CHICAGO — Do you want to have a staring contest?
The question from a Western Conference team official came unexpectedly during an interview last week during the NBA Draft Combine. It caught Kansas guard Christian Braun by surprise.
Braun had come prepared for the string of meetings he would take part in over the course of a few days at the Marriott Marquis in downtown Chicago, but knew some team might try to throw him, poking and prodding to draw out rebuttals. This, however, was something different.
Yes, Braun would take part. He could look anywhere in the room, he was told, while everyone from the franchise in the room would stare at him. They would time how long Braun could go without blinking. When he did, another team official would stop the clock.
Braun looked right at the person who challenged him. That person started blinking repeatedly. Braun blinked, too, after one second.
“Do you want to go and do it again?” the team official asked.
“Yeah, obviously I want to try that again,” Braun said. “You gotta get a new strategy. I look right at him again. He’s over here still blinking.”
This time, Braun held firm for nine seconds. It was an improvement.
“You wanna do it again?” the team official repeated.
By the third time, Braun realized what he was enduring. This was that team’s attempt to test how determined he would be. The team, the official told him, had done this in other interviews too, trying to see if the player could do better each time.
“That was like one of the more unique things that somebody’s done,” Braun said. “And I thought it was really cool, because they’re trying to see your competitive nature and if you want to win.”
Team interviews are part of a multitude of tests and hoops draft prospects navigate and jump through at the combine. While they must endure a long course of measurements, on-court drills, and five-on-five games, those are uniform endeavors. Everyone who takes part goes through the same thing.
Interviews, however, vary from team to team. Each franchise adds a splash of their own flavor to differentiate them from the rest, hoping to glean some bit of information they can use in the dossier they compile on each draft prospect.
One team asked draft prospects if they watched the NBA and what their team of choice was, then asked them to name players on their roster. If they could not name enough, they would be asked to do push-ups. The Denver Nuggets told players during interviews that if they named enough players on their roster one of their officials in the room would do push-ups.
Players have come to expect most parts of the process. They know which questions are coming, especially the sensitive ones, and teams know the players are coached on how to answer them. They know that some teams are trying to draw out a response that has not been beta-tested with an agent or interview coach.
“This isn’t one of those things that you come in and just wing,” UCLA wing Peyton Watson said. “This is a professional league. I’m having job interviews right now.”
Watson, a five-star recruit out of high school, knew he would be asked to explain why he drew so little playing time during his one year in college and how he handled it.
Patrick Baldwin, the No. 5 player in his high school class, said most of the questions he was asked centered around his one year at UW-Milwaukee, where he played in just 11 games due to ankle issues and COVID-19, and underperformed expectations.
Josh Minott had an uneven year at Memphis. At the combine, one team put up pictures from his lone season with the Tigers and asked him to attribute positive or negative reactions to it. There was the photo of head coach Penny Hardaway, one of his high school and another of the scoreboard from Memphis’ loss to East Carolina.
“It’s like when you go to a psychiatrist,” Minott said. “‘What do you see here?’”
The players respond with their own shorthands, adjusting as they go through. Each team asks them some variation of a question about their life story. By the end of the week, they’re tired of answering.
Baylor forward Kendall Brown shortened his responses as he went on. What may have started as a short story eventually became a tweet.
“I have a brother, mom and dad,” Brown said. “Grew up playing basketball, went to prep school and now I’m here.”
So teams threw in their own counters.
Some, like the Raptors, ask players to watch film. Several teams asked players to draw up plays during their interviews. Bennedict Mathurin drew up a game-winning play for himself. Leonard Miller drew up a play to create a shot for a teammate, though he did name the play “Operation Leonard Miller.”
A team asked Nikola Jović which animal he would be (tiger, for the record, though he doesn’t have a reason why). The Washington Wizards asked Tulsa guard Ryan Rollins who he would pick from Batman, Superman and Spiderman. Batman, he told them.
“He’s the only one without superpowers,” Rollins explained. “Batman’s got a lot of money and gadgets. I feel like he was most relatable to humans.”
A team asked Ohio State forward E.J. Liddell what people wouldn’t like about him off the court; he didn’t have an answer. Another team asked about his bad habits. Liddell told them he needs to stop biting his nails; a team official told him to get them polished.
The New York Knicks asked Seton Hall forward Jared Rhoden about the three people, dead or alive, he would take to dinner if he could. He chose Mike Tyson, Muhammad Ali and his father.
“Because my father would be so stoked out to be with those dudes,” Rhoden said. “I would bring my father with me to share the experience.”
Wake Forest guard Alondes Williams wore a shirt with Pablo Escobar on it into an interview with the Golden State Warriors. That raised eyebrows in the room.
A Warriors official asked Williams if he was going to let the Escobar shirt represent him since it was the team’s first time meeting him and how it reflects on him. He had no answer.
“They was like, if somebody asked you that again, just say ‘I’m a killer on the floor or something like that,’” Williams said. “OK, that’s a good one.”
The interviews aren’t just a one-way process, though. Teams allow players to ask questions too. Those can serve a variety of purposes.
One player asked the Brooklyn Nets what they intend to do with Kyrie Irving. Mathurin asked teams he interviewed with who they are looking to draft, especially at his position. Rollins wanted to know what kind of player the teams he talked to are looking for in the draft.
Potential first-round pick MarJon Beauchamp asked teams how they could help him develop as a player.
“I can see a vision where I can be an NBA All-Star,” Beauchamp said. “I want to be great. I want to see how they can see my vision.”
That, most of all, explains the purpose of the interviews. They allow for intel-gathering on both sides. As much as teams want to make sure they do not take the wrong player with their draft pick, players do not want to land in the wrong destination.
The week in Chicago is the first big mark on the draft calendar to suss each other out.
“We need to get to know these people,” Watson said. “These people are going to be investing millions of dollars in us to play a game of basketball. They got to know us inside and out. So it was good to get to know the personnel from the team, for sure.”
— Jeremy Sochan was already a likely lottery pick, but talks with NBA executives revealed just how popular he is. The versatile Baylor forward, intriguing for his length and defensive skill, is considered likely to be gone by the late lottery, according to several NBA executives. One team executive put his floor at the No. 12 pick. The New Orleans Pelicans and Denver Nuggets are believed to have interest in Sochan, while the San Antonio Spurs are considered a strong fit for him.
— This draft has the potential for some unexpected twists and turns. The belief among NBA executives and scouts is that picks Nos. 4 and 7, held by the Kings and Blazers, could be available in a trade. The top three picks are unsettled, and there are proponents for both Chet Holmgren and Jabari Smith Jr. to go first overall next month. That has the potential for a chaotic top 10, which would have trickle-down effects.
— One of the bigger question marks in the draft this year is Watson, the UCLA wing. He was ranked as a top-10 player in his 2021 high school class but played just 12.7 minutes per game for a veteran-laden Bruins team. He understands there are some questions about him, but rare is the player who marks himself a mystery.
“A lot of people kind of say I’m one of the bigger mysteries in this year’s draft,” Watson said during the combine. “But I can’t wait to just get out there start playing and show what I can do on both ends of the floor.”
Watson said teams have consistently asked him what happened last season and why he didn’t earn more playing time. It’s why he’s embraced being a mystery in this draft class.
“I wasn’t the most utilized guy in the country,” he said. “But I definitely feel like I’m one of the sleepers in this year’s draft and I can’t wait to get started.”
Watson tested well last week in Chicago. He measured 6-foot-8 in shoes, with a 7-0.5 wingspan. But he didn’t play, sitting out the five-on-five scrimmages.
— Manu Ginobili sat in on interviews for the Spurs. He was brought in as a special adviser for basketball operations before this season.
— It was mostly a human affair at Wintrust Arena last week, but one canine got in. LA Clippers scout Leo Papile brought his dog, Cotton, to the arena and he was a hit. Cotton even had his own credential.
— Wisconsin guard Johnny Davis has been working out in Miami in preparation for the draft. It’s safe to say he does not miss Madison. When one reporter asked how he liked Miami, he was definitive.
“It’s definitely a lot better than being in Wisconsin,” he said.
During Davis’ return to the Midwest this week, he interviewed with the Knicks, Pistons, Cavaliers, Spurs, Wizards and Nuggets, he said.
— Age is a constant part of the conversation when it comes to the draft. For Iowa forward Keegan Murray, it’s a possible bugaboo on his resume. He’s 21 — the oldest player in the top 15 of Sam Vecenie’s Big Board — and he’ll be 22 when the 2022-23 season starts.
Murray knows that’s part of the conversation with him. “I say I’m a 21-year-old in an 18-year-old’s body,” he said in Chicago. Murray said he was a late bloomer in high school — a 5-foot-10 sophomore who grew to 6-foot-8 his senior year.
“If you’re comparing me on age, not what I do on the court, then maybe that’s another conversation,” Murray said. “For me, it’s whatever I do on the court. Age is something I can’t control.”
Liddell is also 21 and aware of the negative connotations that carries. His case for himself in the draft: that he can contribute immediately instead of the players who are drafted on potential.
“I’m older than most guys in this draft, so I just feel like me bringing effort and heart like I’ve always done is going to help me out,” he said.
— Auburn center Walker Kessler has been working out this spring with Purdue guard Jaden Ivey, which he believes has helped him improve his pick-and-roll defense and when he has to switch out onto the perimeter.
— No, Kenneth Lofton Jr. is not related to former baseball player Kenny Lofton. Yes, he’s gotten the question.
“I get asked that numerous times,” he said. “But you know, my name is Kenneth Lofton, Jr. I’m from Port Arthur, Texas, a small town by Houston.”
— Yes, Jović gets the Nikola Jokić questions.
“A lot,” he said. “I’m cool with it. I think it’s pretty funny.”
— Part of the purpose of the media availabilities during the combine is to find out which teams each player met with. An interview is not prima facie evidence that a team wants to draft someone, but it does mean there is some interest, whether it be a fact-finding mission or confirmation or something else, and also a sign that a player or his agent is willing to use that time to meet with a player as well. There is also the caveat that teams do sometimes draft players without ever meeting them or sometimes even working them out.
With all that said, here is a list of the teams that each player below said they met with at the time of their media availability, though they are not always complete lists.
Arizona guard Bennedict Mathurin: Blazers, Knicks, Pacers, Pelicans, Wolves, and Raptors.
Baylor forward Jeremy Sochan: Cavaliers, Spurs, Pelicans, Celtics, and Heat.
G League Ignite guard Dyson Daniels: Knicks, Hawks, Cavaliers, Raptors, Bucks, and Kings.
Ohio State wing Malaki Branham: Bucks, Rockets, Knicks, and Nets.
Wisconsin guard Johnny Davis: Knicks, Pistons, Cavaliers, Spurs, Wizards, and Nuggets.
LSU forward Tari Eason: Nuggets, Nets, Spurs, Rockets, Grizzlies, Celtics, and Suns.
Baylor forward Kendall Brown: Nuggets, Wolves, Warriors, Kings and others. He is scheduled to work out for the Bulls Monday.
Milwaukee forward Patrick Baldwin Jr.: Warriors, Mavericks, Clippers, OKC, Lakers, Detroit, Heat, Rockets, 76ers, Grizzlies, Spurs, Blazers, and Celtics.
Nebraska guard Bryce McGowens: Rockets, Celtics, Jazz, Clippers, Heat, 76ers, Thunder, Knicks, and Warriors.
Ohio State forward E.J. Liddell: Pistons, Warriors, Bucks, Raptors, Suns, and Mavericks.
G League Ignite wing MarJon Beauchamp: 76ers, Blazers, Pacers, Spurs, Nuggets, Bulls, and Mavericks.
North Carolina State guard Terquavion Smith: 76ers, Lakers, Clippers, Kings, Knicks, and Jazz.
Duke wing Wendell Moore Jr.: Lakers, Hornets, Mavericks, Suns, Clippers, Wizards, Warriors, and Kings.
UCLA wing Peyton Watson: Lakers, Nuggets, Clippers, Knicks, and Wizards.
Mega Basket forward Nikola Jović: Rockets and Knicks.
Memphis forward Josh Minott: 76ers, Mavericks, Nuggets, and Blazers.
Rutgers wing Ron Harper Jr.: Jazz and Warriors.
Seton Hall wing Jared Rhoden: Knicks, Nets, Clippers, Raptors, Celtics, and Jazz.
Fort Erie Prep forward Leonard Miller: Raptors and Hawks.
G League Ignite forward Michael Foster Jr.: Pelicans, Heat, Knicks, Cavaliers, and Bulls.
Florida State forward John Butler Jr.: Nets and Spurs.
Villanova guard Collin Gillespie: Scheduled to work out in Boston and Minnesota.
(Photo of Jared Rhoden: Kamil Krzaczynski / NBAE via Getty Images)