Dribble Handoff: Players who can benefit most from strong 2021 NBA Draft Combine showing in Chicago

After an unorthodox and geographically decentralized NBA Draft Combine last year for a rather underwhelming draft class, the annual pre-draft showcase is thankfully taking place in a normal format this week. Representatives from across the league are gathered in Chicago to evaluate 69 players with aspirations of being selected during the draft on July 29.

Though there seems to be a clear consensus around who is most likely to be selected at the top of the 2021 NBA Draft, there is still plenty to be sorted out as teams try and find players who can develop into solid professional contributors. Often times, the combine can be a setting for some previously undervalued players to blossom into coveted draft night assets.

If nothing else, the group of players auditioning for professional franchises this week will get the genuine, full-fledged opportunity to show their stuff that last year’s draft class missed out on due to the COVID-19 pandemic. For this week’s edition of the Dribble Handoff, our writers are predicting the players who will benefit most from the NBA Draft Combine and, as a result, see their stock rise as draft night approaches.

Jalen Johnson

Jalen Johnson was a projected lottery pick coming out of high school, and he might still get picked within that range in the 2021 NBA Draft. We’ll find out July 29. But there is no getting around the fact that he quit his team at Duke the moment his minutes were slashed after consecutive subpar performances, and that has to be a possible point of concern for front offices trying to decide which player is worth their first-round pick and the millions of dollars tied to it. 

A year ago, James Wiseman also quit his team at Memphis, but the Golden State Warriors still took him second overall. With the benefit of hindsight, that already appears to be a mistake. So franchises picking in the lottery of this draft probably should be careful about making a similar mistake with Johnson. Did he have valid/understandable reasons for quitting at Duke, or was the move something that speaks to him, and not in a good way? I’m happy to let others decide. But the way Johnson spends this week rationalizing his decision to walk away from his teammates midseason could play a role in determining where he’s selected next month.  — Gary Parrish

Greg Brown

I can be quick here. Brown is a former five-star prospect who had an up-and-down, one-and-done season at Texas. There was scuttlebutt in the summer of 2020, before he committed to play for Shaka Smart, that Brown would go the G League route. If he had, I think it’s reasonable to suggest his draft stock would be a tad better than where it stands right now. At Texas, Brown averaged 9.3 points, 6.2 rebounds and 1.0 block while playing 20.6 minutes. His efficiency: a 91.6 offensive rating, per KenPom, along with 50% shooting from 2-point range and 33% from beyond the arc on 91 attempts. 

Brown will have a shot at moving himself up draft boards, into a secure first-round pick, if his natural athleticism and defensive instincts shine through against other prospects. He was projected as a lottery pick 12 months ago; some of that could creep back in if he can show out. He’s too naturally gifted not to help himself in Chicago. — Matt Norlander

Max Abmas

Max Abmas quietly led the country in scoring last season for Oral Roberts before bursting onto the NCAA Tournament scene where he scored 29, 26 and 25 points in three games against teams seeded No. 2, 7 and 3, respectively. It validated his standing as one of college basketball’s best pure scorers and piqued the interest of NBA teams, who now see the sophomore as one of the draft’s true X-factors. However, Abmas is 6-foot-1 with obvious defensive limitations and possesses just-OK athleticism. So can he put up big production on this stage against NBA athleticism? 

No one thinks his showing in March Madness was a fluke, but seeing him in 5-on-5 settings will be valuable for teams to scout Abmas and where his game’s at now, and even more valuable an opportunity for Abmas to prove he belongs. Warts aside — and there are warts — he has the offensive skill set to be a lethal player in today’s NBA. Helping his case as he prepares for this week in Indy is a similarly-sized lead guard in Trae Young, who had similar defensive limitations and similar offensive prowess as a scorer at Oklahoma. Now Young has emerged as a star for an Eastern Conference Finals-bound Atlanta Hawks team. — Kyle Boone

Jeremiah Robinson-Earl

Robinson-Earl would have made an NBA roster last year after winning Big East Freshman of the Year honors, but after returning for his sophomore season and leading the Wildcats in scoring, shooting percentage, rebounding, blocks and steals, it’s quite obvious he’s an NBA talent. The question, then, is where he’ll be selected. CBS Sports’ Kyle Boone has Robinson-Earl at No. 40 on the NBA Draft Big Board entering the combine, but I suspect that Robinson-Earl’s stock will improve during the combine for a couple reasons.

As a 6-foot-9 big man, Robinson-Earl may have been classified as a “tweener” in the recent past since he’s not a true center or a prototypical perimeter player. But now, players with his versatility are coveted. Robinson-Earl can defend every position and is an improving 3-point shooter who operates efficiently in the post and the mid-range on offense. The idea of a “positionless” player is one thing, but Robinson-Earl actually has the skills and IQ to effectively fill the role. He’s adept at reading passing lanes, knows how to find his spots in the post on offense and has the seemingly rare gift of defending well without fouling. Those intangibles will shine through in his work at the combine and impress NBA teams.

The other setting in which Robinson-Earl will shine is in meetings. He was named a CoSIDA All-American last month because of his 3.56 GPA, and that can shine through in conversations to positively impact his stock. Ultimately, Robinson-Earl brings enough NBA skill to be an early contributor in the league while also offering enough upside to warrant a first-round selection. — David Cobb


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