When COVID-19 shut down sports in March, it abruptly put an end to the college basketball season. It wiped out the bright lights of the NCAA Tournament and as the months of isolation wore on it also took away the usual pre-draft work for the young prospects hoping to find their place in the NBA.
And while it threw off the scouting process, that’s a minor problem compared to what the rookies will face after Wednesday’s NBA Draft. On Dec. 1, they’ll be placed in training camp having had no summer league or minicamp to get a head start as they try to find their footing in the league.
But many players have done to make up for the odd schedule is find a way to work and after all of the angst over how it would harm them, the unexpected challenges may actually help prepare them for the next level.
Iowa State’s Tyrese Haliburton said not having the summer to play was a “missed development opportunity” but added: “But I think baptism by fire is the best way to go about it. Kind of throwing us in and seeing if you’re ready or not is going to make or break some people.
“For somebody like me, something I went to see is if the work I’ve been putting in is going to benefit me. At the same time, learning on the fly is how I really learn best. I’m looking forward to it. Obviously, its a different time. None of us guys know any better. We’re ready for what’s thrown at us. We don’t have any choice but to be ready.”
Haliburton is among the top 10 players in nearly every projection and some draft experts believe that with two years of college ball behind him he might be the best of the bunch. Like other players, he has found a way to answer the questions about his game by spending more time improving their game, time they never would have been afforded in a normal offseason.
Haliburton is among a group of players who took up residence in Las Vegas. Instead of the few weeks they would have had with a trainer to prep for the draft, they spent half of a year camped out in a condominium and in the gym, joined by the likes of Josh Green, Tyler Bey, Malachi Flynn and Devon Dotson — all possible first-round picks.
“Probably the biggest difference is that it used to be a six-to-eight week process,” said Joe Abunassar, who heads up training for Impact Basketball. “Now it’s five to seven months. We’re preparing them not for workouts with teams, but for next season. Our guys live here. I don’t want to say we created a bubble — all our guys all live in condos together in one complex. They train and go home. We’ve created a system where we are very careful with protocols, wearing masks when they’re not on the floor, washing hands, not mixing with people outside of the gym.
“This part has been an added challenge for sure, but they’ve been very good and we’ve had a good six, seven months. Teams come here and watch them work out instead of them traveling to see the teams. It’s interesting to see how much progress these guys have made. Ask any basketball player — they’ve never had seven months without worrying about playing in a game. It’s interesting to see them break out of the college shell and into a professional mentality.”
Other players have traveled to different locations. Obi Toppin has been working out in South Jersey with former NBA player and coach Rick Brunson, joined at times by players such as Knicks forward Kevin Knox and Mavericks guard Jalen Brunson.
“Playing in games, I missed it a lot,” Toppin said. “At the same time, this extra time, it’s only helping me. The extra time I had to get in the weight room, to get on the court with NBA players, this is helping me. I’m more prepared when the time comes.”
Kira Lewis Jr. worked out in Cleveland, then moved on to Miami before returning home to Alabama — finding opportunities to work with his trainer and also to join in training sessions with NBA players.
“I can see it helping me,” Lewis said. “You can get a lot of time to work on your game, get better, polish your game. I worked out with Terry Rozier and being with someone like that helps you navigate around the game, thinking the game through.”