Every year, the top prospects in the NBA draft leave behind the comforts of college and head out to workout sites in Chicago, Los Angeles, Las Vegas and Florida, looking for an edge that might put them in a better draft position.
Some hire basketball coaches. Others hire personal trainers. A few hire former Navy Seals. The techniques may differ from gym to gym, but the goal is the same -- to fulfill a life-long dream of playing in the NBA.
For the last decade I've taken a pre-draft tour to the top sites. I've seen the likes of Dwight Howard, Dwyane Wade, Greg Oden, Blake Griffin and a host of other, lesser-known prospects prepare for the NBA draft. This year is no different. Over the course of the next week I'll be traveling throughout the U.S. checking in on the pre-draft workouts of various prospects.
This year, the focus is going to be on a number of intriguing sleepers whose draft stock is all over the place, depending on which team you talk to. We end the trip at the Chicago pre-draft combine, where the 60 top prospects in the draft compete in a number of skill and physical challenges in front of every GM in the league.
I started the tour in Los Angeles this year. Here are the guys I got to see:
Paul George, G/F, Fresno State
If you want the upside sleeper of the first round, look no further than George. He is a 6-foot-8 wing whose silky smooth play has drawn comparisons to everyone from Tracy McGrady to Wilson Chandler.
George is closer to Chandler than McGrady at the moment, but it's clear that he's the type of player who could explode with a little coaching. He's been in the gym with former NBA big man Don MacLean for the past three weeks working on the little things that separate the good wings from the great wings. Specifically, he's working on creating his own shot -- ball handling, first step and getting separation off the dribble.
In the workout we saw, George was terrific. He showed deep range on his jump shot, exploded to the rim and had terrific quickness. Scouts have had questions about his consistency and toughness. They've also worried about his love affair with the 3-pointer. But it was also clear that he was rarely pushed at Fresno State.
In this environment, playing alongside other NBA prospects, he looked much sharper and more focused. He needs to get stronger and improve his motor (something he admitted to me when we chatted) but MacLean told me George has been a sponge since coming into the gym.
George believes he may be more of a 2-guard than a 3. Some NBA teams agree. In fact his first workout is in San Antonio on Thursday. His workout partner: Kansas shooting guard Xavier Henry.
Damion James, F, Texas
Last year at this time, nearly every NBA team had written off James. After an unimpressive combine in Chicago, James withdrew from the draft and most NBA teams penciled him as a second-rounder in 2010.
But James has been gaining momentum all year. NBA teams loved his toughness, motor and athleticism. But they questioned what position he would play in the NBA. James has worked hard on his perimeter skills and this year became a much more convincing small forward.
James was in for his first day with MacLean, but he was already in terrific shape. He's got big hands, terrific strength and attacks every drill like he's trying to kill. In one drill, during which MacLean had players moving from box to box and dunking each time they came to the rim, James nearly ripped the rim from the backboard on every play.
While James isn't going to show the skill of a player like George in this type of setting, what he does show is plenty of fire. I think it's going to be a terrific selling point for him in the draft. He could rise in a way similar to what Tyler Hansbrough did in last year's draft. You can't teach toughness, motor and NBA readiness. With so many question marks in this draft, James is one of the few guys who you know, right out of the gate, what you are and aren't getting. By June, he could end up in the late lottery.
Jerome Jordan, C, Tulsa
At the start of the 2008-09 season, we had Jordan ranked in the lottery. Jordan was coming off a terrific summer run at the LeBron James Skills Academy, and a number of NBA scouts thought they were looking at a potentially dominant big man.
However, Jordan never quite developed the way many teams thought he would. He got better, but he rarely dominated. By the midpoint of his senior season, it seemed like most NBA teams had lost interest.
I think they'll be regaining it soon. I was really impressed with Jordan in his workout. He was light on his feet, showed a soft touch around the basket and looked absolutely huge.
Jordan has measured nearly 7-1 in shoes and has a big-time, 7-5 wingspan. Size-wise, he's the real deal, which was evident watching Jarvis Varnado struggle to get his shot off against him.
Jordan's two biggest weaknesses are correctable. He only started playing seriously when he was 17 years old, missed his senior season in high school and rarely played as a freshman at Tulsa. In other words, he has a lot of room to grow as a player. He also needs to add strength, especially in his lower body. He's made some progress in that area over the course of his college career, but he needs more time in the weight room.
Of all the players I saw Monday, he was the one I walked away convinced was too low on our Big Board. There is a dearth of centers in the draft, and Jordan has too much potential to slide out of the first round. Big guys rise as we get closer to draft night, and if Jordan continues to play like he did in Los Angeles, someone is going to take a chance on him in the 20s.
Jarvis Varnado, F, Mississippi State
Varnado is easier to get your arms around. He's been the most dominant shot blocker in college basketball the past few years, and it's hard to imagine he won't continue that success at the next level.
He's an explosive athlete with a downright freaky 7-4 wingspan. He has a knack for blocking shots, is a good rebounder and plays hard on every possession. He's slowly been improving on the offensive end, but he's never going to be a dominant offensive player.
Varnado held his own in the offensive drills and even hit a couple of 3-pointers, but that's not going to be his bread and butter. He's so active defensively that he reminds me a lot of the Nuggets' Chris Andersen.
If he can convince NBA GMs he could be that type of game-changing defensive presence, he could go in the 20s.
Jordan Crawford, G, Xavier
Crawford was also in L.A. He's coming off quite a year. First he was in national headlines when he dunked on LeBron at a camp last summer, then he turned in several terrific performances for Xavier in the NCAA tournament.
Crawford is the type of undersized, explosive scorer that seems to be gaining momentum in the NBA. He has deep range on his jump shot and can also get to the basket and finish with a big-time dunk.
Crawford measured out at just over 6-4 in shoes. If he were two inches taller, NBA teams would be calling him a lottery pick. As it stands, he's an undersized scoring guard trying to fight his way into the league. The fact he has a rep as being tough to coach (something Crawford said he's put behind him, now that he realizes coaching is the only way for him to get better) has probably hurt his stock.
But when you watch him start rolling as a scorer (something he showed off in workouts Monday), it's hard to believe he's not going to catch someone's eye as a poor man's Ben Gordon. He's going to be instant offense when he gets into the game.
Ben Uzoh, G, Tulsa
I know Uzoh isn't getting a lot of love right now. Of all the top guys I saw Monday, he was the only one not invited to the Chicago pre-draft camp. But I think he has a chance to be a solid role player in the NBA. He was very good in the workout, showing elite athleticism, shooting the lights out and fighting hard on defense. His handle and decision making need some work, but he's another guy who could provide a scoring boost off the bench.
Luke Harangody, F, Notre Dame
Once again Harangody has gotten himself into great shape and has tightened up his body. I'm not sure where he'll go in the draft. Everything about him is unorthodox. His shot is ugly (but it goes in), he's undersized to be a 4 (but he cleaned up on the boards), he's not a great athlete (but scored at will in college). When I asked him to give me his comparison in the NBA, even he couldn't come up with anyone. Clearly a workout-type setting won't be ideal for him. But when you watch him go in 5-on-5, it's hard to argue with years of 20 and 10 in the Big East.