What Is The NBA Draft Combine & Why You Should Care

Finally, NBA Draft Combine week arrived in the city of Chicago! Have you enjoyed the action? Or perhaps you are nerve-wracked for your favorite prospects? Oh? You are not familiar with the NBA Draft Combine. So you don’t know what to make of the events? No issue. I can easily free up my schedule to get you up to speed with the ins and outs of the event and why the Combine is such a tentpole in the annual draft process.

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Starting with the basics, the NBA Draft Combine is an annual, May-scheduled, nearly week-long convention of NBA team executives and scouts scanning every nook and cranny of upcoming NBA draft hopefuls’ lives in order to help determine which prospects would best contribute to each team’s future championship glory. Those dozens of draft hopefuls run through a gauntlet of physical examinations, skill drills, scrimmages, and interviews to prove to each NBA team the hopeful deserves top priority in the NBA Draft that generally follows the combine in the following month of June.

Now before we proceed any further, the most important axiom to bear in mind when observing the combine is “Draft combine results NEVER tell the full story of a prospect”. Almost universally, NBA scouts and executives prioritize a prospect’s game film over any specific time in an agility drill, any shot percentage in a shooting drill, and any wingspan measurement during physical examinations.

You can call the NBA Draft Combine a SAT or ACT exam for NBA draft prospects. Much of the purpose of the combine for NBA team personnel is to see how well a prospect can prepare himself to reach peak condition and form for a specific event. The personnel would not take to heart that the combine results would be a representation of a prospect’s median condition and form during a regular season or offseason.

With that clarified, let’s begin with the physical examination section of the combine, which usually launches the combine “festivities”. Of course, one major reason for this physical testing is to just check for any potentially chronic physical ailments or disorders that would interfere with the prospects having a long and durable NBA career.

Previous highly regarded prospects such as Jared Sullinger and DeJuan Blair have had their draft stock slide precipitously due to recently discovered limb injuries or heart conditions that made betting on said prospects far riskier than previously thought. A first round pick in the NBA Draft gets a guaranteed contract for signing with the drafting team and no team ever wants to guarantee salary to a player who could seem injured for at least half the contract length.

The physical exams at the combine also provides measurements for each prospect’s body parts as history has informed the NBA of the increased probability of future success when prospects meet certain measurement thresholds for particular body parts. Such valued measurements are length of wingspan (long arms allow for more space to be covered when defending an opposing player or trying to shoot or pass around an opposing defender), weight (a Goldilocks measurement where a weight too light creates strength worries against bigger opponents and a weight too heavy creates quickness worries against smaller opponents), hand width & length (bigger hands allow players to better control the basketball when trying to avoid or cause turnovers or take close shots at the basket), body fat (48 minutes of NBA basketball will have most unconditioned men dry-heaving), and standing reach (related to wingspan with a long standing reach making your defense potentially more obstructive for opposing shooters and making avoiding the hands of opposing defenders easier to accomplish).

Another scouting section of the combine is the athletic testing drills where some of those physical measurements can be demonstrated in more practical manners. There is the three-quarter court sprint drill that tests speed and acceleration. The three-quarter court sprint aims to simulate a player running in transition during a basketball game and measure how fast a player can do so. Most perimeter-based prospects will hope to aim for a sprint time less than 3.2 seconds.To call back to an earlier point, the sprint times should not be seen as a deal-breaker for almost any draft prospects. The drill doesn’t account for on-court fatigue experienced in the later moments of games nor does it account for usual effort levels or awareness while in transition.

The lane agility and shuttle run drills allow for teams to perceive a prospect’s potential agility when sliding from sideline to sideline or navigating screens as both an offensive and defensive player. Most prospects will aim for a lane agility time of less than 11.5 seconds and a shuttle run time below 3 seconds.

Probably the most notable athletic drills for the NBA combine are the standing vertical leap and maximum vertical leap tests as leaping ability has remained the most basketball-related athletic trait of the four major North American sports. The difference between the standing vertical and the max vertical comes down to the former requiring the best effort at leaping high from a stationary position while the latter allows for a running start to gain more leg power. Not only do the drills measure leaping ability but they also give teams estimations about a prospect’s explosiveness accelerating with the ball or conducting verticality (the act of obstructing layups with standing vertical leaps).

For prospects with less than notable athletic and physical attributes, fret not as 5-on-5 scrimmages and shooting drills are also a staple of the combine. The scrimmages allow prospects to demonstrate skillsets in front of scouts and outside of the systems gameplanned for them at their previous colleges or international teams.

The shooting drills test both the ability to make long distance shots while spotting up stationarily and also the ability to make long distance shots while on the move. Scouts will especially check for the consistency and mechanics of the shooting motions as much as the final results of the drills. Even if a prospect struggles in the drills, he could be a minor mechanical tweak away from being reliable.

Finally, NBA executives value the combine a lot for the opportunities to finally sit with the majority of upcoming draft prospects for face to face interviews. The interviews are not televised, unfortunately, but anecdotes suggest the interviews frequently make major differences in terms of winning lifelong fans or enemies of influential team executives, regardless of the prospect’s true talent level. Teams will look to ensure the prospects they are interested in are levelheaded about the expectations the prospects will have immediately they sign a contract with a team. A projected 2nd round pick answering questions with the insinuations of expecting immediate franchise player treatment could easily turn many teams off as could a potential number one overall pick who treats the mantle of franchise superstar too immaturely.

And there you have it as far as the information you need to contextualize the NBA Draft Combine. The combine tends to be the event where NBA Draft frenzy reaches its peak before the real drafting begins a month later. The event can lead to franchise-altering pivots in philosophies going forward. The combine can also send a previously unheralded prospect into talk-of-the-town status with one gaudy vertical leap, a dominant showing in the scrimmages, or a charming round of interviews. However, always keep in mind to take only a few assertions out of the combine if at all. After all, the uncertainty of the future is often one of the draft’s most appealing draws.