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C.J. Fair relishes chance to face top players at combine, draft workouts

Photo: Al Tielemans/SI

In his four years at Syracuse, C.J. Fair (left), played against his fair share of lottery picks like Cody Zeller (right).

As part of our NBA draft coverage, SI.com will follow former Syracuse forward C.J. Fair as he moves through the draft process, from the combine in Chicago through the draft and beyond.

C.J. Fair played in arenas filled to the brim with thousands of fans, raining jeers on him and his teammates, the full-throated screams reverberating off the concrete walls of iconic college venues.

He’d seen Final Four matchups, rivalry games, the pressure of Big East Tournament games at Madison Square Garden and everything in between. But all that and more couldn’t prepare Fair for the NBA combine and the workout process.

So he set out to approach them the only way he knew how: head on and with the scrapping mentality of the proverbial underdog.

When team workouts began, Fair, feeling slighted by the process and looking to prove he belonged in the conversation with the best players in the draft, gave his agent Torrel Harris an edict.

“I told my agent I want my schedule to be set up where I’m going up against guys with great buzz. I want to go against guys who are first-round guys,” Fair said.  

“I want to show teams that if this guy has this amount of hype, I should be in the same conversation with them.”

Fair sits squarely on the second-round bubble according to NBA media outlets covering the draft. He’s No. 56 overall on Chad Ford’s Big Board and No. 75 according to Draft Express.

But that talk doesn’t faze Fair, although nothing seems to as his calm countenance belies the passion and intensity with which he plays. That’s how he has approached the most important few weeks of his life this spring: serene, but with an indomitable focus and understanding of the profundity of these moments.

The second weekend in May, in a half-empty gym in Chicago, Fair spent several days going through drills, shooting, and most importantly, playing the NBA’s version of speed dating by interviewing with teams from around the league. It is hardly the bubble of scrutiny and media attention associated with the NFL draft, but the NBA’s version is nonetheless vital to a player's stock.

Sterile and uninviting, this job interview circuit was grueling, Fair admitted. Normally, in a conversation with someone, you can tell from body language and facial expressions how things are going. Not so in the meeting rooms of the NBA combine.

“You want to present yourself, but sometimes you can’t get a good feel on how the interview went because it’s not any ordinary meeting. This is your job, but they don’t show you how interested they are,” Fair told SI.com. 

Fair said most of the talk isn’t about what happens on the court. What do you know about our team? Who are your friends? Describe your family.

That part comes easy to Fair, a young man who made a decision early on that contradicted the usually quixotic nature of his age. 

Growing up in Baltimore, Fair’s parents split when he was young.  Heading to high school, a quiet, but focused teenager made the difficult decision to leave his mother’s side.

“My father was the one who put the basketball in my hand. I wanted to have a father figure in my life, that’s why I wanted to live with him,” Fair said without the slightest hint of ego.

“It was tough, he lived in the inner city [of Baltimore], we didn’t really have anything. We didn’t have a car or anything … it made me appreciate basketball that much more.”

MANNIX: Top 50 prospects on 2014 Big Board

Fair has been answering questions on the court as well. At the combine, he ran the best lane agility time for a small forward (11.0 seconds), a time better than some of the first-round point guards like teammate Tyler Ennis (11.12) and Connecticut’s Shabazz Napier (11.60). His mid-range shooting performance was one of the best at the combine, according to NBA.com’s stats.

That is simply the beginning for a potential prospect, however, as the combine provides a jumping off point. Team workouts, usually secretive in nature, where media are usually not allowed for most or all of the drills, provided Fair another opportunity to put himself up against the best players in the draft.

Dribbling drills, shooting drills, followed by player vs. player competition whether it’s one-on-one, two-on-two, or three-on-three. Usually team workouts include six players and, depending on the team, will have a diverse type of players, from point guards to bigs, or a  set of wing players for example.

“I think I’ve been playing really well. I’ve been very consistent and that’s one thing I’m proud of. I really haven’t had any off workouts. I’ve been showing teams what I can do and I’ve been getting great feedback,” Fair said. 

The former Syracuse star insists, despite the lack of NBA media plaudits, teams have been extremely complimentary of his play, even if some are back-handed in the “I didn’t realize you were this good,” vein.

In fact, Fair has played so well in workouts, he said he felt like other players at his position were ducking him.

“I’ll have a workout scheduled with some people, then when I get to that city, I’ll see people drop out. It seems like they’re running from me. I can’t help that. I don’t run from nobody.”

This type of confidence, as least from the outside looking in, has grown over the past weeks, perhaps a sign of his growing confidence in himself, or possibly a defense mechanism to keep him motivated to succeed. Either way, his approach, coupled with his success, could be paying off.

“It’s hard to say because you never know because teams might trade their picks, but if things go as how they feel I’m going to, it’d be [a team drafting me] somewhere in the first round," he said.

Fair admits it’s impossible to know who is being genuine when it comes to expressing interest, or if the interest is serious. He’s heard plenty of stories of players feeling great about a certain team and being passed over. So you have to just come in, do your best, and let the process play out.

His schedule, even the week of the draft, remains full: Oklahoma City on Monday, Detroit on Tuesday, Brooklyn on Wednesday.

Plenty of teams have been kicking the tires and Fair believes he’s a fit on just about any.

“I think as far as styles of play, my game can adapt to any styles. I don’t see myself as one-dimensional, but you go to different cities and you go to different arenas, you can see yourself playing for that team. Some of the interviews, it really wows you like ‘Wow, I could really fit in here,’” Fair said.

“I just want to play. Of course, everyone wants to get picked as high as possible, but just hearing my name would be just enough and excitement and joy.”

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