NBA pre-draft combine can hurt top picks - just ask Sullinger

NBA pre-draft combine can hurt top picks - just ask Sullinger
May 12, 2014, 1:30 pm
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BOSTON — Two years ago, Jared Sullinger went to the NBA pre-draft combine as one of college basketball's top players, a decorated All-American whose talent was seen as the answer to the woes of quite a few lottery-picking teams.

The numbers he posted at the combine solidified his elite player status, but his medical report raised some questions as to whether he was worthy of being one of the top picks.

Sullinger, projected as a top-5 pick a year earlier and a lottery-pick (top-14) in 2012, dropped all the way to the Boston Celtics at No. 21.

Health was also a concern leading up to last year's combine for UNLV's Anthony Bennett who had left shoulder surgery last May and did not attend the pre-draft combine.

His absence at the combine had no bearing on his draft stock, which actually improved.

It was hard to believe at the time and made even less sense after he had one of the worst rookie seasons ever for a player taken with the No. 1 overall pick.

And that more than anything else, is why when this week's pre-draft combine participant list was released today, it did not include the three players projected as potential No. 1 picks - Joel Embiid of Kansas, Duke's Jabari Parker and Embiid's Jayhawks teammate, Andrew Wiggins. They will not be attending.

Their respective camps understand that for their players and their current stock, there's more to lose - for now at least - than to be gained by participating in the combine.

For NBA teams, it creates another layer of concern.

No one wants to be Cleveland Cavaliers 2.0 in this draft by taking a player (Bennett last year) who is not only young - Embiid, Parker and Wiggins each played just one season in college, just like Bennett - but hasn't gone through the rigorous poking and prodding teams are accustomed to putting the top prospects through leading up to the draft.

All three will take physicals and go through individual workouts at some point prior to the draft. But in the meantime, more and more questions will develop and be asked with most centering around the player's respective health.

Wiggins, projected by most as the No. 1 overall pick at the start of the college basketball season, does not present the same concerns as Embiid and Parker do in terms of health concerns.

But by not participating in the combine, Wiggins keeps the narrative leading up to the draft intact that the Big Three on most draft boards - himself, Embiid and Parker - will remain unquestioned for now.

Embiid not attending the combine in Chicago is not a shock. He missed parts of his lone season at Kansas with various injuries, the most serious and recent being a stress fracture in his back.

Parker had a foot injury in high school that limited him at times, but it's unclear how much of a factor that played in his conditioning which at times was an issue at Duke.

"He played more like a veteran in that he was playing so hard and usually we have to sub him because he gets tired," Blue Devils head coach Mike Krzyzewski said following the Blue Devils' 89-68 win at Boston College in February. "This is really the first game where I've seen him where he's playing so well he played through tired. It's something that a really good player has to learn to do, to keep performing when you're tired and he did."

Two league executives told CSNNE.com that Parker's health isn't that big of a concern.

Embiid, however, is another matter entirely.

And while all indications are that Embiid will return to form and have no issues going forward, there's no guarantee of that.

If teams aren't privy to his medical reports, that will remain a concern until that information is provided and its findings are to their liking.

Keeping teams in the dark about a player's health creates some uncertainty as to whether the injury is a potentially long-term issue, or if it can be surgically repaired and no longer present problems going forward.

The answer to that may play a pivotal role in where a player like Embiid is selected.

It certainly did for Sullinger two years ago.

One NBA executive with a team that had a lottery pick (top-14) in 2012 said that Sullinger's medical report was the biggest knock that kept them from drafting him.

"You look at his game, his body of work, we all knew he had lottery pick talent back then," the executive told CSNNE.com. "But the back was a major concern. Because even with surgery, you didn't know if it would flare up again. So for us and a lot of other teams obviously, it was a gamble we just didn't want to take."

Even with the Celtics holding on to the No. 21 pick and Sullinger still being on the board, they too had some concerns about drafting him.

Danny Ainge, Boston's president of basketball operations, said there was " a lot" of internal discussions about Sullinger once his medical reports were obtained.

"There were concerns by everybody," Ainge told CSNNE.com. "But we thought that with Jared, we weighed his talent and his potential and thought that it was definitely something we should roll the dice on."

Sullinger appeared in 45 games as a rookie prior to having season-ending back surgery, something the Celtics anticipated he would need at some point.

Then-Celtics coach Doc Rivers said he was hoping Sullinger would make it through his rookie season and have the surgery in the summer.

"But he just didn't (make it through the first year)," said Rivers, now head coach and senior Vice President of basketball operations for the Los Angeles Clippers. "He'll be fine next year."

Following the surgery, Sullinger's rehabilitation was a success and he was able to return this past season where he led Boston in rebounds (8.1) per game as well as double-doubles (22).

"It worked out good," Ainge said. "He didn't miss any practices or any games last year because of a back issue."

Indeed, the gamble Boston took on Sullinger paid off handsomely for the organization as well as for Sullinger who has been able to play well and not have the pressures of carrying a franchise that players taken near the top of the draft are inevitably saddled with from Day One.

But Sullinger's success story did come at a cost; millions actually, that he would have earned if he were taken higher in the draft.

When he reflects on that entire process leading up to his decision to enter the draft, he has no regrets.

"I'm in a great situation with a great team, a great organization," Sullinger told CSNNE.com recently. "My dad always told me, you shouldn't go around chasing money. You do what you're supposed to do and money will chase you. So I just focus on getting better, helping this team win and go from there."