NBA Draft: How front offices and prospects prepared for the most unique draft
The process once entailed NBA prospects shaking hands with executives. Then they performed in-person workouts before those same people. Before or after the workout, they dined while trying to show both their professionalism and their personality.
Leading up to this year's NBA draft on Wednesday (6 p.m., ESPN), however, the process has played out much differently. The routine has become similar to what most people have experienced since the coronavirus outbreak started.
"It’s been very, very unique with all the Zoom meetings," said Aaron Nesmith, a sophomore forward from Vanderbilt. "I never used Zoom before in my life. Now I use it almost every day."
So do NBA teams.
Larry Harris, the Golden State Warriors assistant general manager and director of player personnel, said the front office has interviewed about 160 prospects virtually ever since the NCAA canceled its tournament in mid-March. Presumably, the Minnesota Timberwolves (No. 1), Charlotte Hornets (No. 3), Chicago Bulls (No. 4) and Cleveland Cavaliers (No. 5) have been just as thorough.
"There's no one to blame here, but it isn't what we normally would do," Warriors general manager Bob Myers said. "It makes it harder for everyone. It makes it harder for the players, agents, teams and medical personnel."
That is because there are numerous safety restrictions.
Teams can watch up to 10 in-person workouts in the prospect’s home market, but those teams have no influence over what the workouts will entail. Teams have also prioritized witnessing projected lottery picks complete their workouts over prospects projected to land later in the first or second round. Each team can bring up to four people to these workouts, three that work in basketball operations and one that works on the medical staff. Teams can collect the prospects’ medical records through the NBA. But they cannot do as much as they could if the full training staff had access to prospects.
Although teams can interview and dine with prospects in person, they have to obey social distancing, mask-wearing and sanitary rules. They also lack game footage to study from the NCAA tournament, something Harris considered "significant."
"You get a chance to see the cream rising to the top. Some people separate themselves in the NCAA tournament," Harris told USA TODAY Sports. "And when you get a guy in your city, you can take him out to eat and you can spend some time with him. There’s just something more you get rather than just talking to him on a virtual call."
As for the prospects, some acknowledged the potential consequences of not having a chance to polish their résumé in the NCAA tournament. Or the chance to further show their personality in person during interviews.
Once the NCAA canceled the tournament in March, prospects spent the ensuing weeks in quarantine without a chance to train in an actual facility.
"That was probably the toughest thing," said Isaac Okoro, Auburn’s freshman forward. "I’m a guy who always likes to work out. If I’m not working out, I feel like I’m lacking or I’m slacking."
Since then, prospects have created a more consistent routine.
Kentucky freshman guard Tyrese Maxey reported he has spent nearly every day waking up at 4:50 a.m. for a workout with his trainer. Then he completes a shooting workout until he makes at least 700 shots, followed by a weight-lifting session. He then returns to the gym at 10 p.m. Maxey, who has signed with Klutch Sports, also attended the agency’s pro day where various clients watched, including LeBron James, Anthony Davis, Trae Young and Gary Trent.
Iowa State sophomore guard Tyrese Haliburton trained at a facility in Las Vegas where various current and former NBA players visited, including Gilbert Arenas, Amir Johnson and Kyle O’Quinn. Then Haliburton spoke with those players about improving his shooting efficiency.
Dayton sophomore forward Obi Toppin performed a similar routine at a training facility in New Jersey. There, he routinely lifted three days a week and scrimmaged against NBA players, including Jalen Brunson, Kevin Knox and Terrence Jones.
"Playing in games, I missed it a lot. But at the same time, I only feel like this is helping me," Toppin said. "The extra time had to be able to get in the weight room and get on the court with current NBA guys. I feel like the opportunities are helping me for the next level. I feel like I’m more mentally prepared."
Without access to more substantial workouts and tournament games to evaluate, NBA front offices do not exactly feel the same way. They are also mindful that players are not in as good shape as they could be because of the circumstances. But what they lack in those areas, they made up for it in other ways.
They completed more virtual interviews. They pored over more regular-season footage. They talked to more coaches, trainers and others familiar with prospects.
"The challenge has been not having a regular platform where you can do workouts and in market visits. But the positives have been that we’ve had a historic amount of time in preparation for the draft," Gersson Rosas, the Timberwolves’ president of basketball operations, told USA TODAY Sports. "The due diligence at all levels, whether it’s interviews or whether it’s working with your staff, with your scouts and with your analysts to get as much information as possible on draft prospects. That has been incredibly helpful. I think we know these guys very well."
Once the draft takes place, more awkward challenges will emerge. In past years, prospects attended the draft in New York in dapper suits. Once NBA Commissioner Adam Silver called their names, the prospects walked onstage, shook hands and wore a hat of the team that selected them. This year, the draft will take place virtually.
"I feel bad for some of the players not being able to go to experience it in a green room," Myers said. "I've seen that from the agent's side. It's a big, life-changing moment for players with their families and friends."
To make up for that lost atmosphere, the NBA has given 30 of the top prospects a gifting locker that features products from the league’s partners, including Spalding, New Era, Beats by Dre and Oculus. The bag includes hats of every NBA team so the prospect can wear the correct one when his name is called. They will also receive a personalized basketball, a portable speaker, wireless headphones and earphones as well as a headset.
Draft prospects will also receive media kits from the NBA and ESPN so they can join the remote broadcast. That will include a tablet, earbuds, an iPhone with a tripod, a ring light and a wireless speaker.
"It’s a weird feeling to be on with the pandemic and getting drafted through Zoom. It’s kind of a bummer for us," said Deni Avdija, who played for the Maccabi Tel Aviv of the Israeli Basketball Premier League. "We want to be there and experience it as players. What can do you do? The whole world is crazy right now. We need to adjust. You’re still getting drafted and are still going to be in the best league in the world."
Once they join the best league in the world, they will then have less than a month to prepare both for training camp (Dec. 1) and the season opener (Dec. 22). There will not be a Summer League this year.
"The quick turnaround after the draft at least for me isn’t too much of a big deal," Nesmith said. "I’m ready to play basketball."