A New Unknown: How Will The COVID-19 Pandemic Impact The NBA Pre-Draft Process?

The NBA Faces Much Uncertainty Amidst The COVID-19 Pandemic

Year-in, year-out one of the most magical times of the basketball calendar for fans is without question the NBA Draft and the weeks leading up to it.

For months on end you saw your team fail and succeed, and you’re convinced all that’s missing is that one piece! And what better way to obtain it than through the Draft?

The NBA Draft Combine, tentatively set for May 21st in Chicago, Illinois, provides a marquee platform for NBA Draft prospects to make an impression on all 30 NBA front offices.
(Photo: Getty Images)

NBA executives spend more time gearing up for these Franchise altering decisions than the general fan might know. The months and months of boots-on-the-ground all over the country with scouts trying to find the next big thing is as common in the basketball world as the sun is set to rise in the East each morning.

The pre-draft process itself is no easy task, as the last few weeks leading up to the big night are about solidifying what you already know, while also looking to build elsewhere in your organization such as your G-League affiliate roster.

Between the NCAA tournament, Portsmouth Invitational, NBA Draft Combine, agent hosted workouts, and private team workouts and interviews, there’s plenty to draw from as teams make their choice.

But what happens this year?

With so much uncertainty about what the pre-draft process could look like and how it might impact players and teams alike, I recently spoke with former NBA agent and current draft analyst for Babcock Hoops, Matt Babcock, to seek his insight on the matter.

Trust The Process?

What has remained constant this year despite the pandemic is the manner in which college prospects and international prospects formally declare for the NBA Draft and announce their intentions.

After they send their Tweet or post the picture with their excerpt to Instagram, they aren’t officially in the Draft yet, but it isn’t far off.

“A player requests a simple application from the league office, which requires basic information,” Babcock said of what the official draft declaration process looks like. “Full name, birth date, school, year in school. It’s not a complicated process.”

Boom. Just like that, the player in question is now entered into that years NBA Draft pool of players.

From there, the process plays out; workouts, interviews, you name it. The teams

obi toppin dayton ncaa tournament nba draft
Dayton’s Obi Toppin is one of many players to have formally declare for the NBA Draft and has renounced his amateur status by signing with an agent.
(Photo: Getty Images)

need to know who these players really are, and the players need to do their best sales pitch.

Now more than ever, given how the altered rules regarding amateurism, we see players declaring for the Draft at a rapid rate, most of whom retain their eligibility allowing them to return to college should they choose to.

With the NCAA now contemplating a one-time transfer rule, and players declaring for the Draft left-and-right, the immediate future of college players in these strange times could often times feel uncertain.

And with uncertainty, often times mistakes can happen.

“When deciding whether to remain in the draft or return to school, do not only focus on the best-case scenario or the upside,” Babcock said of how he’d advise prospects thinking of going pro this year. “Strongly consider worst-case scenarios and the downside as well.”

It’s easy for a player to get caught up in the idea of one day becoming an NBA player and seeing their dreams fulfilled, but the odds are steep and Babcock stresses these young men need to understand and, as he put it, strongly consider the best-and-worst case situations so you’re best prepared to make the proper decision for your future.

But it isn’t just the players who need to be prepared with the best knowledge of the situation.

Make The Next Move Be The Best Move

Some NBA General Managers subscribe to certain principals when drafting; select the best player available over need, because you can always fill that void in free agency and when you can, trade down/out if it means collecting tradeable assets or garnering an extra first round pick.

Which makes this year that more intriguing from a transaction standpoint.

As of this moment, the pre-draft process during the Covid-19 crisis remains unsolved and it’s unsure of how it’ll play out.

“In typical years, NBA personnel spend the Spring and early Summer going to NCAA tournament games, the Final Four, the Portsmouth Invitational, various high school All-American games, agent workouts, the NBA combine, pre-draft workouts, and playoff games,” Babcock says of the usual pre-draft cycle.

“Right now, there are no events to attend and no one is traveling.”

While always a key factor, medical information and player intel will be crucial for Draft day decisions in 2020.
(Photo: nba.com)

Not being able to get your eyes on prospects in these settings could prove crucial to decision makers as the draft nears. Leading to more potential unknowns, could the lack of availability lead to teams trying to move out of the first round?

“In that scenario, teams’ confidence levels for prospects would naturally be lower as they just wouldn’t have all the vital information needed to make a good decision,” Babcock said of potential trade scenarios.

With the Rookie Scale set to range anywhere from $1.6M-$8.1M in the first year of the contract for a rookie in 2020-21, making a good decision is imperative and could take years for a team to rebound for making a poor selection.

“I think it’s too early to say definitively [how trades will play out], as we don’t really know how the pre-draft process is going to unfold,” Babcock said. “However, if the draft were to go on without the teams having access to prospects’ medical information, then I wouldn’t be surprised if that pushed some teams to look at trades more aggressively.”

If teams were to stay put and not trade out, information becomes paramount.

“NBA personnel are spending way more time on film, intel gathering, staff conference calls, and video interviews with prospects,” Babcock says of the early portion of the 2020 pre-draft process.

Babcock notes that the lessened chances for “new information to be gathered from a traditional pre-draft process,” will be challenging for teams. And how this could impact the selection process could be interesting.

“Due to the forced change in operations for NBA personnel, I think teams will tend to gravitate towards players that are more polished on and off the floor more so than usual because of the emphasis currently being put into film and background checks.”

While the future of the 2019-20 NBA season, and 2020 off-season alike, are still up-in-the-air, the day-to-day grind doesn’t stop.

When the draft does eventually roll around, fans can expect their favorite teams to have done their homework no matter what form that might have to take in these unique times.

In NBA circles the adage of “good information wins” always rings true.

No matter the circumstances, the 2020 Draft will be no different.