Draft Workout Notebook: Hart Returns to Draft Waters a Year Older, Wiser

It’s that time of the year again. Fresh off last week’s NBA Draft Combine in Chicago, the Pacers held their first pre-draft workout of the spring on Monday morning at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.

Indiana owns the 18th and 47th overall picks in the 2017 NBA Draft, which will take place on June 22 at the Barclays Center. Over the next five weeks, the Pacers will host several groups of prospects in Indianapolis for testing, interviews, and workouts.

Purdue All-American Caleb Swanigan drew the most interest from the local media throng on Monday (Pacers.com’s Mark Montieth wrote about Swanigan’s second go through the pre-draft process), but all six players at the workout are currently projected as late first to solid second-round picks, making it one of the deepest groups of prospects to work out for the Pacers in recent years.

Generally, a draft workout will contain a few players seen as fringe prospects — players unlikely to hear their name called on draft night, but hoping to make a favorable impression and possibly earn an invitation to play for an NBA team in Summer League or perhaps land a roster spot with their D-League affiliate in the fall. Monday’s workout, however, was an exception to this rule.

All six participants in Monday’s workout — Swanigan, Oregon forward Jordan Bell, Villanova guard Josh Hart, Kansas State wing Wesley Iwundu, Iowa State point guard Monte Morris, and Colorado guard Derrick White — were among the 67 players invited to last week’s combine. DraftExpress.com’s latest mock draft has the six players going between the 31st and 55th overall selections. NBADraft.net’s most recent projection has them coming off the board anywhere from 31st to 54th.

For what it’s worth, both outlets currently have the Pacers taking one of the players in town on Monday with their second-round pick. DraftExpress has Indiana taking Hart, while NBADraft.net has Morris going to Indiana.

The presence of both Swanigan and Hart meant that two of the four unanimous consensus first-team All-Americans from the 2016-17 NCAA season worked out for the Pacers on Monday (the ones not in attendance: UCLA guard Lonzo Ball and Kansas guard Frank Mason III, the consensus National Player of the Year).

Like Swanigan, Hart took advantage of the NBA’s later early-entry deadline last season, when he declared for the draft after helping lead Villanova to a national title but did not sign with an agent. That enabled Hart to take part in the combine and a few team workouts before deciding to withdraw his name from the draft and return to school for his senior season.

Hart’s decision might have surprised some, considering how much success he had already enjoyed as a junior. Not only did the Wildcats capture a national championship, but Hart was a unanimous first team All-Big East selection after leading Villanova in scoring (15.5 points per game) and finishing second on the team in rebounding (6.8 per contest).

While many players have tested the draft waters with far less polished resumes, Hart’s decision was a testament to his maturity.

“I just thought it was in the best interest for my family,” Hart said. “That was the biggest thing.

“At the end of the day for me, it’s not about getting into the league, it’s about staying and having a long career.”

The decision apparently paid dividends, as Hart was unquestionably one of the top players in the country as a senior. Hart increased his scoring average over three points per game to 18.7 and demonstrated considerable improvement on his jump shot, increasing his 3-point percentage from .357 to .404.

Personally, Hart felt his biggest improvement during his senior season came in his decision making. After the graduation of Ryan Arcidiacono, Hart took on more responsibilities initiating the offense as a senior and finished second on the team in assists.

The Big East Player of the Year, Hart also earned a reputation as a first-class person off the court. Hart won the prestigious Senior CLASS Award, chosen by a vote of Division I men’s basketball coaches, national basketball media and fans and given to the most outstanding senior student-athlete who excels in four different areas: “classroom, community, character and competition.”

Perhaps the best illustration of Hart’s character came in a dramatic win over Seton Hall in the semifinals of the 2017 Big East Tournament. After flying in to convert a put-back basket to give Villanova the lead in the final seconds, Hart then consoled the Pirates after they missed a close-range shot on the other end that would have forced overtime.

Hart won the Julius Erving Award as the nation’s top small forward last season, but he said he feels comfortable playing multiple positions at the next level. Measuring out at 6-5 with a 6-8 wingspan at the combine, Hart played four positions at Villanova from point guard to power forward. He said on Monday that he thinks he could do the same in the NBA.

“Right now, how basketball is, you have to be versatile,” Hart said. “You can’t just play one position. I’m a basketball player — I’ll play whatever position I have to.”

While there is a bit of a stigma associated with four-year players in a draft process that puts the highest value on upside and potential, Hart has the type of game that should translate quickly to the NBA level, something that makes him an intriguing option as a second-round pick.

Last year, the Milwaukee Bucks took Malcolm Brogdon, another consensus All-American and major conference player of the year, in the second round and Brogdon is considered one of the favorites to win Rookie of the Year.

Could Hart follow a similar trajectory? Only time will tell.

Bell, White Rising Up Draft Boards

Hart and Swanigan did not participate in five-on-five scrimmages over the weekend at the combine, but the other four participants in Monday’s workout did and two of them — Bell and White — seemed to really help their draft stock with strong performances.

Bell is probably a familiar name to college basketball fans. The 6-9 forward was the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year as a junior and was named the Most Outstanding Player in the Midwest Regional after helping lift Oregon to its first Final Four appearance since 1939.

Bell was sensational in the Ducks’ Elite Eight victory over top-seeded Kansas, tallying 11 points, 13 rebounds, four assists, and eight blocks. He was nearly as good in Oregon’s narrow Final Four loss to North Carolina, registering 13 points, 16 rebounds, and four blocks.

Bell built on that momentum in Chicago, where he again put up solid numbers in a pair of scrimmages. On the first day alone, Bell racked up 13 points, seven rebounds, five assists, and five blocks. Over the two games, Bell shot 65 percent from the field and turned heads with his athleticism, particularly on the defensive end.

Measuring out at just under 6-9 in shoes, Bell might have been seen as a “tweener” a few years ago, but his skillset seems tailor-made to play the center position in the modern NBA, which values versatility above all else.

“I think I can be the kind of defender like Draymond Green, switch screens, be a help-side shot-blocker,” Bell said on Monday.

While he did not switch onto smaller players often in college, Bell demonstrated in Chicago that he possesses the lateral quickness necessary to guard smaller players on the perimeter. He is also unquestionably one of the premier shot-blockers in this year’s draft class, having racked up 235 rejections in his three seasons at Oregon, the most in school history.

There are still questions about Bell’s game, particularly on the offensive end. His field goal percentage was stellar, never dipping below 57 percent and peaking at .636 last season, but Bell got most of his points in transition or on lobs or put-backs. According to DraftExpress, Bell attempted just 31 jump shots as a junior and made only 10.

He will need to improve his range at the next level, but Bell has one thing going for him. He is comfortable playing a specific role.

“I know who I am,” Bell said succinctly, summing up his calling card as “defending, blocking shots, and finishing,”

White, meanwhile, has taken an unconventional path to the NBA. Ignored by major college programs out of high school, White spent three seasons playing at the Division II level for the University of Colorado Colorado Springs. White was sensational at the Division II level, where he was a two-time All-American and averaged 22.0 points per game.

White finally made the leap to the Division I level as a senior, enrolling at Colorado for the 2016-17 season. While the expectations might have been for the former D-II standout to be simply a solid contributor, White showed no noticeable drop-off in production despite the jump up in competition.

White led the Buffaloes in scoring (18.1 points per game) and assists (4.4 per contest), steals (1.2), and blocks (1.4). White was a first-team All-Pac-12 selection and also was named to the conference’s All-Defensive team.

Perhaps most impressively, White seemed to get better and better as the season went on. In the Pac-12 Tournament against Arizona, White poured in 31 points to go along with six rebounds and five assists.

“It meant a lot,” White said about making the most of his opportunity in his lone season of Division I basketball. “(There was) a lot of hard work that I put in that put me in the situation to succeed. My teammates were great…I’m extremely blessed to have that year.”

White earned an invitation to the combine the hard way, by performing well at the Portsmouth Invitational Tournament last month, a showcase for seniors generally seen as fringe draft prospects.

But once in Chicago, White boosted his draft stock with strong numbers both in the athletic testing (his 3.08-second time in the 3/4-court sprint was the second fastest among combine participants) and in scrimmages. White had 16 points on 6-of-12 shooting in his first five-on-five game in Chicago, then had nine points on 4-of-8 shooting and four assists on the second day of action.

A 6-5 combo guard, White’s strong shooting ability and defensive prowess (despite playing on the wing, he blocked two or more shots in 13 games last season) make him an intriguing candidate for a team looking for help on the perimeter. And while he spent five years in college (he sat out a year after transferring to Colorado), the fact that he has only played one season at the Division I level suggests that White might have only scratched the surface of his potential.

Given his atypical journey, White has experience having to prove that he belongs, something that should serve him well as he auditions for NBA teams over the next several weeks.

“You’ve just got to keep the chip on your shoulder, keep working hard,” White said. “You can’t take anything from granted because it can be taken away from you any time.”

Big 12 Stars Morris and Iwundu Reunited

The last two attendees at Monday’s workout were Morris and Iwundu, two players who starred for four seasons in the Big 12.

The Pacers have some familiarity with players from Iowa State, having taken former Cyclones standout Georges Niang with the 50th overall pick in last year’s draft. Morris actually got dressed for Monday’s workout at his former college teammate’s locker.

“If I had a chance to reunite with Georges, we could definitely bring that Iowa State swag down to Indianapolis,” Morris joked.

Like Niang, Morris had an accomplished collegiate career. Morris graduated as the Cyclones’ all-time leader in assists and steals, having started a school record 121 consecutive games. Iowa State reached the NCAA Tournament in each of Morris’ four seasons in Ames, making two appearances in the Sweet 16, and won three Big 12 Tournament titles.

Morris’ role evolved over his four seasons in college, as he took on more responsibility offensively each year after older players graduated. As a senior, Morris led the team in scoring (16.4 points per game) and assists (6.2 per contest).

Morris said on Monday that his experience playing a variety of different roles should help him make a smooth transition to the NBA.

“Coming in, I won’t be a superstar,” he said. “I can work my way to that with hard work and dedication, but I know every year there’s going to be something different asked of me. My first year, it may be all defense and I’ve played a role like that at Iowa State.”

As a point guard, Morris does possibly play a position of need for the Pacers. Starter Jeff Teague and backup Aaron Brooks are both free agents and the team has yet to announce whether they will pick up the option on third-stringer Joe Young’s contract. There is a possibility that Indiana could have an entirely new crop of players running the point next season.

Morris, for his part, is hoping to show teams that he has what it takes to run an NBA offense.

“I know at the next level, I’ll be a leader at the point guard position,” Morris said. “So I’m just trying to communicate as much as possible and make plays.”

Iwundu, meanwhile, was quite possibly the best athlete at Monday’s workout. A 6-7 wing, Iwundu developed into a strong all-around player during his time at Kansas State.

Though he played on the wing, Iwundu showed excellent playmaking ability for the Wildcats, leading the team in assists as a junior at 3.7 per game and then finishing second on the team as a senior at 3.5 per contest.

Iwundu relied mostly on his athleticism to score for most of his college career, but added a 3-point shot to his repertoire for his senior season, when he averaged 13.0 points and 6.3 rebounds per game.

Iwundu spent last summer re-tooling his release on his jump shot and getting up extra shots with a weighted ball. The hard work paid off, as he knocked down 32-of-85 attempts from beyond the arc (37.6 percent in 2016-17) after never making more than seven 3-pointers in any of his first three seasons on campus.

He will need to continue refining his shot to adjust to the longer 3-point line, but Iwundu believes that he has the other attributes that could make him an attractive candidate to NBA teams.

“My versatility on the defense and offensive end,” Iwundu said are his strengths. “…That’s something I take pride in — defense and just competing out there.”

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