Seniors at NBA combine hoping to prove they have room left to grow

Saturday May 17th, 2014

Doug McDermott is one of a host of seniors trying to shirk the stigma of being a low-ceiling player.
Greg Nelson/SI

CHICAGO -- On Thursday night, a former Creighton sharpshooter connected with another, fittingly via long distance: Doug McDermott called up Kyle Korver before another day at the NBA combine to collect any more morsels of advice Korver had about the process. The two ended up sparring about who would own the better vertical jump.

"I think I got him," McDermott said Friday after touching 36.5 inches, a figure that indeed bested Korver's 2003 mark by five inches but is the far less pertinent leap for last season's consensus player of the year.

How McDermott's prolific scoring ability translates to the NBA is the issue that follows him everywhere, even as he is projected as a possibly lottery pick in June. The top of the draft is populated again by teenagers coveted for what they might be, while McDermott and other four-year college prospects will have earned their spots by what they already accomplished. Misgivings about how much more these players can offer is the ironic price paid for having an actual track record. It's a bit ageist, actually, a senior discount. Even as McDermott and his classmates emphasize that room for growth isn't restricted to the younger set.

"The four years for me was just developing," McDermott said. "I feel like I can continue to get better."

Still, the first round likely again will be dominated by underclassmen. Yet seniors participating in the NBA combine over two days in Chicago like McDermott, Michigan State forward Adreian Payne, Connecticut guard Shabazz Napier and Wichita State forward Cleanthony Early all have very realistic chances of hearing their name called among the first 32 on draft night. They also all can argue that they are far from finished products -- that what teams see now is not necessarily all they will get down the line.

Here's a look at some notable senior prospects who attended the combine and what they might offer in the way of upside come draft night:

Doug McDermott, Creighton

He scored 3,150 points over the course of his career but arguably played out of position at the end of it. McDermott spent his senior season as Creighton's nominal power forward but will be a wing player at the next level, and that cuts both way. While he'll perhaps have to guard perimeter players more instead of being able to hide somewhat defensively, he'll also be on the outside offensively and therefore in his preferred spot to maximize his offensive gifts. Ball-handling, playmaking and lateral movement have been McDermott's workout emphases since his final college season came to a close, with a keen eye to how the pros will view him.

"I really don't think I'm just a shooter," McDermott said. "I feel I can make people around me a lot better. I'm not going to be the focal point right away in the NBA like I was at Creighton, so I think I'll have a lot more space to work with. A lot of NBA actions are off the pick-and-roll. I can be a guy that can be in the corner but also move around and find open seams on the floor. Just being able to play off other people, I think that's a strength of mine. It's not going to be the same as it was in college, that's just the way it is. There are a lot better players in the NBA and I'm going to have to be able to adjust to a different role."

Still, there won't be a remarkable difference between what Creighton asked of McDermott and what any NBA team would ask of him: Make shots. The book may be as complete on him as anyone in the draft. But if he slides back into a primarily perimeter role and look for others as much as himself, is there not a little bit of reinvention on tap for one of the draft's most well-known commodities?

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Adreian Payne, Michigan State

Payne was pretty much as expected at the combine: Nearly 6-foot-10 in shoes, weighing 239 pounds -- even after battling mononucleosis for months -- and boasting the third-longest wingspan (7 feet 4 inches) among participants in Chicago. He didn't take part in the physical testing, but those numbers alone reconfirmed the value that has Payne coming off the board as early as the late lottery: A stretch power forward who will be able to hold his own on the glass and guard his position defensively.

But as rote as all that was, consider this: Payne didn't come on as any sort of top draft prospect until the end of his junior season with the Spartans, at earliest, when he finished that season with seven double-doubles in his last 11 games. As a senior, his scoring average jumped from 10.5 to 16.4 points per game. His three-point production nearly tripled from his junior season to his senior year (16 three-pointers made in 2012-13 to 44 in 2013-14). Maybe he's a late bloomer and there's no more flowering to do. Or it might be that he's a veteran prospect who only is just approaching what he can become.

"It's incredible -- I don't know how high [my ceiling] can get, but I haven't screatched the surface, I know that," Payne said Friday. "I started playing basketball at a late age, starting in eighth grade, so I've been trying to learn as much as I can in a short amount of time. I've learned a lot. It's just me trying to continue to get better and keep my eyes open."

Shabazz Napier, Connecticut

He was the unquestioned leader on a national championship team and paced his team in every important statistical category during the regular season except rebounding -- and there he was one-tenth a board per game off the pace -- but now Napier most likely slides into a primary role of distributor. Maybe that's merely a distinction without a difference, but much like the McDermott case, it also can be viewed as a reinvention of sorts.

Napier will have fewer responsibilities and those that he has will play to his strengths, including that floor generalship he honed during his last couple seasons in Storrs. In fact, staying four years allowed him to make that NCAA tournament run this spring, and Napier believes that was his most effective audition for those who gauged him as a potential point guard in the pro ranks.

"It helped the teams see I was able to run a team," Napier said. "I always knew that, but it's kind of hard sometimes to get other people to understand that."

Cleanthony Early, Wichita State

If there are areas in which Early can improve for NBA eyes, they will not surprise him. Because it is the question he said he asked during every pre-draft interview: What do you want to see from me? Fairly predictable answers followed for the excitable 6-foot-8 forward: A positive energy guy who can knock down open shots and guard multiple positions.

"I'm just a work in progress, you know?" Early said Friday. That he is, but maybe more than in just a cliched sense. He spent just two seasons at the Division I level after transferring in from a junior college. Those two seasons featured a Final Four trip in his junior year and a 35-0 start to his senior year, during which he averaged 16.4 points and 5.9 rebounds per game. But it might not have been until Early dropped 31 points on Kentucky in an NCAA tournament defeat in March that he was ushered into first-round pick consideration.

As such, the NBA team that chooses him may get a 23-year-old who is far from at peak potential while also fairly motivated to prove that.

"I've been working on everything," Early said. "Defense, checking out, closing out, staying low in positon, keeping my hands moving, knocking down shots more consistently, knocking down shots coming off ball screens, finding teammates, doing whatever. Creating a shot for myself off the dribble, step-backs, one-dribble pull-ups, two-dribble pull-ups, one-dribble step-back. Whatever it is I can improve on. I'm a student of the game, I'm a student of life, I'm paying attention and I want to be good."

Patric Young, Florida

From behind the black curtains on one side of the interview room Friday, a series of guttural shouts grew louder and louder until they just about drowned out anyone talking on the other side. The noise emanated from the area in which players did bench-press testing. Patric Young wasn't the one making the noise, but he did cause it, and he explained why when he emerged into the media area dripping with perspiration.

"Twenty-five," the ripped-up former Florida forward said to a fellow participant with a wide smile. Twenty-five reps at 185 pounds on the bench press, two off the combine record. Not that anyone needed additional proof that Young is a physical specimen, but they had it, and it may be increasingly intriguing to see what Young does with it.

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He mostly projects as a second-round pick, and he joked about the simplicity in his game Friday. "Defense, rebounding, right hook, left hook, that's about it," said Young, who averaged 11 points and 6.2 rebounds in 2013-14. He added that he wants to bring a gritty "Kenneth Faried-type mindset" to the league, and Young said he has spoken to the Denver Nuggets power forward about finding a niche and sticking to it, about being effective and productive without perhaps the most abundant skill. But Young also insists there's an expanded game in the works.

"If you were watching out there, my shot was looking pretty good today," Young said. "I didn't make as many as I would have liked, but I was shooting the same exact shot every time." That probably won't guarantee Young much on draft night, but should he add to his repertoire or simply find a way to be effective with what he has, he might be even more productive than his Florida career suggested he could be.

Russ Smith, Louisville

The former Louisville star checked in at 6-foot, 160 pounds at the combine, which seemingly would thrust him almost exclusively into point guard-only consideration. So here's another two-ways-to-look-at-it dynamic: Either Smith is out of sorts running a team after spending the last couple years as a score-first weapon -- 18.7 points per game as a junior, and 18.2 as a senior -- or he blends the ability and confidence to produce points with a more refined aptitude for directing a team.

Smith's assist rate did jump in his final college year, up nearly two full dimes a game to 4.6 per night. He said Friday his pre-draft process has revolved around everything one might imagine a point guard's process to revolve around. Smith said he's shot a lot from the NBA three-point line and also worked through pick-and-roll situations to polish that element of his game.

"I can still improve my assist-to-turnover ratio, I can always shoot a better percentage from the field," Smith said. And to suggest he's done improving is to earn a rebuke from a four-year player who feels, like others, that he's only just begun in some ways.

"Potential is all mental," Smith said. "What I mean by that is, a 17-year-old, if he's willing to get better, he'll get better. If you have a 25-year-old and he's willing to get better, then he'll always get better. It's just a mental block sometimes that doesn't allow people to get better. For me, as a 23-year-old, I'm still trying to learn and improve my craft. Saying that a senior doesn't have potential is kind of disrespectful."

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