Workout Wondering

Workout Wondering
Jun 17, 2006, 10:27 pm
It’s that time of the year again. Workouts are in full swing and NBA hopefuls are jetting around the country aiming to convince teams that they belong. For media and draft junkies alike, it’s easy to get caught up in the whirlwind of workout buzz. Every day it seems like a mysterious new Brazilian with a 15 foot wingspan explodes onto the workout scene and instantly makes himself into a candidate for the lottery. But what do these workouts really mean? Can players really cancel out unproductive college careers by looking great during workouts for a month? Perhaps most importantly, what can NBA teams learn about players from watching them workout? It depends on who you talk to.

“I don’t think teams learn too much at all,” says Jameer Nelson, second year point guard for the Orlando Magic. If anyone has a reason to be disgruntled about the workout process, it’s Jameer. After a stellar four year career at St. Joe’s, in which he won both the Wooden and Naismeth awards, Nelson slipped all the way to number twenty in the 2004 draft after teams questioned his size, upside and ability to defend bigger guards in individual workouts. “You can’t determine whether you’re going to pick a guy off of a good shooting day or a bad shooting day,” says Nelson. Well maybe not. But that didn’t stop teams from drafting guys like Kris Humphries and Dorell Wright ahead of Nelson, both of whom apparently had great workouts. So what happened? Did teams drafting between ten and nineteen throw away Nelson’s game tapes and rely solely on his workouts?

I recently attended my first workout a few weeks ago, and saw how easy it is to become enamored with players in the intimate setting of a quiet, empty gym. I couldn’t take my eyes off of Rudy Gay’s jaw dropping, Stretch Armstrong wingspan and unreal athletic ability. I was memorized by Justin Grey’s picture perfect shooting stroke. Watching the two players’ workout made it easy forget that Grey is a 6-1 shooting guard, or that Rudy Gay tended to disappear for long stretches during his two years at UCONN. Says ESPN’s Bill Simmons, “This is why teams get sucked in with workouts, why they tend to ignore game tapes and tell themselves things like, ‘So what if Rajon Rondo couldn't make a jumper in college to save his life, he was nailing them in that workout!’ or ‘Who cares if Rudy Gay didn't give a crap at UConn, I've never seen anyone run wind sprints like that!’"

Dave Babcock, Director of Player Personnel for the Milwaukee Bucks, agrees that workouts should be taken with a grain of salt. “I’m not a big fan of the workouts” says Babcock “Certain guys have been picked high off big workouts…and maybe they will end up being players, but right you’d say the workout was deceiving.” Babcock says he and his staff spend two to three years evaluating players so bringing them in for last minute workouts can “confuse the situation.”

But workouts aren’t all bad either. Just ask development coach Idan Ravin, whose job is partly to make players look good in private workouts. Ravin’s resume speaks for itself, having worked with Chris Paul, Carmelo Anthony, Elton Brand and Gilbert Arenas, among others. Ravin thinks there is much more to workouts than 50 inch verticals and freakish wingspans. “Teams can learn a lot about their character” says Ravin. “Often times in a game situation you are far away from (the players) and you don’t hear how vocal they are, you really can’t see in their eyes how much they care, you don’t really see how they cheer on their teammates. I mean these are workouts and these guys are all cheering for each other.” Ravin’s right. In between going at each other full force, it was a little surprising to see Steve Novak and Rudy Gay cheering one another along.

Unlike Jameer Nelson, Beno Udrih has workouts to thank for his NBA paycheck. After a European career in which he battled injuries and agent problems, Udrih was pretty far off the radar before the 2004 Draft. After a solid NBA Pre-Draft camp (which his agent Marc Cornstein had to negotiate his way in), Udrih worked out for a stunning 9 teams in a row during a two week period. The workouts went so well that Udrih was able to secure himself a place in the first round. Not bad for a guy projected to go undrafted just a few weeks earlier. “Its different when (scouts) see a player on tape or in a game compared to when he’s really working out” says Udrih “Because he knows if somebody is really watching him. When he’s in the game, he doesn’t know that scouts are there or that some team is scouting them.”

Toronto Raptors general manager Bryan Colanglo is about to make the most important draft pick of his career. With the number one pick, Colangelo has many options in a draft with no consensus favorite. So what will be his determining factor when he brings players to Toronto for workouts? “I believe that you need to put a lot of weight on the personnel interaction.” Explains Colangelo “When you’re a scout and you show up at a game the bottom line is you can’t sit down and talk to that player and get a feel for them. When they are sitting in front of you, when they go out to dinner with your scouts the night before, when they are in the training room getting their ankles taped, you start to learn a lot about a person and what kind of character they have.” The Bucks Dave Babcock goes as far as picking players up from the airport himself, because “It seems like you get in the best conversations with players when you’re in the car alone”.

So it seems like workouts really aren’t as simple as bringing players to your practice court and having them shoot jump shots after all. If you are making a financial commitment to a player, it makes sense to have a feel for them as individuals, and that’s something you can only do by bringing players in to see them play in person.

It might be difficult to find the balance between regular season play, workouts, and interviews, but that’s why NBA executives make the big bucks. Former Marquette standout Steve Novak sums it up best: “It’s an art really.”

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