- The Pro Basketball Combine is the newest opportunity for executives to see athletes. With the event approaching, The Front Office takes a closer look at two 20-somethings who created a lifeline for NBA hopefuls.
It’s February and the Ball family’s European traveling party funnels into a private area of Bounce Cafe’s Old Street location in London. LaMelo and his maternal grandmother, Noni, spar on one of the bar’s myriad multicolored ping pong tables. Brand manager Alan Foster scrolls through emails flooded with local media requests. A FaceTime call from the boys’ agent, Harrison Gaines, pings LaVar’s phone.
The NBA draft process is around the corner, and crafting a plan for LiAngelo to hear his name called on June 21 is imperative. Maneuvering the pre-draft landscape after facing primarily second-division talent in Lithuania, though, can prove daunting. “There’s this thing called the Pro Basketball Combine,” Gaines informs LaVar. It’s essentially a cheat code, a main stage NBA audition even without earning a coveted invite to the league’s Draft Combine in Chicago. “And a lot of NBA teams go to that. So that’d be a good chance for him to play in front of every single team,” Gaines says. LaVar’s face stretches into a toothy smile. The audacious plan for another son to shake Adam Silver’s hand is in motion. “Let’s do that,” he says.
The second annual Professional Basketball Combine tips off on May 22, featuring 23 other draft hopeful players in addition to Ball. For some, it may help render their NBA dream into a reality. For others, it could cement a lucrative contract overseas. Regardless of the outcome, each athletes’ opportunity stems from the collective brainchild of two 20-something friends who met by happenstance at a summer internship four years ago.
Chris Henderson arrived at Relativity Sports’ Los Angeles offices in 2014 as a wide-eyed, second-semester high school senior. He was soon introduced to Jake Kelfer, then a junior business administration major at USC and one of the more seasoned interns at the now-defunct agency. Kelfer’s raw enthusiasm for even the most mundane of assigned tasks was strikingly palpable. “I don’t think he even drinks coffee, which is crazy,” Henderson says. Kelfer found any opportunity to include the younger intern, welcoming him into quests to ink trading card deals and assemble sponsored product packages for the company’s NFL rookie clients bound for training camp. “I kind of took him under my wing,” Kelfer says.
A strong friendship formed between the two California natives who frequently grabbed coffee and breakfast and joined pickup runs when Henderson returned to L.A. during summers off from studying sports management at Syracuse. Kelfer continued his educational tour throughout the sports world, interning with Wasserman Media Group and taking a job with the Lakers’ corporate partnerships division in 2015 after graduation. In May 2016, he authored a motivational book for young professionals first navigating employment and realized one of his true passions. “My whole method in life is to help elevate people to achieve their definition of success,” Kelfer says.
A year later when the NBA introduced two-way contracts—deals allowing teams to sign two players for both the NBA club and their G-League affiliate—Kelfer saw an opportunity to blend his zest for aiding others with the sport that seduced him from an early age. The novel NBA draft early entrant rule, allowing underclassmen to test the waters without forfeiting NCAA eligibility, added another wrinkle. “There’s a lot of players that need to be seen,” Kelfer surmised. The NBA’s official Draft Combine only invites, roughly, the top 65 prospects of that year’s class as determined by a poll of NBA team executives. With over 200 players now annually entering the draft, the majority are left without an invitation. “What if there was an area to put a secondary combine in place?” Kelfer thought.
His first call naturally went to Henderson, by now a junior in upstate New York. With his pal on board as a trusty assistant director, Kelfer mustered the courage to cold-email Kiki Vandeweghe, the NBA’s executive vice president of basketball operations, inquiring about the legality of an independent combine. Within a week he was in contact with league basketball ops senior director Garth Glissman: For any event hosting draft-eligible players and scouts, they would have to comply with the pre-draft workout rules teams must follow. Those guidelines restrict more than six players on a court at once, leading to scrappy three-on-three competition; limit more than 12 players on the court in one day, and require all players to be draft-eligible, meaning no pros can participate.
The concept of a two-day event featuring a total of 24 players crystallized. A year before, Relativity hosted a pro day for it’s draft-eligible clients at IMG Academy, an elite athletics boarding school in Manatee County, Fla. With a sprawling campus and the facilities to house and feed players, in addition to boasting the physical testing equipment to mimic the official combine, IMG appeared to be a perfect host for Kelfer’s new Professional Basketball Combine. They would also offer interview opportunities with teams and drills to showcase players’ shooting ability. It could provide an optimal experience for players to virtually compare with those who competed and tested in Chicago. “We tried to make it as close to the NBA combine as we could,” Kelfer says.
The New Jersey Nets organized a similar event from 2008–13, showcasing 36 prospects over a weekend in East Rutherford, N.J. The Nets famously drilled Kobe Bryant against young players Ed O’Bannon and Khalid Reeves prior to the 1996 NBA Draft. With that practice now outlawed, New Jersey unearthed another pre-draft resource, offering the same physical testing at the Chicago combine and even a psychological evaluation. Pitting players in three-on-three live action, back when the combine did not offer it’s five-on-five format, provided another valuable scouting opportunity, with all 30 teams in attendance splitting the bill. Hosting a weekend of multiple six-player pre-draft workouts can cost upwards of $40,000, according to then-Nets assistant GM Bobby Marks. “It was beneficial from a cost perspective,” he says.
With the infrastructure of their own event in place, the PBC needed participants, but a stalemate ensued. When Kelfer and Henderson worked their fledgling network, stemming from internships and their school’s marquee basketball programs, players and agents wanted to know which teams would be represented, and scouts asked which players were attending. “You’re playing a chicken-and-an-egg game,” Kelfer says. “None of it came easy,” Henderson says. Agent Zach Charles ultimately agreed to register his client J.J. Frazier, a point guard from Georgia, and the dominoes began to fall. Kelfer and Henderson worked the phones from late March until the middle of May, ultimately securing 24 players and as many scouts as possible.
Eventually evaluators from 16 teams made arrangements to attend. “It was a great opportunity to see some guys that were kind of under the draft radar and to see some guys you could build the depth of your scouting for the draft as far as potential Summer League guys and second-rounders,” says one scout who attended in 2017. Dayton’s Charles Cooke, Louisville’s Mangok Mathiang and Puerto Rican guard Gian Clavell all later garnered two-way deals around the league. Antonio Blakeney earned a two-way contract with the Chicago Bulls and was ultimately named G-League Rookie of the Year. “I’m forever grateful for everyone that came in year one,” Kelfer says. “And now we’re looking to build off that.”
Kelfer has continued a steady stream of dialogue with team executives, hoping to shape the event to offer greater evaluation of the players—each paying a $1,400 registration fee, multiple agents told The Front Office—in settings scouts prefer. “I want to see guys coming off screens, shooting the ball, shooting it on the move. I want to see guys make pro-movement shots at a high rate of speed, coming off screens, spacing on penetration, being able to read situations, being able to see if guys can move laterally, can they be multiple positional defenders? Can they defend at all?” one scout says. “I want to see guys compete on the glass a little bit in a rebounding situation. How are guys’ second jump compared to their first jump? Are they run-and-jump athletes? Those are the questions you’re trying to answer.”
The PBC crew feels scouts will also be assessing a greater overall talent pool. This year’s event will welcome high-major dexterity, with power-six conference players like Kansas’ LaGerald Vick, Providence’s Rodney Bullock, Xavier’s J.P. Macura, and Louisville’s Deng Adel and Quentin Snider, while also displaying prospects with extensive NCAA Tournament resumes like Nevada sharpshooter Kendall Stephens. And, of course, the second-oldest Ball brother, LiAngelo. “I’m looking forward to seeing where he is at as a player, just his overall game,” says one scout. At least 19 teams will be represented at this year’s event.
Since returning stateside from Europe, Ball once again immersed himself in LaVar’s at-home basketball incubator, rising at the crack of dawn to run the hills of Chino and strength training at the family’s estate. He’s launching triples within high-octane drill environments and workshopping the nuances of three-on-three competition. “It’s a lot more open court, so you can really show your one-on-one defense and one-on-one game more,” Ball says. He believes that game format will allow opportunity to exhibit an offensive package that translates to the NBA. “I want to show the scouts that I can score at all three levels, as far as posting up and shooting midrange and my three-pointer,” Ball says.
If Ball performs at the level of Kelfer and Henderson, perhaps LaVar’s vision of his three sons teaming for the Lakers won’t be as ambitious. The PBC’s level of organization and batch of increased talent has turned heads around the NBA. “It’s not easy,” says Marks. “You need a lot of help and cooperation from agents.” As the league considers all options of expanding the draft process—installing a third-round to the draft once the G-League boasts 30 team affiliates has long been rumored—two 20-something, former-intern colleagues may have capitalized on the NBA’s greatest pre-draft market inefficiency, while simultaneously aiding young hopefuls. “I get to help these players change their lives,” Kelfer says, “and make their dreams of playing professional basketball a reality.”