Pre-Draft Workouts: Phoenix, Arizona
NBA Draft Analyst Matt Babcock shares his thoughts on prospects Naji Marshall, Ty-Shon Alexander, and Josh Hall after recently traveling to Phoenix, Arizona to see them workout and play in pickup games.
Every year when the college basketball regular season ends, the real fun begins, as we get into March Madness with conference tournaments and “The Big Dance”. Earlier this year, on March 9th, to be exact, I had my bags packed and was set to go to New York City for the Big East tournament, followed by the Big Ten tournament in Indianapolis. I also had trips planned to Chicago, Houston, Portland, and Philadelphia to attend the Jordan Brand Classic, McDonald’s All-American Game, the Nike Hoop Summit, and the Allen Iverson Classic, respectively. I probably would have hit a regional tournament game or two as well. As I’m assuming you’d be able to guess, I canceled all of those trips due to the coronavirus pandemic. Nearly six months have passed since then and I have not gotten on a plane, which has been the longest stretch I have gone without travel in my professional career, and maybe even my entire life. However, last week that stretch ended, as I flew to Phoenix, Arizona to see two prospects that I was supposed to evaluate in March at the Big East tournament: Naji Marshall from Xavier and Ty-Shon Alexander from Creighton. I was also able to see prep-to-pro prospect Josh Hall from Moravian Prep in North Carolina. The first day I was there, I had the opportunity to watch them during individual workouts and play pickup versus a group of NBA players the second day. I also sat down with each player to talk through some things, get to know one another, and share some advice. After being locked at home for so long and having been limited to only watching film, talking on the phone, and doing zoom calls, it was great to be back in a gym. In addition to my excitement of just being back around live basketball, the workouts and players I went to see did not disappoint in the slightest. Let me tell you about it.
Upon walking into the gym in Phoenix, I took a seat with Nate Conley, the agent for all three of the players I was there to see. Conley and I have been friends since he was a skills coach, prior to him becoming an agent. In less than two years, Conley has built an impressive basketball division for the sports agency Prosport Management, which is well established in golf, racing, and soccer.
I recently connected Nate Conley with skills coach Phil Beckner who led the workouts in Phoenix — the reason we were all there. I first crossed paths with Beckner when he was an assistant coach at Boise State. While scouting their team’s star player, Chandler Hutchison, at a home game, I sat courtside next to one of the team’s beat writers. Of course, I picked the writer’s brain about Hutchison, trying to gather as much intel about him as possible. He explained that when Hutchison first arrived in Boise, he was skinny and spoiled — they weren’t sure he was going to succeed. However, Beckner got a hold of him and gave him a significant amount of tough love (his M.O.). Supposedly, there were some memorable battles, and Hutchinson didn’t fully buy into Beckner’s aggressive, no-nonsense style right off the bat — it took some time. Nonetheless, Hutchison ultimately did buy-in and their partnership as a player and developmental coach worked as he developed into a first-round pick. He was selected 22nd by the Chicago Bulls in the 2018 NBA Draft.
Following the 2017-18 season, Beckner left Boise State to become an independent skills coach, with NBA superstar Damian Lillard of the Portland Trail Blazers being his top client. He also got involved with USA basketball, where he has served as a skills coach for their junior teams — which is where he and I got to know each other. As I mentioned before, Beckner has a no-nonsense approach to coaching and player development. He holds his players accountable and is quick to call them out if he thinks they are not taking care of business. I think there are many players that would have a hard time accepting his style and approach, but the ones that do buy-in get significantly better. To make a long story short, I have a lot of respect for Beckner and I think he is one of the best in the business.
Anyway, as I sat down with Nate Conley at the workouts that day in Phoenix, his client, Naji Marshall from Xavier, beelined to me, said hello, and introduced himself — I thought that was pretty impressive. I had seen Marshall play several times in person prior to that workout. In fact, I saw him play at home at the Cintas Center in Cincinnati two seasons ago when he scored 17 points and grabbed 7 rebounds in a win against a highly rated Villanova team that featured forwards Eric Paschall and Saddiq Bey.
From Atlantic City, New Jersey, Marshall is a tough, scrappy, and versatile 6’7” forward. This past season he averaged 16.8 points, 6.3 rebounds, and 4.0 assists per game, leading his Musketeers to 19 wins. I have always liked Marshall’s toughness and versatility, but have had concerns with his outside shooting — this season he only shot 28.6% from three-point range. In addition to my concerns with his outside shooting, I have also gotten mixed reviews on some of his background reports. I have been somewhat torn on what to do with Marshall in regards to our mock draft and my personal rankings. Generally speaking, my main goal on a day-to-day basis is to make sure I’m making progress, to ultimately have a firm grip on NBA prospects that I expect to be in the upcoming draft. For various reasons, it takes more time and work to get the necessary grip on certain players, more so than others. Naji Marshall certainly fell into that category for me prior to my Phoenix trip.
To put it simply, Marshall was terrific all the way around both days I was in Phoenix. He showed a much improved outside shot, which I was hoping to see. He displayed his unparalleled toughness and competitiveness, which were the main reasons I liked him in the first place. During the pickup games, which included a handful of current NBA players, I thought Marshall was the best player on the floor. His size, versatility, and scrappiness as a wing player should translate to the NBA seamlessly, and with a much improved outside shot, he’s moving up in my book. After spending a couple of days getting to know him, he answered many of my concerns about his personality, coachability, and reliability — all things that have been questioned in various background reports. There’s no denying that Marshall is tough and chippy, but I think his hard shell has led to him being a bit misunderstood. I think he has a great personality and has substance — I liked being around him. Also, considering that he and Beckner have clicked so quickly gives me a ton of confidence. I would have no hesitation in suggesting him to NBA teams that think his skill set would fit what they’re trying to do.
Another player in Phoenix that I was supposed to watch at the Big East Tournament in March was Ty-Shon Alexander from Creighton. I had seen Alexander several times in person, and I actually saw him score 27 points versus number one ranked Gonzaga at the CHI Center in Omaha, Nebraska during the 2018-19 season. During that game, I was mainly focused on Gonzaga’s Rui Hachimura and Brandon Clarke, but I walked away extremely impressed with Alexander. This season he averaged 16.9 points, 5.0 rebounds while shooting 39.9% from the three-point range, and 86% from the free-throw line. Coach Greg McDermott routinely assigned Alexander the role of defending their opposing team’s top perimeter player, a role that he embraced and thrived in. We recently had Raquel Rodriguez interview him via our Q&A Sessions series, so I already knew he was a great kid. Still, he and I had a chance to get acquainted, and I must say, I think he is an all-time great kid and the type of person that any team should want to be a part of their organization. Alexander was good during that first workout, but I didn’t see anything I wasn’t expecting to see. In the pickup games, however, he showed me just how good he is on the defensive end. He was matched up against NBA players all day and he stood out! At 6’4” with a thick, strong build, Alexander played his butt off, moving his feet, being physical, and contesting shots. I really started to visualize him as a player that would be able to hang his hat on the defensive end while also being a reliable shooter and scorer. He and I talked about him continuing to develop his point guard skills. I believe that if he’s able to develop into a player that can legitimately play two positions in the NBA, he could carve out a really nice NBA career.
Nearly a year ago, my colleague and former co-worker, Matt McKay, called me to let me know that he was going to an individual workout to see prep school star Josh Hall of Moravian prep in North Carolina. McKay is an experienced former NBA scout and is now the owner and founder of the scouting company Pro Insight. I really trust McKay’s eye for talent, so when he called raving about Hall after watching him work out, I was extremely intrigued. He explained that Hall had tremendous length at 6’9'', with long arms, big hands, athleticism, and a well-rounded, budding skillset. Since then, I have been in touch with Hall's father, Quincy, and watched some film on him. Nevertheless, I can’t say that I knew him that well. I was set to see him at the Iverson Classic — which was canceled, of course. My trip to Phoenix was my first time seeing him in person, and let me tell you, Matt McKay was absolutely right! Hall has a ton of upside! He is a really nice kid as well. He is somewhat raw but does a little bit of everything, including shooting the ball from outside. During the pickup games, he had several impressive slashing moves and dunks and knocked down a couple of three-pointers. I could easily see a team taking him in the second round to invest time and money to develop him. He has tools you just can’t teach, and I personally think he’s worth the risk because if he continues to improve his body and his skill set, we could be looking at a serious player in the coming years. I’ll admit, there is some risk because he is unproven and still needs work, but he just might be a diamond in the rough.
All in all, my trip to Phoenix was a great success! In a long and drawn out pre-draft process, in which we have been limited in our ability to gather new information, I was able to get to know a few players better, providing me more clarity on how they might fit into the NBA.
The next month or two leading up to the 2020 NBA Draft, which is currently scheduled to take place on October 16th, I will look to get in front of more NBA prospects — taking the proper precautions, of course.
Where am I going next and who I am going to see? Stay tuned to find out.