Sunday Musings: The NBA needs to level the pre-draft playing field
Draft season is changing. Each year, the NBA and individual teams are increasingly ceding power over the draft process to the ever-growing influence of agents. Last month, Andrew Wiggins, Joel Embiid and Jabari Parker, arguably this year’s top three talents, not only refused to work out, they declined invitations to the NBA’s combine completely. And without league intervention, that trend will only continue.
In the high-risk game of talent evaluation, the league is quickly losing its ability to get a full picture of incoming players. They are placing multi-million dollar bets on 19- and 20-year-old athletes and they are doing so with less tangible information than they have in the past.
“I don’t like it,” NBA Director of Scouting Ryan Blake told Cowbell Kingdom. “It’s been a process where the agents want control, and a lot of it is trying to posture rather than protect their clients.”
The big three weren’t the only ones to buck the process. Plenty of players chose to participate in the measurement and interview process, but skipped the chance to show front-office personnel their actual ability to play the game of basketball. It’s like showing up to the biggest interview of your life and refusing to get out of the car.
Once the combine is over, teams are finding the process even more difficult. While attempting to jockey for position in the draft, agents are refusing to allow their clients to work out for teams or limiting whom they will face off against in group workouts.
“Some agents want their clients to come in,” Sacramento Kings assistant general manager Mike Bratz said. “Some are a little reluctant. Other agents are begging us to bring their guys in.”
Two years ago, the Kings held the fifth overall selection in the draft and not a single player taken in the top five came in for a workout. Instead of going with one of the willing participants, like Damian Lillard, John Henson or Andre Drummond, Sacramento chose Thomas Robinson with the fifth overall selection, a move that will haunt the franchise for years to come.
The team had interviewed Robinson at the combine in Chicago and they had also seen plenty of game footage on the Kansas product. But they quickly learned that he was a bad fit and shipped him to Houston for pennies on the dollar.
Robinson wanted nothing to do with Sacramento and neither did his agent. The Maloofs were in cost-cutting mode. Threats of relocation still hung heavy in the air. Who in their right mind would choose a situation like Sacramento for their impressionable young client?
Could they have seen a different side of Robinson during a face-to-face meeting in Sacramento that might have deterred them from making him their first pick? We will never know the answer to that question, but he is on his third team after just two seasons in the league and is far from a finished product, while Lillard has the look of a multiple-time All-Star with Hall of Fame potential.
With the Kings franchise stable, agents have once again warmed to Sacramento as a destination for their clients. Players like Noah Vonleh, Marcus Smart and Aaron Gordon have already dropped in for visits, despite the possibility that they may all be off the board when the Kings choose at No. 8.
The current front office has found the process easier than its predecessors, but we still haven’t seen a full menu of players headed to Sacramento. There is still time to see a player like Doug McDermott or Julius Randle, but these players are waiting to make a commitment to Sacramento, instead of jumping at the opportunity to prove their worth for a talented young team in need of rotational players.
D’Alessandro has worked hard to develop a staff, as has coach Michael Malone. The Kings also have an owner in Vivek Ranadivé that is willing to spend what it takes to be successful as an NBA franchise. The Kings are burying money into scouting, analytics and player development, but they have still only seen nine potential draft picks come through the practice facility with less than three weeks until the draft.
Like all NBA teams, the Kings scout year round. Bratz confessed to watching Smart play live 12 times this season. According to D’Alessandro’s right-hand man, college teams open their doors to scouts, especially early in the season. They allow talent evaluators into games and practices in order to promote their players.
“I try to see how they interact with their teammates, with their coaching staff, the consistency of their effort during practice,” Bratz said of the behind-the-scenes look he gets during college visits. “Because you want guy who’s a serious player. If you’re investing a lot in them, you want to make sure.”
It’s more than just a financial investment that a team is risking with these young players. Teams are risking the future success of their franchise without all of the information possible.
The NBA needs to take a stand. They need to level the playing field and implement strict guidelines about how the draft process will proceed. More than an age limit, there needs to be a series of requirements if a player wishes to play in the league. The league mandates a rookie symposium, but they can’t mandate an entrance exam to get into the league?
Participation in the combine should be mandatory. And so should a certain number of individual team workouts and player interviews. The draft was put into place to add competitive balance to the league and the process is being tainted. If the league doesn’t take a stand, it might as well just throw out the lottery completely and hand the keys to the league over to the people making the real decisions.