At NBA's pre-draft camp, most of the action takes place off the court
Prospects' interviews with teams have become the key part of NBA pre-draft camp
Draft hopefuls do little on-court work, but they're highly scrutinized in sit-downs
NBA execs are wary of approach in wake of Dez Bryant's controversial incident
Spencer Hawes met with four interested teams before becoming a first-round pick in the 2007 NBA draft: the Kings, Timberwolves, Bulls and 76ers. Though each approached the interview process differently with the University of Washington player, Hawes said he never experienced anything nearly as jarring as the reported exchange between an NFL prospect and general manager that drew national headlines recently.
"I guess there are conflicting reports about how it happened," the Sacramento center said, "but no matter how it happened, that was a little bit over the top."
Hawes was referring to the controversy over Oklahoma State wide receiver Dez Bryant's sit-down with Miami Dolphins GM Jeff Ireland. Though no one outside the room knows exactly how it transpired, SI.com's Jim Trotter reported that Ireland asked Bryant if his mother was a prostitute during a conversation in which the player offered that his father was a pimp. According to Trotter's story, Ireland then asked Bryant what his mother did. When told that she worked for his father, Ireland allegedly followed up by asking Bryant if his mother was a prostitute; the wideout said no. Bryant, who was drafted by the Cowboys, has denied that version of events.
Regardless, the Bryant incident will be in the back of everybody's mind this week in Chicago at the NBA's pre-draft camp, a five-day gathering of about 50 potential draft picks (including such college stars as Kentucky's John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins and Ohio State's Evan Turner) and league personnel evaluators during which the interview component is more prominent than ever.
For years, full-court scrimmages were the centerpiece of the pre-draft camp, as GMs and scouts could evaluate the top prospects in game-like conditions. But by the time the camp moved from Chicago to Orlando in 2007, more and more elite players were declining to participate over injury concerns, leaving only second-tier draft hopefuls to compete in five-on-five games. The NBA finally eliminated the games two years ago and returned the camp to Chicago, where players get weighed and measured and perform only light drills (and some don't even do that much), the result of which is that teams glean more from visiting with the prospects than anything that happens on the court. (NBA teams also conduct private workouts with players leading up to the June 24 draft.)
In the wake of Bryant's encounter with Ireland, the NBA's decision-makers say they will be particularly careful about how questions are formulated. But that does not mean, they said, the questions will not be asked.
"Ireland's question was fine," one league talent evaluator said. "It was just worded improperly. If he would have said, 'We know in the past your mom has had some issues; how did that affect you as a youngster?' no one would have said a word. He may not have come out and said she was a prostitute. But everybody would have known what was being asked.
"I don't have a problem with them asking digging questions. You are spending all this money on a guy; you need to find out as much as you can. Was it worded incorrectly? Yeah, absolutely. Are we going to stop asking the questions? Hell, no."
Hawes, whose past did not give NBA teams reasons to be skeptical, said he was struck by the differences from one pre-draft visit to the next. With the Kings, he said he sat down only with GM Geoff Petrie and they talked basketball. With the Timberwolves and 76ers, Hawes said he met with the GM and coaching staffs, though he said it was more of a casual discussion than a formal interview. And with the Bulls, he was asked to take a psychological questionnaire that a Chicago spokesperson said the team uses as another piece of information to evaluate players.
The Bulls are not alone in employing this kind of tool. Dr. Herb Greenberg of Caliper Human Strategies, a Princeton, N.J.-based company that works with both professional sports leagues and corporate entities to determine how a prospective candidate may perform in a given job, said he's done testing for 15 NBA teams.
"The basic concept is we know nothing about their talent," said Greenberg, who has spent years developing and revising the test. "All we knew about [Spurs guard] Tony Parker is he was a 19-year-old kid who played B-level basketball in France. Other than that, he was nothing but a name. We didn't even know he was a point guard. We knew nothing about the talent. What we do know, based upon our test, is what is inside the person that indicates that they will either maximize or underplay the talent that God gave them."
Greenberg's test is a painfully repetitive, 195-question multiple-choice exam. For example, one question gives four options: A) I am very energetic; B) I think managers should worry about hurting other people's feelings at the expense of the bottom line; C) I tell people my opinion even if they don't agree with it; and D) I use a certain methodology to make decisions.
The test taker is asked to mark which one of the statements he most relates to and which one he least relates to. And then the question is asked another 10-20 times in a different format in order to get a pattern of consistency and importance.
"We evaluate how you lie, because everybody lies," Greenberg said. "Why we are effective is because we have learned that that lie is their projection of what they really are."
A few years ago, there was some discussion about making Greenberg's test a regular part of the pre-draft camp so that every team had access to the same information. However, the players' association interceded amid concerns that the exam would be similar to the NFL's maligned IQ-based Wonderlic test and unfair profiling of players would ensue.
"I think it would create a profile, no question," said Billy Hunter, the union's executive director. "That is a violation of our collective bargaining agreement and not something we consent to. There are too many other ways to determine if players are going to be good citizens."
And though Hunter said he is aware many teams use psychologists to vet prospects, the union would act only if a player comes forward.
"On the occasions that we find that they are doing it, we put a stop it," Hunter said. "We tell them in the pre-draft camp, 'If anything is making you feel uncomfortable, tell us about it. Tell the union and put the union on notice.' The player has to cooperate with us. [Most players are] somewhat intimidated, thinking, 'It may jeopardize my draft standing.' But if they tell me, I am going to address it."
Dr. Dana Sinclair of Toronto-based Human Performance International has been hired by multiple teams to sit in on pre-draft interviews and help players with issues during the season. Sinclair's approach differs from Greenberg's in that she tailors her questions to each player. But like Greenberg, she said her evaluation is not invasive.
"These teams hire us to give them an idea, to determine if a guy is going to be a good fit or going to be a [red] flag," she said. "I am trying to predict performance over time: Are they likely to be able to stay focused under pressure? Can they stay confident? Are they naturally competitive? Is the guy coachable? How mature is he? I am looking at a series of performance factors and giving teams an idea of where the risk falls.
"I'm not saying draft or don't draft a player; I'm saying here are the risks and these could be the consequences of drafting him. Are you ready? You better be ready."
Whereas Sinclair and Greenberg are professionally trained, most GMs and scouts are not -- and it's been speculated that might be part of the reason why Ireland got into the trouble that prompted his public apology to Bryant. But some NBA executives -- trained or not -- have found ways to examine players' potential without tests or obtrusive questions.
"I think you have a little bit of a format and that gets you the information you want," one GM said. "It may change a little over time, but you are not working against the guy. You are not trying to trick him. That would not be my approach. You are trying to make it as conversational as possible so that you can get to know them the best that you can."
One coach said he does hours of background work and will even call college coaches who recruited the player to get more information. Meanwhile, agents work with their players to ensure readiness for interviews.
"You tend to prepare guys more who have backgrounds that are potential concerns," said agent Dan Fegan, who represents UK's Wall, the projected No. 1 pick. "As a team, you are entitled to ask any question you want. At the same time, I tell my players they are entitled to say that that issue is private and I don't want to address that question.
"A lot of times the questions are designed to stress-test them in certain situations, and in some cases to provoke a response that would either confirm or repudiate a perception. I'm OK with that. These guys are making big investments. The interview process has designs within designs."
Despite the preparation, one source said the people asking the questions look for not only what a player says but also how he says it.
"Keep in mind, these guys are all [roughly] 20 years old and, for the most part, scared to death," a scout said. "I know when I was 20 and was asked a question in an interview, I was terrified. Say you ask a guy about how much he parties. Now, all of a sudden this terrified kid is thinking, 'Do they know I have done 10 bong hits last month or don't they? Are they catching me in a lie, or do they already know so I may as well tell them the truth?'
"You just have to listen carefully. You can tell if guys are conning you or are sincere."
The scout gave an example of a player from a Big East school with a troubled past. The player had reportedly turned around his life, but the team wanted to know for sure.
"I said to the kid, 'Your college assistant coach is a good friend of mine. When I go ask him about you, what is he going to say?' The way the kid answered, you could tell he was proud of what he had accomplished. I knew that he was as sincere as the day is long. He sat up in his chair and he was proud. I believed him. I could tell he wasn't lying."
The issue that many interviewed for this story had with Ireland's handling of Bryant's family situation is that the specifics about his mother should not matter because the team is not drafting the mother. Was Bryant's upbringing germane to being drafted? Yes. But one point of view is that his mother's incarceration for dealing drugs could be a positive.
"His mom was in jail, I'd say that would affect your life. You have to ask the question," one source said. "But maybe that is an example of the guy overcoming the odds to do well. If your mom was in jail and you were able to focus enough to play football and go to college, you must be doing something right."
Is it fair to pose to young men such invasive questions that may not even be asked by a close friend? Maybe not. But with millions of dollars, many reputations and the future of franchises at stake, this type of grilling is inevitable.
"These are questions that are going to eventually be asked by the media, so we may as well address the issues with the teams that are going to draft us," Hawes said. "They want to understand who we are. Do I want them asking me if my mother is a prostitute? No. But if they want to ask personal questions to get an insight into who I am, I don't have a problem with it."