CHICAGO - The two-day NBA draft combine returned yesterday to its previous home after being held the last three years in Orlando, and along with the change in venue came a different format.
Instead of evaluating the invited players in five-on-five scrimmages open to the media, the assembled league front-office personnel and coaches limited the proceedings to watching the prospects go through various drills in sessions that are closed to the press.
This marked the first year that full-court scrimmages were not conducted. Teams are also having sit-downs with targeted players, and getting official heights and weights.
The feeling of some observers who have been around the game is that the NBA's new approach was driven by player agents, who in the past may have seen their clients' stock fall after they did not play particularly well at the combine.
But Jim O'Brien, the former Sixers coach who now guides the Indiana Pacers, had a different take. "I think one of the primary reasons is that the people who were coming to Chicago were second-round picks," he said. "You really couldn't get first-round guys in front of you, and as a result, it was a bit of a waste of money for everybody. I thought this was very valuable because I haven't studied these guys very much as a coach, and it's just nice to see the comparison in heights and skill level. We'll conduct probably a dozen interviews, and I think it's a better use of our money."
Among the 52 players listed at the combine are Villanova's Dante Cunningham, Temple's Dionte Christmas, Tyreke Evans of American Christian and Memphis, and former Episcopal Academy teammates Gerald Henderson and Wayne Ellington, who went to Duke and North Carolina, respectively.
Ellington, the 6-4 shooting guard who left the Tar Heels after his junior season, tested the waters last year before withdrawing his name from the list of possible draftees. He participated in the Orlando camp, where Ellington didn't think he had a chance to put his best foot forward.
This year, Ellington is expected to go in the first round after averaging 15.8 points per game to help North Carolina to a 34-4 finish that ended with the Tar Heels defeating Michigan State in the national championship game.
"Last year, you had guys doing their own thing, and I don't show as well in that kind of game," said Ellington, who is joined in Chicago by teammates Tyler Hansbrough, Ty Lawson, and Danny Green. "This year, you get a chance to show the things you can do. You handle the ball a little bit, you shoot off screens, shoot pull-ups off the dribble. You show your skill set instead of playing against each other and banging each other. You had guys getting hurt going into the draft. I think this is a lot better."
Cunningham, who is viewed as a possible second-round pick after helping lead the Wildcats to the NCAA Final Four, would have preferred to play full-court against his fellow big men at the combine. As a power forward handling the center duties for Villanova, the 6-8 Cunningham helped the Wildcats to a 30-8 record by averaging team highs of 16.1 points and 7.5 rebounds.
"I think at this point, a little more competitive interaction would be a lot better for the players," said Cunningham, whose lot would have probably improved had he shined in a scrimmage setting. "To see what you do against the best of the best. With these drills, you show your skills and everything. But I think the other way would have been a little better."