Behind The Scenes of An NBA Workout
Three prospects chase the ultimate NBA dream.
by Nima Zarrabi / @NZbeFree
Members of the South Bay Spectrum were engaged in their usual Saturday routine at the West L.A. sports club on a hot Saturday afternoon in early May: pumping weights and sprinting treadmills on a picturesque beach day. Tucked away in the corner of the massive facility, a taped sign on the windowed doors of the basketball gym greeted onlookers, informing them that the hardwood was reserved and closed to the members of the gym for the afternoon.
Inside the gym, a red white and blue theme takes hold—a massive edition of the stars and stripes looms on a wall, shadowing the familiar hardwood—the court is the old floor of the L.A. Clippers. A long row of folding chairs dot the entire left side of the gym, leading to the end of the court where a back corner is sealed off by an electronic tarp, protecting a table decorated with sandwich wraps, lemonades and iced teas.
Three young ball players are scattered amid the 94 feet—two posts on the brink of 7-feet and a point guard. As media and NBA scouts enter the gym, they are handed flyers filled with biographical information on each prospect. Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak blends into the scouting crowd as he sits comfortably in a t-shirt, shorts and massive adidas sneakers in the seat closest to the door. Mark Warkentien is here representing the Knicks and everything goes into slow motion when the NBA logo glides into the room in a crispy light blue Polo sweater, everyone pretending not to stare at Jerry West.
As the NBA personnel take their seats, trainer Tyrell Jamerson emerges. The three players—Norvel Pelle, Josiah Turner and Jordan Henriquez make their way over to the row of chairs and introduce themselves to each person in attendance as their agent Gregory Nunn looks on from across the gym.
Had the NBA age minimum not been implemented, Norvel Pelle may have been a classic high school to NBA jump. Having attended three high schools as an L.A. native—Lakewood, Compton Dominguez & Price—Pelle admits he didn’t do enough work in the classroom as a high school student, and he was eventually ruled academically ineligible for college. Pelle had committed to St. John’s and with college no longer an option, he probably would have declared for the NBA Draft if the rule didn’t exist. Instead, Pelle bounced around a few prep schools with the hopes of becoming eligible the following year. This time, he committed to Iona but was again unable to meet the academic requirements necessary and headed back to L.A., attending L.A. Prep where he was coached by Michael Miller.
“It was difficult not having ball this year but it was also a learning experience,” Pelle says. “It made me mature and I also got a chance to play for L.A. Prep which got me back in the groove of playing basketball. It was a learning experience especially with coach Miller being the tough coach that he is. He brought the intensity out of me and made me work harder.”
Rather than make another run at college, the 20-year-old Pelle opted to declare for the Draft and take his chances with NBA GMs rather than the NCAA clearinghouse. “It’s something I’ve always wanted, but it was a hard decision,” Pelle explains. “I talked it over with my parents and they wanted me to do whatever I felt was best: to go straight to the NBA.”
Former Arizona point guard Josiah Turner has become a cautionary tale, but he doesn’t mind.
“I don’t want some of the younger basketball players coming up to have to go through what I went through,” Turner admits, citing his mistakes. Similar to Pelle, Turner was a highly coveted recruit in the Class of 2011 but unlike Pelle, he made it to college, but didn’t last long. Following a tumultuous freshman season for the Wildcats where he averaged about 7 points and 2 assists in 29 games and was suspended several times—including a suspension on the eve of the 2012 Pac-12 tournament—he was dismissed at the end of the season.
About a month later, he was cited for a DUI in Tucson before leaving the desert for good. After considering a transfer to SMU, Turner decided to turn pro and play overseas for a season before making the jump to the NBA. That led the PG to stints in Hungary and National Basketball League of Canada during the past year— experiences that he believes have made him stronger.
“It’s been a rocky road,” Turner explains. “I started off in Hungary. I was in a bad environment over there and my agent advised me to leave and that led me to Halifax in Canada. I went there to play for Cliff Livingston. We started off the year bad and he ended up getting fired within the first four or five games. The next coach that came in, we didn’t really bond like that. He was a slow-it-down type coach that wanted a walk-it-up point guard. Me and the coach decided to part ways and then I went to Summerside. Out there it was nothing but basketball. I was in a very small town and the people there were great. Being there helped mature me a lot.”
In April, Turner reached a plea agreement in his DUI case and returned to Tucson—serving two days in jail as part of his arrangement.
Of the three prospects working out in front of the scouts, the player who attended four years of college is the least coveted in the group. Standing at 6-11 and 250 pounds, Jordan Henriquez had a fine four-year career at Kansas State, averaging roughly 5 points, 5 rebounds and 2 blocks this past season as a senior, in about 16 minutes of action per game. At 23 years old, he still needs to develop his body in the weight room but has nice shot-blocking skills and is more athletic than people give him credit for.
The scouts have come to see Pelle and Turner, but Henriquez is an interesting prospect in his own right, with good size and potential upside—every scout in the building will take a long look at the towering post.
The workout begins with the players sprinting full court in a dance called the three-man-weave. The big men stride as fast as they can, the drill finishing with ferocious dunks from Turner. Pelle and Henriquez glide up and down the floor with as few dribbles as possible, dunking from end to end, switching hands and rattling the rims on each side of the court. Pelle is impressive—agile and fast with incredible length and athleticism. He uses his left hand so much on dunks, I begin to wonder if he’s a southpaw—he’s not. “I do work on my left hand quite a bit,” he tells me afterward. “I always wanted to be left-handed but it never happened for me! I just wanted to be different I guess—now it’s going to work out as a big advantage for me.”
Pelle’s lithe 6-11, 213-pound frame looks cyclist thin as a spandex blue top hangs on his limbs. Henriquez surprises me with his speed, athleticism and motor—his body doesn’t have the same sinewy strands as Pelle, but he has a great base to build on in the weight room—one serious year in an NBA strength and conditioning program could transform him. With the players warm, Jamerson goes through half court drills, having each player come off of curls, shooting jumpers.
Pelle has a nice long stroke, releasing at a high point and getting good lift on his jumpers. Jamerson has him showcase his range, Pelle stepping out to the NBA three-point line and showing a consistent ability to knock down triples—could he become a stretch 4, perhaps?
Henriquez—a true southpaw—has a decent jumper out to 15 feet and even showed scouts some deeper range, moving to the top of the key to about 22 feet, where he went 3-10. At that range, Henriquez’s spin from his lefty rotation stands out, but he is fearless and keeps at it. As he peels off jumpers, I hear a scout mumble, “If we could just put those shoulders on Norvel’s body, we’d have something.”
The players begin to run P&R’s at the top of the key with Turner pulling the string as distributor. At 6-3, 200 pounds, he has a prototypical point guard build with a dose of violent athleticism. Soon enough, Turner is shirtless and his tattooed torso and volt shorts are glistening with sweat as he drives to the hole finishing with powerful dunks, over and over again, showcasing his unbelievable lungwind. Both Nunn and Jamerson rave about Turner’s talent and work ethic.
“Josiah has the most talent, when you look at him he just looks the part,” Nunn says. “They say, ‘Are you better than your problems?’ He’s 20 years old, he’s young and he knows he’s messed up a lot. He’s going to do well in the workouts. The most important thing is how he interviews, he has to convince the Lakers and the Knicks that he’s changed. He’s gotten in some trouble, but he’s a good kid. That’s the most important thing he needs to show.”
Jamerson has worked with Turner on improving his jump shot, working his muscle memory to ensure his release point is similar each time he shoots. “At the next level, you need consistency,” Jamerson explains. “So that’s what we work on. Consistency—the same shot every time. But make no mistake about it, this kid is one of the elite point guards in this Draft.”
Former NBA assistant coach Jim Cleamons—who also dropped by the workout for a look—says teams get the most out of watching players with a similar skill set go up against each other, head to head. “In a setting like this, you’re looking for endurance and if they can follow directions well,” he says. “You want to see what skills they’ve mastered—you know they’re not going to make everything but you want to see baskets at a measurable rate.”
When it comes to running the point, Cleamons notes that all the athleticism and quickness in the world is great, but the best PGs can stop and pop, or kick out. “Come game time, the defense steps up and you won’t be able to get to the cup like that,” Cleamons explains. “If you beat your defender, most of the time you need to stop and get a shot off before you get to the trees.”
While Turner will have to prove to NBA teams that he has matured, Pelle remains an enigma due to his lack of college run. The skills are clearly there, but untested. His combination of size and skill is very intriguing—there could be so much upside to his future. Jamerson fully believes the sky’s the limit as far as Norvel’s potential, nicknaming him the “Young Ticket” a nod to his belief that he possesses KG-type talent. Nunn believes if Pelle and Kentucky freshman Nerlens Noel were on the same court competing, scouts would see similar players.
“We’re talking about two great players, so it’s not a knock on anybody,” Nunn says. “Norvel is an enigma cause high school doesn’t mean much to NBA guys. Listen, if we were still drafting players out of high school we wouldn’t know if they could do it either. Let him match up against the Cody Zeller’s of the world, let them both run the floor and sprint. He’s not going to run from anybody, he’ll match up with anyone in the country. At the end of the day, it’s all about what you do against competition.”
After Jamerson runs the players through drills for about 45 minutes, the workout ends with free throws and the NBA personnel scatter. The players try to track down everyone in the gym to thank them for coming. West shakes a few hands and disappears immediately—Kupchak is nowhere to be found. With the gym nearly empty, Turner shoots layups with a backpack strapped to his chest and slides on his feet.
“It’s mind boggling to have gone what I’ve gone through and then do something like this,” says a giddy Turner. “Seeing Jerry West here, I was like, Wow. As I watch Turner continue with the Mikan drill, one of Pelle’s family members approaches me. We talk about Norvel ‘s showing before he finally states his purpose. “So, what do you think,” he asks, a massive smile on his face. “First round?”
Twelve NBA teams showed up for the workout, a great turnout considering the first round of the Playoffs was in session. A few days after the group session, Henriquez and Turner are invited to workout for the Lakers. “The Lakers bringing me in made me feel real good,” Turner says. “The hard work is paying off but I’m just staying in the gym, being repetitive.”
Buzz builds throughout the League on Pelle, earning him one of the coveted 63 spots at the NBA Pre-Draft camp in Chicago. He is fully aware that he must continue to work on his game, improving his handle and gaining weight. “I just want to play my role, I think I can be a 3-man or a stretch 4 in the NBA,” he says. “I just want to get in and do what I need to do. My goal is to get up to 225 pounds and still be lean and fast.”
All three prospects still face an uphill battle come Draft day. Henriquez is likely a camp invite and you never now what can happen when you wait on bigs. Roy Hibbert’s emergence this year will surely be seen as an inspirational rise for players like Jordan and other posts. Turner is a great candidate for a second-round pick, a potential high reward type prospect teams may be willing to gamble a non-guaranteed deal on.
As for Pelle, he has the best chance at sneaking into the first round on upside, but it’s a long shot. He understands the odds, but he’s confident. He laughs when I ask him about his plans for the Draft. “I want to be in the green room,” he says, sternly. “That’s my plan.”