The NBA playoffs are in full swing and capturing the nation’s collective attention, but the first major event for the 2013 draft is fast approaching.
Starting May 15, the best prospects from across the globe will descend upon Chicago for the NBA’s annual draft combine. The four-day event includes interviews with teams, official measurements, athleticism drills and shooting drills for the players in attendance.
In other words, it’s just like every other combine-type event. That being said, the NBA combine won’t completely alter the first-round landscape the way it often does in the NFL.
Scouts already know plenty about the draft’s top prospects. Nerlens Noel is recovering from a knee injury, Ben McLemore can shoot and defend while Trey Burke is coming off the best collegiate season in the nation. Those players are all well-known quantities whose performance at the combine won’t help or hurt their stock any more than a couple spots in June.
However, every year sees a couple players have their draft stock undergo massive changes in Chicago—whether that be good or bad. For some players, the ones with character questions or less game tape than others, these semi-competitions among peers are critical for scouts. They’re looking for any inkling of stardom, any little thing that doesn’t show up on tape that could lead to finding a diamond in the rough.
And if a player doesn’t show that, say hello to a non-guaranteed contract.
With that in mind, here is a quick breakdown of a few prospects worth keeping an eye on at next week's combine.
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (G, Georgia)
Caldwell-Pope was one of the least appreciated stars in all of college basketball last season, but that's rapidly changing as the draft draws nearer. Team executives have increasingly noticed Caldwell-Pope's arrayed skill set, which was somewhat kept under the rug during two forgettable seasons at Georgia.
In 2012-13, Caldwell-Pope scored 18.5 points and grabbed 7.1 rebounds per game. But he also shot an inefficient 43.3 percent from the field and became prone to taking bad jumpers in the face of double-teams in SEC play.
What scouts are noticing, though, is that Caldwell-Pope's bad habits were rooted in necessity. He was surrounded by a cast of forgettable faces, a who's who of "no thanks." And even though his percentages weren't great, Caldwell-Pope receives some credit for working his way around defensive schemes designed to stop him.
Caldwell-Pope is also benefiting thanks to a league-wide evolution that should affect draft-night strategy. As Grantland's Zach Lowe noted in a piece last week, team executives have become increasingly attracted to two-way players on the wings. As defenses become more complex and spacing offensively becomes paramount, only superstars (e.g. Kobe Bryant) can get away with punting away one side of the ball.
Secondary players will increasingly be asked to shoot and defend, which seems obvious on the surface but isn't as clear as you may think.
Caldwell-Pope has all the skills to do both. He has a beautiful long-range jumper, plays committed defense and is a good enough athlete going to the rim. As ESPN's Chad Ford noted, his ability to play two ways and his aggressive nature make him a potential top 10 pick:
Chad Ford @chadfordinsider
Me too. Caldwell-Pope is a good athlete and he can really shoot the basketball and he's aggressive. Should end up a Top 10 pick.5/8/2013, 5:59:10 PM
That's a long way from being a member of what was barely a top-10 team in its own conference last season.
But the combine is important for Caldwell-Pope in showing that those efficiency problems were truly rooted in his teammates' flaws. He'll need to tone down the super-aggressive play a bit, take on a more stationary role offensively and continue to show potential on defense.
If Caldwell-Pope can do that, there aren't many reasons for him to fall outside the first 10 picks.
Dario Saric (F, Croatia)
International prospects are always tough to peg when they come to Chicago. Sometimes their management keeps them from going full-force in these combines, saving them for either individual workouts or simply to preserve their draft stock (e.g. Yi Jianlian's infamous chair workout).
But assuming Saric is a full participant in all the drills next week, his performance in drills will have a massive impact on where he ultimately lands.
The projections on Saric are varied, depending on whom is speaking. ESPN's Chad Ford had him going No. 13 to the Mavericks in his latest mock draft, while Draft Express' latest look has him falling all the way to Brooklyn at No. 22. (I have him No. 15 to the Bucks at the moment.)
The reason for that variance is simple: No one knows quite what to make of Saric yet. He just turned 19 years old and will be one of the younger players in this class, making the already-difficult task of judging an international player even more taxing. There's not a ton of game tape on him, though he did get solid enough time in the Adriatic this season to draw more conclusions than some of his international counterparts.
The word you hear when scouts talk about Saric is his "feel" for the game. He's brilliant in the open court, gifted enough with his ball-handling and passing skills to run the fastbreak as a point forward. At 6'10" he also has the court vision to see over shorter defenders and find passes that very few at his position would—especially at such a young age.
Still, questions are boundless regarding his NBA readiness. Saric is only 223 pounds and has muscles the size of linguini, which makes the concerns about his defensive abilities legitimate. He's nowhere near big enough to defend NBA power forward, nor is he quick enough to take on even league-average players at the 3-spot.
Couple that with his inability to knock down free-throws—he made just half this season—and it's clear there is a ton of extra work to be done. He won't crack even the league's worst crunch-time lineup until he learns to at least do one of those two things, if not both.
But the combine isn't about showing teams a complete package for Saric. If teams wanted to draft a player who is already completely who he'll be at the next level, they would just take Mason Plumlee and be done with it.
What Saric has to show is those glimmers of stardom. He needs to wow in a scrimmage, throw a few scintillating open-court passes and (for lack of better term) be the prettiest girl at the dance. Saric isn't going to impress with who he is as a player right now—there's just too much work left to be done.
Nevertheless, if a team becomes enamored with who he might become, the lottery definitely isn't out of the question for the 19-year-old Croatian.
Glen Rice Jr. (NBA D-League)
As a rule, sons of former NBA players and coaches get heaped with effusive praise—especially if that player or coach is still involved with the league. The kin is usually bestowed with traits like "knowing what it takes to be an NBA player" and automatically gifted a mature reputation even if it's less-than-true.
Glen Rice Jr., son of former NBA All-Star Glen Rice, is the outlier. Heading into the NBA combine, there is arguably no player with more lingering questions in this entire draft—and it doesn't relate only to his basketball skill set.
After a career mired with off-the-court trouble, how Rice performs in the interview room might be as important as his on-court play.
A troubled kid throughout his entire collegiate career, Rice's time at Georgia Tech finally ended in March of 2012. The then-sophomore was kicked off the team following a shooting incident at a nightclub, which led to Rice being charged with unlawful operation. He was suspended multiple times prior to the nightclub incident, most of which were involved undisclosed violations of team rules.
Left without a college program, Rice joined the Rio Grande Valley Vipers—a move that may have saved his career. He finished the regular season with unspectacular averages of 13 points and 6.2 rebounds, but blossomed into a D-League star down the stretch.
Leading the Vipers to the D-League championship, Rice was absolutely dominant. He averaged 25 points and nine rebounds per night while draining 47.3 percent of his shots—including an above-average 35.8 percent from beyond the arc.
Because of his utterly unspectacular collegiate career, Rice is going to need to prove that's not an aberration. D-League gems are only found every once in a while, and rarely are they given guarantees equivalent to a first-round pick.
At 22 years old, Rice is long beyond the space in his career where potential can swing him upward. He's going to have to show NBA readiness—the athleticism, improvement on his jumper and rebounding skills that were shown at Rio Grande—to get serious consideration as a top 20 selection.
And more importantly, Rice will have to convince teams that getting kicked off the team at Georgia Tech awakened a previously unseen maturity.