Ebi OK, Villanueva bombs, Badiane opens eyes
By Chad Ford
Updated: June 6
CHICAGO -- After one day of intense on-court scrutiny of 69 prospects at the Chicago pre-draft camp Wednesday, NBA scouts and GMs turned their attention to more pressing matters on Thursday -- finding the next diamond in the rough.
Of course, private workouts were only the sideshow to the main event in Chicago. There was plenty going on inside the NBA's pre-draft camp Thursday, where Luke Walton and Troy Bell continued to impress scouts.
For the most part, the college players here are what they are. With a few exceptions, most of them are college seniors who have been scouted a dozen times. As good as the competition is, there doesn't appear to be a player here who can crack the top 20 in this year's NBA Draft. So the majority of scouts eventually get restless, and their eyes start to wander.
When a few hot high school or international prospects let it leak that they'll be working out at an undisclosed time and location (which, of course, will quickly become the worst-kept secret in Chicago) it's the equivalent of a fire drill.
The mass exodus is staggering.
"We've got a herd mentality in the NBA," one assistant GM told Insider. "If we see something hot or new, we stampede."
Thursday's stampede headed in the direction of three intriguing prospects: High school stars Ndudi Ebi and Charlie Villanueva
, and international prospect Malik Badiane. Today, the same herd will be courtside to watch 7-foot-4, 300 pound Russian giant Pavel Podkolzine.
For months the debate has raged over which side of the Atlantic is producing better young prospects. If Thursday was any indication, the international guys have opened up a can of whoop-ass on the Americans.
Here's a look at how the day went down.
1 p.m., Hoops Gym
Every year one major workout takes place at Hoops, and this year roughly 200 NBA scouts and GMs have crammed into the gym for a good look at Ebi and Villanueva.
Ebi, a skinny, 6-foot-9 forward, went first. It really isn't the best stage for his skills. Ebi was ranked as one of the top three players in the country based on his great defense, shot-blocking (the best in the nation), hustle and ability to score inside and out. Thursday's affair was basically a series of shooting drills, low post exercises and a few examples of running the floor.
Things didn't go all that well for the youngster from Texas. Ebi wasn't shooting the ball particularly well. His shot form looks OK, but nothing was going in on a consistent basis. He had a few nice runs, but it wasn't anything to write home about. Ebi is often compared to Jonathan Bender, because of his slight frame and ability to multi-task on the floor. But it's pretty clear Ebi doesn't have the type of dead-eye range Bender showed as a prospect.
Ebi's best attribute in workouts is his length. His arms are long, and he's able to move quickly to get to the basket. He's pretty impressive taking the ball outside the 3-point line, taking one dribble and driving to the basket. Several scouts that know him well say Ebi is a hard worker, plays with a lot of desire and is constantly working on his game to make it better.
The downside is that he's still very, very raw offensively, needs to add a lot of strength to his frame and he needs to find a position. None of those knocks will stop someone from drafting him ... possibly as high as the middle of the first round.
"If he stayed in college another two years," one scout told Insider, "he'd be a high lottery pick. I wish he'd go back to school, because I think he's so raw, he's better of getting playing time. He'll get stronger quicker if he goes straight to the NBA, but he won't really be able to develop his game instincts. With that said, if I was sitting in the late teens and early 20s and had a couple years to develop him, I'd take him in a heartbeat. He has the desire to get better and will keep working on his game until he earns playing time."
Villanueva's workout, on the other hand, was a disaster. The minute Ebi ended his workout and Villanueva stepped on the floor, roughly half the NBA people in the gym got up and walked out.
Charlie Villanueva was less than impressive on Thursday.
If that isn't a message to Villanueva to go back to school, I don't know what is.
Ironically, Villanueva actually looked much more polished than Ebi. He shot the ball well, showed nice athleticism on several drills, and, at 6-foot-11, he has some skills that are intriguing.
But two related things poisoned the well. Villanueva worked at less than half speed. I'm not sure he even broke a sweat. His play, on a few occasions, bordered on lackadaisical. Midway through the workout, there were less than 50 people left in the gym.
What's the problem?
"Bad attitude," one NBA GM said.
"Terrible attitude," another NBA coach said.
An international scout was furious that he even wasted his time. "Why come to a job interview and goof around?" he said. "I don't understand it. Neither of these kids put on a real workout today. If you want to see someone really work for their bread, come with me ..."
With that, and with Villanueva's workout still not officially over, we were out the door and on the way to see Senegal's Malick Badiane.
2:30 p.m., University Illinois Chicago
A few wrong turns get us to the gym after Badiane's workout has begun.
The difference in the atmosphere is palpable the minute we enter the room. Badiane is grunting and growling. His trainer, Eric Lichter, is putting him through a strenuous drill. Badiane is going full speed.
He's pounding the ball with every dribble. He's clawing, scratching out every drill. He takes the ball at the top of the key, takes one dribble and throws down a huge dunk. He does it again. And again. And again.
For the first time all day, I can smell the sweat in the gym.
Badiane is an impressive physical specimen. He's a 19-year old, 6-foot-11, 234-pound power forward with a 7-foot-4˝ wing span and a 32˝-inch vertical jump. His body is already ripped, and his frame suggests he could easily bulk up to 250 without losing any speed or agility.
At one point Lichter takes a huge cord that looks like a giant rubber band, ties one end around his waist and the other around Badiane's waist. He then tells Badiane to attack the basket and dunk the ball. As Badiane fights to get there, Lichter is pulling the band in the opposite direction.
Badiane is grunting with each fierce dunk.
"Again!" Lichter shouts as he yanks the cord. Badiane jumps, Lichter pulls. Badiane stretches toward the rim, Lichter keeps pulling.
About 40 NBA scouts and GMs are in the gym. None of them are talking to each other. They're all staring, jaws agape.
"I told you," the international scout said. "That is an NBA workout. He just earned himself a lot of bread."
If Badiane had been on the court with Ebi and Villanueva, he would have killed them both.
"Right now, the international players are hungrier," another scout continues. "They really want it. Over in Europe (Badiane plays for a team in Germany), the conditions still aren't always great. You never know when or if you're getting paid. The facilities aren't that great, and the money isn't very good. You don't play to have seven Bentleys in your garage. You play because it's your passion."
“ Where are you going to find that combination of power and athleticism?" the scout said. "I hate comparisons, but how different is he from Amare Stoudemire
in terms of strength and desire? I don't think there's that big a gap. ”
— NBA scout on Malick Badiane of Senegal
Two NBA scouts in the gym have followed Badiane for years. One claims he should be a top 15 pick in the draft. The other won't go that far but does insist he's a lock for the first round.
"Where are you going to find that combination of power and athleticism?" the scout said. "I hate comparisons, but how different is he from Amare Stoudemire in terms of strength and desire? I don't think there's that big a gap."
Another assistant GM walks up to me, smiles and sums up the last 45 minutes. "It looks like you've stumbled onto another goldmine."
Here's the book on Badiane according to several experts in African scouting who know him intimately. He's one of the strongest, most athletic big men in the draft. He is an above-average defender, strong rebounder and a great shot blocker. He runs the floor like a guard and is an explosive leaper. He has a soft shooting touch and his range extends out to 15 feet. Of all of the young, African prospects to come to the NBA in the last 20 years, both scouts claim Badiane has the most offensive potential of any since Hakeem Olajuwon.
Lichter has another comparison that seems to fit. "He reminds me a lot of Nene," said Lichter, who trained Nene Hilaro last summer. "They're both as strong as an ox. Nene is a more talented physical prospect, but Malick is much more skilled around the basket than Nene was when he came over. Badiane is very swift, which is kind of amazing considering how powerful his legs really are. He's got awesome power from his base."
Lichter has helped Badiane improve on his raw ability. He has him working in a sand pit in Cleveland, mimicking NBA moves in sand to increase his strength and explosiveness. In five weeks, Badiane has gained 17 pounds -- all of it muscle.
After the workout, Nuggets GM Kiki Vandeweghe shows Badiane a few moves in the block. He's shaking his head and smiling widely as he walks away.
Badiane is just happy to be here. "I just wanted to work hard and show the NBA what they would be getting if they drafted me," he told Insider. "I've been working very hard and I'll keep working hard if they choose to draft me."
Badiane has plenty of experience against top competition. He played well at the Global Games in Dallas last summer (and held his own against Darko Milicic), and he impressed people at the ABCD camp for high schoolers.
When asked who is favorite NBA player is, he smiles and says Ben Wallace. "I love to play defense like he does. I just want to be strong, grab every rebound and block every shot."
He only has one caveat on that comparison. "But I will score the ball too."
Most scouts have assumed Badiane will be taken by the Mavs at No. 29. But based on what we saw on Thursday, Badiane probably won't be on the board that long.
5 p.m., Gold Coast MultiPlex
Pavel Podkolzine, the 7-foot-4 Siberian kid who was virtually unknown six months ago is finally in the U.S. What does he think?
"I love America!" he says with a huge smile. He then picks me up off the floor to give me a hug. "America is the best. I don't want to leave!"
He's been here all of two hours.
Pavel got off the seven-hour flight from Milan, took a cab to his hotel, unpacked and called his agent, Justin Zanick, 30 minutes later. "I'm ready to go to the gym. I'm sick of waiting around."
Another 30 minutes later and Pavel is at the MultiPlex, dribbling a basketball in front of a number of stunned onlookers. You really have to see him to believe him. CBA head coach Billy Bayno is at the gym, ready to give Pavel a prep course for his workout Friday.
Pavel picks up the ball and starts running the floor, dribbling between his legs, behind his back and doing a little cross-over move. He then picks it up and starts firing away. His first 12 shots hit nothing but net.
Over the next 30 minutes, Bayno puts Pavel through what essentially is a guard's workout -- perimeter shooting, ball handling, pick and pops. What is he doing?
"I was just trying to get a handle for what the big fella could do," he said. "His skills are pretty amazing, I kind of got carried away."
If you're an NBA team, you don't have much to fear. Pavel won't be chucking up NBA 3-pointers at today's workout. He'll spend his time on the block, displaying his increasingly impressive array of post moves and showing teams how well he runs the floor.
Bayno, for one, is impressed. "He's for real, big time. This workout could last for 15 minutes and I think they'll see everything they need to see."
The plan is to go for 40 minutes. To get ready, Pavel works for an hour at a pretty furious pace. The level of intensity for what was supposed to be a run-through dwarfs what Ebi and Villanueva did in the morning. Not bad for a guy two hours removed from a seven-hour flight.
Pavel seems to be enjoying himself. I ask him if he's nervous for tomorrow's workout, and he just shrugs his shoulders and smiles. "People stare at me wherever I go, what's the difference? I just will try to do my best."
At 7-foot-4, 300 pounds, his best won't have to be too much to get him in the lottery. If he works out today the same way he worked Thursday night, it will be a shock if he doesn't land in the top 13.