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The annual NBA Draft Combine was held on Chicago's west side at Quest Multisport.
The annual NBA Draft Combine was held on Chicago's west side at Quest Multisport. (Photo: Jim Owczarski)

NBA Draft Combine proves a unique experience

CHICAGO – Shouts and claps of encouragement, along with the clang of steel on steel, echoed over a black, curtained partition into the media workroom at the Quest Multisport as NBA draft hopefuls pushed weights in an effort to impress front office personnel at the NBA Draft Combine.

Out in the gym, on a side court, players shuffled and sprinted through lasers, their times quadruple-checked by hand as well. On the main court, players worked through drills with NBA assistant coaches, working on one-on-one skills and in two-on-two and three-on-three settings with players of similar height, build and skill set.

This NBA Draft Combine, a staple of the off-season evaluation process, was severely damaged by the decision of the likely top three picks – Jabari Parker, Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid – to skip the event altogether. Other potential top picks Julius Randle, Dante Exum and Marcus Smart eschewed the group work, but did interview with teams and participated in the agility tests.

That said, nearly 60 others worked out in front of hundreds of people who will determine their professional future in late June, and it was an interesting experience to take in.

The players themselves didn’t find the process too odd – it looked like any kind of workout or camp they would had participated in their entire lives.

Some things were different, of course.

University of Wisconsin-Green Bay center Alec Brown said he’s worked with a mental coach leading up to the combine and his individual workouts, to steel himself against showing any sort of dissatisfaction with himself for a poor shot. Exum said he’s learned to mind the little details – like if he chews gum during a game, to chew gum during his workouts. Smart relished the entirety of it, saying it was an opportunity to sell himself to anyone who wanted to be sold on him.

Coaches were looking closely, too. They looked at footwork defending a ball screen, and how did they shoulder into that screener. Conversely, they wanted to see the ball handler drive that screener into the bigger body, then step back in one motion and hoist a clean shot.

They liked seeing them struggle too, and how they reacted to uncomfortable situations – like the left-handed floaters that seemed to baffle even the most highly-decorated college guards.

"This exposes them," one NBA head coach said with a smile.

All of it though, in the end, is left to chance.

The NBA Draft Lottery is Tuesday night, which will determine the draft order – at least until a trade is made. Then, there might be that surprise No. 1 (see Bennett, Anthony) or relatively unknown European pick (see Antetokounmpo, Giannis) that shuffles the board for everyone. Months of work and projection on a player may go out the window on the bounce of a ping pong ball or a series of texts between general managers.

It’s a tough spot to be in for these guys – not all of them will be drafted. Not all of them will even get a look on NBA summer teams. Europe, or the NBA Developmental League may not only be the best option, but the only one.

Some might give up the dream a year from now.

That’s an odd thing to watch, to know, from the outside. All of this work, dedication, skill and forethought – could all be gone, rendered meaningless as each step along the way to the opening tip of the 2014-15 season in October is taken.

Then again, all of this work, dedication, skill and forethought could uncover an All-Star, or an all-time great. That’s the fun part of it, too.

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