CHICAGO — Kevin Huerter’s NBA draft combine really began with a jump shot, one that rolled off this fingertips from the left corner before snapping the net, a deadeye swish.
Before that, there was some stretching and measuring and interviewing, in which one team asked Huerter to recite the alphabet with corresponding numbers — A1, B2, C3 . . . all the way up to Z26. That was odd. Shooting was not. It never is for Huerter, Maryland’s 6-foot-7 guard, even though this was in front of scouts, coaches and executives from every NBA team, in a gym where he had never played.
That swish from the left corner was Huerter’s first of 15 straight made three-pointers in an individual drill. Los Angeles Lakers Coach Luke Walton, Starbucks coffee in hand, stopped mid-stride to watch Huerter move around the arc. Peja Stojakovic, one of the best shooters in NBA history and now the assistant general manager for the Sacramento Kings, paused during a conversation to do the same. A Western Conference scout charted Huerter’s shots and, when it was all makes and no misses, he picked up his pencil and mouthed a single word: Wow.
The combine had started just 20 minutes earlier here at the Quest Multisport facility Thursday. But Huerter’s name was already coursing through the event.
“A lot of the teams are looking for the same thing; I just think it shows the way the NBA is going,” Huerter said. “They want versatile guys, both offensively and defensively. They’re looking for positionless guys, people who can do a lot of things on the court, space the court, be able to shoot.”
Soon, Huerter will have a decision to make. He is a professional prospect without an agent, which means he has until May 30 to decide whether he will keep his name in the draft (and forfeit his college eligibility) or return to Maryland for his junior year. That choice became more complicated after a strong showing at the combine: Many analysts and scouts projected him as a late-first-round pick.
Huerter shot the ball well in individual drills despite a torn ligament in his dominant right hand, impressed in a five-on-five scrimmage, did well in physical testing and interviewed with nearly half the league’s teams across three days.
Now he has less than two weeks to sift through the feedback and projections and thoughts bouncing around his head. The possibility of being selected in the first round — and the guaranteed contract that comes with that — is hard to pass on, but it remains only a possibility until the players are selected June 21. Returning to Maryland, where he averaged 14.8 points as a sophomore, could give Huerter a chance to build on that momentum and be a lottery pick next year.
But what if he never gets this much momentum again? What if the teams that say they like him now end up trading their first-round pick? What if they fall in love with another player? Or what if they are serious about taking him, and he throws that away?
Eleven days of what-ifs have begun.
“We’re looking for an easy decision,” said Tom Huerter, Kevin’s father. “Like that Kevin receives feedback that he is not ready and wouldn’t be picked in the first round, and by going back to Maryland he could improve his position in later years. That would be an easy decision. Another easy decision could be if multiple teams say, ‘You’re not getting past us in the first round.’ The toughest decision would be one or two teams saying, ‘Yeah, we think we’d be interested in you in the first round, but we’re not quite sure.’
“That’s the tough part.”
Huerter’s next stop will be a workout with the Brooklyn Nets on Tuesday. He worked out with the Atlanta Hawks and Boston Celtics before the combine and is hoping to make a West Coast trip after visiting Brooklyn. He is expected to work out for the Utah Jazz on May 28, according to a person with knowledge of the situation, and then fly home to Clifton Park, N.Y., to make a decision with his family. The Nets have the 29th pick, and the Jazz has the 21st.
The 19-year-old is being advised by Maryland Coach Mark Turgeon and Mark Bartelstein, an agent with Priority Sports in Chicago. As long as NBA teams contact a player’s college first, an agent is allowed to help a prospect schedule workouts and gather information on his draft stock.
The combine was important for Huerter because he only has so many days for individual workouts until the May 30 deadline. He impressed in individual drills, even as he pushed through nagging pain in his shooting hand. Huerter tore the ligament in the knuckle below his right pinkie in Maryland’s win at Northwestern on Feb. 19. The tear will not require surgery — just a few weeks of rest that he has not been able to find since the season ended and the pre-draft process began.
“I start to feel it at the end of workouts, but it’s not too bad,” Huerter said. “I just need to catch the ball with my left hand instead of two hands, which is a little weird for me, but I’ll eventually get back to normal with that.”
Shooting is Huerter’s most marketable skill, and it’s one NBA teams are always looking for during the league’s “pace-and-space” era, dominated by teams that launch three-pointers. He impressed at the combine as a spot-up shooter and off the dribble, repeating the same form from all over the floor: ball cocked just above his right eye, feet shoulder-width apart, right foot slightly pointed in and positioned an inch or two in front of his left.
Then he flicked his wrist and, way more often than not, watched his shot nestle into the net.
“He was probably the most impressive shooter at the combine, which automatically makes you an intriguing prospect and potential first-round pick,” a Western Conference scout said. “He couples that with size that makes you believe he’ll be able to rebound well and defend a few positions once his frame fills out. He really helped himself in Chicago.”
On Friday, Huerter decided to sit out his second chance to scrimmage in front of scouts because his right hand was a bit sore. He was confident in the impression he had made. So, after interviews with teams and reporters, Huerter sat with Turgeon six rows off the court, sipped a Gatorade and relaxed.
That he goes to Maryland only makes this choice more difficult. Huerter loves College Park and the undergraduate experience. He has the chance to be the centerpiece of a Big Ten team returning strong guards and bringing in a talented freshman class. Playing in college was his first dream, and he feels like he has more to prove.
But now that is being weighed against his ultimate dream — to play in the NBA — and another year of college basketball hinges on that string of what-ifs.
“You really got to find a middle ground and try go get as much feedback as you can from direct personnel,” Huerter said. “That’s why this week has been really beneficial. In the end, it will be a really tough decision.”
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