A record 123 players will assemble at Wintrust Arena in Chicago for the NBA draft combine, G League Elite camp and pro day circuit starting Saturday, kicking draft season into high gear.

Chicago also plays host to the highly anticipated NBA draft lottery on Tuesday (8 p.m. ET, ESPN), a monumental event that will determine which lucky franchise is given the right to select Victor Wembanyama, the most coveted basketball prospect since LeBron James in 2003.

The NBA moved the draft lottery to the middle of combine week a few years ago and invited top projected picks to be part of the television show. It helped make the combine more attractive to top prospects, who had increasingly declined invites and elected not to show up at all (more on that later).

That trend has been reversed, as all of the top prospects in the draft — with the exception of Wembanyama, who is still playing for Paris’ Metropolitans 92 along with fellow first-round projected teammate Bilal Coulibaly — are slated to be in attendance this week.

The G League and NBA combines will also help provide feedback to dozens of collegiate prospects “testing the waters” who will decide whether to keep their names in the June 22 NBA draft or return to school by the May 31 NCAA deadline.

Three international-based prospects will also be in attendance, providing NBA teams with an excellent opportunity to evaluate players who would be difficult to see otherwise: Rayan Rupert, Nikola Djurisic and Tristan Vukcevic, with only Vukcevic expected to play in scrimmages.

Players will interview with teams, and many will participate in competitive 5-on-5 contests, shooting, transition and 3-on-3 drills. Some of them will undergo extensive medical examinations, measurements and athletic testing.

Still, most of the top prospects won’t participate in any of these activities — and certainly won’t pick up a basketball in front of NBA teams during that time. Some might elect to be measured or conduct interviews with teams or the media, if deemed advantageous for them to do so, but few first-rounders will elect to participate in drills or scrimmages for fear of injury or damaging their draft stock with a poor showing.

This has caused significant friction between teams — which will be in Chicago for more than a week and want to get their money’s worth for their time — and agents, who often feel less is often more when it comes to baring their clients’ weaknesses for the world to see.

This is the last year players and their representatives will be able to decide whether or not to attend the combine under their own volition, as significant changes are coming next year thanks to the newly ratified collective bargaining agreement that mandates near-full participation or risk being ineligible for selection in the draft.

Previously, agents of elite prospects could strategically keep medicals of clients away from less attractive teams in hopes of steering players to preferred destinations, something that will no longer be possible.

To say NBA agents are unhappy about this change would be an understatement.

“It was a big mistake to give up that piece on the medicals and require players to attend Chicago,” NBA super-agent Jeff Schwartz told ESPN. “Teams will feel the exact opposite obviously, but I don’t think enough was gained to have given that up.”

“It’s egregious,” a top NBA agent told ESPN. “The NBA snuck it in at the end. There’s some real frustration in the agent community right now — because there are some really poorly run teams, certain organizations you want to avoid. That’s the only way to prevent an iconic player from going to a bad team. You just don’t want a valuable player with these bad organizations. It’s painful. The league as a whole doesn’t care. My question will be if it were next year — if the Victors, Brandon Millers and Scoots of next year said they aren’t going to the combine, are teams not going to draft them? Teams would be up in arms.”

In addition to the combine, NBA teams previously felt compelled to also spend significant time traveling around the country to watch the agency run pro days, which many teams and scouts complained was a poor use of their time. As a result, the league banned pro days outside of the ones conducted in Chicago, as well as a four-day window in the Los Angeles area from May 22-25, something that will become even narrower in scope next year with the new CBA.

The G League Elite Camp will kick off the proceedings this weekend, with 45 players slated to attend the two-day event. The five to seven best players from the scrimmages can expect to move on to the NBA draft combine later in the week — which is exactly what LA Clippers guard Terance Mann and Charlotte Hornets forward Cody Martin did in 2019, eventually hearing their names called in the draft and carving out strong NBA careers.

Other G League Elite Camp alumni, such as Max Strus, Caleb Martin and Jose Alvarado, didn’t get the draft combine call-up but still went on to become impactful NBA players.

Some of the top prospects playing at the Elite camp in our view include Josiah-Jordan James (Tennessee), Jalen Bridges (Baylor), Hunter Tyson (Clemson), Tosan Evbuomwan (Princeton) and Matthew Murrell (Ole Miss).

— Jonathan Givony

Play or sit?

Without fail, combine week brings a wave of players withdrawing from scrimmages — the NBA’s primary platform for prospects to turn heads and strengthen their draft position. While the league doesn’t require the highest-profile prospects to scrimmage in Chicago, those remaining and their agents are left to decide whether to take the court and showcase themselves with the entire league watching. And while the specific reasoning varies, a large segment of those players opt out of playing every year, with the end goal to protect their own perceived draft stock.

Despite whatever strategic machinations may be taking place behind the scenes in making these decisions, history strongly suggests that players can benefit greatly from participating in the two days of combine games. NBA teams strongly value participation and tend to look favorably at those who play well. Meanwhile, countless prospects who have chosen not to play wound up falling into the second round or out of the draft entirely.

The star of the 2022 scrimmages was Jalen Williams, who wound up going No. 12 to the Thunder, making him a rare but remarkable case of an eventual lottery prospect actually playing at the combine. Neither Denver‘s Christian Braun nor MemphisDavid Roddy played especially well in Chicago, yet were drafted in the 20s last year. Andrew Nembhard played his way to the 31st selection and guaranteed money. In 2021, Josh Primo (No. 12), Josh Christopher (No. 24), Quentin Grimes (No. 25) and Bones Hyland (No. 26) were direct beneficiaries of their combine participation.

There are also plenty of cases of players not scrimmaging, falling into the second round and having strong NBA careers anyway, but the fact is opportunities and guaranteed dollars get left on the table every year when agencies take a heavily risk-averse approach to the combine. There’s already been an early wave of players on the first-round cusp deciding not to scrimmage, and time will tell how those decisions bear out. But for players with something to prove, there’s no bigger opportunity than these games. The smart money is on a handful of prospects once again leaving a strong impression and reaping the benefits.

— Jeremy Woo

Which players have the most at stake this week?

Following his transfer to Santa Clara, Podziemski legitimized himself in NBA circles as a draftable prospect after grading out as one of the best players in college basketball from an analytics perspective. He’s drawing consideration in the back half of the first round and will be a person of interest in the 5-on-5 setting, where he’ll have a chance to prove his mettle against other top college players. Now one of the higher-profile players expected to scrimmage, Podziemski will be looking to showcase his versatility on and off the ball, his feel to play and score from all over the floor and hold his own defensively.

As a competitive, aggressive and tough perimeter scorer, Podziemski is the type of prospect who can really shine in a combine setting, provided he touches the ball enough to make an impact. While he’s technically testing the waters, after the type of season he just put together, this is a key opportunity to capitalize on the buzz and secure himself in guaranteed contract territory, whether that’s late first round or early second. After another highly productive Santa Clara star, Jalen Williams, stole the show at the 2022 combine, a little déjà vu could be in order.

Mitchell enters this week’s scrimmages with quite a bit to prove after a disappointing freshman season at Texas, where he struggled to produce consistently and secure playing time as part of a senior-heavy team with winning expectations. One of the top pound-for-pound athletes in this year’s draft class, Mitchell figures to test well athletically, but it’s also worth noting that he didn’t measure extraordinarily well at the 2022 Hoop Summit, coming in at 6-foot-7.5 barefoot, with a wingspan just under 6-10.

At this point, Mitchell’s primary pathway to a guaranteed contract is reminding NBA executives what made him such a highly-rated recruit to begin with, and producing in a 5-on-5 setting as a skilled player who can contribute in ways other than scoring can go a long way. Considering that these scrimmages can be guard-driven and difficult for off-ball players to manufacture points, Mitchell will need to hit the glass hard, convert what opportunities he gets and make a stronger case for himself as a developmental pick worthy of a guaranteed contract.

Leonard Miller | Forward | G League Ignite

After looking unpolished in last year’s combine scrimmages and ultimately deciding to take another year before entering the draft, Miller became the most productive player — as a teenager — on a G League Ignite team that included projected top-3 pick Scoot Henderson, strengthening his own résumé significantly. A degree of skepticism surrounding his rise has persisted in NBA circles nonetheless, as teams struggle to parse his numbers contextually due to how many Ignite games ended in blowouts, where he still logged heavy minutes. While the raw numbers are certainly impressive, there’s still some thought that Miller has been more of a statistical compiler than a true winning-adjacent producer.

Stepping back from that context, Miller remains a 19-year-old, theoretically versatile forward with an excellent physical profile (he measured 6-foot-8.5 barefoot with a 7-foot-2 wingspan at last year’s combine) and a range of skills for NBA teams to work with. He’s certainly made strides in the last year, but this week will be about proving to teams how far he’s come, both on the court and in interviews, where he can address some of the questions that arose last season about his readiness to play professionally. He’s on the short list of players with true first-round chances expected to play 5-on-5 and will hope to appeal to teams as someone worth a long-term developmental investment.

Although Bates’ NBA stock cratered after two tumultuous college seasons, he remained intriguing enough in the eyes of teams to secure himself a combine invite. I’m told Bates intends to partake in 5-on-5 scrimmaging, and it wouldn’t be a total exaggeration to frame this week as a last chance for him to stake his claim as a draftable player. While he averaged 19.1 points per game as the only scoring option at Eastern Michigan, Bates has done little to change his reputation in the eyes of NBA decision-makers. Noting his suboptimal efficiency and high volume as a scorer, observers continue to question not only his secondary skill set, but his willingness to adjust his style of play in a way that could allow him to add value in an NBA role.

While a scoring outburst from Bates in a scrimmage setting would be exciting theater, the best pathway for him to actually open some minds and help himself as a draftable prospect might be to pick his spots, compete defensively and show scouts that he’s willing to play for his teammates and share the ball. A high-volume shooting display, no matter how prolific, might negatively reinforce the school of thought that Bates will never change his tendencies. He’s a gifted enough jump shooter and scorer that you can’t write him off completely, but there’s quite a bit of work for him to do to revitalize his standing over the next month or so.

Tristan Vukcevic | Center | Partizan

Vukcevic is the only internationally-based prospect scheduled to play 5-on-5 at present (Barcelona’s James Nnaji was a late combine opt out with his season still ongoing), and should have a valuable platform in Chicago. A majority of scouts have not seen him live recently (or ever) due to his inconsistent role and minutes at Partizan. The Serbian center is among the more offensively gifted bigs in the draft class, but projects as a potential second-rounder due to concerns about his defensive viability and NBA readiness.

A productive day or two could cement Vukcevic as someone worth drafting, particularly due to how thin this class is up front — only two true centers, Nnaji and Duke’s Dereck Lively II, currently rank inside our top 40, and neither will scrimmage. NBA teams will be hoping to see some of these bigs separate themselves from the pack as guaranteed deal caliber prospects, and the 20-year-old Vukcevic will play head-to-head against many of the top bigs in college basketball, with a chance to impress due to his offensive fluidity and skill level as a potential stretch five. He’ll be an intriguing curiosity and a newer face for scouts to get a feel for, and while it’s always difficult for ball-needy bigs to thrive in this environment, Vukcevic has an opportunity to better establish himself.

— Woo

Which college programs with players testing the waters have a big week in store?

Due to NCAA rules, college players testing the NBA draft waters can’t wait until June 12, like their international brethren, to decide whether to withdraw their names from the 2023 draft. They have until 10 days following the conclusion of the combine (May 31 at 11:59 p.m. ET) to withdraw and maintain their NCAA eligibility.

With the 2024 draft appearing significantly weaker than this year’s crop due to a poor incoming class of graduating high school seniors/rising college freshmen, there is no shortage of projected second-round picks who could be thinking of withdrawing and trying their luck again next year, especially with the amount of NIL money programs are using to lure their star players back to school.

For these players, the combine, especially the 5-on-5 scrimmages, is an extremely important platform to showcase themselves in front of all 30 teams that will likely play an influential role in their final decisions.

— Givony

Some of the biggest storylines we’ll be tracking

This is a make or break year in Lexington, as we’re going on five years since the Wildcats advanced out of the first weekend of the NCAA tournament, something that hasn’t happened since World War II. With the No. 1 recruiting class incoming, expectations will be sky-high, but there are reasons to be skeptical about their highly touted prospects’ ability to mesh on both ends of the floor and play winning basketball in a college landscape that clearly favors older, more physical and experienced players than what Kentucky has currently on its roster. Bringing back the likes of Tshiebwe, Livingston and Reeves would be huge for coach John Calipari to soften the blow of losing Sahvir Wheeler, CJ Fredrick, Daimion Collins and Lance Ware to the transfer portal, as well as Cason Wallace and Jacob Toppin to the NBA draft. The question is how happy will centers Ugonna Onyenso and Aaron Bradshaw be with a potential All-American in Tshiebwe returning and likely diminishing their role and own NBA aspirations for next season? The same can be said for Livingston and Reeves — likely starters next year — who would eat into the minutes and usage of highly touted freshmen D.J. Wagner and Justin Edwards.

The Golden Eagles are projected as a top-5 team next season after returning every player of note from their Big East regular season and conference tournament championship team — with the possible exception of Prosper. A young junior, not turning 21 until July, Prosper hasn’t yet found the perimeter shooting consistency needed to match the outstanding defensive versatility he displays to become a true “3 and D” wing prospect, but made major strides this past season. NBA teams will want to see how he looks outside of the Marquette offense in a more unstructured environment to get a better gauge for his potential and determine his worthiness of being a late first or early second-round pick.

Shannon and Hawkins are both looking for assurances of their draft range and ability to warrant guaranteed money in determining whether to stay in the draft or not, and their play in Chicago will go a long way in making a decision. For the Illini, returning a fourth and fifth-year senior in Hawkins and Shannon, respectively, as two of its top three scorers from last season, would be huge for Big Ten championship aspirations next season.

As the Orange transition out of the Jim Boeheim era into newly minted head coach Adrian Autry’s tenure, their ability to retain last year’s starting point guard in Mintz could play a big part in how next season shapes up. Mintz was handed the keys to Syracuse’s offense as a freshman, leading to some rocky results early, but he eventually settled in and finished the year strong. The question now is whether an NBA team is ready to invest real money in his potential, or if he’s better off returning for his sophomore season and looking to build on the momentum he garnered from late in the year to try and make a push for the lottery.

The Wooden Award winner would be the face of college basketball if he returned to Purdue next season. On paper, it doesn’t seem like he has that much more to accomplish individually, but the sting of being eliminated by No. 16 seed Fairleigh Dickinson in the first round of the NCAA tournament might just have left a bitter enough taste in his mouth to return to West Lafayette. Like the other players in this section, Edey will have to weigh his NIL potential in college versus whatever he’s projected to make as a likely second-round pick. With just three centers currently projected to be picked in the top 40, there could be room for a traditional big man like Edey to warrant guaranteed money from a team looking for size.

Creighton was one controversial call away from going to overtime for a chance at playing in the NCAA Final Four, something that already caused his teammate Baylor Scheierman to announce his return for a fifth year. One of the most impactful defenders in the college game, Kalkbrenner still has room to improve his frame, defensive rebounding prowess and perimeter skill set. The question is whether he is better suited doing so in the NBA as a likely second-round pick, or returning to college and attempting to bolster his stock into the first round.

Should Beekman elect to depart, Virginia will return just one player from last year’s roster that averaged over 2.6 points per game, a precarious situation for coach Tony Bennett after losing in the first round of the NCAA tournament last year to No. 13 seed Furman. Beekman started last season looking like a potential first-round pick but then faded badly in ACC play, struggling to make shots or create high percentage offense inside the arc. Barring a huge showing at the combine, it seems likely he elects to return, which explains why Virginia hasn’t done much to try and replace him via the transfer portal.

Having already lost its top-five scorers from last season’s Pac-12 championship-winning squad, UCLA is facing a major rebuild this offseason for what will be a very different looking team next year. Bringing Bona back to anchor the team’s defense and provide some continuity offensively would be huge for coach Mick Cronin and his staff, but there will surely be NBA suitors for the explosive Nigerian big man despite undergoing surgery for a torn labrum that will keep him out of action until the fall. The question is what type of guarantees Bona can secure during the pre-draft process and whether those will be enough to keep him in the draft ahead of what will likely be a breakout season in Westwood.

— Givony

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