As representatives were interviewing prospects at the first-ever Professional Basketball Combine on the evening of May 16, Jonathon Simmons of the San Antonio Spurs was showing exactly why a secondary combine for lesser-known prospects is necessary and how it can be beneficial to NBA teams.
That night, Simmons scored 22 points in 26 minutes against the Golden State Warriors – shooting 47.1 percent from the field and 66.7 percent from three-point range. Four years earlier, Simmons paid $150 to try out for the Spurs’ D-League affiliate; Now, he was one of their most productive players in the Western Conference Finals.
The Professional Basketball Combine, which was held shortly after the NBA’s official combine, is designed to help under-the-radar players get discovered sooner than later so they can avoid having to bounce around like Simmons did early in his professional career. Essentially, it’s an opportunity for an overlooked player to showcase his game, impress an executive enough to land a team workout and, ultimately, increase his draft stock.
“There’s certainly players who slip through the system, even these days with Synergy Sports [film] and scouts all over the world; there are still those Jonathon Simmons stories where a guy slipped through the cracks,” one Eastern Conference scout said. “Because of that, anytime you get an opportunity to see a large number of prospects at one time, it’s definitely helpful and an efficient use of a scout’s time.”
This year, there were 23 prospects who participated in the event and there were representatives from 16 NBA teams: Atlanta, Cleveland, Dallas, Golden State, Indiana, LA Clippers, Minnesota, New Orleans, Oklahoma City, Orlando, Philadelphia, Phoenix, Sacramento, San Antonio, Utah and Washington.
“We want to make this an annual event – a secondary combine that runs in conjunction with the NBA’s combine – and we’re already starting to plan for next year,” founder Jake Kelfer said. “We believe there’s a huge need for an event like this with the G-League expanding, with the new two-way contract spots and with teams constantly looking for diamonds in the rough. More and more, we’re seeing players from small schools excel at the next level and you never know who you might discover at an event like this. It’s really beneficial for everyone involved. The goal is to eventually get to the point where all 30 teams are in attendance and even more draft prospects are involved.
“This year, we did team interviews, combine testing, measurements, 3-on-3 and provided live stats. I think it was a great first event and it gave all of the prospects a lot of exposure and gave the teams an opportunity to evaluate some of the players that they might not have seen otherwise.”
Several executives and scouts were excited to see this kind of event come together, since teams are always looking for hidden gems and more information on under-scouted players. And, as Kelfer mentioned, the expanding G-League (formerly known as the D-League) and two-way contracts make finding these bargain-bin players even more important.
“It’s a great event because they bring multiple prospects to one place, so it’s very efficient,” one Western Conference executive said. “It’s also a good opportunity to see other teams and pick their brain a bit from conversations that come up naturally.”
“There’s not a ton of scouting at this time of the year to be done on top-tier guys,” one Western Conference scout said. “Everyone already knows their games. I’m unlikely to learn anything basketball related by watching Lonzo Ball work out. It’s more about gathering background info and interviewing others about him. For lesser-known guys and maybe even guys I hadn’t seen play in person, having one location like this where you can see them is hugely valuable. I’m actually shocked only 16 teams showed up. It’s access to free data! Even if only one guy piques your interest, you never know if that guy will turn out to be a difference-maker. And even with all of the analytics, which I think are helpful, there’s still something to be gained by watching a guy play in person.”
One scout did warn that other copycat ‘secondary combine’ events could hurt the Professional Basketball Combine, as they would limit the number of prospects and teams in attendance.
“I do think it’s important that we don’t see too many of these ‘secondary combines’ sprouting up because then they’ll be in competition and dilute the talent pool,” the East scout said. “If that happens, you’ll have less scouts attending. You really just need one event that all the scouts and prospects go to, but with the success that they had in Florida, it wouldn’t surprise me if other people try to plan a similar type of event in other cities. There just can’t be too many copycat events popping up. If there ends up being five of these ‘secondary combines’ then I think scouts may just decide not to show up to any of them since it’s no longer a one-stop, efficient thing.”
For now, that doesn’t seem to be an issue. After the inaugural PBC, the prospects and their agents were satisfied – and several agents who passed on sending their clients committed for next year.
NBA agent Gary Durrant, who sent his clients Tidjan Keita and Troy Caupain to the event, was impressed with how the PBC was organized and both of his prospects have added workouts to their schedule since the event.
“When neither of my players were invited to the NBA combine in Chicago, I talked to Jake about his combine, did my due diligence and I became a fan,” Durrant said. “I really like Jake and what he’s trying to do. We were very happy with how everything went at the combine. Jake and his staff were very professional. The venue was second-to-none since the IMG Academy is a world-class facility. Jake promised that there would be NBA scouts there, and he delivered. You never know with these kind of things, but Jake delivered everything he promised and more. There were teams that we hadn’t yet made contact with about my guys and now they are showing interest.”
Keita may have benefited the most of any player at the combine, as he was virtually unknown and then showed off his athleticism and abilities. Because of what they saw at his combine workout, the Suns immediately invited Keita to a workout at their facility (which took place on May 29).
Keita wasn’t the only prospect who felt that the event really helped him.
“I definitely enjoyed my experience,” said Bakari Copeland, a talented swingman who’s been overlooked since he played at Maryland-Eastern Shore. “The competition was great, and the staff that organized the event was great as well. With 16 teams there, I felt the exposure was beneficial and really increased my stock going into the draft. I was able to showcase my skills and what I can bring to a team.”
After being dismissed from Virginia for violating team rules, 22-year-old forward Austin Nichols was one of the prospects who had the most to gain at this secondary combine. Not only did he get to play in front of executives from 16 NBA teams, he interviewed with a number of teams during the event including the New Orleans Pelicans, Golden State Warriors, Oklahoma City Thunder, LA Clippers, San Antonio Spurs and Phoenix Suns. This opportunity to show who he is – as a player and as a person – helped his draft stock.
“My agent told me there has been more interest since the combine,” Nichols said. “I think this should be a yearly event due to the amount of players that aren’t invited to the NBA combine. It gives those guys [who are overlooked] another opportunity to display their talents.”
“It was a great event and I feel like it definitely helped me gain more interest from some teams,” former LSU guard Antonio Blakeney said. “I definitely think it should be a yearly event. It helps players who didn’t make the NBA combine because they get exposure and experience.”
“The feedback has been great,” Kelfer said. “From the agent perspective, they’re happy their players were seen by more than half of the league when they wouldn’t have had that chance otherwise. That’s an amazing thing and it can really help a player. The agents who were here said great things and expressed interest in sending more players in the future. There were also some agents who didn’t send their clients this year just because they weren’t sure about the event and how many NBA teams would turn out, but after seeing it come together they’ve said that they want to send their 2018 clients to next year’s event. For the players, they know that this is an opportunity to increase their draft stock. Unfortunately, none of the players we had got invited to the NBA combine, so they knew that this was their chance to show what they could do in front of 16 teams. It was a chance to impress decision-makers on the court and off the court in the team interviews as well. The interviews are a huge portion of this event because it allows these teams to learn about each player’s character and what they’re all about, which can help a guy get drafted or get an opportunity down the road. And from a team perspective, they felt it was incredibly valuable since they got to see 23 prospects in one location, including some guys who they hadn’t seen in person before.”
A number of current NBA players who were overlooked back when they went through the pre-draft process were excited to see this event gain traction because they know the impact it can have for future prospects.
“This is huge! When you’re a draft prospect, it’s always great when you can get more NBA exposure,” said Miami Heat center Willie Reed, who went undrafted in 2011 and played several years in the D-League before finally sticking in the NBA. “This gives players an opportunity to prove they belong. All you need is someone to believe in your work, and that person could be scouting at this event. I didn’t get invited to the main combine, so it would’ve been great if this kind of thing was around back when I was going through the pre-draft process.”
“I think it’s really good. Anytime players can get in front of scouts and executives, it’s a plus,” said New Orleans Pelicans point guard Quinn Cook, who went undrafted in 2015. “When I went to the NBA combine, a lot of guys who didn’t get invited to the combine got drafted, especially in the second round. And it’s because the workouts and pro days play a big part since they’re getting exposure in front of executives and scouts. This could be another way for guys to get noticed going forward.”
While the Professional Basketball Combine certainly helped this year’s participants, Kelfer is already focused on the future and how to grow this event.
“Each year, we want to take the PBC to the next level,” Kelfer said. “Whether that means getting some projected first-rounders, getting someone who attended the NBA combine but wants another shot to impress teams, or getting an unknown guy who’s bursting onto the scene, we’re looking to find that next special player. Each year we do this, we want the talent level to increase. Our goal is to find special, underrated guys and give them a big stage to show what they can do.
“This year, the hardest part was getting people to buy into this idea. Some were asking, ‘Is this legitimate? Are NBA teams actually going to show up? Will there be enough prospects to make it worth it?’ We basically had to sell the event to teams and agents, because some of these things are scams or the organizers make promises they can’t deliver. I’ll admit, there was a point in the middle of March where I was like, ‘Shoot, can I really pull this off? Is this really going to be able to happen?’ But I had a lot of advisors and mentors who helped me, and more and more people bought in as the event got closer so fortunately it was a big success. The first one is always the hardest. Now that we have the proof of concept and everyone knows this is legitimate and that more than half of the league was here, I expect it to keep expanding.”
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