As the NBA’s postseason continues and the crowning of a champion in the Finals draws nearer, the rest of the league’s attention is set on June 20, the date of the 2019 NBA Draft.
Last Tuesday in Chicago, the results of the draft lottery determined the first-round order of the top selections in the field. Over the next three days, attention shifted to the annual NBA Draft Combine.
You didn’t see Zion Williamson’s or RJ Barrett risk injury or hurt their chances by participating. Ja Morant, Jarrett Culver, Coby White and Cam Reddish all spoke to the media and met with teams, but they didn’t actually do anything physical. You rarely see any of those premier prospects do so.
The purpose of the NBA Combine is to help boost the draft stock of professional hopefuls that aren’t pegged at the top of their class. It’s the place where some late first-rounders turn into mid-first-rounders. Where once-thought-of undrafted players move up into potential draftee status through athletic testing and live scrimmages in front of executives, agents and coaches.
Every year, there’s always a “winner” at the NBA Combine, and sometimes there are multiple that benefit come draft time. We’ll find that out in about a month.
Whoever that may be, though, will have to thank Brett Brungardt.
Boasting over 25 years of experience—notably as a former strength and conditioning coach at the University of Washington and with the Dallas Mavericks—Brungardt is responsible for the co-founding of Basic Athletic Measurement (BAM), a standardized athletic testing organization that has essentially been the straw that stirs the drink at the NBA Combine since the company’s inception in 2008.
Brungardt hatched the idea of BAM based on conversations with head coaches over his time as a strength and conditioning assistant. He’d field questions about 40-yard sprint times and vertical jump measurements, and then would refer to spreadsheets with recorded year-by-year results to answer them.
Unfortunately, almost all the time, Brungardt’s numbers didn’t match up with the staff’s findings—so he brainstormed.
“In the back of my mind I kept thinking there’s gotta be a way to have reliable and valid information in a linear component that’s looking at athletes through time that we can trust,” Brungardt told Basketball Insiders at Quest Multisport in Chicago. “We were the original fake news, to be quite honest.
“On the back of that, we decided to come up with a standardized way of assessing athletes and looking at what we call our performance parameters, and then put that in the equation of making sure we’re creating a well-balanced, healthy athlete through some…they really are quite simple tests, but what we’ve added to make it more reliable is the technology. So we’re looking at a lot of data points. Not necessarily the end results become important, but it’s all the significant data points between the start and finish.”
Brungardt put in the work to travel across the world, scouring through New Zealand and Australia to find the perfect technology that would best help drive his brainchild. Doing his due diligence, he agreed to partner with Fusion Sport, a global leader in human performance software.
And so, along with Martin Haase, his co-founder who had an extensive background in software and statistics to help on the organizing end of things, Brungardt launched BAM.
For the past 11 years, BAM has taken a combination of advanced technological equipment and data collection to record times and scores—labeled BAMScores—for standardized tests specific to certain drills.
“It’s like an SAT for younger people,” Brungardt said.
At the NBA Combine, BAM administers five different tests, all of which are incorporated into BAMScore:
– Pro Three-Quarter Court Sprint: Determines acceleration, maximum speed and speed endurance.
– Lane Agility: Tests movement patterns in all four directions around the lane and measures the ability to make quick changes of direction while moving at speed.
– Reaction Shuttle: Evaluates ability to show how quick and effective decisions are made and actions initiated. The brief interval of time it takes to react to an external stimulus.
– Vertical Jump: Demonstrates ability to exert a maximal force in as short a time as possible vertical displacement.
– Approach Jump: Athlete starts within 15 feet of the Vertec. It is a running start vertical jump. Measurement is similar to vertical jump, but also includes the athlete’s ability to coordinate and incorporate strength and power with reach.
The process of executing such tests is quite fascinating. According to an interview Brungardt did with Access Athletes, the participants register online ahead of the events and are given an identification tag with their Fusion ID technology. They are then re-registered with their tags verified through video. During the actual tests, an electronic wristband is worn to monitor player movement.
And just in case of the rarity where the software doesn’t reflect the correct outcome, Brungardt utilizes three backups (a video, handheld PDA and a CPU backing up the system).
Once an athlete finishes a test –or is done with the full amount of testing—the timing system downloads the results into BAM’s database where all of the information is stored. From there, the times and BAMScore reports can be shared to whoever requests them.
“For basketball, it’s the biggest standardized database in the world because we’ve been doing it for such a long time and standardized this process with the technology,” Brungardt said. “There are databases out there with hand time, which is highly unreliable, and mixtures of such, but all of ours are an apple-to-apple comparison.”
Physically and athletically speaking, these tests tell us everything we need to know. As for measuring greatness at the professional level, that’s the tough part.
“To use this as a talent identification process, [no]. There’s a lot of things that go on in basketball,” Brungardt said. “Larry Bird probably would not have been a great combine tester. But if you’re looking at a specific role for a player, someone that’s gonna fill a spot, that’s gonna play a role because there’s only one basketball out there, then you may have certain metrics that you deem are meaningful.
“We acquire the data. The brains in the NBA then put their secret sauce together from this data to see what they want to utilize out of that component. There’s great athletes and they’re fun to watch. It’s fun to watch the movement patterns, see how they do. Because it’s becoming more ingrained in the culture of basketball, but it’s still not like other sports where these parameters are instilled in junior high age and kids are performing them. So some of this is new to these athletes.”
Testing well is just one piece of the puzzle. Although it’s not his area of expertise, Brungardt has a general idea of how prospective talent is evaluated by basketball scouts and front office executives.
“There’s a performance box. And if they’re outside that box, probably no matter what their skill set is, it may be very difficult for them to perform at this level because the guys are so athletic,” Brungardt said. “You could be the greatest shooter in the world, but if you can’t create the space or get your shot off fast enough, then they’re gonna get to you and they’re gonna change your world.
“So you have to be athletic enough to create space to move so then you also then can’t be a certain liability. So there’s an athletic box they look at, and then they start to move down to skill pattern. That’s still the priority.”
BAM isn’t just limited to basketball, by the way. The organization does testing in 17 sports in total, with BAMScores compiled for each so that the numbers can be compared across.
For example, Jordan Bone earned the highest BAMScore at the 2019 NBA Combine in Chicago with a total of 2401 points. Put that next to Troy Apke’s impressive showing at the 2018 NFL Combine (unofficial BAMScore of 2379—they can’t authenticate the measures) and you can infer that both are extremely athletic people.
Bone and Apke’s BAMScores fall into the “professional” range of the organization’s scale. Contrasting with the U.S. Men’s National Cricket Team tryouts in April 2018, their player’s top BAMScore was 1957, a figure that ranks in the “varsity” category, three levels below the range those two fell into.
“Some sports have certain parameters that they’re better at because of adaptations and skills that go on in that sport than others,” Brungardt said. “But it doesn’t mean that other sports can’t look at those and become better at those performance parameters.”
Brungardt’s past experiences in basketball coaching played a significant part in making his vision come to life. With Brett’s innovation and the assistance of Haase, BAM has become the standard bearer of accurate athletic assessment.
“We established: ‘These tests are helpful for this sport,'” Brungardt said “Stopwatches just are not the most reliable way in the world to do it. When you start looking at more transcription and every time you touch data humanly, things happen that make it inaccurate.
“For me, it’s about physical development. I wanted to test an athlete, then I trained them and then I wanted to re-test them in a reliable fashion to see if what I was doing in the weight room was improving him on those components. And those were the goals.”
And while Brungardt is proud of the presence BAM has, he understands that upgrading should always be on their mind.
“Anytime you have more data on a test, it becomes more valid. It’s testing when it purports to test and that’s what validity is,” Brungardt said. “The technology is better. It always gets better.
“It’s about right now, we feel it’s really good. We’re always looking to improve things, but there’s always the human component because you have proctors. There’s lots of things we try to make as consistent as possible, but here what we’re doing, everything that we touch, pretty good!”
Reviewing the Nurkic Trade: Denver’s Perspective
The Denver Nuggets have been on a miraculous run this postseason, but that doesn’t mean that they’re infallible. Drew Maresca reviews the 2017 trade that sent Jusuf Nurkic from Denver to Portland.
The Denver Nuggets are fresh off of a 114-106 win over the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference Finals, pulling within three wins of the franchise’s first trip to the NBA Finals. But what if I told you that the Nuggets’ roster could be even more talented by acting more deliberately in a trade from three years ago?
While Denver won on Tuesday night, they lost a nail bitter on Sunday – for which most of the blame has been pointed at a defensive breakdown by Nuggets’ center Mason Plumlee, who was procured in the aforementioned 2017 trade. What did it cost Denver, you ask? Just Jusuf Nurkic and a first-round pick.
Nurkic was a 2014-15 All-Rookie second team member. He played 139 games over 2.5 seasons in Denver, averaging 7.5 points and 5.9 rebounds in approximately 18 minutes per game. He showed serious promise, but Denver had numerous reasons to pursue a trade: he’d suffered a few relatively serious injuries early in his career (and he’s continued to be injury-prone in Portland), butted heads with head coach Michael Malone and – most importantly – the Nuggets stumbled on to Nikola Jokic.
The Nuggets eventually attempted a twin-tower strategy with both in the starting line-up, but that experiment was short-lived — with Jokic ultimately asking to move to the team’s second unit.
The Nuggets traded Nurkic to the Portland Trail Blazers in February 2017 (along with a first-round pick) in exchange for Plumlee, a second-round pick and cash considerations. Ironically, the first-round pick included in the deal became Justin Jackson, who was used to procure another center, Zach Collins – but more on that in a bit.
As of February 2017, Plumlee was considered the better player of the two. He was averaging a career-high 11 points, 8.1 rebounds and 4.0 assists through 54 games – but it was clear that at 27, he’d already maximized his talent.
Conversely, Nurkic was only 23 at the time of the trade with significant, untapped upside. In his first few seasons with Portland, Nurkic averaged 15 points and 9.8 rebounds per game, while establishing himself as a rising star. As noted above, injuries have continued to be a problem. Nurkic suffered a compound fracture in his tibia and fibula in March 2019, forcing him to miss a majority of this current campaign. The COVID-19-related play stoppage in March gave Nurkic extra time to get his body right, and he returned to action in July inside the bubble.
And he did so with a vengeance. Nurkic demonstrated superior strength and footwork, and he flashed the dominance that Portland hoped he would develop, posting eight double-doubles in 18 contests. He averaged 17.6 points and 10.3 rebounds per game and while his play dipped a bit in the playoffs – partially due to a matchup with first-team All-NBA star Anthony Davis – he still managed 14.2 points and 10.4 rebounds in the five-game series. So it’s fair to say that Nurkic is still on his way toward stardom.
But the Nuggets are in the conference finals – so all’s well that ends well, right? Not so fast. To his credit, Plumlee is exactly who Denver expected him to be. He’s averaged 7.5 points and 5.5 rebounds per game in three seasons with Denver since 2017 – but to be fair, Plumlee is asked to do less in Denver than he had in Portland. Still, it’s fairly obvious that they’re just not that comparable.
Plumlee is a good passer and an above-average defender that’ll compete hard and isn’t afraid to get dirty – but he has limitations. He doesn’t stretch the floor and he is a sub-par free throw shooter (53.5 percent in 2019-20). More importantly, he’s simply not a major offensive threat and his repertoire of moves is limited.
High-level takeaway: Defenses tend to game plan for opponents they view as major threats – Nurkic falls into this category. Other guys pack the stat sheet through putback attempts, open looks and single coverage alongside the guys for whom opposing defenses game plan – that’s a more appropriate description of Plumlee.
On to the wrench thrown in by Zach Collins’ involvement. Statistically, Collins is about as effective as Plumlee – he averaged 7 points and 6.3 rebounds through only 11 games in 2019-20 due to various injuries – and he possesses more upside. The 22-year-old is not as reliable as Plumlee but given his age and skill set, he’s a far better option as a support player playing off the bench. He stretches the floor (36.8 percent on three-point attempts in 2019-20), is an above-average free throw shooter (75 percent this season) and is a good defender. Looking past Nurkic for a moment, would the Nuggets prefer a 22-year-old center that stretches the floor and defends or a 30-year-old energy guy?
Regardless of your answer to that question, it’s hard to argue that Nurkic should have returned more than Plumlee, definitely so when you factor in the first-round pick Denver included. There is obviously more at play: Denver was probably considering trading Nurkic for some time before they acted – did they feel that they could increase his trade value prior to the trade deadline in 2016-17? Maybe. Further, Nurkic and his agent could have influenced the Nuggets’ decision at the 2017 deadline, threatening to stonewall Denver in negotiations.
Had Nurkic been more patient or the Nuggets acted sooner before it became abundantly clear that he was on the move, Denver’s roster could be even more stacked than it is now. Ultimately, the Nuggets have a plethora of talent and will be fine – while it appears that Nurkic found a long-term home in Portland, where he owns the paint offensively. Denver can’t be thrilled about assisting a division rival, but they’re still in an enviable position today and should be for years to come.
But despite that, this deal should go down as a cautionary tale – it’s not only the bottom feeders of the league who make missteps. Even the savviest of front offices overthink deals. Sometimes that works in their favor, and other times it does not.
NBA Daily: They Guessed Wrong
Matt John reflects on some of the key decisions that were made last summer, and how their disappointing results hurt both team outlooks and players’ legacies.
It doesn’t sound possible, but did you know that the crazy NBA summer of 2019 was, in fact, over a year ago? Wildly, in any normal, non-pandemic season, it all would have been over three months ago and, usually, media days would be right around the corner, but not this time. The 2019-20 NBA season is slated to end sometime in early to mid-October, so the fact that the last NBA off-season was over a year ago hasn’t really dawned on anyone yet. Craziest of all, even though there will still be an offseason, there technically won’t be any summer.
Coronavirus has really messed up the NBA’s order. Of course, there are much worse horrors that COVID-19 has inflicted upon the world – but because of what it’s done to the NBA, let’s focus on that and go back to the summer of 2019. It felt like an eternity, but the Golden State Warriors’ three-year reign had finally reached its end. The Toronto Raptors’ victory over the tyranny that was the Hamptons Five – as battered as they were – made it feel like order had been restored to the NBA. There was more to it than that though.
Klay Thompson’s and Kevin Durant’s season-ending injuries, along with the latter skipping town to join Kyrie Irving in Brooklyn meant two things.
1. Golden State was down for the count
2. Brooklyn’s time wasn’t coming until next year.
A one-year window was open. Even if neither Golden State nor Brooklyn posed the same threat that the former did when it had Kevin Durant, those were two contenders out of commission. If there was a time to go all in, it was in 2019.
Milwaukee certainly seemed to go all in. For the most part. Malcolm Brogdon’s departure seemed a little odd since he was arguably their best non-Giannis playmaker when they were in crunch time. Not to mention there was nothing really stopping the Bucks from keeping him except for money. Detractors will call out Milwaukee for electing to cheap out by not keeping Brogdon and hence, avoiding the luxury tax. However, there’s more to it than that.
Milwaukee thought it had enough with the core it had on its roster. Coming off the best season they had put up since the eighties, they believed the franchise built the right team to contend. There was an argument that keeping Brogdon may have been overkill with their guard depth – let’s not forget that Donte DiVincenzo did a solid job in Brogdon’s role as the backup facilitator. This would have been more defensible had it not been for Milwaukee picking the wrong guy to let go. That was the indefensible part- electing to keep Eric Bledsoe over Brogdon.
Bledsoe wasn’t necessarily a bad investment. No one’s complaining about an almost 15 point average on 47/34/79 splits or playing individual defense tight enough to get named on the All-Defensive second team. By all accounts, Bledsoe earns his keep. That is until the playoffs. Bledsoe’s postseason woes have been a weight ever since he first entered Milwaukee, and this postseason was more of the same.
Bledsoe’s numbers dwindled to just 11.7 points on 39/25/81 splits, and Milwaukee getting ousted in five games at the hands of Miami made his struggles stand out even more than it had ever been. Bledsoe may be the better athlete and the better defender, but Brogdon’s all-around offensive savvy and his only slight dropoff defensively from Brogdon would have made him a bit more reliable.
Milwaukee guessed wrong when they opted to extend Bledsoe before the postseason last year when they could have waited until that very time to evaluate who to keep around. Now they face a hell of a lot more questions than they did at the end of last season – questions that may have been avoided had they made the right choice.
Now they could have kept both of them, yes, but it’s not totally unreasonable to think that maybe their approach with the luxury tax would have worked and maybe they would still be in the postseason right now had they gone with the homegrown talent. And just maybe, there wouldn’t be nearly as much of this Greek Freak uncertainty.
The Houston Rockets can relate. They got bruised up by a team that everyone thought Houston had the edge on going into the series and then crushed by the Lakers. Now, Mike D’Antoni is gone. The full-time small ball experiment likely did not work out. Since the Rockets emptied most of their assets to bring in Russell Westbrook and Robert Covington, there may not be a route in which they can become better than they presently are.
The mistake wasn’t trading for Russell Westbrook. The mistake was trading Chris Paul.
To be fair, most everybody severely overestimated Chris Paul’s decline. He’s not among the best of the best anymore, but he’s still pretty darn close. He deserved his All-NBA second team selection as well as finishing No. 7 overall in MVP voting. OKC had no business being as good as they were this season, and Paul was the driving force as to why.
For all we know, the previously-assumed tension between Chris Paul and James Harden would have made its way onto the court no matter what. Even so, Houston’s biggest obstacle in the Bay Area had crumbled. If they had just stayed the course, maybe they’re still in the postseason too.
To their credit, none of this may have happened had it not been for the Kawhi Leonard decision. Had he chosen differently, the Thunder never blow it up, and Houston might have very well been the favorite in the Western Conference. Instead, the Rockets took a step back from being in the title discussion to dark horse. But at least they can take pride knowing that they weren’t expected to win it all – the Clippers can’t.
Seeing the Clippers fall well short expectations begs the question if they too got it wrong. The answer is, naturally: of course not. They may have paid a hefty price for Paul George, but the only way they were getting Kawhi Leonard – one of the best players of his generation – was if PG-13 came in the package. As lofty as it was, anyone would have done the same thing if they were in their shoes. They didn’t get it wrong. Kawhi did.
On paper, the Clippers had the most talented roster in the entire league. It seemed like they had every hole filled imaginable. Surrounding Leonard and George was three-point shooting, versatility, a productive second unit, an experienced coach – you name it. There was nothing stopping them from breaking the franchise’s long-lasting curse. Except themselves.
Something felt off about them. They alienated opponents. They alienated each other. At times, they played rather lackadaisically, like the title had already been signed, sealed, and delivered to them. The media all assumed they’d cut the malarkey and get their act together – but that moment never really came. They had their chances to put Denver away, but even if they had, after seeing their struggles to beat them – and to be fair Dallas too – would their day of destiny with the Lakers have really lived up to the hype?
Even if it was never in the cards, one can’t help but wonder what could have happened had Kawhi chosen to stay with the team he won his second title with.
Toronto was the most impressive team in this league this season. They still managed to stay at the top of the east in spite of losing an all-timer like Leonard. That team had every component of a winner except a superstar. They had the right culture for a championship team. Just not the right talent. The Clippers were the exact opposite. They had the right talent for a championship team but not the right culture. That’s why the Raptors walked away from the postseason feeling proud of themselves for playing to their full potential while the Clippers writhed in disappointment and angst over their future.
In the end, everyone mentioned here may ultimately blame what happened to their season on the extenuating circumstances from the pandemic. The Bucks’ chemistry never fully returned when the Bubble started. Contracting COVID and dealing with quad problems prevented Westbrook from reviving the MVP-type player he was before the hiatus. As troubling as the Clippers had played, the extra time they would have had to work things out in a normal season was taken away from them.
For all we know, next year will be a completely different story. The Rockets, Bucks, and Kawhi may ultimately have their faith rewarded for what they did in the summer of 2019 – but that will only be mere speculation until the trio can change the story.
Looking Toward The Draft: Power Forwards
Basketball Insiders continues their NBA Draft watch, this time with the power forwards.
We got some updated NBA draft news this week when the league announced that several key dates have been pushed back including the draft, the start of free agency and the beginning of the 2020-21 season.
The 2020 draft was originally scheduled for Oct. 16, but it will now likely occur sometime in November. Obviously, with the COVID-19 pandemic still wildly out of control in the United States, all of these potential deadlines are fluid and subject to change.
With that said, we’re continuing our position by position breakdown here at Basketball Insiders of some of the top 2020 draft prospects. We looked at the point guards and shooting guards last week, and this week we’re covering the small forwards and power forwards.
The power forward crop, like the draft overall, doesn’t appear to be as strong as recent years, that doesn’t mean there aren’t potential contributors and high-level NBA players available, as well as one who might just turn out to be a star-caliber player.
Onyeka Okongwu, USC – 19 years old
Okongwu is the player who just might develop into a star on some level. He was actually underrated in high school and was snubbed for a McDonald’s All-American selection his senior year. He established himself early on at USC as the team’s best player as a freshman and now appears to have turned some heads.
He’s been mentioned as a lottery pick and in some mock drafts, he’s top 4-5. He possesses a great all-around skill-set; he can score in the post, he can put the ball on the floor and attack and he can shoot. But perhaps his biggest attribute is his versatility on the defensive end. He’s got quick feet and mobility and can guard multiple positions.
Okongwu might actually play center in the NBA, especially in small-ball lineups, but he’s mostly played power forward and so he’ll probably see time there in the league. His skill-set fits perfectly with today’s game.
Obi Toppin, Dayton – 22 years old
Toppin is one of the older players in the draft, and in recent history, players that age tend to slip on draft boards. In Toppin’s case, it looks like the reverse might actually be true. He’s been projected as a lottery pick, and even going in the top 3.
He’s an incredibly athletic player who thrives in the open court. He looks like he’ll do well in an up-tempo offensive system that has capable playmakers who can find him in transition. He’s extremely active around the rim and he can finish strong. A decent shooter too, something he’ll need at the next level.
Toppin has the physical tools to be an effective defensive player, but that’s where the questions marks on him have been. In the NBA, he’s likely going to have to play and guard multiple positions. Whether or not he can adapt to that likely will answer the question as to what his ceiling can be.
Precious Achiuwa, Memphis – 20 years old
Achiuwa is another intriguing prospect. this writer actually got to watch him play in person while he was in high school and he was very impressive. He looked like a man among boys. He’s projected to be a late lottery pick.
He has an NBA-ready body and he’s got some toughness around the rim and in the paint. He was a double-double threat during his one season at Memphis and his knack for rebounding is something that should translate to the NBA. He’s a very good defender too, in particular, as a rim protector. He’s very quick and has the ability to guard multiple positions.
One of the main knocks on Achiuwa is his shooting ability. He didn’t shoot that well in college and power forwards being able to space the floor is almost a requirement in today’s NBA game. It’s something he can certainly work on and improve on though.
Paul Reed, DePaul – 21 years old
Xavier Tillman, Michigan State – 21 years old
Killian Tillie, Gonzaga – 22 years old