The NBA Combine: What We've Learned and Who to Watch
Maxwell examined the past five NBA Combines. In doing so, he found trends that tend to identify what type of performances are, and are not, indicative of future NBA success.
The 2023 NBA Combine is upon us. For the NBA hopefuls participating, the stakes are high. A good performance in a scrimmage, a potent athletic testing performance, or a positive set of measurements can dramatically swing their fortunes. Conversely, players who struggle at the combine have seen their stock fall, forcing them to take a more circuitous basketball journey or return to school. There are real stakes for the NBA teams in attendance, too. Players they may be targeting as second round picks or undrafted free agents may propel themselves out of their availability.
But before we get into this year’s combine, I think it’s important to ask what the NBA Combine actually means. So, let’s take a look back at the last five NBA Combines (the virtual combine in 2020 was sort of a mess, so I’m not counting that one) and see what can be gathered from them.
2017 NBA Combine
Resources: Draft Express Day One, Draft Express Day Two, Sporting News
-Kyle Kuzma had himself a combine. He came in, measured at over 6’9” with an over 7’ wingspan, and then went off for 20 points in the first scrimmage. Coming into the event, he was projected as a second round pick with a questionable jumper. After going 4-5 from three and fully comprehending his size, teams immediately began to see more value in what he could bring if he shot consistently. As he became a more respectable shooter, Kuzma would indeed evolve into a great starter-level player.
-Frank Mason had two strong scrimmage games, averaging 14.5 PPG and 3.0 APG to 1.5 TOV. Despite his lack of size, his ability to dictate pace, change speeds, and set the table made him a standout. Mason would kick around the NBA for a few years, but being under 6’, his production was limited. His outside shot would come and go, and he’d struggle to convert inside. Being more polished allowed him to look the part amongst NBA hopefuls, but on a real NBA floor, it only went so far.
-Jonathan Jeanne was an unavoidable name going through recaps from that time. He was skinny (206 pounds), but came in at 7’2” with a 7’6.5” wingspan. In a day two scrimmage, he posted 14 points, nine rebounds, three blocks, and two steals. There was a lot of excitement around the French big man’s tools and defensive upside. Unfortunately, shortly after the combine, he was diagnosed with Marfan syndrome. Jeanne went undrafted and was told by a doctor that he would be unable to continue his career. He would return during the 2018-2019 season, but he never reached the heights that some had hoped.
-Another play who had weight concerns was De’Aaron Fox, coming in at under 170 pounds. To his credit, Sam Vecenie had his fastball even back then! Here’s what he wrote at the time:
“It’s a concern, but here’s why I tend to be less worried than others. Players tend to lose weight during the college basketball season. For instance, last year I talked to Brice Johnson about this, and he mentioned that it wasn’t uncommon for him to lose 10 to 15 pounds during the playing season. Fox’s season ended relatively late as Kentucky went to the Elite Eight, and he’s been training hard out in Thousand Oaks on the outskirts of Los Angeles. Fox does need to put on more bulk and retain that weight, but it’s not a reason to ring the alarm yet either.”
Young players get stronger! De’Aaron Fox is doing just fine. The younger the player, the more physical development is ahead of them. It’s not always a reason to freak out.
-Two other interesting players also faced physical concern blowback: John Collins and Dillon Brooks. Collins came in at 6’10” with a 6’11” wingspan. The John Collins we knew then was much different than the one we now. In college, he’d only taken one three in two seasons, and he missed it. Now, he’s a career 35.6% three-point shooter on moderate volume, allowing him to play more as a four than the smaller, energy-bringing five he was projected to be. There were some signs for optimism there (74.5% from the free throw line on high volume, 3-7 on catch-and-shoot two jump shots), but he’s really hit an optimal outcome on that front. His tweener status has still plagued him to a degree to this day, but he’s still managed to put together a great NBA career. Brooks was 6’6” with a 6’6” wingspan, which was worrisome. However, his strength has still allowed him to cover forwards in a meaningful way. That lack of length did increase the importance of his jump shot, though, and I’m not going to bring any more pain to Grizzlies fans by continuing this sentence.
Resources: SBNation, Sporting News, Bleacher Report, Bleacher Report Again, The Ringer
-This was the combine where Kevin Huerter showed everyone who he was. He pulled a Jon Taffer and SHUT IT DOWN after he tore up his first scrimmage game. Despite worries about how he would scale up athletically, he managed to move the ball and shoot threes against better opposition. His size, savvy, and playmaking continued to carry over at the next level.
-Gary Trent scored 22 points in a Day Two scrimmage. He tested well athletically and was commended for showing more on the defensive end than he had previously. He still didn’t hear his name called until the second round on draft night. Looking back, it’s surprising. At 6’5”, Trent wasn’t going to be a shrimp on the NBA floor, he’d made 40.2% of his threes as a freshman on high volume and proved that while he may not be a playmaker, he could make basic decisions well, with two assists and no turnovers. A young player with a proven skill at the high-major level and a good physical profile is a winning bet.
-It was also a great week for nasty, scrappy dudes. Josh Okogie and Donte DiVincenzo both made their marks. Okogie came in short at 6’4”, but with a mature frame and 6’10” wingspan, he still managed to guard up the line-up during scrimmages. He also made enough spot-up threes that teams convinced themselves he could find an offensive role. Still only 24, Okogie’s defensive tenacity has earned him a rotation role, playing over 20 MPG throughout his career. Unfortunately, the shot still hasn’t fully materialized on a consistent basis, and it was exposed during his recent playoff run. DiVincenzo’s hustle plays, athleticism, and passing feel solidified his first round spot, too. Unfortunately, injuries have limited him the past few seasons. While this past season was better, his shot tailed off at the wrong time in the playoffs. Still, Okogie and DiVincenzo have made it. The combine showed that if you bring physicality and defensive toughness, playing in the scrimmages can help launch you or keep you in the first round.
-Mo Bamba and Jaren Jackson Jr. both posted outstanding measurements, raising intrigue around them as stretch big men. Bamba’s 7’10” wingspan was the biggest in the history of the event. Add in that he made 14 of his 51 attempted threes in college, and teams were practically foaming at the mouth. They saw a bouncy, long big man who had the potential to stroke it from deep. Jackson’s 7’5.5” may seem small in comparison but was still the third largest at the event. Add in his 14.3 BLK% and 39.6% from deep, and he was also a clear-cut, high-level target for teams at the top of the draft. Long big men with athleticism and a chance to shoot will always draw interest. Jackson was clearly the better prospect in hindsight, though—his shot was further along (high volume/better variety), and he had more craft on the block. Bamba struggled to process the game and pass, and Jackson’s defensive engagement was more consistent. Add in that Jackson was a more fluid, seamless mover, and it’s a wrap. Still, teams were enamored with Bamba. It’s hard to fault them completely, in that players with his size and touch are rare. Feel on both ends of the floor matters, though, and without a high level of it, making an NBA impact can be difficult even if a player is physically gifted. While measurables cannot be coached up, they aren’t everything, and flashes don’t always turn into longstanding beacons of light.
-Kevin Hervey got red-hot during the combine, too. An under-the-radar name who had spent his college career at UT-Arlington, the 6’8” Hervey first caught the eyes of evaluators when he posted a 7’4” wingspan. Then, he scored 21 points on seven shots in a scrimmage, making him an appealing stretch-four option. This was enough to get him drafted 57th overall by the Oklahoma City Thunder. Unfortunately, it served as a reminder of the combine’s small sample size. A career 32.4% shooter in college, Hervey wasn’t able to get his jumper going in the NBA, appearing in only 10 games for the Thunder. Even in the G League, Hervey shot 29.2% from distance. A big outing is nice to see, but it doesn’t always guarantee success. Don’t forget to take the player’s entire body of work into consideration.
Resources: CBS Sports, Bleacher Report here and here, The Ringer, The Athletic
-Luka Samanic outclassed the field in a scrimmage game, scoring 13 points and grabbing seven boards in 19 minutes. He was lauded for his advanced understanding of the game and fluidity for his size. Samanic noted that his experience against grown men in Europe helped him at the event. Though he’s yet to find stable ground in the NBA, it’s interesting that one of the rare pro-experience scrimmage participants cleaned up with relative ease. That could be something to watch for in Chicago.
-Terance Mann had an all-time, “pay attention to Elite Camp” story, and he’s parlayed that into a great NBA career. After putting together a strong stretch there, he moved on to the NBA Combine and did well there too. At 6’5”, his handle, jump shot, and mature style of play allowed him to stand out. Still, a number of NBA teams chose to pass on Mann, who fell to 48th on draft night. Maybe they wished he was bigger, maybe they questioned the legitimacy of his jumper given the unusual jump in percentage during his final college season, or maybe they thought he was too old. In any case, the Clippers got him, and they’re glad they did. Just because a player doesn’t go straight to the “big combine” doesn’t mean they won’t hear their name on draft night or have a long, successful NBA journey.
-Nic Claxton went wild on defense. He blocked 11 shots in two games. While his 6’10” height and 7’2” wingspan were more “good” than “great,” he had the best vertical leap among the big men in the field and his lane agility time was stellar. Now one of the 25 best defenders in the NBA, the lesson to be learned from Nic Claxton is clear: when outrageous physical tools meet outrageous production, you buy in.
-Two intriguing big men made a big splash but didn’t end up sticking. After being generally dismissed as a Top 60 prospect, Tacko Fall made everybody think twice. He measured in at 7’7” with an 8’2.5” wingspan and an above-the-rim standing reach of 10’2.5”. After performing well in the scrimmages, it seemed like he had a real chance to hear his name on draft night. Ultimately, he went undrafted. While Fall’s measurements were exceptional, he was near or at the bottom in every athletic testing drill. Those issues prevented him from getting over the hump and staying in the NBA. Dewan Hernandez performed well in the scrimmages. This was surprising, as the college basketball FBI scandal kept him off the floor the prior season. The 6’10” big averaged 16 PPG and 7.5 RPG in the two games at the NBA Combine after moving up from Elite Camp. His issue was the opposite of Fall, though—with a 7’1.5” wingspan, he wasn’t that long, and his rim protection instincts never quite got there. Add in that he was a merely okay jump shooter, and he couldn’t space the floor, either. It’s another reminder to consider the entire context of a player rather than just measurements or a single performance.
-Cody Martin was considered more of an undrafted target headed into the event but solidified himself a place in the draft with a strong scrimmage performance. In one game, he scored 16 points while dishing out five assists. Now on a four-year, $32 million contract, Martin showed that even when a prospect is older, a combination of size, skill, and feel tends to bring value. Hopefully, we get to see a healthy version of him back on the floor next season.
Resources: ESPN, Bleacher Report, The Athletic
-BEWARE THE PRO DAY TRAP! Both James Bouknight and Sharife Cooper received raved reviews following their workouts. Bouknight put together a red-hot shooting performance during his, and in ESPN’s coverage, they noted, “One longtime NBA executive described it as ‘the most impressive workout’ he’s ever seen.” Cooper’s performance was also lauded, despite the fact that, per ESPN, “Cooper elected not to take any off-the-dribble three-pointers, one of his big question marks.” At the time, these workouts generated significant buzz, but in the end, these performances didn’t really help the stock of either player. Bouknight slipped to 11th and Cooper fell all the way to 48th. Teams saw these for what they were—workouts in a non-game situation. In the time since then, neither player has truly etched out a firm role in the league. That’s not because they did a pro day workout, obviously, and at the time, I was a fan of both. I mention these events to serve as a reminder to remember the context of these pro-day style events and not get too wrapped up in them.
-After spending much of the draft cycle in the later part of the second round, Quentin Grimes established himself as a dude who would 100% get picked. In two games, he scored 39 points and went 9-16 from three while playing a selfless, winning style. It was another case of an older, savvy operator with size tearing apart the competition and showing that he was ready for the big time. When those types of players perform really well at the combine, the trend is that they stick in the league.
-In the era of comparing big white guys who can shoot to Duncan Robinson, perhaps none of them fooled this evaluator more than Joe Wieskamp. A career 41.2% three-point shooter at Iowa, Wieskamp lit up the combine, scoring 26 points while going 6-for-17 from three and nabbing 10 boards in the first game of the week. A strong max-vertical and 3/4 sprint time helped his case, too. Not only could Wieskamp drain threes, but he could move, jump, and run hard off actions to get open. After going 41st to the Spurs, he’s still yet to find a true home in the NBA. Despite his physical profile, his defensive metrics in college were pretty mundane, and he’s still not offering much there to this day. There’s also a lack of connective tissue to his offense due to his lack of ball skills, shaky cutting instincts, and subpar passing acumen. On paper, Wieskamp is still a plus-athlete with a real tool to hang his hat on as a shooter. It’s not over for him by any means. But his combine performance is why it’s important to look deeper than the major surface-level positives.
-On the other end of that, Trey Murphy III and Corey Kispert helped themselves at the combine. Both tested well athletically and in terms of their measurements. While they were a tier above Wieskamp in terms of perception and didn’t play in the scrimmages at all, they have both proven to be players that were worth where they were taken. They have a signature skill (shooting), they have athleticism, and unlike Wieskamp, they have that connective tissue to their game. Kispert was able to put the ball on the floor at Gonzaga and Murphy’s athleticism was far more functional on the defensive end of the court. Both (more so Murphy) had a knack for burning defenders back door with cuts, too. Signature skill + NBA physical profile + a smart basketball mind = a good bet every time.
-Bones Hyland may not have been as enticing as Murphy or Kispert due to his position, but he lit up a scrimmage with 17 points, five rebounds, four assists and two blocks in 23 minutes before shutting it down. He measured with a 6’9” wingspan, too. There were clear NBA abilities within Hyland, though—despite being thin, he was a quick, slithery athlete with a deep bag who could score at every level. Having added in a level of refinement as a passer and defender since the end of the college season, teams started to take him more seriously. His decision-making as a playmaker and defensive intensity looked workable, and his 6’9” wingspan didn’t hurt. He’s played just under 20 MPG in the NBA since. For microwave scorers, the combine provides an opportunity to get hot against their competition in front of important eyes. If they get hot while showing the other stuff like Hyland did, too, there’s a path to the first round.
Resources: My column, The Athletic, ESPN, Bleacher Report
-Christian Braun and David Roddy both played in the scrimmages, and both ended up hearing their name called on draft night. What makes this especially notable is that their combine performances weren’t anything special. In Braun’s first game, he couldn’t get his shot to fall, but he used his intellect and athleticism to impact the game defensively, on the glass, and with his playmaking. Roddy was ice cold, going 0-6 from deep and 5-17 from the field. Still, his college production paired with his willingness to compete eased the Memphis front office, at the very least. This, to me, firmly makes the case that those outside the Top 20 should look to compete unless they have outlier circumstances. The positives far outweigh the negatives. In my reading, I didn’t come across a projected first-round pick who played themselves down boards in the scrimmages.
-Jalen Williams and Andrew Nembhard furthered the “size, feel, production” theory, as they destroyed the competition in scrimmage play and then immediately looked the part in the NBA. JDub scored 30 points on 16 shots, but he also blew the measurements and athletic testing out of the water. His vertical and three-courter sprint times were both in the top five at the event, and his 7’2.5” wingspan was closer to that of a big than a wing. When you marry that with his size, feel, and production, of course he was going to come in and be ready to contribute. In Nembhard’s only combine game, he posted an obscene 26 points and 11 assists. While he may not have Williams’s athletic tools, in hindsight, his performance should have been more strongly considered. It was obvious that he was ready to use his poise, playmaking, and range to make an NBA impact.
-A few Elite Camp Risers made a strong case for themselves. Tyrese Martin parlayed a strong Portsmouth Invitational campaign into a strong Elite Camp outing, and then he looked rock solid at the NBA Combine. He ended up hearing his name called on draft night. The same was true for Kenneth Lofton Jr., who had an incredible season in the G League. Just because a player didn’t go straight to the NBA Combine doesn’t mean they can be dismissed, whether it’s in terms of their performances at that event or as a pro going forward.
-There is a line that teams will draw at a certain point when it comes to physical build, and John Butler learned that the hard way. The 7-footer weighed in at 174 pounds, the fifth lightest at the event. The only guys who came in lighter were under 6’5” in shoes. Having hit 39.3% of his threes as a freshman at Florida State, and going 5-for-13 on triples at the combine, paired with six blocks in two games, there was still intrigue around the wiry stretch big man. Ultimately, he went undrafted. He signed a two-way with the Pelicans before being waived and picked up on another two-way with the Blazers. Despite his size and tools, his lack of offensive playmaking and scrawny build deterred teams from committing a larger guarantee to him. He’s been fine but not great in the G League, and he appeared in 19 regular season games, but he didn’t quite seem prepared for the NBA, shooting inefficiently and struggling on the glass.
-The Leonard Miller of a year ago was much different than the one that exists today. Here’s what I wrote last year:
In his first combine game, it was clear that the speed of play was a bit much for him. He traveled, got baited by fakes, played too upright defensively, threw the ball to where players were rather than where they were going, and failed to make snappy decisions. These are kinks that can absolutely work themselves out in time, but it’s important to remember that NBA front offices are far less patient than we would like them to be from a player development standpoint. Plus, there may be gambles NBA teams would feel safer taking than Miller at this stage. His second game was better, but he still struggled with his balance on defense and got burned by the previously mentioned slow Hugo Besson on a poor closeout.
This should be a massive reminder to not write a player off just because they need more time. Miller made an excellent decision in signing with G League Ignite. There, he competed against pros every night while being able to play through his mistakes. Even at the start of the season, he still had lots of issues with consistency as a decision-maker on both ends. By the end of the year, he was posting double-doubles non-stop. Some guys simply need more time, attention, and the ability to explore the studio space free of consequences. For Miller, the decision to push back his “NBA contract clock” another year, get paid, and develop in the Ignite program was a great one. Not everyone needs to go to the league right away, and sometimes, another path may be the best one for them.
What does it all mean for this year?
1. When a player with size, feel, skill, and a past track record of production cleans up in a combine game, that’s usually a real thing.
Players like Andrew Nembhard, Cody Martin, Terance Mann, Quentin Grimes, and Kevin Huerter all fit this bill. They showed up, they outperformed the competition, and they had good size for the NBA. Players who checked all those boxes don’t tend to flop at the next level. It’s tricky to telegraph, though—a lot of players meet the size, feel, and production prerequisites, but questions remain about what they will look like when they’re on the floor with loads of other NBA/near-NBA level players. For that reason, I’m casting a wide net here. This slew of players all look like guys who could massively improve their stock if they look the part on against high-level talent.
Prospects (projected scrimmage participants) in this mold to watch: Trey Alexander, Toumani Camara, Tosan Evbuomwan, PJ Hall, Coleman Hawkins, Andre Jackson, DaRon Holmes II, Jaime Jaquez Jr., Dillon Jones, Kevin McCullar, Leonard Miller, Jordan Miller, Omari Moore, Jalen Pickett, Brandin Podziemski, Sir’Jabari Rice, Ben Sheppard, Jalen Slawson, Jalen Wilson.
2. Athleticism paired with an NBA-level skill is a winning bet, especially if the feel is there.
Corey Kispert, Trey Murphy, Nic Claxton, Gary Trent Jr., and Jaren Jackson Jr. are the big standouts in this category. This category is more skewed to players who don’t participate in the scrimmages and are more solid, sure-thing draftable commodities going in.
Prospects in this mold to watch: Kobe Bufkin, Taylor Hendricks, Trayce Jackson-Davis, Maxwell Lewis, Dereck Lively II, James Nnaji, Adem Bona (injured, unlikely to test athletically).
3. Good measurements and positive athletic testing results are nice, but they aren’t everything.
Mo Bamba out-measured Jaren Jackson Jr., but he wasn’t as fully fleshed-out from an on-court, winning impact standpoint, and he never bridged that gap. Joe Wieskamp checks every box on paper, but his lack of ball skills and muted defensive impact in spite of those tools didn’t disappear because he measured and tested well. The connective tissue to a player’s game matters quite a bit. Kevin Hervey did well with the testing and even had a stellar scrimmage performance, but his past track record wasn’t against great competition, and his red-hot shooting performance was simply a case of him getting hot. Conversely, players like Dillon Brooks and John Collins didn’t wow with their marks, but they’ve still carved out successful NBA careers. When buying a stock, it’s best to examine the entire company rather than one micro-aspect of the company’s spreadsheet. Bad measurements aren’t a reason to throw the baby out with the bathwater, and strong ones don’t correlate perfectly with NBA success.
4. A mundane or bad scrimmage outing isn’t curtains for a player’s draft stock.
Look no further than Christian Braun and David Roddy last year. If a team still buys the player’s prior body of work, one or two bad outings won’t dissuade them from getting their guy.
5. The NBA Combine is only a few data points, but they are still data points, nevertheless.
There are a lot of different philosophies when it comes to the NBA Combine. Some are eager to make snap judgments, buying in or selling out on a player based on how they tested or performed. Others are quick to rebuke that line of thinking, noting that games are played on the floor, and the disorganized, thrown-together aspect of scrimmage games can be deceiving. It’s a fine line that has to be toed. On one end, holding firm on Andrew Nembhard as a mid-second rounder or Jalen Williams as a late-first, early-second prospect would have been entirely regrettable if someone hand-waved the event. Conversely, rocketing Dewan Hernandez up one’s board wouldn’t have proven wise, either. In doing this research, I’ve done my best to identify the trends and traits then tend to best translate stemming from this environment. It isn’t an exact science, but there is significant smoke to players with skill, size, feel, and a past track record of production who perform well managing to translate to the next level.