How the NBA Draft Combine turned Joshua Primo into a lottery pick

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NBA mock drafts — and the experts who provide them — have become a cottage industry. Fans can’t get enough. With that firehose of information (and some speculation), surprises have become rare on draft night. We know the top picks and their order. Farther down the board, a player may go a couple of spots higher or fall a few spots lower than expected, but the general range where a player will be selected is known.

Joshua Primo is the exception.

The San Antonio Spurs picking him No. 12 this year surprised even Primo.

“Going that high wasn’t something that I was… I don’t know if I was ready for that,”  Primo said from his draft party — he was not invited to the NBA’s on-site green room. “I didn’t realize it was going to be that high. But I’m glad it’s with the Spurs. I’ve always wanted to be a Spur.”

Primo’s agent, Todd Ramasar, knew. He added if it hadn’t been the Spurs at No. 12, other teams in that same range were ready to pull the trigger on Primo. Ramasar — who played in college at UCLA and is a long-time NBA agent with clients such as Pascal Siakam — recognized what he had early on.

“It took me a few days to see that he was a lottery talent, that he was a special talent, just overall,” Ramasar told NBC Sports. “The skill set was there. I saw that in the first two workouts.”

It was the NBA Draft Combine in Chicago where everyone else got to see what Ramasar already knew.

THE IMPORTANCE OF THE COMBINE

Most lottery picks don’t attend and work out at the annual NBA Draft Combine in Chicago. They’ll have their measurements taken and maybe sit in for some interviews with teams, but they and their agents only see risk without the upside of reward. These are already lottery-bound players, they can’t climb much higher with a good showing, but an off performance in front of scouts and GMs would see their stock fall.

Primo was a different case. At the time of the combine, Primo wasn’t projected as a lottery pick, he was more likely headed to the second round. He was the youngest player in the draft at age 18 — with a baby face that makes him look even younger — and in his one season at Alabama he was playing more off the ball as a shooter, averaging 8.1 points a game and shooting 38.1% on 3s on a veteran-heavy team.

Primo rarely got to show off his ball-handling and playmaking skills. NBA teams pegged him as a sharpshooter.

“With the pandemic, there are certain factors we don’t see in any other draft, which is NBA teams’ ability to scout players numerous times in practices or in games in person,” Ramasar said. “Including decision makers. I knew from watching film on Josh at Alabama, seeing his role, and knowing teams hadn’t seen him live as much as they would have liked to.

“It was a perfect opportunity for him to use the platform of the combine to showcase his size, his ability, and his skills, different than what they had seen from him in practice games, or even on film.”

“I think what I was able to show at the combine was I’m not just a shooter,” Primo said on draft night. “I’m someone who can come in and affect the game in a lot more ways than just putting points on the board. I was able to show some leadership, be able to show my defensive effort, defensive ability, and just show an all-around game. I think that was what was intriguing coming out of the combine.”

Even before the combine, Ramasar had been in the ear of teams — including the Spurs — that there was more to Primo than just a young shooter. San Antonio was already thinking that way.

“It actually started for us a few months before [the draft combine], where you would get to see little flashes and you started to dig in. Obviously, you saw the talent,” Spurs general manager Brian Wright said in a Zoom with the media the night of the draft. “He was the youngest player in the draft at just 18 years old, and you start to think about he’s the equivalent of a high school senior starting in the SEC, so once we started to peel back the layers you start to see flashes of a little bit more.

“He played more of a spot-up shooter-type role within their offense with Herb [Jones, Alabama’s coach] and some of the guards that they had, and so when we got to the combine, we saw him in a completely different role. We saw him playing some point guard at times, playing off the ball and creating sometimes. You saw the flashes that you would see in-season, you just saw a little bit more of it. And, obviously, we got to have him in our gym and got him in a workout and continued to spend some time peeling back the layers. We were just extremely impressed with the young man.”

“In terms of [Primo] being a lottery pick, that started to pick up steam after the combine,” Ramasar said. “Because the teams that were very interested in him, they had picks in the second round… I told them, and they later acknowledged and understood as well, that he was not going to be there for their second-round picks. For example, San Antonio having pick 41, there was no chance coming out of the combine that Josh Primo would be there.”

The Spurs were not the only team interested, Ramasar said, and that kept pushing Primo up draft boards. Other teams in the same range as the Spurs were interested, and if San Antonio wanted him, they would have to take him in the lottery.

They did.

DEVELOPING A YOUNG PLAYER

In Summer League, you could see how the Spurs envision developing and using Primo — more than half of his offensive plays were as a pick-and-roll ball handler. The focus was on decision making, playmaking, and learning to use his speed and shooting skills at the next level.

The Spurs have a long history of success developing players, and Primo is the latest project. Ramasar will have a hand in that as well. He is an agent who has studied and fully buys into sports science, and he has experts in that field as part of the “pit crew” working with his players. Of course, there are traditional NBA coaches in there as well, but Ramasar — and, by extension, his clients — lean heavily into the latest technology and what can be done at places like P3 in Santa Barbara.

Already there were flashes of Primo as a creative ball handler and passer at the Las Vegas at Summer League — and there were a lot of turnovers. Primo averaged 14.5 points a game, shot 31.3% from 3 (shooting more off the bounce), and averaged 2.5 assists and 2 turnovers a game in Sin City. That showed improvement from his two games in the Salt Lake City Summer League, where he shot 23.1% from 3, averaging 2.5 assists and 4.5 turnovers a game.

Developing Primo into a key part of the Spurs’ future is a process — and a multi-year one.

The ultimate goal is to have a tall guard — 6’5″ — who can play on-ball or off-ball, and mesh with an already solid backcourt of the future with Dejounte Murray, Derrick White, Lonnie Walker IV, Bryn Forbes, and Tre Jones. In a positionless NBA where a team needs multiple ball handlers and shot creators, Primo could fit right in a few years down the line.

And that chance comes courtesy the NBA Draft Combine.

Watch Dinwiddie get ejected for elbow to Poole’s face; Mavs still win behind Doncic 41 points

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Dallas has gotten in trouble this season because of a lack of secondary shot creation behind Luka Doncic, so when Spencer Dinwiddie got ejected for an elbow to the face of Golden State’s Jordan Poole, it seemed like the Mavericks might be in danger of falling to the Warriors.

Doncic had other plans — and a 41-point triple-double.

The ejection happened early in the fourth quarter, when Dinwiddie drove the lane on Poole and, bringing the ball up, elbowed Poole in the face.

That was reviewed by the referees who ruled it a Flagrant 2. The league has cracked down on blows to the face and head — intentional or not — the past couple of seasons.

Dinwiddie being out just meant more Luka — and that was bad news for the Warriors.

Despite Doncic and his triple-double, the Warriors had a couple of chances in the final seconds. First, Stephen Curry got called for a travel.

The Warriors argued that call but got nowhere with the referees. But they got one more chance on a Klay Thompson 3 to tie, but it was just not their night.

The Mavericks got the 116-113 win. Tim Hardaway Jr. pitched in 25 points, including five 3-pointers for Dallas. Curry led the Warriors with 32.

Timberwolves’ Karl-Anthony Towns out 4-6 weeks with calf strain

Minnesota Timberwolves v Washington Wizards
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It’s not good news, but it looked like it could have been much worse.

Timberwolves big man Karl-Anthony Towns is out for weeks with a right calf strain, the team announced Tuesday following an MRI exam. Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN reports it is likely 4-6 weeks.

The injury occurred midway through the third quarter Monday when Towns started to run back upcourt and went to the ground without contact, grabbing his knee and calf. It looked scary — Achilles scary — and he had to be helped off the court.

Towns has averaged 21.4 points and 8.5 rebounds a game, and while his numbers are down this season — just 32.8% on 3-pointers — the team has struggled at times without him, particularly lineups with Rudy Gobert and Anthony Edwards together, an -11.8 net rating (in non-garbage time minutes, via Cleaning the Glass).

Kevin Durant on chasing MVP: ‘Not really, I’ve been there, done that’

Orlando Magic v Brooklyn Nets
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Kevin Durant carried the Nets to another win Monday night, scoring 45 points on 19-of-24 shooting, plus seven rebounds and five assists.

If you’re having an MVP conversation a quarter of the way into the NBA season, Durant has to be part of it: 30 points per game on 54.8% shooting (and a ridiculous 65.9 true shooting percentage), 6.6 rebounds and 5.5 assists a game, plus playing solid defense and being the anchor of the Nets. After his 45-point outing to get Brooklyn a win over Orlando, Durant was asked about MVP chants and the chase for the award and was clearly not interested.

Durant has MVP numbers, but so do Stephen Curry, Luka Doncic, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Jayson Tatum and others. If Durant is going to move to the front of the conversation, the first thing that has to happen is Brooklyn has to win a lot more games — 11-11 is not going to cut it when Tatum’s Celtics and Antetokounmpo’s Bucks have the two best records in the NBA. Winning games and finishing on a top-three team in the conference matters to some voters (and traditionally is one measure of an MVP).

Watch Herb Jones inbound off Pokusevski’s back, seal win for Pelicans

Oklahoma City Thunder v New Orleans Pelicans
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With 2.3 seconds left in the game and the Thunder down 2, they needed to steal the inbounds pass from New Orleans to have a real chance. That’s why when Aleksej Pokusevski walked on the court it looked like he was going to guard the inbounder, Herbert Jones.

Instead, Pokusevski turned his back to Jones, putting himself in position to step in front of anyone cutting to the ball to catch the inbounds. Except, Jones made the clever play to seal the game.

Pokusevski fouled Jones, who sank both free throws and sealed the 105-101 Pelicans win.

The Pelicans got 23-8-8 from Zion Williamson and picked up a win without CJ McCollum or Brandon Ingram in the lineup. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander continued his dominant start to the season and scored 31.