NBA Pre-Draft Workouts and Contextual Interference

NBA General Managers are easy targets because they have a tough job: they play fortune teller with often physically mature, but mentally and emotionally immature teenagers with millions of dollars at stake. However, they do not make it easy on themselves either. From a recent Ian Thomsen article:

“The postseason process when you’re kicking their tires in a private workout — the importance of that time is going to be heightened this year,” a scout said. “Just because a guy makes a couple of shots on CBS some Thursday afternoon in March, I’m not going to go by that. I’m more likely to go by what I see in the workouts.”

NBA workouts are a low contextual interference environment. NBA games are a high contextual interference environment. Therefore, does one’s performance in a workout correlate to his performance in the NBA?

Perspective NBA players train specifically for the NBA Draft workouts. They know the drills ahead of time and hire high-priced trainers to train specifically for these tests. Does one’s preparation in this environment illustrate his motivation to practice on a cold Thursday in February when his team is 11 games under .500? Will shuffling in a box illustrate his ability to stay in front of Chris Paul or Derrick Rose? Will his bench press repetition test demonstrate his ability to hold his position in the paint against Dwight Howard? Will his unguarded shooting performance in a practice gym correlate to his performance in the 4th quarter of a play-off game in a sold out Ford Center in Oklahoma City?

Just as Geno Auriemma said that players work out with personal trainers and practice and practice their skills but get in a game cannot play, NBA workouts provide only a small glimpse of an NCAA player’s readiness for the NBA. I would be far more interested in the psychological tests and personal interviews from these sessions than how well someone can shoot in a gym by himself.

NBA fans and the media often overrate a player based on his NCAA Tournament performance. This performance is the last thing in people’s mind, and the tournament is an emotional experience, so the memory sticks. However, it is just one game, and one small aspect of the overall picture. Syracuse’s Johnny Flynn skyrocketed up the draft board with his Big East and NCAA Tournament performance two years ago, and Gordon Hayward would not have been a lottery pick if Butler lost in the 1st Round. Performance over one’s NCAA career is far more telling of one’s abilities than a one or two week run in the tournament.

When evaluating players for the NBA Draft or when choosing your 12 for your high school team or when deciding who to offer a college scholarship, one game, one workout, one shot or one test should not be the deciding factor. I have yet to see a paper that shows empirically that performance in X correlates at a significant level to NBA success. What test would predict Steve Nash’s MVP performances? What physical metric would predict Kevin Love’s rebounding? How does one measure work ethic to know with certainty that a player like Russell Westbrook is going to continue to improve and improve?

At the end of the day, some guys like Jimmer Fredette or Jared Sullinger can play regardless of what the tests or measurements show because the tests used by NBA teams are incomplete at best and misleading at worst. Tests in a low contextual interference environment, just like training in a low CI environment, do not transfer or predict performance in a high CI environment.

If a scout is going to put that much emphasis on the tests, they need to develop and use better tests. Training for the NBA tests is now an art, just like the NFL combines. However, improvement and performance on these tests shows virtually nothing about one’s improvement or performance in 5v5 games because the tests do not show persistence or adaptability of the learning.

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