Sam Dekker and R.J. Hunter shine at NBA draft combine workouts
The NBA draft combine is just one day away, but I got a sneak preview of seven prospects on Tuesday morning at the University of Illinois-Chicago. Wisconsin's Sam Dekker, Georgia State's R.J. Hunter, Arkansas' Bobby Portis, Kansas' Cliff Alexander, Wyoming's Larry Nance Jr., Texas' Jonathan Holmes and Gonzaga's Kevin Pangos went through about an hour of ballhandling and shooting drills while I sat courtside. Here's what I learned:
Dekker isn't just a good athlete, he's an elite one
Seeing him on the court with three other good athletes -- Portis, Alexander and Nance -- Dekker really popped in his explosive leaping ability. It will be fascinating to see how he tests at the combine. I could see him doing very, very well. I asked Dekker what he's been working on the past six weeks in Chicago. "Getting my ballhanding down," Dekker told ESPN. "I've always been a good ball handler, but when you take it to the next level, you have to be even better. I'm also trying to get more consistent in my jump shot. I think I've taken long strides in my confidence and consistency. It's feeling good. But it can always get better."
Dekker also said he's been working on creating for others. He said that's an underrated part of his game that given the structure of Wisconsin's offense, he didn't always get to showcase. With more freedom and space in the NBA, he's hoping to show he can also be a great passer. The biggest question on every NBA scouts mind is his jump shot. Dekker with an elite jump shot is a top-10 pick. Without it, he's more of a mid-first round guy. The good news is that Dekker seems to be adjusting to the longer NBA 3-point line just fine. In one of the last drills of the morning, Dekker shot 16-of-25 from the NBA 3-point line. At this point Dekker isn't an elite 3-point shooter -- just a solid one. He can make that shot, but it's still inconsistent. Figuring that out (as many players like him have done before) will be a major key to his success in the NBA. His draft stock looks to be solidly in the No. 10 to No. 15 range.
No one needs worry about R.J. Hunter's jump shot
After shooting 37 and 40 percent, respectively, from 3 (on an average of seven attempts per game) as a freshman and sophomore, Hunter's 3-point percentages plummeted as a junior. He shot just 30.5 percent from 3 this season, leading some scouts to question whether he was as good of a shooter as advertised. The truth is a little bit more convoluted. Hunter, who won Sun Belt Player of the Year in 2014 (over Elfrid Payton), was the target of defenses every single night. He often had two defenders draped on him with every shot he took. It was rare for him to get a clean look inside 30 feet.
"It was tough," Hunter told ESPN.com when asked about the swarming defenses he faced. "I loved it. It forced me to do other things that I wasn't doing. It forced me to make plays for others, and I had to not take shots I would normally take. I had to grow mentally as a player. I had to learn how to do other things when my shot wasn't falling."
It appears to have worked. Hunter more than doubled his assist total (from 1.7 per game as a sophomore to 3.7 as a junior) and improved his free throw rate from 4.9 free throw attempts per game to 6.6. He definitely was a more versatile player. But I don't think his jump shot went anywhere. Hunter shot the ball lights out in the workout I saw, including hitting 19-of-25 from NBA 3 in drills. His stroke is silky smooth (albeit with a little bit of a low release) and his range is very deep. With the emphasis that the NBA is putting on shooting these days, he should show great in workouts. But Hunter doesn't want to just be known as a shooter. His hero is Stephen Curry, and like Curry, he's hoping to develop into a point guard as well. His 3.7 assists per game this season, combined with his high basketball IQ and good ball handling skills could make him more of a Klay Thompson or James Harden-type player in the pros. The GMs I spoke to on Tuesday have him ranked between No. 12 and No. 21 on their boards. If he shoots the ball well, he'll end up in the lottery.
Bobby Portis is a hustler
I've been writing all year that Portis does everything well, but nothing great. I need to revise that statement.
After digging through more video of him over the past month and then watching him again in workouts, I do think there is something Portis does that's elite -- he hustles. He's a pretty low-key young man when you talk with him, but roll out the basketball and there are very few bigs in the game who play as hard as Portis does on both ends of the floor. That motor was evident in his workout here in Chicago. Despite being the biggest guy on the floor, he out hustled everyone here and really set the tone for the other players on the court. He also shot the ball very, very well for a big man. His shot release is a bit unorthodox (he let's it go from behind his head) but it goes in -- a lot.
Even his NBA 3-point stroke looked polished. To me, Portis is one of the lowest risk players in the draft. His ceiling might not be incredibly high (though there are enough pieces there physically and skills wise to make me rethink that) but his floor is very, very high. He's so fundamentally sound, I have a hard time seeing how a player with his size, motor and all-around game fails in the NBA. For a drafting team that simply cannot afford miss on a player, he's a very good pick. No. 13 to No. 20 continues to feel like the proper range for him in the draft.
Cliff Alexander has a consistent jump shot
We haven't seen Alexander play since Feb. 23. Kansas sat him down after the NCAA began investigating his family for receiving improper benefits. The damage was twofold. Not only did we not get to see Alexander play down the home stretch just as he was beginning to improve, but the investigation forced him into the draft before it was ideal. Now teams are scrambling to figure out where he should go. Everyone knows he has a NBA body, crazy long arms (7-foot-4 wingspan) and tries to dunk everything. His length and motor are probably his two best characteristics right now. But after that, what sort of basketball player is he? What else does he bring to to the table?
One thing I saw in workouts here that I didn't see much of at Kansas was a nice 10- to 15-foot jump shot Alexander was consistently knocking down in drills. He rarely shot it from there at Kansas and the assumption was he didn't have that sort of range. But it was clear from the workouts he's comfortable with that jump shot. He's in no way a stretch four, but there's more there than meets the eye.
Nance, Holmes and Pangos are potential second-round picks
Nance and Holmes will both play in the 5-on-5 game at the draft combine on Thursday and Friday, and I'll wait to evaluate them there. Seeing them in that setting is much more helpful. I will say that Nance had his brace off for the first time since tearing his ACL last year and looked very athletic. He's still recovering but it was the most fluid and athletic I've seen him since the surgery. Pangos didn't get an invite which was clearly disappointing to him. Being the starting point guard on one of the top college teams in the country wasn't enough to get him in. Scouts point to his lack of elite size (6-1 with a 5-11 wingspan) and athleticism as his biggest obstacles to playing in the NBA.
Pangos can clearly shoot the ball. He shot 43 percent from three and 48 percent on his two-point jumpers his senior year. He was hitting everything in workouts as well. And he's definitely a point guard with advanced floor vision. I think he probably didn't get invited because scouts feel they know him well. After four years at Gonzaga, they know what Pangos brings. The questions will be whether his physical limitations (especially on the defensive end) outweigh his high basketball IQ and skill set.