NBA Draft: Inside the Las Vegas bubble where prospects chased their hoop dreams

Iowa State guard Tyrese Haliburton brings the ball up court during a game against Oklahoma State on Jan 21, 2020.
Iowa State guard Tyrese Haliburton is projected to go in the first round of the NBA draft on Wednesday and he could crack the top 10.
(Charlie Neibergall / Associated Press)

It was always expected that Tyrese Haliburton’s NBA career would begin with a summertime trip to Las Vegas.

For more than a decade the city has become the league’s July epicenter as teams converge to watch Summer League games, evaluate rookies fresh off of draft night and swap free agency intel. After two weeks, everyone goes home.

Haliburton, a 6-foot-5 guard, arrived in July after a celebrated career at Iowa State, ready to begin his NBA dream. But there was no high-rise hotel room overlooking casino marquees and sunburned tourists. And no quick exit, either.


Fifteen minutes south of the strip, Haliburton moved into a suburban apartment complex abutting the 15 Freeway. Across the hallway lived Malachi Flynn, a guard from San Diego State. Dave Spahn, one of two agents representing both for Creative Artists Agency, was next door. Other players, all CAA clients, lived in the complex’s adjoining building.

None of the prospects had been drafted. In fact, because of how the COVID-19 pandemic rendered the NBA calendar unrecognizable, no one was exactly sure when the draft would be held — which meant no one knew how long they would be making the same, daily commute four exits up the freeway to a gym where they hoped to burnish their draft credentials.

It wasn’t until last weekend, four months later and days before Wednesday’s draft, that Haliburton began packing up his video game console in anticipation of heading, at last, to his new NBA home.

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“We’ve been so focused on the task at hand, which is the draft, that we haven’t really had time to think about how weird this is,” Spahn said.

From the Disney World “bubble” campus to the shortened 72-game season, COVID-19 has forced dramatic adjustments across the NBA and the draft process has had to evolve too. Prospects’ training time stretched from the usual six to eight weeks to seven months. Talent evaluators have spent 14 months poring over draft boards.

“I can’t wait until the draft actually begins,” one scout said.

CAA’s decision to host its own bubble became one such sign of the unusual times. Agencies typically gather their draft prospects in one city during the spring; CAA typically has brought prospective draft picks to Thousand Oaks. They also traditionally send an employee, one several rungs lower than an agent, to act as an on-site resource or shadow. This was different.


“I mean, four months isn’t tradition,” Joe Abunassar, a reonowned trainer, said laughing.

In the spring, after it became clear that varied local COVID-19 regulations had left prospects spread across the country without consistent opportunities to train, CAA agents wanted a place to keep draft preparation on track. Vegas was chosen in part because of a relationship with Abunassar, who in the last 24 years has helped Kevin Garnett, Chauncey Billups, Kawhi Leonard and Kristaps Porzingis, among others, prepare for their rookie seasons.

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His gym, Impact Basketball, is only 10 minutes from the apartments where Haliburton, Flynn, Kentucky’s Ashton Hagans, Kansas’ Devon Dotson and Mississippi State’s Reggie Perry have stayed for months. They are only five minutes from the apartment where Arizona’s Josh Green has lived since June.

“Having other guys who are kind of in the same space and going into the same world as you is really beneficial,” he said. “We can just walk into each other’s rooms and kick it.

“This is all we know. Obviously, you want to actually play the game, you actually want to play real games, but at a time like now it’d be really tough for any of us to truly complain about what’s going on.”

It could have felt like basketball’s Hotel California. Instead, players fought monotony with marathon sessions of the “Call of Duty: Warzone” videogame. A private chef prepared lunches and dinners five days each week. By the pool, they played pickleball and lounged on couches watching the NBA Finals. They razzed Spahn, a 29-year-old who represents Haliburton with agent Aaron Mintz, and Flynn with Mintz and agent Erika Ruiz. Without a family anchoring him in Los Angeles, Spahn had volunteered to move into the complex. Some within CAA have nicknamed the set-up “Camp Spahn.”

Tyrese Haliburton (left), Josh Green (center) and Dave Spahn take a break during a training session in Las Vegas.
Tyrese Haliburton (left), Josh Green (center) and Dave Spahn take a break during a training session in Las Vegas.
(Emil Vajgrt)

“He’s kept everything in line and he’s even been able to work on his own game,” Green said, deadpan. “He’s getting ready for a 10-day contract.”

But it was the thought of their own future contracts, potentially worth millions, that kept players inside Abunassar’s gym on Dean Martin Drive. Mornings included weights and shots. They returned after lunch for more drills. In recent weeks, veterans including Kyle Lowry have stopped by. Anyone inside on the day of a team workout was required to undergo testing for COVID-19, Abunassar said. In recent weeks, as workouts have increased, that often has led to multiple tests per week; Spahn said no positive tests had been recorded.

“When people think Vegas they don’t necessarily think of the Vegas that we have,” Spahn said. “This isn’t some like, crazy, wild party fantasy. This is a business trip and I think everybody is kind of on the same page about that.”

Given weeks to work with players, Abunassar usually looked to make improvements around the margins, wary of messing up mechanics so close to team workouts. This year, given what in essence has become an extra redshirt season, he and his staff felt ready to take on bigger projects.

“Can Tyrese Haliburton gain more weight, can he get stronger?” Abunassar said. “Can Josh Green become a better shooter in this time period and really change and improve his footwork? Can Malachi Flynn fine-tune even more? The challenge for us is how do we do that without getting them bored?

San Diego State's Malachi Flynn drives against Utah State during the Mountain West Conference tournament on March 7, 2020.
San Diego State guard Malachi Flynn starts a fast break against Utah State during the Mountain West Conference tournament in March.
(Isaac Brekken / Associated Press)

“That gym saved us. I couldn’t wait to get there every day, honestly.”

For players who have followed the same routine for months, the coming weeks will bring whiplash as teams have only four weeks to complete the draft, free agency and the preseason before the season begins Dec. 22. Haliburton and Green believe their extra time to prepare would ease that transition.

As Saturday’s move-out day approached, there was a wistfulness for what was being left behind. Haliburton packed his belongings in boxes, unsure which city they would be sent to next. Leaving Las Vegas was setting in. He hoped future road trips would allow him to reunite over dinner with his fellow apartment dwellers.

“It’s bittersweet in the sense of not having this deal anymore, and really go into real life,” Haliburton said. “It is crazy. But, this is what we’re all ready for.”