NBA Draft Combine: Players and Storylines to Monitor
NBA Draft Combine: Players and Storylines to Monitor

With the field of title contenders whittled down to four teams, the 26 franchises not located in Milwaukee, Toronto, Portland and – for the time being, at least – Oakland shift their attention toward the future. As it does each May, the league collectively descends on Chicago for the NBA Draft Combine, a multi-day event representing the first official step in the draft process for both teams and prospects.

The NBA expects 66 players to attend the invitation-only event, which kicks off Thursday morning from Quest Multisport and includes shooting drills, measurements, strength and agility testing, media availability and – for some prospects looking to improve their stock – live, 5-on-5 games. Unlike in years past, the consensus top prospects in the class – Zion Williamson, Ja Morant, and R.J. Barrett are the headliners – will be in attendance, though the extent to which each will participate remains unclear. Generally, lottery prospects go through measurements and select testing, but it's rather unprecedented for projected top picks to run the full gamut of drills or participate in 5-on-5.

This year, for the first time, the Combine will be preceded by the G League Elite Camp, a three-day showcase for 40 NBA Draft hopefuls and 40 of top players in the G League (more info here). The event, which takes the place of the G League Mini Camp, is intended for fringe NBA prospects, and those who impress the assemblage of scouts, coaches and executives will be invited to stick around and participate in the NBA Draft Combine on Thursday and Friday.

UPDATE: 

As the anticipation builds, and one of the most anticipated lotteries in NBA history fast approaches, here are the prospects and storylines to monitor throughout the week:

How much will Zion reveal?

Zion Williamson may be doing the NBA a favor by attending the Combine, but that doesn't mean he'll approach it with the same ferocity and competitiveness that's made him a near-lock to go No. 1 overall. Obviously, Williamson won't participate in 5-on-5 scrimmages, and it's probably best interest to recuse himself from as many events as possible. What does he have to prove at this point? If Williamson weighs in at 285 pounds and throws up a 45" vertical, he's done what everyone expected. Anything less than that would qualify as a (relative) disappointment. At this point, only something catastrophic could derail his path to the top spot, but the last thing Williamson and his team want to do is instill even the slightest shred of doubt.

To a slightly lesser degree, the same question applies to Ja Morant and R.J. Barrett, who aren't locks to go second and third, but who've spent most of the season jockeying for position behind Williamson. Leading Murray State to a dominant first-round win over Marquette seemed to finally propel Morant over Barrett in the collective basketball ethos, but it's a debate that's far from settled. Both prospects – Vanderbilt's Darius Garland may also belong in this group – carry more significant question marks than Williamson, and it'll be interesting to see whether they use the Combine's measurement and testing forum to attempt to answer those. (History suggests they won't).

Traditionally, the prospects at the very top of the draft either limit their participation to strictly measurements or skip the Combine altogether, as Deandre Ayton, Marvin Bagley and Luka Doncic did a year ago. Mid-to-late-lottery prospects generally attend but draw the line at measurements, while those closer to the fringe of the lottery and beyond usually take part in strength and agility tests, though prospects are able to opt out of certain portions – like the bench press – if they so choose.

The field is pared down even further for the 5-on-5 games, which are typically stocked with second-rounders and a handful first-round hopefuls. A year ago, five eventual first-rounders – Kevin Huerter, Donte DiVincenzo, Landry Shamet, Josh Okogie, and Jacob Evans – took part in scrimmages.

Meanwhile, the entire 2018 lottery class played it safe. Mo Bamba, Trae Young, Miles Bridges, Wendell Carter, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Jaren Jackson, Kevin Knox, Michael Porter (injured), Collin Sexton, and Jerome Robinson each limited their participation to measurements and interviews, while Mikal Bridges joined Ayton, Bagley and Doncic in skipping the event.

Nice to See You Again

The Combine is the first chance in several months for teams to get a closer look at players who suffered injuries during the collegiate season. At the top of that list this year are Vanderbilt's Darius Garland and Oregon's Bol Bol, whose last college games came on Nov. 23 and Dec. 12th, respectively.

Garland averaged 16.2 points, 3.8 rebounds and 2.8 assists while shooting 54 percent from the field and 48 percent from three (11-23 3PT) in his five-came college career before going down with a torn meniscus. While the injury robbed him of what was shaping up to be a fine freshman campaign, Garland's stock – at least on the surface – hasn't been dramatically impacted. He still ranks among the top guard prospects in the class, and there's a case to be made that the limited exposure may ultimately benefit him on draft night.

Bol's injury, on the other hand, raises significant red flags. The 7-2 freshman sustained a navicular fracture to his left foot – a relatively rare injury in the NBA realm, but one that also afflicted Yao Ming, Joel Embiid, Marc Gasol and Zydrunas Ilgauskas – and while he's expected to make a full recovery, teams may be skeptical of his long-term durability given his size and play style. Prior to going down, Bol mainly faced questions about his motor and discipline, but at face value he might be the most intriguing player in the draft not named Zion.

In nine games for the Ducks, Bol averaged 21.0 points, 9.6 rebounds and 2.7 blocks, while knocking down 13-of-25 three-point attempts. A stretch-five with the mentality of a score-first guard, Bol's freewheeling, borderline-reckless style may prove difficult to curb at the next level, but that won't stop a team somewhere in the first round – and perhaps the lottery – from trying.

It's highly unlikely that Bol and Garland go through anything beyond measurements, but Bol's medical reports, in particular, will be in high demand.

Victory Laps

It'll be the second time around for a handful of prospects who were also on the invite list in 2018. Brian Bowen, Bruno Fernando, Jaylen Hands, PJ Washington, Jontay Porter, Carsen Edwards and Kris Wilkes will all return to Chicago after testing the waters, and ultimately backing out, a year ago.

Of that group, Edwards is by far the most fun, but Washington is probably the most intriguing. Likely a second-rounder had he stayed in the 2018 draft, Washington is the poster boy for why the NBA and NCAA amended the rules to enable prospects to gather feedback and go back to school. A versatile forward who tested poorly in 2018, Washington returned to Kentucky an improved attacker, hiking his scoring from 10.8 to 15.2 points per game and demonstrating significant improvement as a three-point shooter, shoring up one of the primary question marks in his prospect profile. Heading into the Combine, Washington has worked his way into the conversation in the back-half of the lottery.

On the other end of the spectrum is Porter, who opted to pull out of last year's draft despite a chance at going in the late-first-round. The younger brother of Denver's Michael Porter, Jr., whose own injury issues have been well-chronicled, Jontay suffered a torn ACL during an October scrimmage and missed the entirety of what would've been his sophomore season at Missouri. Despite the setback, Porter declared for the 2019 Draft, but the torn ACL likely means he'll hear his name called in Round 2. Prior to the start of last season, ESPN projected Porter as a lottery pick.

Fernando's stock has slipped a bit, but he carries intrigue of his own after coming back to Maryland for his sophomore season and looking like one of the most physically dominant big men in the country. Fernando's basketball IQ remains a sticking point, and he has some consistency issues to iron out at both ends, but he averaged a double-double – with 1.9 blocks – last season and has shown early signs of developing an outside shot.

Bowen was one of the bigger stories at the 2018 Combine after he was ensnared in the high-profile NCAA bribery scandal that ultimately brought down Rick Pitino. The former Louisville commit pulled out of the 2018 Draft following a disappointing Combine showing, and he subsequently signed on to play professionally in Australia, closely mirroring the path taken by ex-high school standout, and current Thunder wing, Terrance Ferguson. Coming off of a season in which he averaged 6.3 points and shot 34 percent from three in 30 games for the Sydney Kings, the 20-year-old will have another chance to prove himself in front of NBA decision-makers. Given everything he's been through, simply hearing his name called on June 20 would be a big win for Bowen.

The two UCLA teammates, Hands and Wilkes, could work their way into the mix in Round 2, but neither player was overly impressive for the latest Bruins squad to underachieve. With a wingspan over 6'10", Wilkes has decent length for an NBA wing, but he's not an overwhelming athlete, and he regressed as an outside shooter in his sophomore season. Athleticism isn't an issue for Hands, who tested well in Chicago last year, but he's raw and undersized. Hands had a strong close to the season, but if a team takes a chance on him, it'll be a developmental flyer.

Something teams will have to weigh heavily when it comes to Hands: He was responsible for one of the wildest plays I've ever seen in a college basketball game.

Notably Absent

While the NBA succeeded in drawing the top prospects, one of the biggest names in college basketball last season won't be in attendance. Gonzaga's Rui Hachimura declined his invitation, becoming the second Zag in four years to skip the event after Domantas Sabonis, with whom Hachimura shares an agent, did the same in 2016.

It's a big of a curious move given that Hachimura is currently projected toward the middle of the first round, but it could be an indication that he's comfortable with his standing or has already secured some sort of promise. Three of Hachimura's teammates at Gonzaga – Brandon Clarke, Killian Tillie, Zach Norvell – are expected to be in attendance, while Josh Perkins will participate in the G League Minicamp.

Though Hachimura's absence is by choice, another prospect out of Washington – Matisse Thybulle – was left off the invite list. Currently projected as a top-25 pick by ESPN, Thybulle has the size and length to be an impact defender in the NBA right away, and his experience – Thybulle is a 22-year-old senior – may actually be seen as a positive for the playoff teams picking late in the first round.

Veteran College Stars on Display

Outside of De'Andre Hunter, and perhaps Brandon Clarke or Cam Johnson, it's once again shaping up to be another underclassmen-laden lottery. But further into the first-round, and certainly in Round 2, a number of household names at the college level will be in play. Ty Jerome, Jordan Bone, Admiral Schofield, Grant Williams, Carsen Edwards, Dedric Lawson, and reigning Final Four MOP Kyle Guy each received Combine invites, and a few players in that group will have a chance to be first-round picks.

Despite his average athleticism, scouts are intrigued by Jerome's size and skill set, and the sheer production from Edwards and Williams should keep them in the mix in the 20s. Of that group, Schofield is the one with the most to gain. He's an older prospect, but he should excel in athletic testing, and it's easy to imagine teams in the late first round falling in love with his size (6'6", 240) and three-and-D potential.

Jerome, Edwards and Williams are likely to go through the full testing portion of the week, but it's difficult to project whether or not they'll play 5-on-5 – they're right on the borderline. Schofield and Lawson will likely be full participants as they look to inch closer to the end of the first round, while Bone and Guy are currently outside the top 60. Both players have already indicated they won't return to school.

Wild Cards to Watch

Keldon Johnson, Kentucky: Opinions on Johnson vary widely, and while his freshman season was partially a disappointment, he's still on course to be selected in the top 25. Not long ago, Johnson was viewed as a mid-lottery pick, and strong athletic testing numbers could jumpstart a move back up the board.

Cam Reddish, Duke: Reddish shot 36 percent from the field, 33 percent from three, had 26 more turnovers than assists and routinely disappeared in key moments as a freshman, and he's still a near-lock for the top-10. Maybe that says more about just how highly regarded he was as a high school prospect, but either way, Reddish enters the Combine with plenty to prove. He likely won't go through athletic testing, though, so how he fares in private interviews with teams will be what matters.

Nassir Little, North Carolina: Little's numbers aren't as jarring as Reddish's, but he's in a similar situation after arriving in Durham as Roy Williams' biggest recruit since Harrison Barnes. Little may have played himself out of the lottery, but he's the type of big-time athlete whose leaping and agility numbers could turn heads – assuming he opts in to the testing portion.

KZ Okpala, Stanford: The 20-year-old wing still has room to grow, but he had some impressive moments as a sophomore and could be viewed as a bigger, poor man's Andre Iguodala. At 6'9", Okpala has the frame to defend modern NBA wings, which figures to be his calling card at the next level. He'll be among the players whose measurables warrant attention.

Kevin Porter, Jr., USC: As a late-lottery/mid-first-round prospect, it's anyone's guess how much Porter will participate, but the interview process may be most important. His isolation and shot-making abilities are unquestioned, but Porter carries significant off-court baggage that'll need to be fleshed out if he hopes to solidify a spot in the lottery.

Darius Bazley, Syracuse: After initially committing to Syracuse, Bazley backed out to try his luck in the G League, but he ultimately decided to sit out his would-be freshman season to prepare for the Draft/intern at New Balance. Essentially, word got to Bazley that hopping straight from high school to the G League would be a terrible idea, and while simply going to Syracuse for a year probably would've been in his best interest, Bazley remains in play as a Round 2 prospect who could potentially sneak into the end of the first round with a strong week.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Nick Whalen
RotoWire's NBA Editor and host of the RotoWire NBA Podcast. Nick was awarded the FSWA Best Podcast -- All Sports award in 2017 and 2018. 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.
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