Choice is a powerful muscle to flex, and for a player leaving a college system that severely limits their choices, their first chance to exercise their power is by refusing to work out for teams ahead of the NBA draft. It’s like the draft version of a real-life subtweet: I don’t really want to play for your team.
On Thursday, Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge went on CBS Radio in Boston radio and said that Lonzo Ball had informed the Celtics, who own the top pick in this year’s draft, that he would not work out for them. Lonzo’s father, He-who-shall-not-be-named-in-this-blog-post, has also made it clear that his son will work out for only the Lakers, who are in a perfect spot to draft him at no. 2.
Per Chad Ford, there are multiple prospects who are refusing to work out for both the Celtics because of their "roster depth" and the Sacramento Kings because of … everything? A player’s newfound freedom to pick and choose what he does must be liberating, but how far does this flexing actually go toward determining a player’s landing in his preferred destination? We’re still nearly 30 days away from draft night, but the workout rumors have already begun to flare up. As the chess game between agents, teams, and prospects heats up, let’s take a look at some of the most notable refusals in recent history.
2016 — Ben Simmons
Leading up to the draft in 2016, there were rumors that Simmons wanted to go to the Lakers at no. 2. At first, he refused to work out for the Philadelphia 76ers, who had the first overall pick. Simmons’s stance lasted for only a week, and he eventually worked out for the team. The Sixers would go on to pick Simmons, who has yet to play a game for them due to a foot injury.
2015 — D’Angelo Russell, Kristaps Porzingis, and Jahlil Okafor
There’s a sub-theme here: Prospects have a hard time trusting the process at first. They don’t like working out for the Sixers, who have owned the real estate atop the draft over the past few years, and have forced players to grapple with the idea of playing for a team whose main goal has been losing.
In 2015, Russell skipped his pre-draft private workout with the Sixers, allegedly due to illness. Porzingis, meanwhile, could have been the pick at no. 3 for Philly, but his agent gave the Sixers nothing, not a workout, not a meeting, and not even a physical. Despite reports that his agent told them not to draft him, the Sixers still took Okafor and the rest is histo — OK, not really.
2015 — Karl-Anthony Towns
Also in 2015, Towns was expected to be taken with the no. 1 pick by Minnesota. But at first, he didn’t want to work out with the Timberwolves or the Lakers, who owned the second pick, simply interviewing with the franchises instead. Two weeks after that report, however, Towns decided he would only work out for the Wolves.
2014 — Jabari Parker
A special shout-out to Jabari Parker, who transcended the choice to work out by giving the Cavs, who had the first pick in the 2014 draft, a workout, but subsequently tanking that workout! The gall and the audacity to game the system in that way is, in retrospect, impressive. Parker went second to the Bucks, so I can’t even say that decision was influenced by his distaste for living in Cleveland, because Milwaukee doesn’t sound much better.
2009 — Steph Curry
Here’s a reminder that will send Knicks fans into a wallowing state of sadness. In 2009, Steph Curry, his dad, and his agent all wanted him to be a Knick. Imagine that.
Before Curry turned into the best shooter in the history of the league, he was coveted by the Grizzlies (who had the no. 2 pick) and the Warriors (no. 7) in that year’s draft. He and his team, hell-bent on getting him to New York, refused to work out for either team. That deterred Memphis from taking him, but not Golden State. Obligatory reminder that the Timberwolves selected Ricky Rubio and Jonny Flynn with the fifth and sixth picks, bypassing Curry. Here’s to you, David Kahn.
These are only a few of the players who have, over the years, refused to work out for teams. It’s an oft-used move that has been employed by everyone from Jimmer Fredette to Marcus Smart to Sam Dekker and Frank Kaminsky. But this situation is unique: If Lonzo wasn’t such a talked-about figure, or if a less successful team was picking first, this may not have merited a conversation at all. Yet, because it is so closely aligned with the Ball family’s staunch belief in L.A. and only L.A., the potential for a draft debacle now only grows.
As Okafor found out, denying a franchise a workout doesn’t guarantee that it won’t pick you. And like Simmons and Towns also showed, it’s clear that the power move can be only so powerful until you realize that a workout is actually in your favor.
While we analyze and scrutinize everything about top prospects, there is truly little impact that comes from a team workout unless you completely bomb it or, like Kevin Garnett did in 1995, ace it. But outright refusing to work out for the team that can offer you the honor of being the top pick in the draft and that may give you the best chance to win now and in the future is, at the very least, a quizzical move.
If Lonzo is set to work out exclusively for the Lakers, who say they want a one-on-one duel with De’Aaron Fox (seems unlikely), then he’s putting all his chips on one hand. A fitting move if he and his dad believe that Magic Johnson has no eyes for any other prospect. But if the Lakers do pass on Lonzo and he begins to tumble on the night of June 22, he’ll be left wondering if he should have his played his cards more carefully, wondering if flexing that muscle might have left him cramped instead.