- Chad Ford, ESPN Senior Writer
CHICAGO -- The 2010 NBA draft combine officially got underway on Thursday at ATTACK Athletics and the first day was, for a second straight year, sort of a dud.
With virtually every NBA GM, head coach and scouting staff in attendance, a number of the top prospects in the draft went through four hours of noncontact drills in the morning and a series of one-on-one interviews in the afternoon. On Friday, the league will do athletic and strength testing and on Saturday, players will get physicals conducted by the league.
I was in the gym for the four hours and in the hotel lobby where the players were staying for most of the afternoon and evening. Here's what I learned.
The NBA combine certainly isn't what it used to be. For years, the top prospects played a series of 5-on-5 games for GMs and coaches in an attempt to improve their draft stock.
Over the years more and more top prospects refused to play and two years ago, virtually everyone on the floor was a second-rounder. The NBA changed gears last year and decided to move to a combine format. The 5-on-5 games were eliminated in favor of a set of noncontact drills. The idea was to get more players to participate. Slowly, that process is becoming a farce.
Last year five players -- Oklahoma's Blake Griffin, UConn's Hasheem Thabeet, Arizona's Jordan Hill, Arizona State's James Harden and Memphis' Tyreke Evans -- refused to participate. All five were ranked in the top five at the time.
This year, a whopping 14 players decided not to participate. A few, like Kentucky's John Wall, Ohio State's Evan Turner, Georgia Tech's Derrick Favors, Kentucky's DeMarcus Cousins and Syracuse's Wesley Johnson (along with UNC's Ed Davis, who is injured) were understandable.
A few others were just bizarre. Marshall's Hassan Whiteside, Kentucky's Daniel Orton and Washington's Quincy Pondexter didn't show despite the fact none of them is a lock to be drafted in the first round.
One other player, Duke's Jon Scheyer, missed the event because of a case of mono, according to his agent, Mark Bartlestein. Memphis' Elliot Williams also skipped the combine because of an undisclosed injury.
The absence of so many players from the drills wasn't received well by NBA GMs. "I just don't understand why these kids aren't here," one said. "There's no contact. There's a minimal chance of getting hurt. It's amazing to me that, given the new structure, they won't show up for this. Even players like Derrick Rose, Kevin Durant and Greg Oden have participated in this type of workout in the past. I don't get it."
In fairness to players, most of the time the decision is made by their agents. Here's an agent defending the decision:
"We were going to play our guy, but when you see everyone else pulling out, you really have no choice. It's a no-win situation. If he goes out and looks good, everyone says he did it against inferior competition. If he struggles, his stock drops like a rock. If other guys who are ranked in the same area aren't coming, we have to pull our guy."
Given the poor participation this year, expect the league to push hard for a mandatory appearance by every player in the next collective bargaining agreement.
Of the players who did show, only a handful really stood out one way or the other.
Fresno State's Paul George received the most buzz. George shot the ball really well in the workout, and just looked like the smoothest, most skilled player on the floor. Virtually every GM I spoke with mentioned his name as a potential lottery pick.
Kentucky's Eric Bledsoe also got a lot of love. He too was shooting well and, when paired with the other top point guards in the draft, looked like the best athlete on the floor.
Butler's Gordon Hayward looked quicker and more athletic than many teams thought he would.
Iowa State's Craig Brackins had many NBA GMs noting that he looked like the most polished big man on the floor.
Winners by losing (weight, that is)
Physical transformations are a big part of the pre-draft camp every year. If a player loses a lot of weight or tones up his body, he can get a slight bump in his stock.
A number of people were impressed with Texas big man Dexter Pittman. Pittman has lost more weight and looked skilled and light on his feet.
Cincinnati's Lance Stephenson also got props for his slimmed-down physique. Stephenson really had his midrange going on Thursday and wowed a number of GMs I spoke with.
UTEP's Derrick Caracter also impressed with his new, trimmer build. He was the best I've ever seen him and certainly helped his draft stock in the process.
VCU's Larry Sanders looked like he had added some weight and muscle -- a must for NBA scouts who felt he was too thin in college.
International man of mystery
This year's Combine Man of Mystery was England's Ryan Richards. Richards is a long lefty from England who got the attention of a number of GMs when he stepped onto the floor.
Richards shot the ball well, was very fluid running up and down the court and showed a sound basketball IQ. At one point during a break in the broadcast, an NBA director of player personnel came up to me asking me who Richards was and if I had his agent's contact info. For the rest of the time the power forwards were on the floor, all eyes were glued on him, in part because NBA GMs had never seen him in person.
Before they fall too in love, it's important to note that Richards played sparingly in Gran Canaria in Spain this year before eventually transferring to Switzerland to play. He got meaningful minutes there, but the competition was very weak. Said one veteran international scout, "I like Richards a lot, but he isn't ready by a long shot. That's the problem coming to an event like this. Our GMs haven't seen him, he hits some shots, and they fall in love. It gets harder for us to tell them he doesn't really play very much. They don't want to hear it."
With so many teams sporting multiple first-round picks (the Minnesota Timberwolves, Memphis Grizzlies, Oklahoma City Thunder and New Jersey Nets) I wouldn't be surprised if someone takes a shot at him late in the first round.
Words can speak louder than action
Finally, virtually every GM in the league will tell you that the most important part of the process for them is the interviews and medical evaluations. Teams spent up to four hours a day on both Wednesday and Thursday doing sit-downs with individual players.
A number of players including Wall, Johnson, Monroe, Udoh, George, Xavier Henry and Brackins did well, according to team sources.
A small handful including Cousins, Orton and Whiteside weren't as impressive.
How much does a good or bad interview matter? "It's huge," a veteran GM said. "We all know by now whether they can play. The question becomes whether they can play for my team and my coach. You only find that out by sitting them down and asking them hard questions. We can really narrow our list down from the interviews."
In the feel-good story of the draft combine, West Virginia's Da'Sean Butler showed up, despite the fact he wasn't invited by the NBA. Butler tore his ACL in the Final Four and won't be ready for the NBA summer league. The injury dramatically affected his draft stock. Many teams had him ranked as a late first-round pick before the injury. Now he's ranked as a second-rounder to undrafted. Butler wasn't able to do the drill parts of the workouts, obviously, but he reached out to a number of teams to schedule individual interviews.
According to one team official who met with Butler on Thursday: "He's a terrific kid. He's working hard. He still has a hunger for the NBA. He's not even limping anymore. You've got to consider him in the second round."