and though some players were willing to say which teams they’ve spoken to and worked out with, there was an unusually large amount that weren’t ready to disclose that information.

Kentucky guard Tyrese Maxey, who said Thursday that he’d been interviewed by the Jazz, also said that he had worked out in person for just one team, but didn’t want to say which team it was. Only after being asked three times did he finally relent, saying that it was the New Orleans Pelicans.

Later, Maryland big man Jalen Smith also declined to say which teams he’d worked out with in person, though he did answer questions about teams that he had interviewed with.

When it was Florida State forward Patrick Williams’ turn to talk, he wouldn’t say which teams he’d worked out for either, which teams he’d spoken to, or even what kind of feedback he was getting from those teams.

Because there is so much secrecy around which teams have had contact or in-person workouts with draft prospects, it’s created a situation in which the information that does get leaked out has become inflated.

LaMelo Ball of the Illawarra Hawks squats during their game against the Sydney Kings in the Australian Basketball League in Sydney. The point guard from California who bypassed college and played overseas is expected to be one of the top picks when the twice-delayed NBA draft is held in November, and reportedly had a private workout with the Minnesota Timberwolves on Wednesday.
Rick Rycroft, Associated Press

LaMelo Ball, a projected top-three pick in this year’s draft, reportedly had a private workout with the Minnesota Timberwolves, who hold the No. 1 pick, on Wednesday. This has many believing that Ball is who the Wolves will be taking, which could absolutely be true.

But Minnesota has also met with Anthony Edwards, another highly rated prospect, and is reportedly interested in seeing what they could get by trading the No. 1 pick.

The fact that Maxey has spoken to the Jazz doesn’t necessarily mean anything and that he has only worked out with the Pelicans doesn’t necessarily mean that he is the only player on the Pelicans’ radar. New Orleans has the 13th pick in the draft and there could very well be a team that is higher on the board and is gunning for Maxey but doesn’t want to show its cards by being one of the few teams that sees him in person.

There are far fewer individual workouts being conducted league-wide, with teams relying largely on the due diligence they do year-round in preparation for the draft as well as lengthy interviews, mostly done via Zoom.

The coronavirus pandemic led to the cancellation of numerous sports events and forced the NBA to resort to a virtual draft and has left the draft process shrouded in more secrecy and mystery than ever before.