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NBA Draft Combine Observations: News and Notes from Chicago

Nick Whalen

RotoWire's NBA Editor and award winning host of the RotoWire NBA Podcast. Many years ago, Stromile Swift gave Nick his unbelievably sweaty headband after a preseason game. Despite its failure to match his school colors, Nick went on to wear that headband for the entirety of his sixth grade basketball season. Catch Nick on Twitter @wha1en.

Late last week, Chicago played host to the NBA Draft Combine, an annual, multi-day event enabling organizations to take a firsthand look at many of the top prospects in the 2016 draft.

For the most part, it’s far from the first encounter between prospective employers and prospective employees, but the Draft Combine offers teams the unique opportunity to observe, evaluate and meet with the 60-plus players in attendance in one location over the span of a few days.

Simultaneously, it’s a chance for prospects, many of whose draft decisions are still up in the air, to receive feedback while gauging how well they measure up against their peers.

I was in attendance for Thursday and Friday’s sessions at Quest Multisport. It was my first time at the Combine, and I can only describe it as a temporary-Mecca for NBA minds. From coaches, to GMs, to scouts, to agents, the gym was packed with a veritable who’s-who of the biggest decision-makers (and those who report those decisions) in basketball.

What follows are a handful of observations -- some positive, some negative, some entirely random -- from my two days at the Combine:

STOCK UP

Cheick Diallo, C/F, Kansas

Diallo was one of the biggest winners of the week, both figuratively and physically. Despite playing just 202 minutes for Bill Self this season, the freshman showed up in excellent shape (5.6% body fat) and measured in at 6’9” (in shoes) with a massive, 7’4.5” wingspan -- good for the second-longest at the Combine.

Due in part to NCAA eligibility issues that put him in a hole to start the year, Diallo remains somewhat of a mystery to NBA teams. Despite his status as a consensus top-10 recruit in the 2015 class, Diallo played more than 15 minutes in just three games last season and didn’t see the floor in the Jayhawks’ final three NCAA Tournament games.

As a result, Diallo entered the week as a fringe first-rounder, but after testing well and turning in a couple of strong 5-on-5 showings, the 19-year-old likely solidified himself in the 15-to-30 range. Diallo went for nine points and 10 rebounds in Thursday’s scrimmage and followed up with 18 points and four boards Friday. He ran the floor well and held his own against stronger players like Caleb Swanigan and Chinanu Onuaku, leaving me wondering just how Kansas had kept him off the floor.

Wade Baldwin, G, Vanderbilt

Like most of the consensus top 15-20 prospects, Baldwin didn’t take part in 5-on-5 work, but he went through drills and measurements. Those were enough to give his stock a considerable boost, as he put up the second-best Lane Agility time and ranked seventh in the Three-Quarter Sprint. More importantly, the 6’4” Baldwin showed off a 6’11.25” wingspan, easily the longest among all guards measured, and recorded a very respectable 38” max vertical.

Baldwin is long and athletic enough to defend both guard spots at the NBA level, and he said he’s even been told he could guard threes.

“I’ve been advised that I could guard 1-through-3 positions,” Baldwin said. “Say I’m on a team with a Russell Westbrook, maybe I’m not starting, but maybe I could play alongside of him being that combination guard -- that’s what makes me unique in this draft, being able to guard 3 positions.”

A high school teammate of Karl-Anthony Towns, Baldwin -- one of the more well-spoken players I talked with -- probably solidified a spot in the middle tier of the first round.

Michael Gbinije, G/F, Syracuse

He’d be receiving more pre-draft buzz if he wasn’t turning 24 in a few weeks, but Gbinije was one of the two or three most impressive guards on the floor in 5-on-5 sessions. Gbinije may not be elite in any one area, but he shot the ball well both days (11-20FG, 4-8 3Pt) and used his length to force eight steals and generate a number of transition opportunities.

The senior measured in at 6’6.75” with only 5.4% body fat and threw up the fastest Three-Quarter sprint time at the Combine. On top of that, Gbinije flashed a 37.5” max vertical to go with a 33.5” standing vertical, the latter of which ranked in the top-5 among guard prospects.

Even after a strong weekend, Gbinije is likely a second-round prospect, but he couldn’t have done a whole lot more, at least on the court, to help himself.

Malcolm Brogdon, G, Virginia

Brogdon was maybe the best individual interview at the Combine, and he backed up his reputation as an unflappable, heady player on the court. The two-time ACC Defensive Player of the Year put up 17 points, six assists and four rebounds in Thursday’s scrimmage, all while vacillating between both guard spots after playing mostly off the ball at Virginia.

In his interview, Brogdon said some teams have told him they’d like to see him continue to transition to point guard, but at 6’5.5” with a 6’10.5” wingspan, he projects more as a prototypical two at the NBA level. Still, with those measurables and his defensive pedigree, Brogdon is capable of guarding three positions.

Brogdon, who’s currently working toward a master’s degree in public policy, was among the most thoughtful players with which I spoke, and teams seemed to feel similarly.

Per Rick Bonnell of the Charlotte Observer, the Hornets, holders of the No. 22 pick, were “blown away” in their meeting with Brogdon.

“I think people, when they first hear about the education in my family, when they hear about my dreams, my passions even after basketball, they’re very impressed.” Brogdon said. “They’re shocked to some degree, but they’re impressed.”

Brogdon was well aware of the modern stigma against four-year players. He said he believes made the right decision to return to Virginia and noted that his experience and maturity will enable him to transition more seamlessly to the NBA level.

“A lot of people talk about the one-and-dones, the guys with potential, the younger guys,” Brogdon said. “But for me, I pride myself on being the older guy, being the mature one, being the one that can come in and help the team right away -- not [be] a rookie that has to learn a lot, be a rookie that can step into a role, be told one thing and go get it done.”

Among the organizations Brogdon had met with as of Thursday night: The Nets, Cavaliers, Timberwolves, Mavericks, Rockets and Hornets. Brogdon said he’s been advised that he’ll likely go in the 15-30 range.

Joel Bolomboy, PF, Weber State

Admittedly, I didn’t know much about Bolomboy before the Combine, but he was one of only a handful of prospects whose agility testing drew a palpable buzz. The Weber State product put up a 40.5” max vertical (tops among big men by a 2” margin), had the second-best standing vertical, and posted the top Lane Agility -- a drill typically dominated by guards and wings -- time at the Combine.

On the court, Bolomboy was quiet during Thursday’s 5-on-5, finishing with five points and failing to bring down a single rebound in just under 19 minutes. But he bounced back Friday with a 10-point, nine-rebound showing while converting all four of his attempts in the paint.

Even after the impressive testing, it’s difficult to assert just how much stock teams will place in Bolomboy’s measurements. Working in his favor are two years of elite, consistent college production, though the level of competition in the Big Sky will be called into question. While that could knock him down a peg or two, Bolomboy left Chicago looking like a mid-to-late second-rounder.

Buddy Hield, G, Oklahoma

The reigning Naismith Award winner didn’t participate in 5-on-5 or agility testing but still walked away a winner after quelling one of his biggest criticisms. Hield’s versatile scoring and playmaking ability is well-documented, but scouts have questioned whether he has the build to succeed as an NBA shooting guard.

Oklahoma officially listed Hield at 6’4” -- a number some felt might be embellished, as those figures often are -- but at the Combine he measured in at 6’5” in shoes with a 6’9.25” wingspan. The wingspan isn’t jaw-dropping -- Denzel Valentine, Malcolm Brogdon and Wayne Selden's were longer -- though it compares favorably to other prototypical NBA guards like Dwyane Wade, Brad Beal and DeMar DeRozan.

As a slightly older prospect (he’ll turn 23 in December), Hield likely won't claw his way into the discussion at picks one and two, but his on-court production speaks for itself and he now has the data that should put to rest any major concerns about his size.

Kay Felder, PG, Oakland

Felder remains a borderline end-of-the-first-round prospect, but he helped himself at the Combine, especially in the testing portion. As expected, Felder was the shortest player in the gym, but he offset that with the top overall max vertical (44”), barely edging out Notre Dame’s Demetrius Jackson (43.5”).

Felder's athleticism was no secret, but I’m not sure most expected him to test that well. Will it be enough to boost him into the first round? It’s hard to say -- most likely not, though he did fare well in 5-on-5, using his sturdy frame -- think Eric Bledsoe’s physique in Ty Lawson’s body, headband and all -- to get into the lane and absorb contact.

Felder finished with 11 points, four rebounds and four steals in Thursday’s scrimmage and followed up with 12 points, three assists and two steals Friday. If there was one area to nitpick, Felder only grabbed one rebound in 47 minutes of play, but no team is bringing in a 5’9” point guard to clean the glass.

STOCK DOWN

Melo Trimble, PG, Maryland

After an up-and-down sophomore season, Trimble remains on the fence as the May 25 deadline to officially declare for the draft approaches.

In speaking with Trimble on Thursday, I got the strong impression that he wants to come out. He all but confirmed that he’ll stay in the draft if a team extends him a first-round promise, even noting that he’d be “happy” to be an early second-rounder.

Trimble had trouble in the 5-on-5 sessions, though, especially on Thursday. He acknowledged a lack of comfortability with his new teammates and committed a couple of careless turnovers, while shooting just 2-of-8 from the field and struggling to finish around the rim.

He was much better in Friday’s scrimmage -- Trimble has always excelled as a shooter off the dribble -- but he still flashed the same erratic tendencies that plagued him over the second half of the college season, when Maryland dropped five of its final eight Big Ten games.

All four of his fellow-starters from that Maryland team -- three of whom were at the Combine -- will be gone, which Trimble acknowledged may factor into his decision.

“It makes it a lot harder,” Trimble said. “For me, to be the only starter coming back is going to be something difficult. But if I go back to Maryland, I’ll also have people there who have been there since I’ve been there. But it’s tough to think about.”

I followed up by asking Trimble if he considered coming out after his stellar freshman season, when he likely would have comfortably been a first-rounder.

“I did, that’s everyone’s dream to be one-and-done,” Trimble said. “I didn’t think the season would go that well for me. Right when I was going to put my name in the draft, I didn’t do any research -- I just, right away, said I was coming back because I promised my mom I would do two years [of college].”

Does he regret coming back?

“Now that I think about it, it is what it is, Trimble said. “I had to come back and get better at things i wasn’t good at my freshman year. Even though the situation right now isn’t the same, I’m glad I did it.”

Nigel Hayes, F, Wisconsin

Hayes’ didn’t necessarily play poorly in 5-on-5 sessions, he was more so invisible on the offensive end. After attempting only two shots in 21 minutes Thursday, Hayes vowed to return on Day 2 with a more aggressive mindset. Whether that was the case or not, Hayes got off only three shot attempts Friday, notching his only basket of the week on a smooth turnaround jumper early in the second half.

As expected, Hayes was among the Combine’s most convivial interviews, but a lively personality is only worth so much. Hayes posted the fourth-slowest overall time in the Lane Agility drill, and it was evident in the scrimmages that he’s not quite quick enough to consistently get by similarly sized defenders.

Granted, Hayes’ methodical game doesn’t translate well to a Combine setting, where each prospect is fighting to turn heads. The ball didn’t often find Hayes’ hands, making it difficult to work into the flow of the game, if there even was such a thing, and take advantage of his relatively few opportunities.

Lane Agility aside, Hayes tested fairly well on the whole. He was among the leaders in the Shuttle Run and Three-Quarter sprint and posted a respectable, if not spectacular, 34.5” max vertical. Most surprising, though, was his massive, 7’3” wingspan, equaling that of noted physical freak Thon Maker.

The wingspan should add to the notion that Hayes could serve as a versatile wing defender in the NBA, but he ultimately failed to demonstrate enough offensive diversity to warrant consideration as anything more than a mid-second-round pick.

Hayes remains undecided as to whether he’ll remain in the draft, and I asked him if Wisconsin -- which returns virtually its entire contributing roster from last year’s Sweet 16 team -- likely opening as a top-10 team will impact his decision.

“A lot of people are able to say ‘you guys will be able to do great things, win a championship, win this win that,’ but people fail to realize that all those things aren’t guaranteed,” Hayes said, citing last year’s Michigan State team as an example of talent and hype failing to materialize. “But going off of face value, I think there are a lot of good things that could potentially come from going back.”

It was a typically measured response from one of college basketball’s most visible personalities, but at this point I’d be surprised if Hayes doesn’t return to Madison for one final Tournament run.

Dedric Lawson, F, Memphis

Lawson’s stock wasn’t sky-high heading into the Combine, but he did himself no favors, recording the slowest overall times in the Shuttle Run and Three-Quarter Sprint, in addition to notching the second-worst Lane Agility time. Couple that with a Combine-low 28.0” max vert, and it adds up to Lawson likely returning to Memphis for another season.

Lawson is only 18, after all, so another season to work on his body should improve his draft stock in the coming years.

UPDATE: Lawson has officially withdrawn from the draft and will return to Memphis for his sophomore season:
Jarrod Uthoff, F, Iowa

While Malcolm Brogdon and Robert Carter fared well, it was not a stellar overall Combine for some of the bigger names in the Big Ten last season.

Uthoff simply didn’t look comfortable, struggling to find a rhythm and forcing a few looks in Friday’s 5-on-5 session. He’s not a poor athlete, but he’s far from elite and is somewhat of a tweener at 6’9.75”. Uthoff doesn’t have the bulk (214 lbs) to hang with a lot of NBA power forwards and isn’t enough of a knockdown shooter at this stage to fill a Steve Novak type of role.

The senior doesn’t have the benefit of returning to Iowa City and at this point has the looks of a second-rounder, though Iowa coach Fran McCaffery claimed otherwise.

“I think he’s got a lot of people who are interested anywhere from the early 20s to the second round,” McCaffery told the Quad City Times.

Of course, there’s just a slight chance McCaffery might be biased toward his former player.

ODDS AND ENDS

Cat Barber, G, North Carolina State, was a player I kept a close eye on throughout the first scrimmage of the day Thursday, and I came away with mixed feelings. He lived up to his reputation as a strong playmaker off the dribble (10pts, 6ast) but committed some careless turnovers, overdribbling into traffic and losing control twice within the span of a few minutes. Still, the six assists were a game-high, so it’d be a stretch to call his showing a disappointment. Barber did not participate in Friday’s scrimmage due to a bruised thigh.

Barber has already signed with an agent, so there’s no going back to NC State, which brings in blue-chip point guard Dennis Smith to fill Barber’s shoes. Barber will likely hear his name called somewhere in the second round. Maybe that’s not where he hopes to be, but with an 18-month daughter to care for, landing in the lottery isn’t Barber’s top priority.

DeAndre’ Bembry, G/F, Saint Joseph’s, took a gamble by participating in the 5-on-5 portion and walked away as one of the consensus winners of the week.

The swingman put up 18 points, four rebounds and three assists Thursday and registered a strong, 38-inch max vertical. Questions remain about the consistency of his jumper, but Bembry showed he can score in a variety of ways while holding his own defensively, despite a relatively slim frame. Bembry reminded me quite a bit of Will Barton, though he’s much more polished offensively at this stage in his career than Barton was coming out of Memphis in 2012.

With apologies to Ron Baker, Bembry also had, hands down, the best hair at the combine. Really remarkable stuff. Ronny Turiaf and his signature cornrows made a surprise appearance at the gym Friday afternoon to give Bembry a late run for his money, but it wasn’t enough.

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Tyler Ulis, PG, Kentucky, is solidly in the first round, but his stock may have taken a minor hit when he weighed in at only 149 pounds, 11 fewer than the previous Combine record. It was no secret that Ulis, the reigning SEC Player of the Year, is undersized, but 149 pounds is exceptionally light for an NBA point guard. That could scare some teams away.

To Ulis’ credit, he was among the leaders in all agility drills and recorded a surprisingly bouncy 38” vertical.

Robert Carter, F, Maryland, was the leading scorer among all 5-on-5 participants, averaging 17.5 points in his two games. On Thursday, he flashed his versatile offensive repertoire, scoring in the paint in addition to knocking down a pair of threes and getting to the line a game-high eight times. Carter also pulled down seven rebounds before ultimately fouling out in 27 minutes.

The 6’8.5” Carter has the appearance of an NBA stretch-four, but he didn’t play quite as physically as his muscular frame would suggest. He also didn’t test overly well, recording the Combine’s slowest Three-Quarter Sprint time and fifth-lowest max vertical (30.5”).

Thon Maker, F/C, made his much-anticipated appearance Friday in a group with Denzel Valentine, Brice Johnson, Diamond Stone and Stephen Zimmerman. None of the five took part in 5-on-5, but Maker came away a winner from the testing portion alone. The YouTube mystery man measured in at 6’11.75” without shoes and registered the second-highest standing reach at 9’2.5”. Maker also showed off a dazzling 36.5” max vertical, more than an inch better than that of Brice Johnson, one of the better athletes in college basketball last season.

Caleb Swanigan, F, Purdue, is an absolute bruiser. While he’s Ben Wallace from the biceps on up, he has the looks of an Al Jefferson/Zach Randolph-lite at the NBA level. He may not be as talented, offensively, as those two, but Swanigan was not afraid to throw his weight around, and he’s already developed a stash of polished moves at the rim. He also recorded a 7’3.5” wingspan, good for fourth among all prospects.

The question may be whether a player like Swanigan -- he’s not a remarkable athlete and recorded the slowest Lane Agility time at the Combine -- is still as useful in the NBA today as he would have been 10 years ago. The answer is probably “no,” but I think Swanigan can carve out a niche, whether he enters the draft this year or next.

Quick aside: As Sam Vecenie of CBS Sports thoroughly reported, the overwhelming sentiment among players was that they’re in favor of the new early entry process, which enables prospects to attend the Combine and receive feedback before officially entering or withdrawing from the draft, provided they haven’t hired an agent.

Taurean Prince, F, Baylor, said he considered leaving school after his junior year but stressed the importance of finishing his degree.

“I had my mind set that I was going to get my degree,” Prince said. “I could have left after my junior year, but that wouldn’t have been a good choice on my part. I think it was a good decision -- you never know what could happen to you.”

Prince cited the unfortunate case of former-teammate and close friend Isaiah Austin, who’s now back at Baylor working toward his degree.

Austin also stepped in to offer Prince some encouragement on Twitter:



Demetrius Jackson, PG, Notre Dame, began his media availability by announcing that he recently got a new dog, Obi, who has his own Instagram account.

Brice Johnson, F, North Carolina, said he’s met with a number of teams and has been told he’ll likely go in the “late-lottery to the 20s range,” which sounds about right.

Johnson found out earlier in the week that he’d been chosen for the Team USA Select squad, which will head to Las Vegas later this summer to scrimmage the players vying for spots on the 2016 Olympic Team.

“It was kind of a surprise, but I’m honored to be able to do that,” Johnson told me. “To be able to play with the other guys I was selected with, I’m looking forward to that. But I’m looking forward to the draft first.”

Johnson revealed that adding weight is his top priority as the draft approaches, and he said he’s spoken with former Tar Heel, and current Bucks center, John Henson about bulking up. Henson faced similar criticisms coming out of college and now weighs 230 pounds after checking in at 216 pounds at the 2012 Combine.