How COVID-19 has impacted teams preparing for the NBA draft

NBA teams are at an equal disadvantage with draft preparation as COVID-19 rages through the United States and limits the usual cadence before the biggest offseason ritual.

With so much at stake — a multimillion-dollar deal for players barely removed from high school, and the future for teams trying to turn its fortunes — the weeks before the draft were already the ultimate cat-and-mouse game, almost akin to speed dating.

Now picture that over Zoom.

It places a veneer between prospective draftees and teams, with one coach telling Yahoo Sports, “We’re not getting to know who these guys really are. They’re so rehearsed and almost robotic.”

Speed dating meets job interview

Everyone knows the game. Agencies coach up the players, tell them what land mines to avoid and give them the script for what teams want to hear. The executives, many who’ve been around prospects for decades, are aware the players will put their best foot forward. After all, millions of dollars and a step toward lifetime security is on the line.

So, it’s a job interview mixed with speed dating, with a sprinkle of anxiety. And with the restrictions the NBA has placed on teams to limit travel and exposure to COVID, teams can only make 10 in-person visits with draftees.

And yes, visiting with the same player twice counts as two visits.

“You go on a date, you ask the young lady the right questions. We know the answers they’re gonna try to give. So we put a twist on it,” Detroit Pistons general manager Troy Weaver said over Zoom last week. “I feel pretty good we’re getting the right intelligence, getting to know the right prospects.”

Another general manager agreed with Weaver’s assessment of trying different methods to get players to open up, adding that video conferencing is more comfortable for today’s generation with so many technological avenues available for their own communication.

“They’re more relaxed, to me,” he said. “I tease with them a little bit, get them off script, if you will. They’re ready for the straight-line questions, but I’ll pick a thread to get them to open up.”

That’s better to do in-person, during one of those allotted visits. The last few years the pre-draft camp in Chicago provided an opportunity to have dinner with players and actually engage in conversation. The background work teams do on players is so exhaustive compared to decades ago, it feels like they’re private investigators.

NBA Draft prospects Kevin Porter Jr., Nicolas Claxton, Sekou Doumbouya, Goga Bitazde, Keldon Johnson, Nassir Little, Nickeil Alexander-Walker, Rui Hachimuri, Jarrett Culver, Cam Reddish, Coby White, Zion Williamson, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, Ja Morant, De'Andre Hunter, Darius Garland, Brandon Clarke, Romeo Langford, Jaxson Hayes, Tyler Herro, Bol Bol, PJ Washington, Matisse Thybulle and Mfiondu Kabengele stand on stage with NBA Commissioner Adam Silver before the start of the 2019 NBA Draft.
Due to COVID-19, NBA teams are at an equal disadvantage with draft preparation. (Sarah Stier/Getty Images)

The good teams know the players before setting eyes on them — or at least they feel they do.

“I’ll ask them how they feel if they had to play in the G-League and guys really don’t want to, but they’ll say they’ll do whatever’s best for the team,” a general manager told Yahoo Sports. “Do I think that’s a truthful statement? No. Especially first-round guys. Guys that may not be drafted? It’s different for them.

“The one question, if you ask them if they’ve ever failed a drug test, I can tell, if you ask guys if they drink or smoke. I see them start looking up in their heads, but I already know the answer.”

That’s before you even get to the actual basketball element of things.

Who can visit draft prospects?

The NBA has limited the traveling party for teams to visit players, a vast difference from players coming to a team’s facility for a workout. Usually, there are members of the front office, coaching staff and training staff present.

Because of the virus, a team can only bring one medical person to visit a player. It’s not a hard and fast rule, but sometimes coaches aren’t there to put the player through an actual workout.

“Every team is different with measurements and agility drills. You really can’t dig in to find out what kind of athlete he is,” the general manager said. “Your coaches can’t work them out, so your staff is at a disadvantage. You’re at the whim of the workout guys. They may ask certain things but you can’t get them in certain actions you’ll run on the floor.”

Some teams only put so much weight onto an in-person workout because they have so much intel from the college or international season, but since the abrupt ending to the college season occurred before March Madness, there’s a bit of a gap.

Scouting never stops, but it seems to ratchet up in the conference tournaments and beyond.

“You feel like you don’t need that workout. But in this instance, we last saw them play March 15 and it’s been a seven-month run-up,” the general manager said. “A lot can change in seven months with a 19-year-old kid. Did he get stronger? Did he grow? Seven months versus three months is a big difference.”

Off-court life more important than ever

Usually, a player gets with an agent and starts workouts in between the college season and the draft. Some agents have had their players working this entire time, with occasional breaks in between.

The unknowns concerning the play on the court makes the background work so critical with teams. There’s very little time between the Nov. 18 draft and the scheduled start of the season on Dec. 22 — which means teams have to take into account a player’s off-court life before selecting him.

The simpler, the better, it seems.

“You worry about the mental psyche, you ask who’s coming to live with you? A support system. Majority may be a parent or parents, or one of their guys,” the GM said. “Family members coming back into the picture. He’s got to navigate a maze of people while navigating the NBA. You gotta have an infrastructure with your own team, your culture.”

There’s the buzzword: culture.

With so many new front offices and coaching staffs around the league, the opportunity to establish a new culture has been nonexistent aside from the bubble workouts that occurred earlier in the fall.

But that seems more like a controlled variable compared to the draft that’s usually a crapshoot; Some teams might feel like they’re picking with their eyes closed next week, hoping the peek of information isn’t a mirage.

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