When an NBA front office is looking to fill out their roster during the summer or make a midseason addition, they’ll sometimes bring in a free agent for a workout. What do these workouts entail and what are teams trying to learn about the free agent?
HoopsHype talked to a number of NBA players and coaches about what happens behind the scenes at these free-agent workouts. The players spoke on the condition of anonymity because they didn’t want to upset teams by sharing this private information.
THERE ARE DIFFERENT TYPES OF WORKOUTS
In an individual workout, the free agent is working out alone and the team is trying to get an idea of how he’ll fit in their system and what exactly he’ll bring to the table. When a team is doing one of these one-on-zero workouts, it typically means they have significant interest in this player.
Sometimes, teams will bring in two free agents who play the same position and have them go through the same workout. This introduces a level of competition and these are more intense than the one-on-zero workouts since the two players are essentially battling for the same roster spot and trying to do whatever they can to impress the decision-makers in attendance. Several players who spoke to HoopsHype said they prefer the one-on-one workout because it’s easier to get a feel for how you performed when you’re matched up against another player. It’s also an opportunity for the free agent to showcase their defensive attributes, which isn’t possible in a solo workout.
“I prefer when there’s someone else there,” one free agent said. “In one-on-zero, you just need to make shots and show what you can do. I like when there’s someone I can try to dominate in order to impress the team. You have the chance to show why they should pick you over that other guy.”
There are also group workouts and free-agent mini-camps, where a team will look at many different players at once. One player who spoke to HoopsHype had attended a two-day free-agent mini-camp with the Dallas Mavericks that featured 30 players.
“They split everyone into teams and have a tournament,” the free agent said. “You play five-minute games, all ones, winning team stays on. They usually have multiple five-on-five games going on at a time. At some point, they’ll have you break off with the other guys at your position to do some drills, but you’re playing a lot of games when it’s 30 players. I’ve also done a mini-camp with 15 guys and that was more drills and situational stuff like, ‘You’re down five points with two minutes left…’ You do that stuff and then play a couple games. Either way, it’s a lot of stuff over two days.
“It sort of feels like the draft combine. You’re doing measurements and athletic testing and you’re playing in a lot of games.”
Finally, there are pro-day workouts, which is when a player hosts the workout and teams come to them. When Amare Stoudemire and Monta Ellis recently worked out for NBA teams in Las Vegas, they held a pro-day workout. These are good for showcasing specific aspects of a player’s game (since they can choose what teams will see).
“If it’s an individual workout, they’re probably more interested in signing you and that’s why they’re taking the time to look at just you,” said David Nurse, who trains NBA players and previously worked an assistant coach for the Brooklyn Nets. “In the group workouts, maybe there are two or three guys they’re seriously looking at and they want to see how they perform in live game action, so they bring in a group to test them. The other guys may be in consideration for Summer League or to fill out the G League roster or something like that. It’s sort of like the group dates on The Bachelor or The Bachelorette (laughs). When they go on the group dates, there may be one or two people they’re looking at. But when they go on the individual dates, they’re really serious about those people.”
“The team will usually fly you in the day before so you have a chance to get comfortable and rested,” one free agent explained. “Usually, the workout will start around 10 a.m. If it’s a mini-camp, they’ll have two sessions and get started earlier. During my last mini-camp, I flew in the day before at noon and got in an optional workout with the team at the facility, and then the mini-camp started the next day.”
WHAT HAPPENS DURING THE WORKOUT?
Every free-agent workout will test the player’s conditioning. Teams need to know what kind of shape the player is in, especially if that individual hasn’t been in the NBA for a bit or wants to join a team midseason (since they won’t have training camp or much time to play their way into shape).
Cody Toppert, who is now an assistant coach with the Memphis Tigers, spent last season as an assistant with the Phoenix Suns and running the team’s free-agent workouts was one of his responsibilities. He would choose the different drills, put the player through the workout and then share his evaluation with the front office.
“We can’t replicate game conditioning, but we can get as close to that as possible by hitting the player with workouts where we see how he performs in short bursts,” Toppert said. “It’s not like we’re going to have him run free-throw line to free-throw line and put up shots. Basketball comes at you in short bursts and it’s all about high-speed acceleration and deceleration. What we’ll do is put him through drills that require short bursts of speed, so we can try to replicate that high-speed acceleration and deceleration in small spaces, which will tire him out. If we layer those short-burst drills and have him put up shots, now the guy is suddenly up against it and we can find out what kind of shape he’s in, which is really important.”
“The main thing the team wants to know is whether the player is in shape,” Nurse added. “Not only do you need to know if the player is in game shape, [their conditioning] also shows what kind of person they are. Did they really prepare for this opportunity and will they be ready to go if we sign them? You’re challenging them and seeing how they compete when they’re tired. Most of the time, teams will end the workout by putting the players through some kind of shooting competition once they’re exhausted. You’re testing guys, mentally and physically.”
Some teams are less subtle when trying to find out if the player is in shape and they’ll simply make the free agent run a lot. There are certain conditioning drills that free agents dread.
“Whenever you go into a workout and you haven’t been playing, you don’t want to run into that three-minute conditioning drill,” one free agent said. “That’s where you see how many times you can run up and down the floor in three minutes. Guys throw up. That’s a notorious drill. Certain coaches who detest players like it (laughs). I know teams need to find out if we’re in shape, but that drill is the worst.”
Teams are testing players mentally as much as physically and they want to see how they respond to certain situations and circumstances.
“You want to get a feel for who they are and how they react to different things,” Toppert said. “During a solo workout, there’s nobody to raise their energy and there’s nobody else to look to during those difficult moments. You really have to look inward. We want to see how he responds mentally. Does this guy collapse and give up? Does he get negative? How is his body language? How does he react after a few missed shots in a row? Can he keep his poise? Sometimes, they feel like, ‘Man, I’m blowing this workout…’ and it gets away from them even more. There’s no question that you’re trying to challenge the guy on a mental level.”
“They’re talking to you and trying to see what kind of person you are,” one free agent said. “One thing I’ve noticed is they’ll put you through a lot of things outside of your comfort zone. They want to put you in situations where you feel uncomfortable and see how you respond.”
Teams typically have a good idea of who the player is and what he can do on the court. The workout is more about confirming their assessment and, again, checking to make sure conditioning isn’t an issue.
“In an individual workout, it usually lasts about an hour,” one free agent said. “After the workout, they’ll give you feedback on how you did and what you should keep working on.”
When a team brings in a free agent, they typically have a specific role in mind and they want to see if that player will excel in their system and complement the other players on their roster.
“We know what type of player fits in our system, so we’re trying to run drills that allow us to see what kind of athletic and skill capabilities the player has and find out how he’d fit in our system,” Toppert said. “We know the player doesn’t know our system, but we need to find out if he could be a good fit for us.”
“They’ll put in their team actions – their main actions – and they’ll see how quickly the guys can pick them up,” Nurse said. “You’re testing each player’s IQ and coach-ability. For a lot of it, they’re playing out of different actions that the team does, in three-on-three or four-on-four or five-on-five. They really want to see how quickly the players can pick things up and whether the player will fit.”
One free-agent center gave specific examples. When he worked out for the Milwaukee Bucks, they had him taking outside shots and guarding the perimeter – things he’d be asked to do if he was brought in to back up Brook Lopez. During his workout for the Dallas Mavericks, they played five-out since that’s likely what they’re going to do with Kristaps Porzingis and they wanted to see how the centers fared in that style. Essentially, they have a certain way of playing and it’s up to the player to show that he’s a good fit.
One issue that several players mentioned is that it can be tough for certain free agents – mainly big men – to stand out in a large group workout where five-on-five is played since the guards want to showcase their ability to score rather than get their teammates involved.
“There’s always that one guy who comes in and doesn’t care about playing team basketball,” one free agent said. “Guys like that can ruin the five-on-five for everyone.”
If that happens, players must find other ways to make their presence felt.
“When I’m in a free-agent workout for a team, I think about their specific players and who takes a lot of shots on their team,” another free agent explained. “If it’s a team that’s guard-heavy or they rely on their guards to score a lot, I use it to my advantage if there’s a guard who’s being really aggressive and trying to score a lot during the workout. That’s my chance to show the team the other ways that I impact the game and that I don’t need the ball to be successful. I’m setting screens to get them open and making smart passes and, if they’re jacking up a bunch of shots and missing, that’s a like a dream come true in a workout because I can try to dominate the glass. Then, when you get those limited opportunities to score, you show them that you can score efficiently too.”
IMPRESSING THE RIGHT PEOPLE
Last week, veteran big man Marreese Speights held a pro-day workout for various NBA teams at Impact Basketball in Las Vegas. With every NBA team in town for Summer League, the 31-year-old was hoping to show that he can still be a contributor in the NBA after spending last season in China.
After the workout, Speights caught up with Los Angeles Lakers head coach Frank Vogel (who coached Speights on the Orlando Magic) and some of the other talent evaluators in attendance.
These conversations are almost as important as the workout, as the decision-makers want to get a feel for the player’s personality and determine if he’d be a good fit in their locker room.
Typically, free-agent workouts are for reserve-level players, so an individual’s personality can have a big impact on the decision to sign them.
“They’re looking at each player’s character and getting to know who they are,” Nurse said. “A lot of these guys would be coming in as the 11th or 12th man, so they may not play a ton of minutes. They’re getting to know you and how you’d be around the team. Sometimes, they’ll have the player come in for two or three days, and they’ll take them out to dinner and interview them and see what they’re like. I’ve seen teams fly a guy in on Friday night and then work them out on Saturday and Sunday, so they can really get a feel for who this person is.”
“They want to see how well they connect with you,” one free agent said. “I always try to shake everyone’s hand – all of the coaches and executives. You want them to feel comfortable bringing you around their team. On the court, they’re really just making sure you’re in shape and healthy and able to play right now. What they really want to know is if that chemistry is there. Did they get a good feeling when they met with me and talked to me? As someone that owns a business, I know all of that stuff matters when I hire my employees. I try to keep that in mind when I’m in these workouts. Sometimes, what you can bring off the court is just as important or even more important.”
Typically, a team’s assistant coaches, development staffers and interns will actually run the workout while the team’s head coach and members of the front office watch on. If the workout involves a player that the team is very interested in, many executives will be in attendance. However, who’s in the gym varies greatly from team to team.
“The head coach is usually there watching while the assistant coaches and player-development staffers are putting the player through the workout,” Nurse said. “It really depends on how hands-on the head coach is; I’ve seen some head coaches run the workout, but usually they’ll just watch. The front office will be there – the GM, assistant GM, scouts and so on. When we did free-agent workouts in Brooklyn, everyone would be in there. Part of it is you want to see how these guys perform under pressure when they know a ton of eyes are on them.”
“During my last free-agent workout, there were a lot of people in the gym including the general manager and the president of scouting,” one free agent said. “They were there the whole time. The head coach wasn’t there, but there were some assistant coaches there to put me through the workout. When the GM is there, it’s a good sign.”
THE KEYS TO SUCCESS
Having organized and ran many of these workouts, Toppert has seen it all – from the great performances that lead to the player getting signed immediately to the poor outings that cause the team to lose all interest. What are the keys to standing out and getting signed?
“The guys who stand out are the ones who are in the best shape,” Toppert said. “If you aren’t in shape, you’re going to look bad. The other important thing that can separate you from the pack is making shots when you’re tired. Being in great shape and then continuing to make shots after you’re exhausted is the best way to stand out in a free-agent workout.”
Many of these free-agent workouts take place during the season. Phoenix brought in Quincy Acy for a workout before inking him to a deal in January. They brought in a few other free agents as well, but those workouts didn’t leak to the media. When a team is adding a player midseason, it’s even more important for them to be in excellent shape.
“When you’ve been sitting at home and you’re trying to join a team midseason, there’s no training camp so you need to get in shape on the fly. The guys who never get out of shape are the ones who really have a leg up and stand out in these kinds of workouts,” Toppert said. “The guys who tend to fall out of shape are the ones who struggle. They’re getting used to the new system, coaches and teammates, so the last thing you want is a guy who has to play his way into shape on top of figuring out the other stuff”
Last season, the Suns were in talks with one free agent who’s in his early 20s and the team managed to keep their interest and workout from the media. This player is somewhat notable and has a decent amount of upside, so fans likely would’ve been excited had the news leaked. The player wasn’t in shape, though, and really struggled during the hour-long session.
“Oftentimes, fans will look at a player’s name and decide they want their team to sign that guy,” Nurse said. “There are certain free agents who have a notable name, but they can never stick and fans wonder why. Sometimes, the player is never in shape. Unless you stay in shape, you can’t play in this league. Sometimes the player is talented, but they don’t understand their role and they could kill your culture. There’s so much that goes into ‘fit’ that most fans don’t realize.
“If a player thinks they’re too big to do a free-agent workout, you start to realize why this guy hasn’t found a team yet. Maybe his ego is too big. The diamonds in the rough are usually the high-character guys who get overlooked because teams think they’re less talented. A lot of these guys that end up becoming surprise contributors are high-character, high-energy guys who work hard every day and fill their role. That’s the kind of player that teams are trying to find in these workouts.”
One lesson that a lot of free agents eventually learn: Even if you don’t get signed right away after working out for a team, making a strong impression can lead to opportunities down the road. One of the free agents who spoke to HoopsHype is receiving significant interest from a team that he had a strong workout with last summer.
“It can be hard when a player has one of these workouts and doesn’t get signed because they feel like there was no immediate benefit,” Nurse said. “But sometimes the team will circle back to you when the fit or role makes more sense. And even if a player doesn’t get signed, these workouts help the player and prepare them for their next opportunity.”