The NBA draft is the ultimate popularity test. For months – sometimes even years – prior, eligible players are watched, studied, and analyzed, and that’s just by the industry of media experts who share their opinions for the sake of fans trying to get a jump on the next big thing.
Meanwhile, teams and their scouting staffs are doing the same thing: assessing and probing, but with the added benefit of being able to conduct interviews and workouts for draft prospects.
It all feeds into a noisy stretch of speculation where prospects' NBA readiness is expressed in pre-draft rankings to serve as talking points before the facts reveal themselves on draft night.
That’s the whirlwind a pair of well-regarded Canadians find themselves in the weeks leading up to the big night on June 23, although Andrew Nembhard and Caleb Houstan are travelling different paths.
Nembhard, 22, is the rare draft prospect who has played four years of college basketball – two at the University of Florida before his last two seasons with Gonzaga, where he was a starter on one of the best teams in the United States. Fairly or not, players who use all their college eligibility can have a hard time gaining traction in the draft as teams often bet on the unrealized promise of a teenager while a prospect just a few years older doesn’t get the same benefit of the doubt.
It's the kind of thinking that means an NBA all-star like Fred VanVleet can go undrafted, while every year players that are younger and with less of a track record get taken because teams see potential, even if the track record isn’t as impressive.
For much of Nembhard’s college career the 6-foot-5 point guard has been projected as a late second-round pick at best, even after playing basketball at Montverde Academy in Florida alongside friend and fellow Canadian RJ Barrett on one of the best high school teams in recent memory and playing a leading role at two elite Division 1 programs.
In that sense, Caleb Houstan is more typical in the ‘one-and-done’ era. The 19-year-old from Mississauga played one year at Michigan before declaring for the draft. At 6-foot-8 with a reputation as a potentially elite shooter, the early ‘mock drafts’ projected him as a top-10 pick.
But as their college season played out and Nembhard, who grew up in Vaughan, has seen his ‘stock’ rise as his senior season rolled along and the draft process has played out, while Houstan’s has fallen after a solid but otherwise ordinary freshman season at Michigan.
As a result, they’ve each arrived at roughly the same place: a candidate to be taken in the late first round or early second round, which puts them in the wheelhouse of the Toronto Raptors, who hold the 33rd pick.
Which made this past Friday a special day, as each of the Canadians got the chance to audition for the team they grew up watching at a pre-draft workout held at the OVO Athletic Centre.
“When you’re going through the process it feels so natural, but when I look back, I'm just so grateful kind of putting on his jersey,” said Nembhard. “As a kid growing up watching [Raptors] game you can’t take stuff like this for granted. Huge opportunity. I’m very, very blessed to be in this position.”
Houstan was of a similar view, recalling staying up past bedtime to watch the end of games with his brother as his love of the game was just forming.
“Just watching every night … watching DeMar DeRozan, Kyle Lowry … I was just watching for fun, not really analyzing it back then,” he said.
Both players offer something the current edition of the Raptors could use. Nembhard is a smart playmaker who can guard both guard positions and has learned how to fit in with talented lineups, having shared the floor in the past two years with 2021 No. 5 overall pick Jalen Suggs and skilled, potential 2022 No. 1 big man Chet Holmgren. He might look good on a Raptors team that could use some size at point guard and additional secondary playmaking.
Houstan – who also played his high school basketball at Montverde where he was a teammate of Raptors star rookie Scottie Barnes – has good size, projects as a good defender and has the look and mechanics of a dangerous three-point shooter. But he’s seen his projected draft position falter after shooting 35.4 per cent from deep at Michigan – a reasonable number, but not what teams drafting higher would be looking for from a player who projects as a floor-spacing wing in the NBA. Still, the Raptors need shooting, and certainly have made no secret of their appetite for 6-foot-8 wings who can guard multiple positions.
A year ago it was unlikely either player would have been a realistic choice to go high in the second round. Houstan because he was tipped to go higher, Nembhard because he was slotted lower.
Nembhard says taking the long road to the draft has helped him.
“I think you just grow up so much from freshman year to senior year,” said Nembhard, who averaged 11.8 points, 5.8 assists and 1.6 steals while shooting 38.3 per cent from three for the Bulldogs last season, all career bests. “I think you mature; my mindset is in a whole different place than in my freshman year, my body’s in a different place and I’m just more ready to take that leap … I'm much more prepared now, I’m super-excited about it.”
The way Nembhard excelled in the NCAA tournament as Gonzaga advanced to the championship game and then commanded the floor during live scrimmages at the pre-draft combine in Chicago last month has created a late buzz around him, and he’s had teams in the latter half of the first-round inviting him for workouts and interviews.
Houstan hasn’t had quite the same buzz – in part because he opted not to attend the pre-draft combine at all. But he’s just 19 and has some enticing NBA qualities and a long list of team workouts planned. A solid character with size and a sound shooting stroke will always get noticed.
But as they make their rounds, the two prospects are drawing on other skills as their big night approaches: taking pains to keep the opinions of others from creeping into their consciousness.
“Control things I can control, you know,” said Houstan, who doesn’t use social media and has avoided tracking draft projections, good or bad. “I mean, obviously those things are out there but I try to focus on myself. Try to get better every day.”
Nembhard has taken a similar approach.
“I think you just want to focus on yourself,” said Nembhard. “You want to control the controllables. You want to not worry about other people's journeys. Just worry about yourself and your pace and when your time comes and want to be ready.”