- Croatian forward Luka Samanic was the most impressive player on the court Thursday at the NBA Draft Combine, while Jalen Lecque strengthened his stock with an encouraging performance of his own.
CHICAGO — A huge week of NBA draft build-up continued Thursday as the first of two days of five-on-five scrimmages tipped off at the combine. Naturally, it’s a week where the landscape of the draft can shift significantly, beginning with Tuesday night’s draft lottery and continuing onward as teams do business behind the scenes. After spending all week on the ground dating back to Sunday’s G League Elite camp, The Crossover’s Front Office checks in with news and notes on the key storylines and prospect buzz as the combine rolls on.
ZION IS NOT GOING BACK TO COLLEGE
The latest on Zion Williamson’s situation is as follows: According to league sources, Williamson met with front office brass from two teams in the hours immediately following the lottery: the New Orleans Pelicans, who miraculously won the top pick, and the Memphis Grizzlies, who hold the second selection. Williamson left the combine with his family first thing Wednesday morning, declining to be measured or participate in athletic testing. The vibe of Williamson’s meeting with New Orleans was positive, which was echoed by comments made by Williamson’s stepfather to the New Orleans media on Thursday.
Somewhere along the way, the possibility of Zion returning to Duke to create leverage to avoid joining the Pelicans became a topic of discussion, but rest assured that Williamson, all but assured to be the No. 1 pick, will play in the NBA next season. Any talk that he could go back—risking injury and future earning potential in the process—was somewhat hard to rationalize from the start. As any team would, New Orleans has options and will do its diligence as far as the selection is concerned, but it’s important to not overthink this. Williamson heading back to college would be an upset of epic proportions.
GRIZZLIES HONE IN ON MORANT
As initially reported by ESPN, word around the combine has been that the Grizzlies intend to select Ja Morant with the second pick, after Williamson goes off the board. As first reported by Sports Illustrated on Thursday, Morant met with three teams on Wednesday afternoon at the combine: the Pelicans, Grizzlies and Knicks (who hold the third pick). For the record, the NBA assigns combine interviews to teams based on a combination of their request, and where players’ projected draft ranges fall relative to where teams are picking.
Morant is ostensibly a strong fit in Memphis, and the best available prospect at that slot in the eyes of a wide majority of league executives. With that said, it’s worth wondering whether the Grizzlies actually intended for that news to trickle out. There’s really no reason to make your intentions public this early in the draft process, and with the amount of casual subterfuge that takes place this time of year, it wouldn’t be shocking if the Grizzlies had hoped to keep the situation on the down low. Regardless, Morant is the expected pick for Memphis at that slot.
SAMANIC SHINES IN FIVE ON FIVE
The combine scrimmages featured a somewhat watered-down field of prospects on Thursday, with a huge number of players expected to go between picks 20 and 40 opting to sit out entirely, and a large number added from the G League Elite Camp to replace them. While there is rationale behind those decisions, as agents try and protect their players’ stock and avoid having a poor game, there’s also an opportunity cost they leave on the table. Every year, there are players who stand out and end up playing their way off the fringes and into the first round. On Thursday, the most impressive player was Croatian forward Luka Samanic.
Samanic entered the season as a projected late lottery talent on our Big Board, but after an up-and-down year playing professionally in Slovenia, his stock dipped to the point where teams needed to see more of him at the combine. His decision to play paid off, as he showcased the offensive versatility and fluid athleticism that made him such an intriguing prospect at the 2018 Basketball Without Borders camp in Los Angeles. It was quickly evident that he was the best player on the floor in the first game, with a clean shooting stroke, a strong feel for the game, and impressive, functional ball-handling skills at his size (he measured at 6’9.5” barefoot, and weighed in at 227 pounds). He totaled 13 points and seven rebounds, and moves extremely well for a guy that tall.
The most pivotal thing I noted with Samanic today was his impressive physical development: he’s naturally thin, but has filled out nicely in his upper body and shoulders and added a noticeable degree of strength. He’s still just 19 years old, and the progression of his build component helps a good deal with his projection at the NBA level. If he can be adequate defensively, Samanic could be a versatile floor spacer and short-roll playmaker at forward with his current skill set. Scouts in attendance mostly agreed that he might be in good position to shut it down on Day 2, and he may have done enough to solidify himself as a first-round talent.
PREPS-TO-PROS PROSPECTS TREAD WATER
Two of the more notable players who scrimmaged on Thursday were Jalen Lecque and Darius Bazley, who are looking at an NBA leap directly from the high school ranks. It was intriguing to see them perform in this setting, noting the leap in level of competition, age and physicality. Lecque just finished up at Brewster Academy and can either turn pro or return to play at NC State in the fall. Bazley chose to spend the past year interning at New Balance in the Boston area while training in private for the draft, opting for that route after initially accepting opportunities to play at Syracuse, and then in the G League.
Lecque may have strengthened his case to stay in the draft on Thursday, holding his own in scrimmages, measuring fairly well at 6’2.5” with a 6’8.5” wingspan, and posting what is currently a combine-high 43” max vertical leap. While he has a lot of maturing to do, Lecque looked fine physically and had positive moments on both ends of the floor, including a couple impressive reads with the ball in his hands. He’s not a pure point guard, and his jump shot is a big question, but he’s making a good case as a guy teams will be happy to develop in the G League for a season or two.
Bazley’s showing was a bit less encouraging, as there were moments where he looked somewhat lost offensively, and it was evident the year away from competitive basketball hadn’t helped him much from a feel perspective. The former McDonald’s All-American has always been a bit of a project, and he’s added some bulk to his lanky frame. But he blended in a bit and doesn’t have a calling-card skill at this stage, although the hope is that he can become a viable 3-and-D role player at some point. He’s just an OK jump shooter at this point. He’ll have a chance to make a better statement during Friday’s games, after which we’ll take a longer look at some of this week’s more intriguing performers.