Coronavirus, NBA Agents’ Newfound Power, and the 2020 NBA Draft
Jeremy Berman discusses how the fallout from the coronavirus pandemic could dramatically shift the power from front offices to agents during the NBA pre-draft process.
With no basketball being played in late March as the world deals with the spread of the coronavirus, NBA teams, agents, and draft entrants are faced with unique circumstances as the pre-draft process ramps up. As of this writing, top prospects, including Obi Toppin, James Wiseman, Kira Lewis, Tyrese Haliburton, Isaac Okoro, Devin Vassell, and Anthony Edwards, have already declared for the draft. We’ve also seen a few players who will be testing the waters but are still leaving open the possibility to return to school. Among those are Tyler Bey, Naji Marshall, Jay Scrubb, and Xavier Tillman.
Both groups of players are going to be affected by the likely limitations put on the entire process in an effort to suppress the coronavirus spread. While nothing official has been announced, most front offices, coaches, agents, and players are preparing as though all pre-draft workouts, agent pro days, and the combine will be canceled. The Portsmouth Invitational Tournament, a showcase for the top college seniors that takes place in mid-April, has already been canceled.
In all likelihood, we’re going to be seeing an entirely virtual pre-draft process. Thankfully, with today’s technology, some of the necessary aspects of player evaluation, such as scouting, analytics, and intel, are still doable.
Scouting-wise, while there will likely be no workouts for players to use to cement their standing as draft picks, in most cases, teams have a plethora of game film and past viewings to draw from to understand a player’s basketball ability. The on-court scouting box will at least be partially checked.
From an analytical perspective, much (not all) of the data a team’s analytical staff would have collected has already been accounted for. Many NCAA and international teams played around 30 games before seasons were called off. However, official Draft Combine measurements and athletic testing that teams are probably not going to get this year can often play a role in teams’ analytical models. If the input of an analytical model is significantly altered, the output will likely be altered as well.
For background info and intel purposes, most teams have already spent years collecting background info from various sources and will easily be able to conduct video interviews with players in order to get a better feel for them as people. Secondary sources are also often just a phone call or two away. This will likely be the least affected aspect of the process.
So while scouting, analytics, and intel components can remain at least 80% the same, one hugely important piece of the process remains. A piece that dramatically shifts the power between teams and agents. A piece that doesn’t seem to have been talked about much: medical.
Teams want to mitigate as much risk as possible before drafting a player. Through extensive background and scouting work, teams know anything and everything there is to know about a player. From how many times the player missed class, to how many shots he got up a day, to what his second favorite color was in fourth grade, NBA front offices have a deep, deep knowledge of most prospects.
A huge boon for teams inviting draft entrants to their facilities before the draft is the ability to measure them, subject them to athletic testing, and put them through a full physical with team doctors. In order to have a high confidence level in a player’s physical and medical standing, similar to their confidence in intel and scouting, teams often rely on their own medical and performance staff to give the green light on a player. We’ve seen numerous players fall in the draft because of medical red flags that might not have turned up had teams not had full access to players’ medical information. On the flip-side, some players with questionable medical histories are able to prove their good health for teams as well. Essentially, team-run medical screenings can have positives and negatives for players, but for teams obtaining as much valid and complete information as possible is always a win.
If a player has bad intel, you can always assign someone to watch over them and keep them out of trouble. If a player isn’t a self-starter, you can require them to be in the gym with a coach almost every day. However, if a player has no cartilage remaining in his knees, there isn’t much you can do about that. Without access to players in a team’s own practice facilities, the negotiating advantage for medical information swings heavily to draft entrants and their agents.
The priorities for agents and their clients can vary depending on the situation. Some want to be drafted as high as possible to make the most money, while others prefer to find the right fit.
“Money is almost always discussed and a team’s location is brought up occasionally too, but I’d say the most important factors for players and agents during the pre-draft process are the team's style of play and the fit for the player from a basketball standpoint,” said former NBA agent Matt Babcock.
While an agent and player can’t decide exactly which team takes them at the end of the day, they can heavily influence the confidence level of teams they’d prefer to go to, or not. In normal years, agents are very strategic in which teams they allow their players to work out for, wanting to influence the client’s draft range by working out only at places where they want the player to be drafted.
Now that it is likely that facility visits and the NBA Draft Combine will not take place, teams will not be able to get their own medical information on players, and will almost fully rely on private medical information obtained by the agent or the player’s school, which is not ideal, if even possible.
“In typical years, most prospects will participate in the NBA Draft Combine or visit NBA teams where they are put through comprehensive physical evaluations. However, each year there are usually a few agents that try to manipulate the draft and pinpoint which picks their clients will be selected. In these scenarios, the agent would only allow for preferred teams to have access to their client’s medical information by sharing reports from a physical evaluation they have arranged on their own or limiting the player’s visits to teams where they can be evaluated by that team’s medical staff,” added Babcock.
So armed with their own MRI’s, screenings, and other medical information, an agent can now decide which teams get access to that information. The agent would hold a lot more leverage and power than normal. For example, the player might have grown up in Florida and want to play close to home. The agent can decide only to send medical information to Miami, Orlando, Atlanta, and Charlotte, with the hope that other teams will be scared off from selecting the player. As mentioned earlier, the agent can’t force any other team to pass on their player, but taking into account the confidence factor medical information plays and the lack of ability to invite a player into team facilities, you can see where the influence lies. The agent holds many more of the cards.
For many NBA teams, something that is not often known to the common fan is that the medical groups may have the final say when it comes to whether the front office is even allowed to draft a player. Each team has its own evaluation of the medical information they are given, so the benchmarks and risk tolerance can vary, but a group of team doctors can red-flag a player to the point where they are removed from the team’s draft board. Agents know this is often the case and can leverage the power of the medical information to get players removed off of certain teams’ boards. In some cases, this will cause players to slide from their projected draft ranges. A recent example of this involves Michael Porter Jr., who was regarded as a top-3 talent, but with so many questions about the health of his back, many teams had to wipe him from their board, and he was ultimately drafted 14th by the Denver Nuggets.
“If there aren’t team visits and the NBA Draft Combine is canceled, agents’ ability to manipulate the draft will increase dramatically and I think many will take advantage of their newfound power,” said Babcock.
How teams and agents navigate the uncharted waters of this year’s pre-draft process could ultimately change the landing spots of many of 2020’s draft prospects. We could see reports of withheld medical information run rampant if the draft is not delayed to a period where the pre-draft process can proceed as close to normal as possible after the coronavirus curve is officially flattened. Otherwise, many teams could have to make draft selections with incomplete information, heavily increasing the risk of each pick. Not only could players’ lives be altered, but NBA team staff as well. With more risk on each pick comes more risk of general managers and coaches being fired. Will agents leverage the power of the medical information to empower themselves during the NBA pre-draft process? I think so!