SALT LAKE CITY — The NBA’s annual draft combine kicked off on Monday, though that doesn’t mean the same thing that it has in years past.
Usually the combine takes place in Chicago, in May, with many of the incoming prospects convening in one place to go through different drills and tests, while being interviewed and working out for various team executives.
This year the combine has been reformatted to take place in NBA markets around the country and virtually because of the coronavirus pandemic. In October, players participating in the combine will take part in on-court workouts and drills, measurements and strength and agility testing in the NBA market that is closest to where they are living.
The interview process, which has been strictly limited to short sessions for teams up to this point, is what started in earnest on Monday, as well as media sessions for participants, and will continue through to the Nov. 18 NBA Draft. The first slate of players who participated in media sessions on Monday included LaMelo Ball (NBL, Illawarra), Killian Hayes (BBL, Ulm), Jalen Smith (Maryland) and Zeke Nnaji (Arizona).
Ball and Hayes, widely considered to be two of the best players in this year’s draft class, are expected lottery picks, if not top-5 picks.
A big topic of conversation for Ball, brother of the New Orleans Pelicans’ Lonzo Ball and son of the ever outspoken LaVar Ball, was his father’s recent comments about Golden State not being a good place for him to end up because Ball would likely start out on the bench.
“I’m my own man. He’s his own man,” Ball said of his father on Monday. “He has his opinions, I have mine. Like I said, I feel I could play on any team and do good anywhere I go, so anything that happens, I’m positive.”
Ball could end up being the No. 1 overall pick on draft night, going to the Minnesota Timberwolves, but if the Wolves have their eye on someone else, he could end up falling to the Warriors who own the second pick. Though falling to No. 2 would be a little bit of a damper for Ball.
“Ever since I was little, when you do little projects and stuff, that was one of my goals, to go to the NBA and be the No. 1 pick,” he said.
Hayes, a French player who played for Ulm in the German BBL last season, is also a highly touted player who said that his agent believes he’ll be picked in the top 10.
“I love finding my teammates open and trying to make the game easier for them,” he said.
The 6-foot-5 guard’s most impressive skills are his playmaking and passing, and at just 19 years old, any of Hayes’ deficiencies — shooting, left-hand dominance, mental lapses — are expected to improve over time.
Smith and Nnaji are more likely to be taken outside of the the top-14 lottery, with Smith projected to fall somewhere around 20 and Nnaji expected to land anywhere from the mid-20’s into the middle of the second round.
Those projected draft positions make Smith and Nnaji a little more interesting if you’re a Utah Jazz fan prowling for info on players who could be around when the Jazz make their selection at 23rd.
Smith has been on mock drafts ranging from the 13th pick all the way to the bottom of the first round, but most see him getting taken in the early 20’s. The 6-foot-10 big man is incredibly athletic and made a concerted effort to expand his game to the perimeter after his freshman year at Maryland.
“It was pretty much getting in the gym a lot more than my freshman year and making sure that I’m getting up a lot more shots... Coach [Mark] Turgeon wouldn’t really let me out of the gym until I made around 500 threes after every practice and that just helped with the confidence boost,” he said. “This offseason I’ve been shooting a lot more consistently and getting it up a lot quicker.”
If the Jazz are looking to fill the role of backup center through the draft, Smith would be a really good pick to fit into the Jazz system. He sets good screens, is a lob threat, and also offers a pick-and-pop option from the frontcourt.
“I’m highly confident just being able to come into the league and having an immediate impact,” Smith said. “Obviously, it’s still a learning process so I’m going to learn from all the veterans and make sure I take in everything and learning and just get late hours in the gym, making sure I continue to work on my craft and my body.”
Though Nnaji has shown up in some mocks as a late first round pick, he is more likely to go in the second round. He too is a big man who has good footwork in the post and has been working significantly on his body in the offseason to compete at the NBA level, but his defense is a little suspect and he doesn’t have a perimeter game, which are likely the reasons he’ll fall into the second round.
Tuesday’s slate of players includes Tyrell Terry (Stanford), Precious Achiuwa (Memphis), Tre Jones (Duke) and R.J. Hampton (New Zealand). On Wednesday we’ll be hearing from Isaac Okoro (Auburn), Theo Maledon (France), Tyrese Haliburton (Iowa State), Isaiah Joe (Arkansas), Deni Avdija (Israel) and Desmond Bane (TCU).