There aren’t always winners and losers at the draft combine in the binary sense. Players will play well or they won’t, but the concept of draft stock is a bit over-wrought at times—teams form opinions over the course of the season, scouting departments do their due diligence, and most team personnel won’t be swayed by one hot shooting day or a college All-American laying a dud. The draft is about formulating the most well-rounded opinions, and then making the most educated guess.
However, the combine is often the first time that front office decision-makers lay eyes on players firsthand, which can’t be discounted. Players’ performance can affirm or at least challenge preordained thoughts teams had on arrival. It all adds up as part of the big picture with each prospect, and leaving an impression certainly helps.
With those caveats in mind, here’s who stood out—and who didn’t—over the past couple days in Chicago.
Up: Frank Mason, Kansas
Unsurprisingly, Mason was consistent in both of his games, showcasing his ability to change speed and direction and a strong understanding of how to use his body to create space for himself. His size will pose a challenge at the next level and give some teams pause when trying to project long-term, but Mason knows how to use his center of gravity, snake through defenses and get into the bodies of bigger defenders in order to finish at the basket. He’s a good shooter and tough defender and really stood out among the crop of point guards in attendance. He’s likely to go in the second round, and could certainly provide a solid return on that investment
Down: Combine attendance
You’ve heard by now the annual cries over top prospects skipping the draft combine entirely. Things have trended that way over the last few years. Players who are projected as sure first-round selections never play five-on-five anyway, but this year, about half the draft lottery didn’t even show for interviews. Is this a PR issue? Somewhat. Kevin Durant bashing the combine isn’t a great look either. Agents pull their kids out in order to fully control meetings with teams, steer draft position in the lottery, avoid injury or poor physical testing and and determine media exposure on their own. There’s been more talk than usual this season about solving this problem, but until the league can incentivize their future stars to show, don’t expect any changes. You’ll see these guys on TV soon enough, anyway.
Up: Frontcourt depth
Once you get past the top crop of draft hopefuls, there’s an extremely strong group of bigs with attractive long-term upside going all the way into the second round. Not all of them played at the combine, but nearly all of them measured quite well, which makes determining a pecking order even more so a matter of opinion. Between Ivan Rabb, Ike Anigbogu, Tony Bradley, Jarrett Allen, Johnathan Motley and Thomas Bryant alone, there’s a very solid tier of physically gifted young post players with varying strengths. Kyle Kuzma (who opted not to play Friday after wowing on day one), Chris Boucher and Cameron Oliver make for intriguing sleepers, among others. There will be very happy teams picking in the 40s.
Down: Guard play
Mason, Derrick White and Rawle Alkins looked among the better guards playing five-on-five at the combine, but up and down, it’s not an incredible class. You’ll hear a ton about the consensus top five points in the draft (Markelle Fultz, Lonzo Ball, De’Aaron Fox, Dennis Smith and Frank Ntilikina, in some order), but after that, the pecking order belongs to the beholder. Donovan Mitchell helped himself by testing freakishly well here and has a chance to be the next guard off the board. Frank Jackson chose to stay in the draft and showed well on Thursday. But teams looking to address their backcourts in the first round may have to be aggressive, given that things could thin out quickly.
Up: Harry Giles
Giles is the draft’s biggest wild card when it comes to long-term injury risk, but did well for himself by showing up, measuring well and testing respectably given all he’s been through with his knee problems. He’s still one of the most talented players in this class, although he didn’t show much of that at Duke, and it’s a pretty solid bet that a team will take the plunge pretty early. People across the industry are often quick to remind that the entire thing is a crapshoot anyway. Giles in the 10–20 range is the biggest swing available. Just wait until reports about his medicals start to trickle out.
There was a relatively small group of underclassmen without agents here, and not many looked especially ready for the big-time. With Jackson taking the plunge, that left Alkins, Andrew Jones, Moritz Wagner, Eric Mika, Justin Jackson, Omer Yurtseven, Thomas Welsh and Svi Mykhailiuk as undecideds in the five-on-five this year. Expect most of them to return to school. There’s also the group of D.J. Wilson (who sat out injured), Caleb Swanigan (who should probably go), Tony Bradley (the buzz was he’s leaning toward going) and Hamidou Diallo (who remains a wild card), who didn’t play fives and are on the fence. Alkins, Jones, Jackson and Wagner all showed strong flashes and unique strengths, but it may take a promise from a team to keep these guys from returning to college.
All in all, the new rules certainly help. Players have until May 24 to work out for teams and make final decisions.
Push: My vertical
Earlier this week, the NBA and UnderArmour (who became the combine’s first title sponsor this year) invited me to participate in the exact same drills the prospects do. I’m not going to explain much about that other than that I have a 20” max vertical, which was far and beyond my expectations. Also, my three-quarter court sprint time was good enough to tie the slowest player at the entire event, Svi Mykhailiuk. I’m available and looking for a promise in the 50s.
Soon: The draft lottery
It’s on Tuesday. Get those lucky charms out.