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Falk uses Meyers Leonard to illustrate NBA draft combine scouting lesson

The NBA Draft Combine is a great place to see prospects in a new context, but be careful about drawing conclusions.

NBA: Preseason-Portland Trail Blazers at Phoenix Suns Jennifer Stewart-USA TODAY Sports

The 2018 NBA Draft Combine began on Monday and Tuesday, with elite prospects arriving in Chicago for medical testing; Wednesday, measurements were taken and teams began the interview process. But the real challenge for players and talent evaluators alike began today with drills.

As Ben Falk of Cleaning the Glass reports, drills can tell you a lot about a player because they decontextualize everything you’ve seen from them before. The players scrimmage with new teammates, outside of their respective college systems, and can showcase talents that were previously untapped.

But drills can also be misleading. A hot performance at the right time can boost a player’s draft stock, whether the performance is replicable or not. That is the challenge of scouting—a process Falk recollects from his time in Portland as the Trail Blazers assessed Meyers Leonard:

Leonard had been considered a mid-to-late first round prospect, but to hear tell of it from those in our front office who had flown to Chicago, he had shown a lot that made him far more interesting than the in-season scouting had indicated. Leonard had measured at 6-11.75 barefoot and more importantly, he had shot the ball very well. In spot shooting drills he had nailed shot after shot, showing great mechanics and displaying a skillset he hadn’t been allowed to demonstrate at Illinois.

Here was a 7-footer that seemed to have a much better shot than he showed in college, with the athleticism to dunk from a step inside the free throw line. He was a polished interview, an intelligent and well-spoken young man who talked about wanting to do the dirty work and putting the team’s performance above his own stats.

Our scouts were right about Leonard’s shooting: despite underwhelming college statistics, Leonard is a career 37% three point shooter and 82% free throw shooter. Those drills told us something. But Leonard has never been able to translate all of his raw abilities onto the court. For whatever reason, when he’s in the game he’s just not able to use his skill and athleticism and intelligence in a way that positively impacts winning.

Falk does not directly decry the Trail Blazers, but does warn that Leonard illustrates a lesson, saying that “a star at the Combine doesn’t mean a star on the court, because performance in each place is shaped by a very different context.”

Leonard proved to be a gifted shooter, as he showed at the combine, but is not the same player in an NBA environment that he appeared to be in the pre-draft scouting process. Six seasons into his NBA career, he seems unable to make the most of his physical talents.

As teams look over this year’s prospects, they must do so with caution. Some skills can be molded, some abilities are immutable, and sometimes wires get crossed in determining how each will impact a player’s long-term outlook.

Read more about the draft combine’s value and why it can be so tricky here.