Famed trainer’s take: NBA combine assesses prospects too narrowly

As NBA scouts, coaches, general managers and other staffers descended on Chicago for the league’s annual Draft Combine, the process of poking, prodding, measuring and timing the nation’s top pro prospects began in earnest.

But at least one authority on what it takes to excel as an NBA player remained unconvinced the participating teams would learn much of anything.

Tim Grover, famed trainer of Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, Dwyane Wade and other NBA notables, offered a contrarian view on his blog at attackathletics.com. Grover contends that the NBA scouting staffs fall in lockstep in how they assess players at the combine, more because they can than because it yields empirical evidence for who can play and who cannot.

This might be met with equal skepticism from NBA personnel departments, who wouldn’t miss this annual roundup in Chicago and risk putting themselves at a disadvantage relative to the other 29 teams. But they’re kidding themselves if they think the numbers generated at the combine will make or break a player’s career or their team’s draft success. Grover writes in part:

This is for all the guys who firmly believe that their entire lives would have been completely different—wealthier, happier, sexier—if only they had been given the rare and awesome ability to jump.

Let me make you feel better: I don’t test my players’ vertical jump. I’ll test it if someone asks me to, if a player or team really wants to know, but to me, it’s a shallow prediction of what an individual can actually accomplish as a competitive athlete, a measure of talent, not skill. Talent and skill aren’t the same thing; the world is full of talented people who have never achieved anything.

When I started working with Michael Jordan in 1989, his vertical jump was 38 inches. By today’s standards, that might not even get you drafted in the top ten; Andrew Wiggins reportedly had a 44” vertical jump before he was drafted No. 1 overall in the 2014 NBA Draft. Eventually we got MJ up to 42”—and then 48”—using the training program which later became my book “JUMP ATTACK.” But we weren’t specifically training for vertical jump; we trained for overall explosiveness and skill, and the vertical increase was just a by-product of the training.

It’s just a number. You know those people in school who always got good grades but were complete dunces in real life? Same principle here: If you train for a one-dimensional test, you’ll be a one-dimensional athlete. The truth is, the ability to jump straight up into the air one time in a completely controlled situation doesn’t indicate what you can do during a game.

Can you do it with two guys in your face and another waiting to clock you when you come down? With the game on the line and lights in your eyes? Falling backwards? What about the second or third jump? That’s what I want to see. Game results, not test results. MJ and Kobe scored more than 30,000 points in their careers; I’m not a stat guy but I’m pretty sure most of those points didn’t come from dunks.

I’m not just picking on testing vertical jump here. Draft Combines are supposedly designed to measure athletic ability, but cones don’t weigh 400 pounds and move at lightning speed. Everyone gets excited about a guy who runs a fast 40. But how often do you have a game situation where you’re running 40 yards in a straight line unopposed? It’s a test of speed and acceleration: that’s talent. I want to see skill.

Show me you can explode for five yards, stop, cut, avoid the defense, change direction, and keep going…while maintaining that speed. Ask Jerry Rice: you don’t get to be the best by sprinting alone down an open field.

The NBA Draft Combine includes a 185-pound bench press test. What are we proving there, how hard you can fire a chest pass? If you’re an NBA player on your back in the middle of a game pushing something away, you either need a referee or an ambulance. I want to see overall strength in competition, not while you’re lying on a bench. Kevin Durant couldn’t do one rep at his pre-draft Combine. Looks like things worked out well for him.

Look, there’s always going to be someone who jumps higher or runs faster than you. But if you’re a golfer who only works on your drive, now you’re Happy Gilmore. You can do one thing. If you can only dominate the vertical jump competition or the bench press, congratulations, now you’re a great vertical jumper or bench presser. It doesn’t make you a skilled and competitive athlete.

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