When former Washington star Isaiah Stewart prepares to meet with NBA teams via Zoom for draft interviews, he slips on a tie and will occasionally don a sports coat. He’s met virtually with four NBA teams so far, amid a stretch of predraft ambiguity where he’s read three books, including “Chop Wood Carry Water: How To Fall In Love With The Process Of Becoming Great.”
Stewart’s days begin with a jog, continue with bike work and typically include a socially distant workout in a private gym. At night, he’ll dive into film study of the short pick-and-rolls of a few of his NBA comps — Montrezl Harrell and Bam Adebayo. Stewart wonders aloud the question being asked by the NBA draft class of 2020: When will they be able to show off in-person what they’ve been working on in private?
Inherently, the NBA draft process involves the specter of the unknown, a unique window of annual uncertainty between the amateur and professional steps of players’ lives. This draft process, shrouded by COVID-19, takes that to the extreme. Players are searching for gyms, living in their childhood homes and conducting critical initial job interviews in the familiar Zoom boxes.
“It’s definitely been different,” Stewart told Yahoo Sports. “I didn’t imagine this, working my whole life to build up to this moment. Then a crisis like this hits. I feel like it’s challenging me mentally, and I feel like at the same time, everything happens for a reason ... I haven’t complained or been down or mad. At some point, [God] will resume the road and allow us to get back.”
For the dozens of players preparing for the 2020 NBA draft, they’re living life on pause.
RJ Hampton, who skipped college to play a season overseas, recently road-tripped to get in a workout with Penny Hardaway. Former Marquette star Markus Howard wakes up at 5 a.m. every day and works out in Arizona with his dad and oldest brother. Former LSU star Skylar Mays spends his time gym-hunting, and he’ll perform the occasional workout in his family’s driveway in Baton Rouge when he can’t find a place.
“All of us in this draft class are all going through the same thing,” said former Kansas star Devon Dotson. “There’s a lot of uncertainty, and it’s obviously a unique year to be drafted, but I’m still trying to enjoy the process and get better every day to reach my goal.”
The NBA draft process typically falls into familiar rhythms. Players declare following their college season and jet off to a major city to work out with a trainer. Then, there’s the predraft combine in Chicago, which was scheduled to happen later this week. Teams often meet players in Chicago and decide to fly them to their city for in-person workouts and in-depth interviews. (Boston Celtics general manager Danny Ainge is famous for taking prospects to Chipotle.)
For now, all that is put on hold. There’s no word whether there will be a combine. With NBA facilities in the embryonic process of opening up to current players, there’s optimism that there will eventually be some in-person workouts. (Although equal access will come into play, as states are opening at different speeds.)
NBA front-office officials told Yahoo Sports they’re looking to Zoom calls for a good first impression. How engaged are the players in the conversation? Are they on time?
“One thing we’re looking at is how they’re utilizing their time right now,” an NBA scout said. “Are they staying in shape? Are they getting in the gym? Time management is key in the NBA, so what are they doing now with all this time off? There’s not a lot that’s changed from our normal in-person interview process to these Zoom meetings.”
For now, NBA sources say the best guess on a draft is late August or early September. But like anything amid the COVID-19 pandemic, those dates are fluid. A likely barometer would be the season ending, as trading players for picks couldn’t happen with the season ongoing.
That leaves players in search of routine in times that are anything but routine. Mays, a 6-foot-4 guard who averaged 16.7 ppg at LSU, has access to a place to lift daily. On average, he said he’s been finding gyms three days a week. Occasionally, he’ll need to rearrange the cars in his family’s driveway in Baton Rouge to accommodate a workout.
“If we move all the cars back, I can use 94 feet for the full court,” he said with a laugh. “There’s plenty of space for an NBA 3-point line.”
Howard has genetic benefits to working out in quarantine. The former Marquette star, who led the nation with 27.8 points per game, has two trainers in his family to aid the process. His father, Chuck, is a former football player at Indiana who owns League of Champions training in Phoenix. His brother, Desmond, owns and runs LEAGUE ME, a basketball skills training company.
Markus Howard is on the court for an hour at 5:30 a.m. every day, with the family connections back in Arizona making courts easier to secure. He works out for another two hours after and spends time resting and recovering. He’ll sometimes return for another on-court workout in the afternoon, as his goals are adding muscle on his 5-11 frame, working on the changes of pace in the NBA game and extending his range to the NBA 3-point line.
“I think it drives me more,” Howard said of the uncertainty surrounding the draft. “I want to be sure whenever the time does come I’m ready, even if we don’t play until December. I know the regiment I’m in has worked in the past. Even if I’m not playing, I’m simulating game situations. I want to be prepared for any moment that does come.”
Hampton played for the New Zealand Breakers in Australian Basketball League last season, returning home in early February to tend to a hip injury. He’s spent the time reconnecting with friends and family, and channeled the uncertainty from the fluid draft date to help his focus.
“It actually makes me work harder and improves my work ethic because you really don’t know when that time is going to come,” Hampton said. “It could be in June, it could be in August, so you have to stay ready and you have to stay locked in.”
The Zoom interviews have been a dominant part of the prospects’ days. Mays and Howard said they’ve each spoken to 20 teams by Zoom. Mays was pleased to see former players he grew up watching — San Antonio Spurs executives Brent Barry and Landry Fields — pop up on Zoom calls. Howard thought it was “cool” to see Los Angeles Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka, who he recognized from television.
Some calls had as many as 18 front-office members and coaches. Others had just three or four. Mays admits that he forgot to turn his cellphone ringer off on one, prompting the type of technology goof happening in home offices all over America.
“It’s about how you’re able to see yourself,” Mays said. “You definitely want to show your energy. The biggest thing for me is to be myself and make sure I’m promoting what I’m going to give.”
When Stewart envisioned his draft process prior to the pandemic, he’d planned on working out in New York. He wanted to work out three times a day and incorporate hot yoga and massage into his routine. Instead, his brother Martin, a culinary arts student at Monroe Community College, is cooking him salmon with a garlic honey glaze to be sure Isaiah’s body fat stays near 4 percent.
The goals remain aligned, even if the timing and execution looks a bit different than anyone imagined.
“I pretty much envisioned myself working very hard,” Stewart said. “Which I still am. I’m doing everything I can to put myself in the best position possible to be drafted.”
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