These are busy days for the NBA’s latest group of soon-to-be millionaires, would-be bench warmers and guys hoping to land somewhere in between. They’re in Chicago at the pre-draft camp, pro basketball’s version of a scouting combine and one of the last chances for league executives and coaches to window shop before the June 28 draft.
Joe McNaull is among the many eager young men being watched, tested and tried. McNaull will boost his stock or, in the worst-case scenario for the former Long Beach State center, leave decision-makers wondering at the wrong time. It might only be the difference in fulfilling a lifelong dream or helping to shut the door in his face.
“Sure, there’s a lot of pressure,” McNaull said. “It’s basically dog-eat-dog, because everyone wants to get into the league . . . this is something everybody fantasizes about.
“But you really can’t think about the pressure. You have to go out and be ready for every practice and every game. I’m just going to do the best that I can and I hope that’s good enough because that’s all I can do.”
If it isn’t, he should know quickly.
The camp, at Moody Bible Institute, began Tuesday and ends today. Attendance is by invitation only, meaning those with little game need not inquire. The NBA believes that all the campers, in theory at least, have a legitimate shot at playing in the league.
Some invitations are no-brainers, extended to the nation’s elite seniors and underclassmen who have declared for the draft. Others qualified the hard way by distinguishing themselves on the postseason all-star tournament circuit.
The latter route, of course, was the only one open to McNaull. He attracted scouts’ attention with his improved strength and skill in his last season, his only one at Long Beach after transferring from San Diego State.
McNaull led the 49ers in scoring and rebounding, averaging 12.7 points and 7.2 rebounds. He was selected first-team All-Big West Conference, Long Beach won the conference tournament and played in the NCAA tournament. That led to an invitation to the Portsmouth, Va., Invitational.
“It was a dream season for me,” said McNaull, who is nine units short of a degree in psychology. “I did everything I wanted to, and then going to Portsmouth was a lot of fun.
“I got to see what I could do against top-notch players. There were a lot of good, strong big men there, unlike the Big West.”
McNaull held his own with players from the best conferences nationwide. He averaged 11.5 points and 10.5 rebounds at Portsmouth.
“Joe has helped himself already,” said Chris Wallace, director of college and international scouting for the Miami Heat. “He opened some eyes [at Portsmouth].
“He has some offensive tools around the basket. In a real short time, he’s gone from being a nonentity to someone who has got a shot at being employable in pro basketball.”
No doubt about it, according to another person paid to know such things.
“Joe is probably one of the better centers in this year’s draft,” said Marty Blake, NBA director of scouting. “Joe played very well in Portsmouth and he’s got a chance to play in the league. I wouldn’t say it if it wasn’t true.”
The consensus among executives and scouts is that McNaull stands a good chance of being drafted in the second round. But most second-round picks have the staying power of Dennis Rodman’s hair color. And McNaull has one big advantage: He plays center.
McNaull is 6 feet 10 and 250 pounds, which doesn’t make him a monster by NBA standards. But people with his size who can play in the middle with their backs to the basket are at a premium, which prompts Blake to say, only somewhat jokingly, that “every year is a bad year for centers.”
Clearly, there are worse positions in which to find yourself.
“I see Joe as a backup in the NBA or playing in one of the better leagues in Europe,” Wallace said. “People tend to talk about where a guy gets drafted and how much money he can make right away. But this is a long and winding career. The key thing is for Joe to get into the mix and then find a place where he fits.”
Not coincidentally, McNaull’s ascent to prospect status coincided with his decision to leave San Diego. He learned more and improved more during his redshirt season than in his three years at San Diego combined.
It was during this time that McNaull met David Spencer, then an assistant to Long Beach Coach Seth Greenberg. Spencer is now president of Westwood-based International Pro Management and McNaull’s agent.
“He really started out at the bottom of the ladder,” said Spencer. “I think Joe was very fortunate to come under Seth Greenberg’s tutelage for two years because Seth does such a good job teaching.”
Applying what he learned got McNaull this far. The question is: Will that be enough to take him as far as he hopes to go?
“His work habits and intensity have all been formed in the last year, so I think you can bank on a little bit of a physical upside still to come,” Wallace said. “Hopefully, there is still some room in the glass.”