This first appeared in the May 21 edition of The Washington Post’s NBA newsletter, the Monday Morning Post Up. You can subscribe by clicking here.
CHICAGO — The NBA draft combine was held in the Windy City last week. And with a two-day layoff in the NBA playoffs’ schedule, the epicenter of the NBA universe Thursday and Friday was the Quest Multisport Complex.
Inside, a few dozen draft prospects, well over 100 NBA executives and a seemingly equal number of media members were in attendance to break down everything that happened — as well as preview what is to come, both in next month’s NBA draft in Brooklyn and free agency in July.
Here’s The Washington Post’s rundown of everything seen and heard there this week on those topics and more:
— We’ll begin on a local note: Maryland’s Kevin Huerter almost universally is being hailed as a winner for the way he performed. Measuring at 6-foot-7 and playing impressively in the first day of scrimmaging, four executives who were asked separately about Huerter’s draft stock by The Post said he’d likely be a first rounder.
All four expected him to leave Maryland for the draft.
That would be a blow to the Terrapins and Coach Mark Turgeon, who is hoping to have him as the anchor of a bounce back season. But few players who see their stock jump as Huerter’s has stay in school — and, frankly, few should. Huerter chose to sit out the second day of scrimmaging because of a nagging finger injury. Players who impress in the first day of scrimmaging usually don’t play the second if they have solidified their draft status.
Maryland fans should be very concerned.
— Villanova guard Donte DiVincenzo did play the second day, despite impressing on the first.
Saying he played again because he’s “a competitor,” DiVincenzo was the runaway winner among prospects who worked out in Chicago, following up on his breakout performance in the national championship game last month and solidifying his status as a first-round pick.
“Two days changed his life,” one league source said. “The national championship game and Thursday.”
DiVincenzo wouldn’t commit in an interview to officially signing with an agent and leaving college, saying he wanted to first talk to Villanova Coach Jay Wright. But multiple sources have confirmed he’s a virtual lock to leave the Wildcats, as he now has easily worked himself into the back half of the first round — and could continue climbing up draft boards.
— Among players who didn’t scrimmage, Grayson Allen was, by far, the biggest winner. Allen tested well across the board, impressing with his strength and agility scores — which ranked among the best.
Some executives were dubious, wondering why he didn’t play with quite the same force during his time at Duke as he showed in the workouts. Another pegged him as still being somewhere in the late first or early second round because of the baggage that comes along from his time at Duke, including multiple incidents of tripping opposing players.
Still, the athleticism Allen showed, along with his production at Duke, sets him up to be a perfect fit for a team looking for guard help off the bench late in the first round (typically the best teams in the league, which are exactly the types in need of such a player). He could be a player who will surprise everyone, even after his memorable Duke career.
— Two of the more interesting stories from the combine were from players who did not make appearances. Boise State guard Chandler Hutchison and Mitchell Robinson — a center who enrolled at Western Kentucky but never played there before declaring — abruptly withdrew from the combine this week. That typically means that a player has received a first-round promise from a team or teams and canceled workouts as a result.
Much speculation centered around who those promises may have come from, with several teams picking in the 20s being named as possibilities. But that stuff is hard to pin down, and is fluid — especially in a room full of executives looking to spin narratives. The workout schedules (assuming there are workout schedules) for both men will be interesting to follow.
— Two of the more intriguing players at the top of the draft are Missouri’s Michael Porter Jr. and Oklahoma’s Trae Young. A year ago, Porter was expected to be in the mix for the top pick in this draft, but a back injury left him sidelined for virtually the entire season. Young early on was a revelation for the Sooners before he came down to earth somewhat as the season progressed and opponents figured out what he, and Oklahoma, were doing.
Not surprisingly, both were full of confidence in their meetings with reporters — which was their only participation in anything other than measurements and interviews with teams in Chicago.
“I think I’m the best overall player in this draft,” Young said. “My main focus isn’t necessarily to be the best player in this draft. My focus is to be the best player in the NBA. That’s what I’m focusing on each and every day.”
Young’s former AAU teammate spoke with similar conviction.
“I know, without a doubt, that I’m the — I played against all these guys, they’re all great players — but I’m the best player in this draft,” Porter said. “And I just can’t wait to show what I’m capable of.”
Plenty of bluster from both, just as one would expect this time of year. That leaves a question, though: Where will they land in this year’s draft?
Let’s start with Young. The ceiling for him would appear to be the sixth pick, which belongs to the Orlando Magic, which lacks a point guard and could use a dynamic shot creator. But any of the teams from No. 6 through No. 9 — the Magic, Chicago Bulls, Cleveland Cavaliers and New York Knicks — feel like logical spots for him, depending on how the board shakes out.
Porter, however, has a wider range. There have been questions not only about his back but about his interviews. But a healthy Porter is easily among the three or four best players in this draft, and wings are a hot commodity these days. He could go as high as fourth or fifth to the Memphis Grizzlies or Dallas Mavericks, and it feels like he won’t go lower than seventh to the Bulls. If he does get past Chicago, he likely wouldn’t get past the Knicks at the ninth pick if he remains on the board (again, assuming the back injury checks out).
— The Detroit Pistons search for a head coach and lead front office executive in the wake of Stan Van Gundy parting ways with the organization rolls on, with one intriguing name repeatedly coming up: longtime NBA veteran, and current Miami Heat executive, Shane Battier.
Battier, who is from Michigan and has been pegged as someone likely to run a front office ever since his playing days, has spoken to the Pistons, according to multiple sources. His name first came up in a report by ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski last week.
There is a line of thinking that an older executive could be partnered with Battier in a lower role as he gets acclimated to running the show — assuming, that is, that he wants to leave Miami for Detroit, and that the Pistons, whose search is being run by longtime NBA power agent Arn Tellem, who now is part of ownership in Detroit, come to an agreement with him.
— One of the more popular water cooler conversations in Chicago was the same one fans have been having for months: What is going to happen to DeMarcus Cousins as a free agent this summer?
No one doubts Cousins’s individual talent when he’s healthy. But after tearing his Achilles’ tendon in January — perhaps the worst injury a basketball player can suffer, let alone for a player who weighs close to 300 pounds, as Cousins does — and accounting for the personality issues Cousins presents, a tepid market for his services seems to have cooled even further.
It seemed like his current team, the New Orleans Pelicans, would wind up paying to keep him. But after the Pelicans stormed to the second round of the playoffs featuring Anthony Davis at center and playing the fastest pace in the league, the prevailing thought in Chicago was that New Orleans would be far better off not paying him, instead using their mid-level exception to sign a wing player and bringing back Rajon Rondo with a slight raise.
So where might Cousins land instead? Perhaps he gets a deal from the Los Angeles Lakers if they strike out on bigger targets (namely Paul George and LeBron James). Maybe some suitor emerges to engage New Orleans in a sign-and-trade deal (though one team likely to be bandied about, the Washington Wizards, aren’t likely to pursue that path). It seems like the best path for Cousins to get paid this summer would be for the Mavericks to take Porter, as opposed to one of the several big men available, with the fifth pick.
That would leave Dallas — which has been known to have an affinity for Cousins, at least prior to his injury, and with a history of dealing with players with torn Achilles’ after signing Wes Matthews three years ago after he tore his — with a hole at center for Cousins to fill and money to spend filling it.
But if Dallas takes a big? Well … good luck figuring out where Cousins will land. No one in Chicago had a solid answer.
— Finally, let’s get to the one player who was nowhere near the combine this week, but whose presence hangs over this draft: European wunderkind Luka Doncic.
Here’s what Doncic, now 19 years old, has done over the past year:
1. Help lead Slovenia to a Eurobasket title last summer.
2. Become the youngest MVP of the EuroLeague in its history.
3. Lead Real Madrid to its 10th EuroLeague title with a victory over Fenerbahce on Sunday in Belgrade.
4. Become the youngest MVP of the EuroLeague Final Four in its history.
Not bad, right?
Doncic is a tremendous talent, a 6-foot-7 point forward with a good shot and beautiful passing vision. He needs to work on his body, and his defense can be taken advantage of. But one NBA executive who was in Belgrade this weekend didn’t hesitate when asked about Doncic’s future potential.
“He’s a heck of a player,” they said. “Big balls, smart and polished beyond his years.”
So, should he be the No. 1 pick?
“If I was Phoenix, it’d be hard to pass up,” the executive said. “Especially with Igor there.”
Igor is Phoenix’s new coach, Igor Kokoskov, who coached Slovenia to that Eurobasket title last summer and was hired by the Suns after spending more than a decade as an NBA assistant, most recently with the Utah Jazz.
I’ll say right now: If I had the No. 1 pick, Doncic would be my choice for sure. There have been people poking holes in his game, but he’s playing at the highest level possible outside of the NBA and is having remarkable success. It feels like that has been forgotten, at times, in the rush to judge players leading up to the draft.
Doncic has won at every level, and in today’s NBA — where teams are constantly trying to play smaller and with more ballhandling and spread actions, making centers more and more difficult to keep on the court — passing on him for one of the bigs on the board is something I would not do.
Pairing Doncic would Devin Booker seems like an easy call, and he would also help unlock the abilities of Josh Jackson and Dragan Bender, Phoenix’s recent top picks. He’d be a great fit with Kokoskov, and the Suns would instantly be one of the league’s most fun teams to watch.
But what will Phoenix do? Owner Robert Sarver was said to be in Belgrade, along with other Suns executives. Sarver, though, is also a huge Arizona booster — and the other player likely to be in contention for the top pick is center Deandre Ayton … who went to Arizona.
The guess here is that Phoenix takes Ayton. In that case, the Sacramento Kings — who had their own top executive, Serbian legend Vlade Divac, in Belgrade — seem like a good bet to take Doncic.
The debate about what Phoenix should do will last until the moment the Suns have to make the pick next month — and likely long after that. In my mind, though, it only has one answer: Doncic.
We’ll see if the Suns agree.
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