CHICAGO — Here’s a secret about the workout portions of the NBA combine: For the most part, it’s worthless. Since the NBA did away with five-on-five drills in 2009 — largely due to the fact that too many nervous agents were advising clients not to participate, causing attendance in the combine to dip — executives have been limited to watching big men post up against oversized pads and guards take uncontested jumpers. “Anyone that says they can learn something about a player from that,” said an Eastern Conference executive, “has never seen the player.”
What is useful are the interviews, when team officials can poke and prod a prospective draft pick. North Texas forward Tony Mitchell said his interview with Detroit involved a series of rapid fire questions, requiring him to think quickly. UCLA’s Shabazz Muhammad said he was asked repeatedly about the NCAA investigation into him and to clarify how old he was. Pittsburgh’s Steven Adams said Dallas brought a sports psychologist to “mentally torment” him. Some players were interviewed by a handful of teams, some by as many as 15.
The interviews are private, but in the case of many players, some of the questions league execs are not hard to figure out. Here’s a sample of how some players answered some of those questions.
SI.com: Your father, Barry Larkin, is a Hall of Fame baseball player. Why didn’t you get into baseball?
Shane Larkin: “Pete Rose and Tony Perez taught me how to hit. Tony Perez had the whole bat waggle and Pete Rose lifted his leg. I had those things in my game early on, as an eight-year old. I was playing baseball at a YMCA in Orlando and when I came up to bat my coach saw my whole routine and he told me ‘Stop what you’re doing; whoever taught you how to hit doesn’t know what they are talking about. Give it up. Plant your foot, keep the bat still and you will be way more successful.’ So I tried to do what he said, but I couldn’t hit the rest of the season. And that was the last year I played organized baseball.”
SI.com: Did you ever feel pressure to play baseball because of your father?
SL: “Not really, because he never put any pressure on me. Of course, when I was in the clubhouse the guys on his team were always like, ‘When are you going to get out here on the field,’ but it was never pressure from my Dad. He actually wanted me to play football. That was the only sport he made me play. I wanted to play soccer because the kids at my elementary school played soccer, but he said, ‘Football was fun, I [have to play] football — he went to Michigan on a football scholarship — and if you don’t like it you don’t have to play again.’”
SI.com: You were a mediocre shooter before this season. What changed?
Victor Oladipo: “I just stayed in the gym. It was repetition after repetition. I felt like before, it was all a mental thing for me. I realized that if I miss, so what. I just go to the next shot. Once I realized that I’m just going to shoot the good shots, the open shots, the shots I feel like are the best, I’m going to make them at a high level. I started shooting with confidence, and they started going in at a high rate.”
SI.com: So you used to get rattled when you shot?
VO: “Yeah, I would say so. My first two years, whenever I missed a shot I would be like, ‘Oh, no need to keep shooting, the next probably isn’t going to go in either.’ This year, if I missed, I would shoot the next one with the same confidence. If I missed, it was rare. I knew the next one was going to go in.”
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SI.com: How do you address questions about you not playing hard all the time last year?
Tony Mitchell: “Our season was so tough, I couldn’t get up for games, somewhat. We had a losing record, and it was hard. My effort was up and down. It should have been straight. There is no excuse. It definitely hurt my stock. [Without the questions], I think I would go in the lottery. Each and every team has asked me about it. I understand this is a business. They want to make sure I’m the right fit. I’m ready to prove them wrong.
SI.com: Do you get the sense that teams believe that you are going to work hard all the time?
TM: “Really, it’s a question mark. They just don’t know. I have to show it. I can’t talk about it anymore. I’ve accepted it. I have expectations, and I have to live up to them.
SI.com: You have compared your game to Kenneth Faried. What similarities do you see?
TM: “Our athleticism. I believe I can rebound just like him. Faried works tremendously hard and I know I can do the same thing.”
SI.com: You said at the end of the season that you would be delusional to think you were ready for the NBA. And here you are. What changed?
Archie Goodwin: “I had a talk with my coach and my family, and at the end of the day I felt it was the best decision for me going forward. I wanted to see where I’m at. Coach [John Calipari] said whether I stayed or not, he was going to battle for me. He wanted me to stay, but at the same time he would respect my decision if I wanted to leave. These last few weeks, he has been in my corner. We talk all the time. I was fortunate to have him as someone to vouch for me going forward.”
SI.com: Many have said that Kentucky’s vaunted recruiting class forced you into this decision. Is that true?
AG: “It didn’t impact my decision at all. Those guys are good players, but I feel I can compete with anybody. They didn’t have anything to do with it. It’s not about this class. Because the next season people could say I was leaving because of the next one. It would be an ongoing battle, nonstop. I don’t pay any attention to it. This was about my family and the way I personally felt.”
SI.com: It has been speculated that you left Pitt after your freshman season because you needed to take care of your family back in New Zealand. Is that true?
Steven Adams: “It was strictly a personal decision. I talked about it with my family but no one asked me to leave. I left because the best coaches in the world are in the NBA. They can help me progress. [Pitt] was good for me. Jaime [Dixon] is a really successful coach. He taught me a lot.”
SI.com: Did you think you were going to come to Pitt and put up the kind of numbers you did in New Zealand?
SA: “No, no chance. The competition is so much higher than in New Zealand. I wasn’t used to playing against much taller and stronger people. Basketball players look like rugby players in New Zealand, short and stocky. Here, they are really tall. I was learning to use my body to get a hook shot off, to outrebound big men by using my body. It was an adjustment.”
SI.com: It has been written that one of the reasons you didn’t go back to USC is because the new coach (Andy Enfield) didn’t recruit you back very hard. Is that true?
Dewayne Dedmon: “I mean, they did what they were supposed to do. I talked to all the coaches, had meetings with all the coaches. At the end of the day, my mind was made up to come out. They were good meetings, but I was still unsure about next year’s coaching staff. I wasn’t willing to put myself in jeopardy because of what they would do on the court. Sometimes you get broken promises. You never really know. There is always that little gray area.
SI.com: Did you think you wouldn’t fit in the system Enfield ran at Florida Gulf Coast?
DD: “No, that’s the way I like to play. Going through the year we just had, with the coaching changes, with Kevin O’Neil getting fired, with the assistant coach coming in and a whole new coaching staff coming in … I basically had my mind made up. They recruited me to come back, and they did a good job, but I had decided.”
SI.com: You were a guard in high school, grew seven inches as junior, and now you are a center. What are the challenges in having to switch positions?
Kelly Olynyk: “It was challenging. Suddenly you’re inside, you’re focusing on post moves, you’re playing with your back to the basket — it’s something I had never done before. The way I describe it is trying to make a quarterback a kicker. Those are two different positions. I was a point guard in high school. Being from a smaller town in Canada, there wasn’t a lot of talent where I came from. I had to do a lot of stuff. I had to score, pass, facilitate, run the team. It was a tough transition [to center], but once I gained that I kept those guard skills as well, so I can be a dual threat.”
SI.com: The perception of you is that you can score in the NBA, but no one is sure if you can rebound and defend. What can you do to change that before the draft?
KO: “I don’t know. I changed my body a lot. I want to improve it even more. I think what has helped me a lot is playing with the national team, playing overseas with pros all the time. It gave me the confidence to know that I belonged playing at that next level. That was reassuring.”
SI.com: You didn’t play at all last season because of academic issues. How have you been able to stay sharp?
Ricky Ledo: “I competed every day in practice. Most of the times I practiced as the other team’s best player. I was involved heavily. I worked out a lot with [God] Shammgod; he helped me with my dribbling and shooting off the dribble. I’m not just a spot shooter.
SI.com: If you had wanted to go back to Providence, would you have been academically eligible?
RL: “I would have. And it was a tough decision. I thought if I stayed I definitely would have been a top pick next year. But I felt it was the right time to come out. I wanted to play in front of my friends and family (Ledo is from Providence, R.I.), and it was disappointing that I couldn’t. But I learned a lot not playing. I’m a better player than I was last year.”
SI.com: Are you the best shooter in this draft?
RL: “I would say one of them. Top-three.”