CHICAGO (AP) – The elevator stopped at the 16th floor of the swanky hotel, and after a few nervous steps down the hallway a soon-to-be professional athlete was ready to face perhaps the most unpredictable part of the NBA draft process.
Down in the lobby, Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka of the Los Angeles Lakers chatted with familiar faces and pretended not to notice random fans taking selfies with them in the background. Agents held court with other agents, Clippers coach Doc Rivers talked with some journalists and a couple dozen people were outside with their phones ready to snap pictures of whoever was walking in next.
But upstairs, high above the bustle and din of Chicago’s Magnificent Mile, the real action was happening.
There were probably about 300 interviews conducted over two days in the Windy City during the draft combine. Those chats — more than perhaps the basketball that was played that week — give teams their best insight into a prospect and help decision-makers determine which players will merit multi-million-dollar investments at Thursday’s NBA draft. The Associated Press was granted access to one of the sessions.
The 25-minute meeting was held in a room that had its usual furniture — bed, television, dressers — cleared out for two couches and a table with eight chairs.
“Relax, man,” the coach said to the player, an early entry candidate, as he sat down. “We’re just trying to get to know you.”
Water was offered, and the chat began.
A couple of people were taking handwritten notes, the focus clear by the fact that no one is checking their phones, and the interview was more of a conversation than an interrogation. There was an order to things, with five team staffers asking the bulk of the questions, each getting roughly the same amount of time to play their respective role.
“What would your family tell us about you?”
“How many cellphones do you have?”
“Is this just about money?”
They asked the player what he thought of his teammates in college, how he deals with teammates that he doesn’t like, how he reacts to criticism. One of the interviewers has turned his chair around, another has his feet up on an unused chair and there were even a couple moments of laughter. Almost out of nowhere, there was a very specific question about a block-charge call the player was involved in during a game this past season, and how he reacted to a referee about the call not going his way.
The player slid down in his chair a little bit.
“How’d you even know about that?” he asked, sheepishly.
The time flies by, the interview wraps and the player was due in a few minutes one floor down for another of his seven meetings scheduled throughout the day. Everyone stands, handshakes happen all around, and just like that, it was over. The notebooks close, and the player is walked to the door by the coach who pats him on the back twice while saying “you did great.”
The kid stepped into the hall, the door closed, and that was it.
Every team does interviews differently, but for the most part the setup was the same — cleared-out hotel room, about 30 minutes per session, somewhere between five to 10 people in the room to greet the player. By nightfall and the end of the day’s meetings, everyone is exhausted. Michael Porter Jr., the Missouri player who will be a lottery pick, couldn’t even remember how many teams he met with on Day 1.
“It’s all on my phone,” he said, as he started running down the list.
There have been some famous, or infamous, stories of how draft combine interviews have gone in recent years.
Many NFL hopefuls have said they’ve been asked about their sexuality; Jeff Ireland, when he was the general manager of the Miami Dolphins, made headlines in 2010 for asking Dez Bryant if his mother was a prostitute. The Minnesota Timberwolves have been asking players for a couple of years if they speed up or slow down at yellow lights — it’s a question seeking insight not into their traffic habits, but their ability to make split-second decisions.
The Detroit Pistons brought a virtual reality setup into their interviews this year, much to the delight of players and something that will likely be copied for years to come given how much of a hit it was. The draft hopefuls were presented with about 12 scenarios when they had the VR headsets on, and were told to assess what to do in the various situations.
And the Portland Trail Blazers went deep into psyches, with a sports performance psychologist asking players a series of questions to determine their personality traits.
“So accurate,” said Brian Bowen, who eventually removed himself from draft consideration but will still seek a pro career since the NCAA isn’t granting the former Louisville recruit eligibility at South Carolina for the 2018-19 season. “It was crazy.”
Kevin Huerter, who is leaving Maryland after two seasons and could get selected as early as the middle of the first round, said some teams — San Antonio and Golden State in particular — were more in-depth than some other clubs were with him during the combine interviews.
“Pick one moment in time that describes your personality,” Huerter said he was asked during the Warriors meeting. “I thought that was a really good question.”
While one player said he was asked to participate in a staring contest, truly bizarre tales seemed nonexistent.
“I don’t let it get there,” Miami’s Bruce Brown Jr. said. “That’s just my personality, to bring everybody up and make everybody smile. Every interview went great.”
There was plenty of basketball played at the combine, plenty of on-court testing and evaluation going on, and the sharing of medical information is of enormous value to the teams. There have been more workouts for individual teams since the combine, and more interviews. But teams will review notes from sessions at the combine before Thursday night.
“It’s all about business,” said Duke’s Wendell Carter Jr., someone who will almost certainly be a lottery pick and prepared for that by meeting with most of the teams that have top-14 selections in this draft during his time in Chicago last month. “At the next level, there’s no more just playing the game.”
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