CHICAGO — The initial pair of combine scrimmages took place Thursday, with two more coming Friday as teams continue to hold interviews and conduct business behind the scenes. As usual, when the entire league gathers in one place for an extended period of time, information travels and draft speculation starts to get serious. A series of agency-run pro days continues to take place here in Chicago, and top executives will head to California next week to finish that circuit.
The first day of games at the combine tends to be more important than the second, if only because players who start out hot are often withdrawn from the event by their agents. There’s a strategic degree of teasing that takes place and often works to the benefit of prospects, particularly those with real chances at cracking the first round. Last year, Josh Primo, Bones Hyland, Josh Christopher and Quentin Grimes were among those who successfully built momentum at this event. Conversely, many prospects on the fringe of the first round who opted not to play wound up slipping into the second round on draft night.
Based on chatter from around the league and what we saw on the court Thursday, here’s what you need to know from the combine so far.
What will the Thunder do?
While the Magic actually won Tuesday’s lottery, the bulk of the early speculation around the league has been centered on Oklahoma City, which holds the No. 2 pick. This is partially because the general expectation around the combine has been that Orlando will go with Auburn forward Jabari Smith at No. 1, but also because the Thunder’s intentions are notoriously hard to peg. While nobody knows exactly what’s going to happen yet—it’s so early that it’s not worth obsessing—all we can do for now is consider the options.
Operating under the loose assumption that the Magic take Smith, there’s a segment of rival executives that think Thunder boss Sam Presti will have a hard time passing on Gonzaga forward Chet Holmgren, as I initially projected in Tuesday’s mock draft. But I’ve also heard quite a few educated theories since draft night that Oklahoma City may favor Duke forward Paolo Banchero in this spot. It feels like the concern over Banchero’s defense (which, to some extent, I share) has been somewhat overblown on the public front: He’s not a rim protector, but he’s also not a stiff, and he’s a rare talent when it comes to ball skills and feel at his size. His jump shot can be shaky at times, but he’s ready to play in the NBA from an offensive standpoint. He’ll presumably be part of the discussion with Orlando at No. 1, but if he’s available at No. 2, it creates an interesting conundrum.
When it comes to the Thunder, you can argue this both ways: OKC is operating under a very undefined contention timeline and has shown the willingness to be patient and develop prospects who weren’t necessarily physically ready for the league. Holmgren is a nice fit there in theory, as the Thunder will have a runway to experiment with how best to deploy him, and there’s an immediate need for improved interior defense on the roster. I have no idea if he could play alongside the similarly slender Aleksej Pokuševski, but that’s certainly interesting to think about. And if Oklahoma City believes in him long-term, the roster remains amorphous enough to pick him and put the right type of pieces next to him.
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On the other hand, if there’s been a pattern to the way Presti has built his team out over the past couple years, it’s that the Thunder clearly value size and skill on the perimeter. They also have invested very little at the center position at this point, mostly opting to fill out those spots with steady veterans. Banchero, capable of moonlighting at point guard and operating as both ballhandler and screener in pick-and-roll situations, offers inarguably more perimeter utility at his size than Holmgren. Given that he’s physically ready for the league, it’s also a safer assumption that Banchero will immediately enhance the rotation in some capacity.
It may be some time before there’s clarity on this matter, if there ever is any, but it’s safe to say the intrigue in the lottery presently begins at No. 2. If we learned anything last year, when they grabbed Josh Giddey at No. 6, it’s that nobody should ever make any assumptions about what the Thunder are doing.
How high can Shaedon Sharpe go?
Sharpe has come up in a lot of my conversations this week as a prospect who both fascinates and frightens NBA executives. He’s almost certainly going to come off the board in the first five or six picks of this draft despite never playing a college minute at Kentucky, and there are two very stark sides of the coin here. Sharpe’s frame, balletic movements, ability to create space with his handle and potentially high-level jumper are tantalizing. Over the course of a Monday pro day that basically consisted of him dribbling around, launching jumpers and doing cool dunks, it was pretty obvious why he’s going to get picked so high.
The risk here is built into what we don’t know—how Sharpe will produce over the course of a full season—and heightened by what we do know: He has a quiet personality and sometimes came off as low-energy in AAU and high school action. That may mean nothing in the long run, but it would be hard to characterize him as an elite motor player. Most teams don’t have the strongest feel for what type of competitor he is yet as a result. It’s worth noting that he’s also taken a unique trajectory to his current status: He was under the radar in Canada and didn’t have a hot recruitment before he blew up as a prospect in late 2020. The 19-year-old Sharpe’s life has changed quite a bit since, and it’s happened very fast. Sometimes situations like that deserve the benefit of the doubt, but sometimes they also throw young people into circumstances they were never prepared for. Teams will make their own assessments, and how Sharpe handles individual on-site workouts and interviews will play the biggest role in this.
There’s no shortage of interest here, regardless—I’d expect pretty much every team in the top 10, including Orlando and Oklahoma City, to at least try and bring him in. There’s quite a bit left to determine here, but safe to say the prospect of Sharpe’s unusual talent and athletic ability has successfully captured the attention of the entire NBA this week.
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A number of players had strong days at the combine, with counting stats aided to some extent by a large group of players who opted out of playing five-on-five at the last minute, creating plenty of minutes to go around. There’s not enough room or time to highlight every single player, so here are a handful of notables who moved the needle in my mind (not all of whom had the best days). We’ll have more wrapping up the combine next week.
Terquavion Smith, NC State
Smith was pretty clearly the most intriguing guard prospect to take the court here on Thursday, showing his shot-making, sneaky athleticism and making several nice passing reads over the course of the first game. He wound up shooting just 6-of-17 from the field and cooled off with just five of his 17 points in the second half, but his showing overall was pretty promising and helped validate those who viewed him as a late first-round caliber player . Smith is quite thin and has a lot of growth ahead of him, but his ability to create his own shot and also make threes at a pretty good clip is pretty appealing, considering he’s still only 19 and hasn’t played a whole lot of high -level basketball at all. Teams still seem to view him as a project, which probably limits the ceiling of where he’ll be drafted, but Smith certainly enhanced his case on Thursday.
Jalen Williams, Santa Clara
Williams has quite a few fans around the NBA and has gathered steam as a player in the first-round discussion, although there’s still some mixed opinion. He’s got great length, can pass, dribble and shoot at competent levels, and is much more functionally athletic than was always evident on film. He finished with a solid 11 points and four rebounds in the second game of the day and looks like he has a real chance at carving out a role, considering the need for versatile complementary wings. Williams isn’t crazily dynamic putting the ball on the floor and struggled a bit to securely attack the second level of the defense, but that won’t be asked of him all that often in the NBA. He’s got a good base of skills to build on and has helped himself this week.
Trevion Williams, Purdue
It was nice to see Williams produce and show his skill level while unfettered by the confines of Purdue’s offensive system: He put up 14 points, 13 rebounds and recorded five assists while helping his team to a win in the first game. He shot just 5-of-13 from the field, but did make an open three-pointer, simultaneously raising some concerns about his shot diet but showing his potential to one day have real perimeter functionality. Williams has worked himself into great shape, has great length and real passing chops, and looked pretty mobile in the run of play. He’ll never be an above-the-rim big, but Williams offers quite a bit for a creative team to work with, and over the course of a productive game was able to showcase the skills that separate him from most of the other bigs at the combine.
Ryan Rollins, Toledo
The 19-year-old Rollins was clearly one of the most competent guards to take the court Thursday, impacting the game with his ability to get into the paint and showcasing above-average athleticism around the rim. He’s a scoring combo guard who doesn’t play with a ton of charisma or creativity, but he found ways to get things done in the run of play, and considering his age, there’s clearly some stuff for teams to work with here. He missed all three of his three-point attempts, which won’t assuage concerns about his range, but he clearly deserved to be at the combine and has worked his way toward draftability if he decides not to return to college.
Michael Foster, G League Ignite
Part of why the combine is valuable is the ability to see players at the same position at similar stages of their careers on the same court. The second combines game showcased four different long-term project bigs in Foster, Moussa Diabaté, Josh Minott and Dominick Barlow, and I thought Foster’s experience gained from a full season in the G League was readily apparent when placed in the context of his peers. Foster still has some bad habits and loves his jumper a bit too much, but his body looks terrific, he has an improved understanding of his role and he made several surprisingly good passes on Thursday that stood out. Even though he finished with just five points and six rebounds, I came away a bit more encouraged about his trajectory, and wonder if he can work his way into productivity as he matures. Foster probably deserves more patience, and his physical tools certainly won’t be what prevents him from being successful.
John Butler, Florida State
I felt Butler deserved a footnote here: He hit two threes early in the first game and looked pretty comfortable on the perimeter before a collision with Kofi Cockburn that sent him to the sidelines for a bit. He eventually returned and finished with just six points and three rebounds, but it’s hard not to walk away somewhat more intrigued by his skill potential at 7′ 1″, despite his stick figure-esque body type. He may wind up returning to college, but it’s also evident that there’s more here that wasn’t on display at Florida State, and he’s the type of unique project that could be tempting in the second round this year.
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