How the NBA Draft Combine turned Joshua Primo into a lottery pick

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NBA mock drafts — and the experts who provide them — have become a cottage industry. Fans can’t get enough. With that firehose of information (and some speculation), surprises have become rare on draft night. We know the top picks and their order. Farther down the board, a player may go a couple of spots higher or fall a few spots lower than expected, but the general range where a player will be selected is known.

Joshua Primo is the exception.

The San Antonio Spurs picking him No. 12 this year surprised even Primo.

“Going that high wasn’t something that I was… I don’t know if I was ready for that,” Primo said from his draft party — he was not invited to the NBA’s on-site green room. “I didn’t realize it was going to be that high. But I’m glad it’s with the Spurs. I’ve always wanted to be a Spur.”

Primo’s agent, Todd Ramasar, knew. He added if it hadn’t been the Spurs at No. 121, other teams in that same range were ready to pull the trigger on Primo. Ramasar — who played in college at UCLA and is a long-time NBA agent with clients such as Pascal Siakam — recognized what he had early on.

“It took me a few days to see that he was a lottery talent, that he was a special talent, just overall,” Ramasar told NBC Sports. “The skill set was there. I saw that in the first two workouts.”

It was the NBA Draft Combine in Chicago where everyone else got to see what Ramasar already knew.

THE IMPORTANCE OF THE COMBINE

Most lottery picks don’t attend and work out at the annual NBA Draft Combine in Chicago. They’ll have their measurements taken and maybe sit in for some interviews with teams, but they and their agents only see risk without the upside of reward. These are already lottery-bound players, they can’t climb much higher with a good showing, but an off performance in front of scouts and GMs would see their stock fall.

Primo was a different case. At the time of the combine, Primo wasn’t projected as a lottery pick, he was more likely headed to the second round. He was the youngest player in the draft at age 18 — with a baby face that makes him look even younger — and in his one season at Alabama he was playing more off the ball as a shooter, averaging 8.1 points a game and shooting 38.1% on 3s on a veteran-heavy team.

Primo rarely got to show off his ball-handling and playmaking skills. NBA teams pegged him as a sharpshooter.

“With the pandemic, there are certain factors we don’t see in any other draft, which is NBA teams’ ability to scout players numerous times in practices or in games in person,” Ramasar said. “Including decision makers. I knew from watching film on Josh at Alabama, seeing his role, and knowing teams hadn’t seen him live as much as they would have liked to.

“It was a perfect opportunity for him to use the platform of the combine to showcase his size, his ability, and his skills, different than what they had seen from him in practice games, or even on film.”

“I think what I was able to show at the combine was I’m not just a shooter,” Primo said on draft night. “I’m someone who can come in and affect the game in a lot more ways than just putting points on the board. I was able to show some leadership, be able to show my defensive effort, defensive ability, and just show an all-around game. I think that was what was intriguing coming out of the combine.”

Even before the combine, Ramasar had been in the ear of teams — including the Spurs — that there was more to Primo than just a young shooter. San Antonio was already thinking that way.

“It actually started for us a few months before [the draft combine], where you would get to see little flashes and you started to dig in. Obviously, you saw the talent,” Spurs general manager Brian Wright said in a Zoom with the media the night of the draft. “He was the youngest player in the draft at just 18 years old, and you start to think about he’s the equivalent of a high school senior starting in the SEC, so once we started to peel back the layers you start to see flashes of a little bit more.

“He played more of a spot-up shooter-type role within their offense with Herb [Jones, Alabama’s coach] and some of the guards that they had, and so when we got to the combine, we saw him in a completely different role. We saw him playing some point guard at times, playing off the ball and creating sometimes. You saw the flashes that you would see in-season, you just saw a little bit more of it. And, obviously, we got to have him in our gym and got him in a workout and continued to spend some time peeling back the layers. We were just extremely impressed with the young man.”

“In terms of [Primo] being a lottery pick, that started to pick up steam after the combine,” Ramasar said. “Because the teams that were very interested in him, they had picks in the second round… I told them, and they later acknowledged and understood as well, that he was not going to be there for their second-round picks. For example, San Antonio having pick 41, there was no chance coming out of the combine that Josh Primo would be there.”

The Spurs were not the only team interested, Ramasar said, and that kept pushing Primo up draft boards. Other teams in the same range as the Spurs were interested, and if San Antonio wanted him, they would have to take him in the lottery.

They did.

DEVELOPING A YOUNG PLAYER

In Summer League, you could see how the Spurs envision developing and using Primo — more than half of his offensive plays were as a pick-and-roll ball handler. The focus was on decision making, playmaking, and learning to use his speed and shooting skills at the next level.

The Spurs have a long history of success developing players, and Primo is the latest project. Ramasar will have a hand in that as well. He is an agent who has studied and fully buys into sports science, and he has experts in that field as part of the “pit crew” working with his players. Of course, there are traditional NBA coaches in there as well, but Ramasar — and, by extension, his clients — lean heavily into the latest technology and what can be done at places like P3 in Santa Barbara.

Already there were flashes of Primo as a creative ball handler and passer at the Las Vegas at Summer League — and there were a lot of turnovers. Primo averaged 14.5 points a game, shot 31.3% from 3 (shooting more off the bounce), and averaged 2.5 assists and 2 turnovers a game in Sin City. That showed improvement from his two games in the Salt Lake City Summer League, where he shot 23.1% from 3, averaging 2.5 assists and 4.5 turnovers a game.

Developing Primo into a key part of the Spurs’ future is a process — and a multi-year one.

The ultimate goal is to have a tall guard — 6’5″ — who can play on-ball or off-ball, and mesh with an already solid backcourt of the future with Dejounte Murray, Derrick White, Lonnie Walker IV, Bryn Forbes, and Tre Jones. In a positionless NBA where a team needs multiple ball handlers and shot creators, Primo could fit right in a few years down the line.

And that chance comes courtesy the NBA Draft Combine.

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How the NBA Draft Combine turned Joshua Primo into a lottery pick originally appeared on NBCSports.com