From Justice to Bamba: Behind the pre-draft scenes with 4 NBA hopefuls

Jun 20, 2018, 3:45 PM
Mo Bamba, a projected lottery pick, has made significant changes to his shot and body this offseaso...
Mo Bamba, a projected lottery pick, has made significant changes to his shot and body this offseason in preparation for the NBA Draft. (Photo by Jack Harris/Cronkite News)
(Photo by Jack Harris/Cronkite News)

PHOENIX — Kodi Justice didn’t sulk on the end of his college basketball career for very long. There wasn’t much time to spare before the beginning of his professional one.

Like hundreds of other players in the sport, Justice, who graduated from Arizona State this year after four seasons as a Sun Devil, has fixed his focus this summer on transitioning to the next level. Like many, he’s spent the weeks since the end of the season transfixed on nothing but basketball, trying to best position himself for the next phase of his career.

Thursday’s NBA Draft will be the official starting point for 60 players’ professional careers. Plenty more will sign with teams — in the NBA, the G-League, an international league or otherwise — in the weeks and months that follow.

Dreams will come true. Hopes will be realized. Salaries will — finally, for many — be earned.

For the players prepping to turn pro, the three months leading up to this week have represented one of the most significant periods in their basketball lives. They’ve signed agents, performed at combines, worked out for NBA teams and had a final chance to perfect their games and raise their profiles.

And no two players’ path to the draft and beyond are exactly alike.

“I don’t think anyone can expect it to go a certain way,” Justice said of the pre-draft process. “It’s such an unknown.”

Cronkite News went behind the scenes with four different players (Justice, Texas’ Mo Bamba, Arizona’s Rawle Alkins and George Washington’s Yuta Watanabe) who are eligible for Thursday’s NBA Draft, four players with distinct backgrounds and varying potentials to uncover the process of they’ve prepared for professional basketball.

Kodi Justice: The Local Product

Basketball has never taken Justice too far from home.

The Mesa-born guard and lifelong Sun Devils fan had a standout prep career at Dobson High School before signing with Arizona State. During his four years in Tempe, Justice became one of the faces of ASU’s burgeoning program under coach Bobby Hurley.

His career culminated with his lone trip to the NCAA Tournament this March when Syracuse eliminated ASU in the First Four. He was back on the floor four days later, quickly getting his offseason regimen underway.

“I didn’t take a long time like some people do,” he said. “The end of the season was tough, the way it ended, so I was ready to get going.”

Kodi Justice became a face of ASU basketball during his career in Tempe. He is hoping to continue playing in a professional league. (Photo by Jack Harris/Cronkite News)

Justice’s offseason work has been based in the Valley, too. He’s in the gym — often on campus at ASU’s Weatherup Center practice facility — Monday through Friday, doing as many as three separate sessions on the floor per day to fine-tune his game.

In addition to typical strength training, Justice has also incorporated yoga into his offseason program, prioritizing core strength and flexibility.

He’s doing it all with a singular goal in mind.

“I want to keep playing basketball,” he said.

Despite being a 1,000-point scorer in college, Justice does not project to be drafted on Thursday night. He’ll instead likely sign his first professional contract as an undrafted free agent. Right now, he’s anxiously awaiting to find out which teams, either in the NBA or internationally, will show serious interest.

“I’m sitting here almost playing the waiting game because it’s such an unknown thing, what’s going on, what’s happening,” he said. “It’s tough. It’s a process, though.”

Eric Fleisher, Justice’s agent, tried to drum up interest in the 6-foot-5 combo guard who averaged over 12 points per game and shot 38 percent on 3-pointers last season. He sent highlight tapes to all 30 NBA teams as well as “every overseas team,” Justice said, who worked out for the Phoenix Suns and Sacramento Kings but isn’t positive when contract offers might start coming in.

“You definitely believe in yourself and your talent and you think you can play places but you never know,” he said. “There’s so many different… It’s luck, there’s opportunities people know. It’s just different.”

In the meantime, Justice has tried to refine his game. He’s gone back to practicing as a point guard, something he did early in his college career before transitioning into a scoring role on the wing. He’s also striving to become more consistent in all facets.

“Becoming consistent as a basketball player, that’s probably the hardest thing for anybody, especially being young, being fresh out of college and all that,” he said.

The silver lining: Justice has had no distraction from the game.

“I can focus everything on basketball,” he said. “It’s easier in a basketball standpoint but it also makes it difficult because you’re working harder. It’s all a mindset of, ‘how much work do you want to put in to see how good you can become?’

“That’s been the biggest difference (from college), being able to completely focused on basketball.”

Mo Bamba: The Lottery Pick

Mo Bamba has been getting groomed for his draft night for years now. He’s patiently waited for his promising professional career to begin.

Since high school — when his prestigious prep school, Westtown, was the subject of a Sports Illustrated series and video documentary — Bamba has been the equivalent of basketball royalty for his age group, ranked as one of the best players in the country and always on the fast-track to a one-and-done college career and high NBA Draft selection.

Bamba is a basketball specimen, a mobile 7-footer who can play on the perimeter and while also being a terrorizing rim protector thanks to a 7-foot-10 wingspan, the widest ever recorded at the NBA Combine.

It hasn’t stopped him from embarking on a rigorous pre-draft program this summer.

Bamba was productive in his lone collegiate season with Texas. He averaged a double-double and rejected the second-most shots per game in the country. But in the NBA, he wants to be more, the type of player who can “block a shot and then take two dribbles and lead the break and find a guard.”

He wants to do things on the court people haven’t seen big men do before.

So in the last three months, Bamba — with the help of a team of trainers and experts — has completely retooled his shot and remade his body. They are adjustments he has wanted to make for awhile, he said, going all the way back to his days at Westtown. The pre-draft process finally afforded him the time and freedom to make wholesale changes.

Mo Bamba is one of the hundreds of players who have spent the summer preparing to embark on professional basketball. (Photo by Jack Harris/Cronkite News)

Bamba has worked with closely with shooting guru Drew Hanlen the last several months, getting on the hardwood as often as six days a week. As Bamba explained after a pre-draft workout with the Suns earlier this month, he’s made three fundamental improvements to his stroke: his shooting angle, elbow placement and landing spot.

“It’s a lot,” he said, chuckling.

The angle of his release, which he calls the “three-point angle” from his hip bone to his armpit to his elbow, underwent a particularly drastic alteration. When he started his work with Hanlen, Bamba said that angle was 122 degrees. Now, he says he releases the ball at a 105-degree angle, change that, while almost unnoticeable to the untrained eye, has made a “night and day difference,” he said.

Acclaimed NBA strength trainer Amoila Cesar, meanwhile, has gone to work on molding Bamba’s frame. He crafted a routine designed to bulk the slender big man up from 214 pounds to 235 by draft night.

“One of the biggest things was putting some meat on those bones,” Cesar told Cronkite News.

Almost every aspect of Bamba’s regimen has been scripted. His normal day starts at 8 a.m., Bamba putting up shots under Hanlen’s guidance for two hours. That’s followed by 90 minutes in the weight room with Cesar, then a video session to evaluate his workouts (Cesar said everything Bamba does on the floor or the weight room is taped), then back to the court for more work on his shooting and defensive skills.

“He’s very consistent with getting in the gym,” Cesar said. The kid’s a workaholic. He hates missing days in the gym. He just works out like crazy.”

On top of his offseason program, most of which has been based out of St. Bernard High School in Los Angeles, Bamba has flown around the country, crisscrossing the map to go to the NBA Combine in Chicago, team workouts in Phoenix, Atlanta, Dallas, and Chicago, among others, and   New York this week to attend the draft.

No surprise, Cesar said Bamba has worn down at times amid his jam-packed schedule.

“There were days he would come in and was just physically exhausted, sick,” Cesar said. “And he would still have an amazing workout. … He doesn’t use that as an excuse, but as trainers, we pay a lot of attention to them. That’s a lot of work for these guys.”

Cesar called Bamba’s pre-draft process the “hardest 80 or 90 days he’s gone through in his entire life of basketball.”

Cesar is confident the work will pay dividends, that Bamba — expected to be among the first five selections on Thursday — will be prepared to enter the league right away.

Added Cesar: “This guy, I promise you, will be one of the best-conditioned guys coming in and just well put-together.”

Rawle Alkins: The Sleeper

Each year in the draft, there are sleepers. Players picked outside the lottery that quickly develop into capable contributors in the NBA.

Arizona guard Rawle Alkins fits in that category this year.

As a prospect, Alkins checks a lot of boxes. He’s blessed with raw athleticism to go along with an imposing 6-foot-5 frame. As a guard, he has impressive defensive tools and managed to score over 13 points per game last year with the Wildcats despite battling injuries and inconsistency.

This offseason, his stock has been on the rise thanks to impressive performances at pre-draft workouts, the NBA Combine and a pro day with his agency, Impact Basketball.

Arizona guard Rawle Alkins (1) drives on Arizona State guard Tra Holder during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Thursday, Feb. 15, 2018, in Tempe, Ariz. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)

Longtime NBA trainer Joe Abunassar is the president of Impact and has led Alkins’ offseason training program. He saw Alkins’ potential right away and has been making productive tweaks since their work together began in early April.

“The first thing we did, he was carrying a little too much upper body weight,” Abunassar said. “It was in muscle so it wasn’t like he was out of shape or overweight. We really just had to get his hips and his lower body really working and stronger, more explosive.”

Abunassar is something of an expert with the pre-draft process. This is his 22nd year training players for the draft. He’s learned what teams are looking for in prospects.

“The pre-draft process is pretty routine from year-to-year,” he said. “We have a really good idea of what exactly the teams are looking for and we address that with a guy like Rawle. The big thing in the NBA is, there are certain things you have to be able to do. They are switching everything; you have to be able to make open shots.”

Like Justice and Bamba, Alkins is on the court and in the weight room almost every day. He follows a strict diet too, consuming a meal plan that Abunassar said “was designed for him.” They are all necessary sacrifices.

“It’s a full-time job for these guys,” Abunassar said.

One of Alkins’ early workouts this summer was with the Suns. That day, he said he was approaching his impending NBA career with a “defensive mentality.” A lot of the work he’s done with Abunassar has focused on defense too. Abunnsar thinks its where Alkins provides the most value to NBA teams.

“I’m proving myself, that I can be a defender and guard the top guys in the NBA,” Alkins said.

At Impact, Alkins has been surrounded by other promising and soon-to-be-drafted NBA prospects. Working out in Los Angeles, he’s worked with Texas A&M’s D.J. Hogg and UNLV’s Brandon McCoy. At Impact’s pro day in Las Vegas, Alkins wowed during live three-on-three scrimmaging.

Group sessions have revealed his elite athleticism, a trait Abunassar said is a “bonus” for Alkins, who is projected as high as an early second-round pick.

“I think he becomes a guy who is very, very versatile. If you’re looking for a guy on your bench that can come in and do multiple things, I think he can do that,” Abunassar said. “That’s really what we focused on: ‘No team is going to draft you to be their primary scorer right now. So can you come in, can you defend, can you rebound, can you hit open shots?’ Those are the type of things teams are going to be looking for from him.”

Yuta Watanabe: The Chosen One

It was a phone call from Jere Quinn, a respected high school coach at St. Thomas More in Connecticut, that connected George Washington University with Yuta Watanabe more than four years ago.

Watanabe had been in the United States for less than two years when GWU first saw him as a high school prospect. Its coaching staff was impressed with the versatile 6-9 wing’s potential, so it offered him. Now, four years later, Watanabe is on his way to professional basketball. He could make history if he reaches the NBA.

Yuta Watanabe is hoping to reach the NBA, where he could become the second Japanese player to ever play in the league. (Photo by Jack Harris/Cronkite News)

Watanabe, who was born in Kagawa, Japan, could become just the second Japanese player ever to make it to the NBA. In this country, he is something of an overlooked prospect who will likely go undrafted despite being the Defensive Player of the Year in the Atlantic 10 Conference and leading GWU in scoring last year.

But in his native country, Watanabe carries the weight of the nation’s basketball community. He’s been tagged with the nickname, “The Chosen One.”

GWU coach Maurice Joseph has been at the school for all of Watanabe’s collegiate career, first as an assistant before being promoted to head coach two years ago. He said Watanabe had the next level in mind every step of the way.

“That was something that was always in the plans,” Joseph said. “Early on, he had the tools that were visible that you could tell that he could be special if certain things happened. A lot of those things did happen.”

Watanabe began making sacrifices from an early age. He made the move from Japan to the United States before his junior year of high school. Once in college, Joseph said he stayed on campus every summer, taking classes while continuing his work on the court. In his four years at GWU, Joseph remembers Watanabe going home on his own just once — and that was to play for the Japanese National Team.

“He really put in the work to be at the point he’s at now,” Joseph said.

Though he played at a mid-major school and largely out of the national spotlight, Watanabe has been tagged with lofty expectations in his home country. After his first full season as a starter in 2015-16, GWU went on an offseason foreign trip to Japan. Joseph was stunned at how the promising, yet still developing, Watanabe was received.

“It was amazing. You’d think LeBron James had walked into a building, how much they loved him,” Joseph said. “He was always humbled and reserved about the attention he was getting. He wasn’t the guy that thrives for the limelight.”

It was around that time that Joseph remembers Watanabe making a breakthrough, especially on the defensive end. In a 2016 NIT game against Monmouth, Watanabe held Monmouth’s leading scorer, Justin Robinson (who averaged over 19 points per game that season) to a 2-of-16 shooting performance. Watanabe was an all-conference defender in the two years since.

“He just developed a really great knack for the defensive end,” Joseph said, a skill he thinks will help Watanabe thrive in the pros. “He has a wide spectrum of defensive abilities that a lot of people typically don’t have. I think it translates well. … He’s going to be fine no matter where he plays.”

Watanabe’s pre-draft process has been unusual, too. He is still living in a dorm on campus at GWU and working with the program’s assistant coaches. Aside from the inclusion of some NBA vocabulary and drills, his work this offseason hasn’t differed much from past years.

“This is his home base,” Joseph said.

The travel has been brutal. Watanabe wasn’t invited to the NBA Combine. Instead, he attended the league’s Global Camp in Italy earlier this month, an experience he recently described as “amazing.”

Joseph said that Watanabe returned home from Italy for a day-and-a-half before immediately hitting the road again to do a tour of pre-draft workouts with NBA teams. Last week, he worked out for Indiana on Wednesday before jetting out to Phoenix 24 hours later.

“It’s hard to travel. It’s not easy,” he said. “I’m really (grateful) for this opportunity because not a lot of people can get this opportunity. I’m really happy that I’m in the situation I’m in. I just want to do whatever it takes.”

The only other Japanese player in NBA history, Yuta Tabuse, played for the Suns in 2004. Though Tabuse’s NBA career only lasted four games, Watanabe remembers watching him on television, screaming with excitement. Watanabe is hoping he can carve out a career of his own in world’s top league.

His path to get there would be as unique as any.

“He’s a hell of a player,” Joseph said. “Shoot, I wish he had another year (of college). I could use him.”

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From Justice to Bamba: Behind the pre-draft scenes with 4 NBA hopefuls