Vecenie’s NBA Draft Combine takeaways: Which prospects upped their stock in Chicago?

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The 2023 NBA Draft Combine has wrapped up, and it’s worth providing an update on some players who participated in the event last week.

Over the past few days, I’ve connected with a number of NBA sources across the spectrum to understand where the draft sits. The biggest takeaway is pretty simple: Very few players actually moved the needle in a truly substantive way.

There was no Jalen Williams, who measured well and rose from the latter portion of the first round into the lottery after playing and dominating five-on-five, in this class. Frankly, I’m not even sure yet that there was a performance like Christian Braun, a player who was projected on the precipice of the first round and solidified himself there.

Most projected first-round picks chose not to play in the scrimmages. The three highest-ranked players on my big board to play in the five-on-five portion were Jalen Wilson at No. 32, Andre Jackson at No. 33 and Olivier-Maxence Prosper at No. 37. In total, 37 players decided not to play in the scrimmages at all, including a few who made dumbfounding decisions to not play that I can hardly fathom.

Playing and succeeding in the five-on-five portion is the easiest way to help yourself as a draft prospect within the competitive and front-facing portions of the event, even including the parade of pro days that has begun to litter proceedings over the last two years. But even then, only the outliers really tend to stand out, and there weren’t any this year who ticked every combine box.

It’s worth mentioning, though, that the front-facing portions of the combine are not the most important pieces of it. The medical reports that prospects take part in and the interviews with teams are, by far, the parts NBA personnel point to as the things they care about most. Teams also use the time at the combine to interface with their colleagues on other teams and agents, sometimes starting or continuing conversations about offseason plans regarding trades and free agency.

The scrimmages matter, but they’re certainly only one data point. Teams like having measurements, and they’re intrigued by athletic testing that catches them by surprise. But in general, the testing, the drills and the pro days mean very little in the grand scheme of the selection process.

With all that being said, here’s a dive into two players who helped themselves more than anyone else for a consensus of evaluators; four other players who played well; the player from G League Elite Camp on whom I got the most positive feedback; and arguably the most interesting player who chose to participate in all facets of the event due to how split teams are on him.


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Two players who helped themselves most

Olivier-Maxence Prosper | 6-foot-8 wing | Marquette | Ranking: No. 35

Every year, guys perform exceedingly well in the first game of the combine then decide to sit out the second game after showing out. Prosper was that player this season, scoring 21 points on 11 shots while grabbing 11 rebounds and calling it a day. Above all, Prosper just looked the part. His athleticism and size stood out.

Measuring 6-foot-6 3/4 without shoes and an enormous 7-1 wingspan, he has the ideal measurements for a defensively conscious wing. His tape at Marquette backs that up as well, where he was often used as a stopper on opposing teams’ best perimeter players, such as Connecticut’s Jordan Hawkins. It’s harder than people think to find guys with legitimate size, length and athleticism on the wing like this, especially when they have upside to shoot it. Prosper made just 34 percent of his 3s this past season and only hit one-of-five from 3 in the scrimmage, so teams will want to keep a close on eye on how that continues to develop throughout his workout circuit. Teams also generally want to see more from Prosper as a decision-maker and passer and want to learn more about his overall feel for the game.

Prosper showcased in the scrimmages that he’s comfortable handling the ball, something he didn’t get a chance to show at Marquette. He had a few moments of escape dribbles and downhill attacks. He’s not exactly a shot creator out there, but he looks to have more game attacking closeouts and getting out in transition than meets the eye. And his ability to attack downhill and cover ground quickly saw him draw 12 free-throw attempts. Mix this with the defense that we know is high level, and it’s easy to see why Prosper is someone who excites NBA teams. He’s also really smart with a professional demeanor and mindset that was impressive in front of NBA personnel last week.

Prosper came the closest to ticking just about every box he could have. If the shot would have been there and looked truly consistent and comfortable, and he would have dished out a few high-level passing reads, he might have skied further up the board for teams. Still, expect him to be a name in the mix for teams starting somewhere in the 20s, and it’s hard to see him getting beyond the early 40s at this point. There’s a big group of players jockeying for position in that range, but Prosper firmly solidified himself as one of them.

Ben Sheppard | 6-foot-6 wing | Belmont | Ranking: No. 39

Even with everything I said earlier, it’s worth noting the combine is more important for some players than for others. Typically, the ones it matters most for are the guys who haven’t exactly been seen a ton by high-level decision-makers throughout the season. I would bet just about every team got eyes on Sheppard at Belmont this past season, but I’d also bet that precious few important front-office personnel did.

Sheppard was really good in the first game, scoring 10 points and playing incredibly fundamentally sound basketball. He cut at the right times and was a step ahead of his opponents in terms of his decision-making. He knocked down a couple of 3s, important for a player who profiles as a 3-and-D guy. But Sheppard was superb in the second game, scoring 25 points on just 10 field goal attempts and clearly looking like a standout. 

Teams don’t always look for the same things the public does in a setting like this. The points are nice, but with how first-round picks have started to sit out the event in recent years, evaluators are looking for skills that translate more into a role player capacity. Do you make the right decision? Do you profile to make life easier for the stars around you? Can you defend? Can you cut and pass? Do you have feel for the game? 

Even if Sheppard hadn’t scored 25 points in the best performance of the event in the second game, I thought his first game actually poised him to be a winner. But then, he blew the second game out of the water and was the best on-court. The issue for Sheppard is that he didn’t measure particularly well, coming in at 6-5 with a 6-7 wingspan and an 8-4 standing reach that makes him more of a two guard size than a true wing. Still, it wouldn’t stun me if teams late in the first round gave Sheppard a genuine look. At the very least, he is poised to strongly be in the mix to get a guaranteed contract, whereas coming into the event he was seen by scouts more as a curiosity in terms of how his game would translate to a higher level. First impressions matter, and Sheppard aced his for those who hadn’t seen him in-person previously.

Amari Bailey (Kyle Terada / USA Today)

Four others who played well

Amari Bailey | 6-5 wing | UCLA | Ranking: No. 46

When I talked to scouts ahead of the combine, Bailey was one of the players they seemed to be a bit worried about. They didn’t think he’d perform poorly necessarily; they just didn’t know what to expect after a season at UCLA that was a bit all over the map.

He was an efficient scorer who consistently got out in transition and generally took advantage of open 3-point opportunities. But the school also had Jaime Jaquez and Tyger Campbell taking up most of the usage, and the team took 3s on a lower percentage of their shot attempts than all but 15 teams in the country. For a player who has always seemed to be much more comfortable playing in the midrange and attacking as a driver, it was difficult to know exactly how Bailey would look after playing off the ball so much, even after a strong close to the season when he averaged 17 points, five rebounds and three assists on a 65.6 percent true shooting in the team’s conference tournament and NCAA Tournament games — games that came after Jaylen Clark’s Achilles injury.

There was a lot riding on this for Bailey. A bad performance could have hurtled him outside of the draft for teams. But Bailey showed up well, and it was instructive tape because it showed parts of Bailey’s game that we hadn’t gotten to see a ton of at UCLA.

With the increased spacing of the NBA, Bailey looked much more comfortable operating at pace. Without Campbell around and placed on a team without another NBA-caliber lead guard, Bailey got to play more as a primary ballhandler, and the production was terrific. He had 17 points, dished out eight assists and had zero turnovers in the first game. In the second game, he had 19 points and six assists but did turn it over five times.

There were some ups and downs. He didn’t showcase much in the way of explosiveness that makes you buy him consistently being able to separate from his man. And as a scorer, he still doesn’t seem wildly comfortable taking 3s, something that will need to change for his long-term outlook. But his overall polish on the ball was evident, his vision was crisp and he made the right passing read more often than not, especially in that first game.

I don’t know that Bailey moved the needle upward in a significant way with these performances, because it’s clear there is still a ways to go for him developmentally. Shooting off the catch still isn’t exactly his first option, and his finishing in the half court remains questionable. But he certainly steadied himself and gave scouts a picture of what could be if he works as an on-ball player with further reps. I think I’d still be a bit surprised if he heard his name called in the first round. He’s quite skinny and doesn’t have a ton of pop in terms of explosiveness. But anywhere from No. 30 to No. 50 seems about right at this stage.

Tristan Vukčević| 6-11 center | Partizan | Ranking: No. 53

Vukčević made shots at the combine, and that’s going to get you noticed. In the first game, Vukčević was 8-of-10 from the field, including 3-of-3 from 3. He was the most efficient offensive player in the first day of scrimmages and decided to sit out the second day after putting up such a performance.

This is definitely the kind of positive momentum Vukčević needed. He’s mostly been in the rotation of EuroLeague power Partizan’s games in the Adriatic League this year, posting solid 58/40/81 shooting splits in limited shots. A few scouts mentioned to me that they have some worries about his overall movement skills and whether he’ll be able to slide his feet enough to defend on the perimeter or anchor his spot enough to consistently hold his ground at the center position. He was a bit of a mixed bag in that regard defensively even in his standout combine performance. The good news is that he came in at 6-11 1/4 without shoes, so he’ll be a 7-footer with shoes on with a 9-3 standing reach. That puts him in strong company as a potential floor-spacing center.

I’d bet Vukčević ends up being a priority stash candidate in the second round this year. Teams with multiple picks in the second round like Charlotte (the Hornets have Nos. 34, 39 and 41) make a lot of sense. I don’t think he has done enough to climb into the first, but if you don’t have an available roster spot, he’ll be one of the best options.


Hollinger: Which prospects at NBA Draft Combine helped themselves the most?

Seth Lundy | 6-5 wing | Penn State | Ranking: No. 55

Lundy was solid and steady in Chicago. He did exactly what he was asked to do and did so with limited touches. In the first game, Lundy went 4-of-5 from the field — all 3s — to score 12 points. In the second game, he went 6-of-9 from the field, including another 4-of-6 shooting from 3 for 18 points. He also dished out three assists in the first game and four assists in the second.

We knew Lundy could shoot, but what was impressive about these two games was the way he got the shots. At Penn State, a lot of his shots came out of standstill spot-up situations, but in these games, he hit a few off movement. At Penn State this past season, 52 of Lundy’s 3s came out of spot-up situations, 12 came in transition and just 11 came off screens, per Synergy. For a player who made a pretty substantial leap as a shooter in his fourth season — something that can be a bit of a flag for evaluators — scouts did question what kind of shooter Lundy really was after going from a 34.9 percent 3-point shooter in his first three years to a 40 percent one in his final season. At the very least, this should quell some of those worries.

Lundy measured well for what is essentially an undersized combo forward. He came in at just 6-4 without shoes, but his massive 6-10 1/4 wingspan gives him an 8-8 standing reach that will allow him to play reasonably at the three and pinch hit at the four, an important skill set given his current skill level as a ballhandler and overall decision-maker. But Lundy is also a tough one-on-one defender who is willing to be physical and use his length and solid 215-pound frame to contest and make life difficult for opposing scorers. He’s not elite on that end, but he’s solid.

Teams won’t look at these games as the be-all, end-all. But everyone in the league is looking for shooting, especially from players with legitimate size and length to hold up defensively on the wing. It’s pretty easy to see a team like Sacramento, which has pick Nos. 38 and 54, value Lundy. The same goes for teams like Cleveland and the Lakers, both of whom should be pretty desperate to add cheap shooting on the wing around their stars in the 40s. Lundy isn’t a sure thing, but he has a shot to play a solid role in the NBA, and he solidified himself as worthy of a draft pick.

Adama Sanogo | 6-8 center | Connecticut | Ranking: No. 42

Sanogo is one of those guys I think people have the wrong impression of. There is this idea that he is just a big, slow undersized center who can’t guard in space, isn’t vertical enough to protect the rim and isn’t anything resembling a potential floor spacer. But I think he might have more to his game than meets the eye.

Connecticut this past season ran two very different schemes. When Sanogo was in, the Huskies would hard hedge and recover with him in ball screens, using his strength and length to get back into the play. When Donovan Clingan was on the court, they’d play in drop and let him use his immense length to just cover the entire court. But Sanogo actually is the more mobile one in defensive coverages. There is some short-area quickness there, and he communicates extremely well and calls out coverages for his guards. He’s also incredibly physical and strong. He’s not a Drew Timme or Oscar Tshiebwe type who has no chance to defend at the NBA level.

On top of that, Sanogo displayed historically relevant touch at the high-major level around the basket this past season. The Connecticut big man averaged 17.2 points and shot 60.2 percent from the field, but he shot 75.6 percent at the basket this past season having dunked the ball only 26 times. The rest were on layups. Per Synergy, Sanogo shot 74.8 percent on layups this past season, an absurd number for a big who gets contested at the basket like Sanogo does. He finished about four percent better than any high-major player who took at least three such shots per game. His 74.8 mark was actually the best percentage of any high-major player since 2016-17. Sanogo might not be a particularly vertical finisher with much lift, but he might have the touch that allows him to survive without it.

Beyond that, Sanogo is kind of a butt-kicker on the inside. There’s not another way to phrase it. He’s tougher and more physical than you. He came in at just 6-7 1/4 without shoes, but he has an enormous near-7-3 wingspan and a 9-0 1/2 standing reach that will allow him to play center. In five-on-five, Sanogo went for 18 points and 10 rebounds in the first game and 13 points, six rebounds and three assists in his second game.

He’s one of those dudes who works. I’m not a full-scale buyer, but I think there’s probably more to his game than he’s getting credit for. I’ve moved him into the top 50 and think he has a case as a fully rostered player on a guaranteed contract next year.

Brandin Podziemski (David Banks / USA Today)

Brandin Podziemski | 6-5 guard | Santa Clara | No. 45

A draft darling who excited public evaluators throughout the season, Podziemski was a tale of extremes at the combine. On one hand, he tested better than expected with a 39-inch vertical leap that got some attention. On the other hand, he measured with just an 8-0 1/2 standing reach that gave evaluators real pause about his potential to defend. In the first combine game, he produced a near masterpiece, scoring 10 points, dishing out seven assists and grabbing eight rebounds. In the second game, he was completely invisible. Where does this leave him?

Podziemski is polarizing, which is unsurprising given his journey. His counting stats of 19.9 points, 8.8 rebounds and 3.7 assists are outstanding. He’s a great shooter and hit 43.8 percent of his 3s this past season. On the surface, those are high-end numbers, but if you dig deeper, his numbers tanked against quality competition. In his six Tier A games, per KenPom, Podziemski had just a 53.8 true shooting percentage and saw his rebounding rate and assist rate drop by about 25 percent. In the five games he played against top-50 KenPom defenses, he averaged just 13.2 points and 5.2 rebounds.

This would probably be worth overlooking as small sample, but the track record on players who transferred from the high-major level down to a lower level is not exactly long or littered with immense success stories. Outside of players who moved to powerhouse Gonzaga, only five such down-transfers have been selected going back through the 2011 NBA Draft. And I’m not sure any are entirely equivalent to Podziemski, who simply couldn’t get on the floor at Illinois then became a draft prospect at what a person could reasonably consider a mid-major in Santa Clara.

Cody Martin transferred from NC State to Nevada, but that was going from Mark Gottfried to Eric Musselman. We’ll be gracious and merely call that a significant coaching upgrade. Malachi Flynn and Xavier Thames are two others, going from lowly Washington State in the Pac-12 — a school that has made five NCAA Tournaments since 1941 — to Mountain West power San Diego State (a school that has missed the NCAA Tournament just twice since 2010). That’s not a lateral move; that’s an upgrade. The fourth is Damyean Dotson, who was dismissed from Oregon in the wake of a sexual assault allegation before landing at Houston. The fifth is Semi Ojeleye, going from Duke to SMU. Ojeleye is probably the closest comparable situation, but SMU isn’t exactly a mid-major, and he also carried the Mustangs to a 30-5 record that saw them ranked 11th in the final AP poll of the season.

As you can probably guess, I’m lower on Podziemski than the average evaluator. But I’m not the one making the picks, and NBA scouts and decision-makers came out of the combine with a more positive feeling on Podziemski than a negative one. Much like with Sheppard above, this was a more important event for him than for others. Very few higher-level evaluators got out to Santa Clara this past season. For some, this was their first chance to see Podziemski. Performing the way he did on the first day of scrimmages — in what was widely perceived by people in attendance to be the best, most competitively played game of the four at the event — did him a lot of good. First impressions are so important for prospects and realistically are often over-indexed in the scouting process. It far outweighed the two-point performance in the second game, at least anecdotally, based on conversations I had.

More than anything, I think Podziemski solidified his standing as someone who will get looks starting near the end of the first round and will likely become the down-transfer anomaly who hears his name called within the first 40 to 45 picks. Following the event, he announced that he will stay in the draft, and I think that’s the right call for him given the feedback. He’ll be a bit lower on my board than others because I tend to be less interested in smaller players in the modern NBA. I really struggle to see how he’s going to defend effectively without much in the way of quickness or height. Scoot Henderson, Cason Wallace and Marcus Sasser are the only players 6-3 or under in my top 50. Sasser’s standing reach is actually three inches longer than Podziemski’s. Wallace’s standing reach came in at 8-5. While we don’t have a standing reach for Henderson, I’d bet it also exceeds that of Podziemski’s given that he has something in the ballpark of a 6-9 wingspan. In terms of effective NBA size, Podziemski is essentially the smallest player ranked in my top 50.

All that matters, though, is that quite a few NBA evaluators feel differently. My guess is one of their teams takes the plunge on Podziemski, a fascinating prospect who did more good than harm last week for his stock.


John Hollinger’s Top 20 players in this year’s NBA Draft

The G League Elite Camp’s winner

Dillon Jones | 6-foot-5 wing | Weber State | Rank: No. 63

Jones has risen as much as any player in the pre-draft process for teams, taking advantage of a head start he got. Jones chose to play for the Portland Generals at Nike Hoop Summit, a group of older college veterans who play against the elite-level high-school recruits at that event in scrimmages seen by dozens of high-level NBA decision-makers. In the game against the World Team, Jones was arguably the best player on the court, controlling the game with his pace, passing ability, toughness on the glass and willingness to shoot. He essentially played as a point guard late in the game and got his teammates open looks with his high-IQ style of play.

Had he not played well there, I think there is a very good chance he would not have been invited to the G League Elite Camp. Despite leading the entire NCAA in defensive rebounding rate this past season, Jones didn’t have a ton of buzz among NBA scouts. I had him ranked in my top 100 entering the process, but when I’d bring him up to teams, they’d just bat his name away as an undersized four who isn’t traditionally athletic and only made 30 percent of his 3-point attempts.

However, he parlayed that great performance in Portland into another opportunity, this time in front of the entire basketball world at the Elite Camp. He had nine points and seven rebounds in the first game of that event but blew up in the second. He had 15 points and seven rebounds in that game to go with four steals, using his immense length and feel for the game to impact things on both ends. That earned the big combine call-up, where in his first game he had 17 points, three assists and three steals. He only had five points and five assists in the second game, but the damage was done. Jones had cemented himself as a huge winner of the process. Throw in that he measured at 6-4 1/2 with a massive 6-11 1/4 wingspan and an 8-8 standing reach, and it was just gravy.

At the end of the day, Jones probably didn’t necessarily move the needle in a substantial way league-wide. For instance, it’s unlikely he’ll hear his name called in the top 40. If he stays in the draft, he probably will be on a two-way next year. But Jones is the player at the Elite Camp who got the most mention to me from scouts, and he gave himself a very real shot to be picked in June. He deserves an immense amount of credit for being a small school player who has taken every opportunity afforded to him after the season ended and given himself a chance.

(Top photo of Ben Sheppard: Kamil Krzaczynski / NBAE via Getty Images)

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