Monday, June 17, 2024
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2024 NBA Draft Combine buzz: Will Atlanta trade No. 1 pick? How worried are owners, GMs about grim draft pool?

CHICAGO — The NBA scouting community has been huddled in Wintrust Arena and the connected Marriot Marquis hotel in Chicago for the last six days. 

It began with the G League Elite Camp on Saturday and Sunday, then the NBA Draft Lottery on Sunday night, and finally the NBA Draft Combine which began on Monday with measurements and drills before games took place Tuesday and Wednesday. The week will wrap up with various pro days throughout the next 48 hours. Teams have also had opportunities to do interviews with draft-eligible players throughout the week. 

When you put all 30 front offices, national media, player agents, and other power players all in the same place for the same week, there is also an inevitable amount of information sharing as the rumor mill always picks up steam heading out of Chicago. 

Sifting through what’s real and what’s not is part of the due diligence that every front office has to go through in the next 40 days. 

With all of that in mind, here’s some of what we’ve been hearing: 

Trade talks

With no overwhelming top pick in this year’s draft, there’s a sentiment that the teams who won Sunday’s lottery — Atlanta, Washington and Houston, in that order — are open to hearing what the market is for their picks. The Hawks are in a tricky situation after moving so many future assets to pair Trae Young with Dejounte Murray, only to be 10 games below .500 this season, and now on the brink of the luxury tax. Other teams are wondering out loud what exactly they will do. Atlanta could potentially double down on that original strategy by looking to move the pick for a more immediate contributor, or entertain doing just the opposite and use the pick as the impetus for a full rebuild. What we know for sure is the Hawks are interviewing several players this week in Chicago. 

Currently, most draft experts, including myself, have Atlanta selecting 7-foot-1 center Alex Sarr of France

On the surface, Washington appears to be the most likely to want to keep its pick given the limited number of quality future assets on a team that won just 15 games this season. Nevertheless, given the lack of star power and relative perceived parity atop this draft, there is also speculation that the Wizards would be open to trading one pick for multiple assets, be it in picks or young players. 

As for Houston, the expectation is the Rockets want to win now. They have plenty of young talent already in the franchise, especially on the wing, and so while they could look to solidify their center or point positions, they could also look to move this pick for a player who could help them get closer to contending next season. 

Ownership implications of this ‘bad draft’

It isn’t just the media talking about how this is a “bad draft.” It’s also been a frequent talking point among scouts, executives, agents and even players

“I’m not sure how many of these guys play in the league next year,” one agent said. 

“The first pick this year goes no higher than seven in most other years,” one high-ranking executive told me. 

That’s not to say there isn’t value to be found or sleepers that will emerge down the road, but the reality is that it’s hard to find an unbiased and credible source right now that is pleased with this draft, especially at the top.  

One associated variable that isn’t being talked about quite as much though, is how that impacts ownership. Players being drafted higher than they would in a normal year means they are slotted into a higher salary figure than they would in a normal year. Some owners are more active than others. Some are even here in Chicago. But they don’t have to be too far in the weeds to know they may be paying for a player that isn’t ready to help them win immediately. This will of course vary by franchise, but some front office sources are saying owners are starting to ask those questions now, especially when there are luxury tax ramifications at play. 

Simultaneously, some front offices are dealing with the opposite side of the coin, in owners who are expecting a typical return on investment of their picks regardless of what the public perception of the draft is. Consequently, “managing up” is a term that has been used this week, illustrating the importance of trying to set realistic expectations. That’s easier said than done in most cases as NBA owners are some of the wealthiest people in the world, and many of them are not accustomed to accepting anything that even resembles an excuse, especially when they’re spending millions of dollars with their scouting efforts. 

Salaun ascending from France

One player who is not in Chicago this week is Tidjane Salaun, as he is currently competing with his Cholet team in the LNB playoffs in France. While he might be half the world away, plenty of scouts were still talking about the 18-year-old on Wednesday as he recorded 19 points, eight rebounds and eight assists in his team’s upset win over Paris. While Alex Sarr and Zaccarie Risacher are the young Frenchmen that are widely perceived to be among this year’s very top prospects, the buzz among NBA scouts is that many believe Salauan could be in a similar tier and has definite upside given his significant physical tools, high motor, and vast potential for future growth. 

Before the combine, I had Salaun going No. 11 to Chicago — so perhaps he’ll get to try some deep dish, after all. 

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Matas Buzelis is drawing interest from teams outside the top 10. What does it mean?  Getty Images

Buzelis talking, but not playing

Projected top-10 pick Matas Buzelis was a busy man this week in Chicago, but it was largely off the court, at least as far as his interactions with NBA teams. Buzelis was not expected to take part in Excel Sports Management’s Pro Day on Thursday, but he is reportedly using his week in Chicago to do interviews with potentially 10, if not more, teams. That wide range of franchises reportedly begins with Atlanta, which has the top overall pick, and also includes Orlando and reportedly Milwaukee, who are currently slated at Nos. 18 and 23. 

Could talks with a coveted prospect be an indication that those teams are considering trading up? 

Trending up

In a separate piece for CBS Sports, I devoted extra attention to players like Reed Sheppard and Zach Edey who really helped themselves this week

Some of the other players that appear to be trending up — or perhaps more accurately said, may be valued more highly by NBA teams than current media projections reflect — include the likes of Cam Christie (Minnesota) and AJ Johnson (NBL, former Texas signee). There is a definite buzz about Christie, who now seems likely to stay in this draft, following in the footsteps of his older brother Max, who was one-and-done out of Michigan State, even when many wondered aloud if he was ready for that jump. Cam may not exactly be NBA ready either, but there is growing belief in his long-term ability to make it in the league. 

Johnson, who spent the year in the NBL after being one of the highest-ranked guards in high school basketball a year ago, is in a similar category. He’s not physically ready for the NBA, but he has made clear strides since last year, and showed some very intriguing flashes Wednesday, even if his stats didn’t pop. Even in a gym full of college stars and NBA hopefuls, Johnson just moved differently. He handed out six assists and arguably the biggest dunk of the game. The development of his floor vision was relevant as he looked much more natural playing the point than when we last saw him in high school. That’s significant for a player who would have good positional size at that spot after measuring at 6-feet-4.25 without shoes and a better than +4 wingspan. 

Kyle Filipowski is expected to take the court on Friday for a pro day workout hosted by Priority Sports that is expected to get a lot of eyeballs with Johnny Furphy, Zach Edey, Tyler Kolek, Baylor Scheierman, Alex Karaban, Cam Spencer, Quinten Post, Caleb Love, Branden Carlson, Zyon Pullin, Cormac Ryan, Justin Moore, and Santi Vescovi all taking place. Filipowski has nonetheless reportedly had a busy week interviewing with numerous teams, including some as high as in the mid-lottery. 

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