At the NBA draft combine, mystery is more valuable than getting on the court

Boston College's Jerome Robinson (1) reacts after scoring during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against the North Carolina State in the second round of the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament Wednesday, March 7, 2018, in New York. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

Chicago • This was like all those summer tournaments Jerome Robinson once played in, balls bouncing on three different courts, scouts filling the gym, coaches meeting their team for the first time and sending kids into action with nothing but an offensive set or two.

Except there was one big difference at the NBA draft combine on Thursday. Robinson could watch five-on-five scrimmages squeak up and down the court, but he could not play.

“It hurts, it hurts, it does hurt, man,” said Robinson, who entered the NBA draft and hired an agent after three standout seasons as a guard at Boston College. “I felt like I was in an AAU gym and I was waiting to play next. But I’m going to be waiting for the next six hours, and then I am just going to leave.”

For players, and their agents and advisers, whether to scrimmage is one of the most pressing decisions at this week’s combine. Who scrimmages and who doesn’t is a glimpse into the strata of prospects and complicated nuances of the pre-draft evaluation process.

Top prospects such as Texas center Mohamed Bamba and Missouri’s Michael Porter Jr., who made pit stops at the combine for interviews Thursday but did nothing on the court, would not scrimmage and risk raising red flags in their game. Anfernee Simons, a 6-foot-4 guard making the leap from a postgraduate high school year to the NBA, did not scrimmage Thursday and remains a mystery to the franchises considering taking him with a first-round pick. Mystery, while unquantifiable, is one of the most leverageable assets an NBA prospect can hold; scrimmaging at the combine is like fumbling it away.

Robinson and his agent figured three years of college tape is enough for NBA teams to chew on, and that he had little to gain from a five-on-five scrimmage with new teammates and little structure. A handful of players in Robinson’s situation decided to scrimmage. Players who scrimmaged Thursday were not required to do so again on Friday.

It may seem counterintuitive to avoid doing exactly what teams are potentially drafting you to do. But there can be a lot of risk in trying to prove something.

“The reality of the combine scrimmage is that most players can only hurt themselves,” an NBA Western Conference scout said. “But that can change from player to player. For a guy like Devonte Graham, we know exactly what he is and playing five-on-five would likely only make teams sour on him. Then for someone like Billy Preston, who has no college tape, you need to scrimmage because the teams have not seen you play against top competition.”

That seemed totally logical until it proved totally inaccurate.

Graham, who played four years at Kansas and was honored as Big 12 Conference player of the year this past season, scrimmaged Thursday. Preston, who left Kansas after a tangle with the NCAA and played three games in Bosnia before suffering a shoulder injury, did not. Graham played in 142 college games that NBA teams can sift through before considering him as a potential late first-round pick. He thought one more run up and down, at the least, would not hurt his stock.

Preston has zero college games on file and chose to remain an unknown instead of facing players he would have met as a freshman at Kansas. The 6-10 forward is projected as a first-round pick and only participated in physical testing Thursday.

“I talked to my agent and that’s what he said he thought was best for me,” Preston said. “So I decided not to do it.”

Did he tell you why you shouldn’t scrimmage?

“No, he just said ...” Preston started before a long pause. “ ... he didn’t want me to play.”

“I just like competing,” Graham said of why he decided to play. “I got all the GMs and coaches out here, why wouldn’t you play? People think that it can hurt him. I got confidence in myself that I’m not going to go out and play terrible and do anything that’s going to hurt me.”

Multiple NBA scouts noted it’s not a turn-off when a players decides not to scrimmage. The most important parts of the combine, they said, are medical testing and private meetings between prospects and teams that happen over the course of Wednesday, Thursday and Friday morning.

But scrimmaging can help a player marginally raise his profile, as was the case with Maryland guard Kevin Huerter on Thursday.

Huerter, a 6-7 shooter, finished his scrimmage with nine points and three assists and was praised by one scout for his court vision and “surprising defensive ability.” That, along with a strong showing in individual shooting drills and solid physical testing, shot Huerter into the first-round discussion. Huerter has not hired an agent and has until May 30 to decide whether he will continue onto the NBA draft or return to Maryland for his junior year. The combine was an opportunity to play in front of all 30 teams, since Huerter has limited time for individual workouts before making his decision.

“I wanted to come in here and prove myself against the best,” said Huerter, who later decided not to scrimmage Friday. “Coming here and playing against these type of guys in front of these type of people is something I definitely wanted to do.”

It is, in theory, something most players at the combine want to do. They aren’t used to being in a gym and sitting out on the sideline. Most could not remember the last time that happened. It felt weird for Grayson Allen, the former Duke guard.

Allen is a fringe first-round pick and wants teams to see him as a combo guard who can score from the wing and run an offense. But he thinks that shows up in film from his four-year college career, in which he played with a rotating cast of future NBA players, proved himself as a versatile scorer against the country’s best teams, and defended opposing guards of all speeds and sizes.

At a certain point, more basketball only means more nitpicking, and more nitpicking can only lead to sliding deeper into the draft come June 21. Allen stomached that and took his seat as a spectator.

“I’ve played for four years,” Allen said through a grin. “There’s a lot of tape on me.”