Before he began helping Norvel Pelle prepare for this year's NBA draft, athletic trainer Robbie Davis wanted to be sure his newest client understood what was at stake.
Davis pulled Pelle aside and urged the promising but unproven 6-foot-11 former St. John's signee to work harder than he ever has preparing for workouts with NBA teams because they could determine the trajectory of his pro career.
Unlike most draft prospects whose strengths and weaknesses are well established after a year or more competing in college or against pro players internationally, Pelle remains a mystery to NBA teams.
Once the No. 1 center in Rivals.com's Class of 2011 rankings and the centerpiece of a decorated St. John's recruiting class, Pelle never played a minute of college basketball because he was unable to meet NCAA minimum academic requirements. Instead the Los Angeles native has spent the past two years in anonymity at three different prep schools, meaning pre-draft tryouts will be most NBA teams' lone chance to scout him against top competition.
"Workouts for NBA teams are sometimes a little overrated, but for Norvel, it's make-or-break," Davis said. "Some guys they've scouted four years and the workout is more about getting to know the guy, shaking his hand and seeing how hard he works in person. For Norvel, it's way more than that because there's no tape on him. This is their one chance to judge him as a player too."
That Pelle's lifelong dream to play in the NBA may rest on a handful of 45-minute workouts makes him one of the biggest wildcards in this year's draft. NBA scouts who tracked him in high school recall being intrigued with his shot-blocking prowess, baseline-to-baseline speed and ability to defend multiple positions, but they also remember a player who gave spotty effort and often seemed content to get by on talent alone.
Pelle will have a chance to prove he has matured when he holds a workout for about 10 NBA teams the first week of May and again when he participates at the NBA Draft Combine in Chicago from May 15-19. He is holding out hope a team that doesn't need him to contribute right away will like his upside enough to draft him late in the first round, but the second round seems more likely because teams are often reticent to commit two years of guaranteed money to a high-risk project.
"He's definitely someone we'd have tracked in college, but he's been off the radar for two years," an NBA scout familiar with Pelle said. "I think the second round is where he ends up at the end of the day assuming he's in shape, polished and looks like he has a chance to blossom. In the second round, there's no financial commitment and you're not being criticized if he doesn't pan out, whereas a first rounder, if you take him and he's a bust, you can expect some criticism."
Anyone who has watched Pelle train with Davis the past few weeks often comes away surprised there were ever questions about his work ethic. Davis said Pelle hasn't complained, slacked off or showed up late once even though they're training five days a week, morning and night, doing everything from lifting weights, to conditioning, to going through drills NBA teams often have draft prospects do.
"I've never wanted something this much," Pelle said. "Most of the guys I'll be going against already have game film. I don't. So these workouts that I'm going to are definitely going to be important to me to showcase what I've been working on the past couple years. I'm willing to go up against anyone to prove myself."
Had Pelle shown the same desire on the court and in the classroom throughout high school that he seems to have now, he almost certainly wouldn't be in this predicament.
Already 6-foot-8 with a knack for blocking shots and running the floor as a sophomore in high school, Pelle began receiving interest from some of the top college teams in the nation. USC and Texas were among the first to offer scholarships and UCLA, Arizona and Washington followed suit soon afterward.
What deterred Pelle's recruitment was that his grades weren't up to par. He slacked off as a freshman at Lakewood High and a sophomore at Compton Dominguez High, putting himself in a deep academic hole by the time he transferred to Los Angeles Price High School for his junior and senior year.
Whereas the UCLAs and Arizonas backed off recruiting Pelle once they realized he was unlikely to qualify academically, St. John's only stepped up its pursuit. New coach Steve Lavin inherited a roster with nine seniors on it and a program that had been largely irrelevant for the past decade, so he had little choice but to take a few calculated risks on the recruiting trail as he sought to rebuild.
Pelle eventually chose St. John's over Washington, but he never even made it to campus. On Sept. 15, 2011, St. John's announced that Pelle, Jakarr Sampson and Amir Garrett were each ruled academically ineligible by the NCAA.
"There are definitely a lot of things I could have done differently academics-wise," Pelle said. "I definitely could have been more focused in school and approached school in a different manner. It could have been a different story. I could have been playing at St. John's. Who knows what could have happened?"
Instead Pelle began a two-year prep school odyssey, starting first at Malvern Prep in Pennsylvania before getting homesick and returning to Stoneridge Prep in Los Angeles. It was uncertain whether Pelle was going to qualify academically by the following fall, especially with classes from five different schools on his transcript, yet once again colleges lined up to offer him scholarships.
Though Iowa State, San Diego State and DePaul were among those who showed interest, Pelle chose Iona, a mid-major program where he felt he'd start right away, thrive in an up-tempo system and prove himself to NBA scouts. Alas, Pelle once again did not make enough academic progress to satisfy the NCAA, a setback that devastated him and the Iona coaching staff who hoped to pair him with their talented backcourt.
"We still talk about him," Iona assistant coach Jared Grasso said. "We went to the NCAA tournament without him. If you put him on that team, maybe we make a special run.
"Unfortunately, it didn't work out for us, but he's a really good kid. He came up a little bit short academically, but that being said, he's not a dumb kid. He's an engaging kid and a bright kid. It's a shame he didn't play college basketball because he really should have. There's no difference between him and a thousand other kids out there who are very close to qualifying or not qualifying."
Pelle remained in California and took online classes for a little while before it became clear the NCAA wasn't going to clear him by the start of the spring semester either. As a result, he began searching for another prep school, learning of Los Angeles College Preparatory Academy via some childhood friends who already played there.
The first time Pelle showed up at practice in mid-December, LACPA coach Michael Miller had no idea who he was.
"He was just a tall guy with glasses on," Miller said. "He looked kind of nerdy, to be honest."
In his short time coaching a basketball-only prep school that caters to fifth-year seniors in need of another year of development and exposure, Miller had become accustomed to potential new players arriving at practice unannounced. Many of those kids either weren't any good or were gone within a few days, so Miller still didn't think too much of it when Pelle introduced himself and asked if he could join practice for the day.
What forced Miller to pay more attention was his newest player began doing things in practice that 6-foot-11 big men aren't supposed to be able to do. He beat guards down the floor in transition. He was quick enough to defend wings on the perimeter. And when he hedged on screens, he recovered faster than any big man Miller had seen.
Once Pelle formally enrolled at LACPA and began playing organized basketball again for really the first time since his senior season of high school, he channeled some of his disappointment at not being able to play in college into his game. Pelle showed signs of newfound maturity and development, whether it was scoring over both shoulders in the post, handling the ball more deftly on the perimeter or simply playing with more consistent effort on both ends of the floor.
"The best thing that happened to him was working with Mike," said Loyola Marymount assistant Jason Levy, who has seen Pelle play since he was in ninth grade. "He has always had big upside, but he's playing a lot harder than he ever was. He has gotten a lot better. He's very motivated."
There would have been plenty of interest again from top colleges this spring had Pelle chosen that route, but this time he sat down with his family to discuss entering the draft. Eventually, he decided his best option was to turn pro because he was already 20 years old, he wanted to help support his family and he felt confident workouts with NBA teams would give him the chance to prove he was worthy of being selected.
"I thought it would have been a great experience for him to go play in college a year, but I think at the end of the day he wanted to turn pro and I do believe he's going to get picked," Miller said. "He's got some tools that are pretty dynamic and are unique for someone his size."
Pelle is using the next couple months to do everything he can to prove his former coach correct.
In April, he plans to continue to train hard every day with Davis. In May, he intends to show off how much he has improved during his workouts. And in June, he hopes to reemerge from the anonymity of the past two years and hear his name called on draft night.
"That would be the best accomplishment of my life," Pelle said. "There was never any doubt in my mind that I'd be able to get to the NBA. I've had to be patient, but nobody's path is the same. I'm hungry, and it's time to show everyone what I've been doing."