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Rethinking Basketball Combines

Kevin Durant's failure to bench press 185 at the 2007 Draft has resulted in three league scoring titles.

Basketball combines attempt to offer coaches and scouts objective information about a player’s athleticism. After a series of agility drills, strength testing, and a glorified physical an entire player’s skill-set is then relegated to a piece of paper. The phrase “tangible results” is constantly thrown around when discussing the purpose of combines, but is there any sport more reliant on the intangible value of a player than basketball? The score sheet at the end of a game may reveal plenty, but it is often what doesn’t make it to the stat sheet that ultimately determines the outcome of a game. So while combines perform vital tests such as hand width, hand length, and body fat composition, the only true test to observe a player’s quality is by watching him play.

I don’t mean to side with Trouble with the Curve over Moneyball in this paradigm of conflicting ideologies, as Moneyball is undoubtedly the better film, but generally it’s the eye test that will yield better results when judging a player. Sure, combines at the high school level can be beneficial for shedding light on those receiving little attention from college programs, but as the game continues to evolve the manner in which talent is evaluated has remained remarkably the same. With an emphasis on individual skill sets and physical attributes, combines do nothing more than rank players ability to run without thinking. But before any constructive change may be seen at the high school level it must first arrive at the NBA, whose combine appears more irrelevant by the season. 

Every year the most highly touted college basketball players arrive to the NBA Draft Combine attempting to showcase their talent, countless years of hard work all summarized in a grueling multiple day affair. Sixty of the most athletic individuals on the planet all brought to the same city competing for NBA roster spots. So what exactly happens at an event with this much talent? Essentially four hours of televised free throws, a few games, and basic shooting drills. Tune in to your local men’s basketball league and prepare for more enthusiasm, and I really do mean that. It’s difficult to be satirical about an event that has developed into something truly comical, seemingly as if the event itself has grown more aware of its own ineffectiveness and just given up. Obviously there are more tests and exercises than those listed above some of which, Kevin Durant’s infamous bench press, are largely ignored for apparent reasons. So while executives and scouts largely consider the physical portion of the combine mere nonsense and white noise during an afternoon nap, it then becomes the team interviews that can make or break a player’s chance with an organization.

Team interviews during the combine provide each organization the first real chance to understand the athlete’s personality. Much different than the NFL’s Wonderlic Exam, which proudly boasts an individual’s unfortunate score on the next Sportscenter, the test administered from NBA teams often doesn’t leave the organization. Instead of focusing on intellectual aptitude many of these “exams” instead focus on players daily tendencies. Questions range from trivial, “When you wake up in the morning do you prefer to make breakfast or eat cereal,” to more introspective as was the case with North Texas Forward Tony Mitchell, “How do you address questions about you not playing hard all the time last year?” Clearly acknowledged, the only value NBA teams seek from the combine is their opportunity to interview draft hopefuls. So while the questionnaire hopes to provide new insight to each player, the physical portion only seeks to reinforce what game film already demonstrates. 

Regardless of why the league continues what I believe to be an outdated practice, the real issue lies in the approach many scouts take to understanding combine results. Often overlooking recent changes in basketball, scouts are still fixated on molding new players to old-fashioned models. The stereotypical size that defined the game five years ago has drastically changed, and while positions and roles remain in constant flux the fantasy that was ideal size is nothing more than a number on a paper and a “white whale” for all too many scouts. The seven footer with limited basketball skills deemed a “project” has come to represent high school recruiting over the past twenty-five years. And while many players natural skill often transcends their size and physical tools, combines will always be there to remind them that it’s not often the best, but the biggest players who go the furthest.