The Jazz held another in a string of pre-draft workouts Thursday, with six more hopefuls convening on Zion’s Bank Basketball Center. While these workouts are common this time of year, Thursday’s was the first so far in this draft season where legitimate prospects with the Jazz’s 12th pick, should they keep it, were in the gym for the brass to see.
These two were Arkansas’ Bobby Portis and UCLA’s Kevon Looney, both one-and-done college guys and both coming into the league as potential stretch fours. Also of note was Notre Dame’s Pat Connaughton, a two-sport star1 who wowed scouts and fans alike at the combine with his surprising athleticism2.
Connaughton could be in Utah’s range with one of their two second-round picks (42 and 54), and as such he joined Portis and Looney in speaking with the media. Let’s run down a bit about each infused with their own thoughts.
Looney was first to the scrum, and like each of the three, noted the altitude in Salt Lake City when asked. Motor has been a noted question mark for Looney this year and remains so heading into the more physically demanding NBA, and while he said the adjustment was tough, it was his second time playing in Utah and he fared much more positively than the first. Jazz VP of Player Personnel Walt Perrin told us Looney did “real well” in this area and even did a couple extra drills on top of the usual number, so count this as a positive for him.
He also knows his body and overall strength will have to improve at the NBA level, and said as much when asked what he’s been counseled on in his workouts and other pre-draft processes up until this point.
“Everybody wants you to work on your body,” he said. “It’s a whole different physicality at the next level, a whole other speed.”
The other major inflection point for Looney will be his distance shooting, which could prove to be his greatest asset as a power forward if it develops positively. He shot 41.5 percent from deep this year at UCLA, though the sample was small (53 attempts) and his free-throw percentage (63 percent) isn’t a positive indicator.
“I’ve been working on it since the summer time and at UCLA,” he told me when I asked about his emphasis on expanding his range more consistently. “I shot it pretty well today and I’ll continue to get better at it.”
This was another area where Perrin seemed pleased, at least in comparison with Portis – he told us Looney was the better shooter at this stage even despite Portis shooting a higher percentage on a similarly small sample size.
The 12th pick could be a bit of a reach for Looney given the questions still remaining about him, but he’s far from off the radar with his potentially shooting prowess. He could also be a target if the Jazz choose to trade down to later in the first round and he remains on the board.
Thought these sorts of comparisons are often lazy, Portis does seem to have a little bit of the Draymond Green gene in him. He’s got a bit of fire in his eyes and a reputation as a gritty hustler all over the floor, as well as one with a number of diverse talents. He’s certainly far from shy with the media, as well.
He’s another who could see his shot become a focal point for his game at the next level if things break the right way, and he knows a gaudy-looking percentage from his year at Arkansas3 isn’t proof of anything on such a small sample. Like Looney, I asked him what sort of emphasis he was placing on improvement here in the pre-draft process.
“A lot (of emphasis),” he said. “I’m a stretch four, and to be a dominant stretch four you have to make 3s. So that’s been something I’ve been trying to work on – in college I shot like, 46 percent from the 3-point line this year. That’s not going to happen each and every year, so I’m going to have to keep working on my game.”
Perrin agreed generally, alluding to concerns some scouts have had with Portis’ form and shooting stroke, which are largely unconventional. He mentioned Utah’s group had discussed altering or tweaking his fundamentals a tad.
“He’s got some work to do,” Perrin said. “We took a look at it, so we’ll make evaluations as we go forward. But he has some work he has to do to become a stretch 4.”
The Jazz were pleased with the hustle and energy Portis brought, and it’ll have to be a mainstay. There are questions as to whether he has any individual skill quite developed enough for the NBA level, and though more consistent accuracy from deep could answer these quickly, he’ll have to have very few true weak points to succeed.
If the Jazz like his prospects in that regard, though, he could be a dark horse pick at 12. He might overlap a bit with Trevor Booker, but this isn’t reason alone to pass on a guy necessarily.
Despite his combine internet fame, Connaughton will have the toughest time of any of the players we talked to Thursday of making the NBA, especially out of the gate. He’s already 22 and almost certainly won’t be selected in the first round, if at all.
There does seem to this eye to be a bit of sleeper in him. Connaughton has an excellent stroke from deep that seems almost certain to translate to the slightly longer NBA 3-point line, and has shown flashes as an off-ball worker with the speed and mental chops to zip around screens for good looks. He shot over 42 percent on over six attempts per-40-minutes at Notre Dame this year, and knows it’s his meal ticket if he’s going to make the league.
But he’s also working to prove that he’s more than a sharpshooter with some crazy combine measurements. Connaughton talked about how with such a well-rounded team at Notre Dame, he was only ever really asked to play a role that specifically suited his skills – shooting and rebounding from the guard position. He knows elements like pick-and-roll play and more ball-handling in general will be necessary at the next level, and we saw him spend time specifically with Jazz coach Quin Snyder at the end of his workout on some dribbling exercises.
“You learn so much,” Connaughton said of his brief experience with Snyder. “I think the biggest thing for me is just learning things I can work on with my game and working with him for a short period of time, it was amazing the things I learned.”
Connaughton says he wants to model his game after another undrafted prospect who actually ended up with the Jazz – Wesley Matthews. He noted how Matthews entered the league with a similar build and wasn’t given much credit, but honed elements of his game like shooting and work in the post, plus all-around play defensively, to become a desirable entity.
It’s tough to say if Connaughton could get there, but it’s far from impossible. The shooting stroke is there and he’s clearly a gifted athlete, and with the right skill development could be a late bloomer who catches on in the NBA. He seems to have a strong head on his shoulders and already has experience with professional sports from his time in baseball, and the Jazz could do much worse than to take a flier on him if they hold onto their second-round picks and he’s available.