Sitting in his office the other day, Jay Wright held his thumb and forefinger close together. That close, Villanova’s coach was saying, about so many players, the margin between being in the NBA and ending up maybe overseas.
Wright can remember a 2017 phone call he had with Fred Hoiberg, then the Chicago Bulls coach, about Ryan Arcidiacono, who had just played for the Bulls in the summer league.
“Just keep Arch on the roster,’’ Wright remembers telling Hoiberg. “It wasn’t that me talking to him did it. He was leaning that way. It was really close, really close. Our guys understand the difference is so minute.”
Arcidiacono made the Bulls roster for training camp, made the team on a two-way contract, and outlasted his head coach. His legacy still filters back to his alma mater.
Lately, Villanova players have been making it at the next level, finding niches. Some have been outperforming their draft status. Can that affect how the next generation of potential pros is perceived?
“A huge factor,’’ one NBA personnel chief said.
“I think it’s almost a safety net,’’ a younger scout said. “Obviously, every kid is different. You can’t put them in a box.”
Players on great college teams, even star players, don’t always translate. Teams will give an extra edge to certain programs? Is this even a thing? Overall, NBA teams couldn’t care less where you came from. Top players for the current NBA finalists, you might have noticed, came from Davidson and San Diego State.
Except, yes, this is a thing.
“It’s very unusual,’’ the scout said, but he said yeah, mentioning Villanova, Virginia, even Texas Tech now, as current examples of programs that are producing prepared players. “You know you’re getting a professional. You can appreciate that you know what you’re getting.”
Even as scouts change organizations, Wright mentioned, they bring their knowledge along. He remembers which scout got on Kyle Lowry first, how exactly Stan Van Gundy got excited about Darrun Hilliard before he drafted him in Detroit.
“There’s more detailed conversations with me now than ‘I like that guy. I think he’ll play in the league,’ ‘’ Wright said. “They’ll reference one of our former players.”
This isn’t about winning NCAA titles. If Josh Hart has outperformed his original draft order and Arcidiacono has made it in the league when maybe you or I thought he’d have a fine career making good money in Italy, that becomes part of the institutional knowledge of each franchise.
Add Jalen Brunson’s proving he is what he appeared to be in college -- more knowledge. Maybe that could affect Eric Paschall’s draft order this month by a place or two. Maybe it could give Phil Booth another look by a franchise or two.
“I think they respect that I tell them the truth about our guys,’’ Wright said of his own conversations with NBA personnel. “And I tell our guys, I tell the truth. I’m not going to [lie to] the guy and tell them that you’re a great defensive player. They’re not going to draft on my word, and if they do, and they get you, and you’re not a great defensive player, it kills me with every other guy that comes behind you. I can’t do that.”
The Villanova factor might play in for a different reason.
“I think there’s going to be a change in the NBA,’’ Arcidiacono said. “More and more players who have played three and four years have an impact.”
The Villanova bump
Jalen Brunson proved to be exactly who he was supposed to be when he showed up at Villanova, a pro in a sense already. He was the 2018 NCAA player of the year, and Dallas proved to be smart enough to recognize that his skills would translate to the highest level.
The progress of the other 2018 draftees — Mikal Bridges, Donte DiVincenzo, and Omari Spellman — will go a long way in determining whether a Villanova bump grows or not in future years.
In one sense, Paschall might not need a Villanova bump.
“Unlike a lot of our guys, Paschall has all the physical NBA attributes,’’ Wright said. “Eric is a freak athlete. A really unique scorer, he can guard anybody, he can rebound. Which is what the NBA guys like.”
But scouts also noticed how — as Elan Vinokurov of the EV Hoops scouting site put it — before last season, Paschall “had to sacrifice that for the betterment of the team.” Waiting his turn, in a sense, even as he contributed to a national title.
Vinokurov isn’t saying that Paschall will necessarily take his game to some higher level. He’s saying that if Paschall needs to make his mark by doing little things, he’s had that experience at Villanova.
“He doesn’t have a first-round grade, but he could be a first-round pick in this draft,’’ Vinokurov said.
Booth will have a different path. Maybe it eventually will land him in the NBA. Maybe he’ll make his basketball money elsewhere.
“I always say he has one of the highest emotional IQs of anybody we’ve had,’’ Wright said. “He just gets it. He knows his situation. I think the big thing for him, the physicals. Because he missed that year [with a knee injury]. We know he’s healthy. That’s not going to be proven until they do the physicals. That’s actually going to help him.”
The path is unpredictable. Daniel Ochefu played a year with the Washington Wizards and has been in the G League since. But a scout noted how close he is to being back in the league, how one team wanted to bring Ochefu in this season but a roster problem prevented it. He’ll be back in the league.
Wright acknowledged he has had to get involved in one Villanova-related NBA issue that just popped up. An ESPN.com article recently detailed the dysfunction in the Los Angeles Lakers front office and noted how Hart was asked about Spellman. The article brought out how Hart’s opinion was brought up after the Lakers didn’t draft Spellman, despite the personnel department’s desire to do exactly that.
The article suggested that Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka made more of his conversation with Hart, and Hart’s bringing up potential fitness problems, than certainly Hart had intended, and that Lakers coaches and scouts weren’t even aware of this conversation. Spellman still went in the first round, 30th to Atlanta, five picks after the Lakers took Michigan’s Moritz Wagner.
“I”m in the midst of it,’’ Wright said of the friction created. “It hurt Omari. It hurt Josh. Josh would never — Josh’s answer was two-thirds positive, ‘Yes, you should take him.’ One third, this is what you’ve got to be concerned about. Trying to be — like I do — trying to be honest. It’s his team. It’s tough, and we’re in the midst of it.”
Wright hopes his own honesty gives him a little more weight when he talks to NBA executives and coaches. Obviously, four Villanova players were not drafted in the first 33 choices last year because of Wright’s word. Scouts noticed how and why Villanova won the 2018 NCAA title. Deciding which of those four will rise highest is how personnel types earn their money.
Arcidiacono didn’t get drafted after Villanova won the 2016 NCAA title.
“There was an outside shot,’’ Arcidiacono said. “But by the end, you don’t want to get drafted. Every kid wants to get drafted. But by the late 40s, early 50s, you’d much rather pick your team.”
Arcidiacono noted that 20 minutes after the draft, he signed a free-agent deal with San Antonio. His best predraft workout had been with the Spurs, and they offered a little more guaranteed money than a couple of other clubs.
What did he find out with the Spurs?
“I wasn’t good enough to be an NBA player,’’ Arcidiacono said. Spurs coach Gregg Popovich told him, “I think you’re on the right track, but you’re not ready yet. You need to develop.”
That conversation alone was significant. If Gregg Popovich thought that, why shouldn’t Arcidiacono? After a year in the G League, Italy offered good money in 2017, and Arcidiacono signed a deal that would have landed him there if Chicago hadn’t kept him.
Wright made the point that if people get invested in you, not just monetarily but with their judgment, they’ll be rooting for you, like Hoiberg continued to do for Arcidiacono even after the coach lost his job. All that matters. And then maybe it factors in for the next Villanova guy.