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Why 40 NBA draft hopefuls are in Pasco County this weekend

Players from North Carolina, Illinois and Arizona are among those auditioning for pro teams in Wesley Chapel.
Giorgi Bezhanishvili slams down a dunk during the first day of the three-day Tampa Bay Pro Combine, a gathering of more than 40 professional basketball hopefuls at the Wiregrass Ranch Sports Campus of Pasco County.
Giorgi Bezhanishvili slams down a dunk during the first day of the three-day Tampa Bay Pro Combine, a gathering of more than 40 professional basketball hopefuls at the Wiregrass Ranch Sports Campus of Pasco County. [ SCOTT PURKS | Special to the Times ]
Published Jun. 4
Updated Jun. 4

WESLEY CHAPEL — The idea for the Tampa Bay area’s latest big sporting event started with Darryl Hepburn’s phone.

The former Leto High basketball star’s April memories reminded him that he would normally be in Portsmouth, Va., as part of the NBA draft buildup. With the Portsmouth Invitational Tournament draft showcase canceled for the second year in a row because of the pandemic, Hepburn saw an opening —one Pasco County could fill.

“From there,” Hepburn said, “it turned into this.”

This was the Tampa Bay Pro Combine, a three-day showcase at the Wiregrass Ranch Sports Campus of Pasco County.

The facility off State Road 56 is geared toward youth sports (it hosted a cheerleading practice during the combine’s first day) and 100 miles from the nearest full-time NBA arena. If that seems like a random place for 40 NBA hopefuls to be auditioning eight weeks before the draft, it isn’t.

“That was the starting point,” said Matt Babcock, a draft analyst who co-chaired the player selection committee.

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Hepburn already had a relationship with AdventHealth Sports Arena, the campus’ sparkling 98,000-square-foot building that opened in August. The location — in a successful sports market that hosted the Raptors this season — was easy to get to. And the facility’s weight room, training area and eight high-quality courts gave event organizers everything they’d need.

Except people.

More than 40 professional basketball hopefuls attended the Tampa Bay Pro Combine at the Wiregrass Ranch Sports Campus of Pasco County.
More than 40 professional basketball hopefuls attended the Tampa Bay Pro Combine at the Wiregrass Ranch Sports Campus of Pasco County. [ SCOTT PURKS | Special to the Times ]

Babcock and ESPN analyst Fran Fraschilla compiled a list of players who won’t be lottery picks but are still good enough to play in either the NBA, G League or internationally.

Jahvon Blair and Chudier Bile led Georgetown to the Big East title. Grand Canyon’s Asbjorn Midtgaard had the nation’s top field goal percentage (70.7). Cameron Krutwig was the Missouri Valley’s player of the year and a starter during Loyola’s historic Final Four run in 2018, and Oldsmar Christian product Troy Baxter was an all-conference forward at Morgan State.

Former Illini forward Giorgi Bezhanishvili was training by himself in Champaign, Ill., when his agent called to tell him about the opportunity. Five days later, he was cheering on his competitors as they ran through agility drills on a back court.

“I didn’t know a lot about it, but I came here,” Bezhanishvili said. “I wanted to use the opportunity to maximize my showcase and just have fun.”

Former Illinois forward Giorgi Bezhanishvili slams down a dunk during the first day of the three-day Tampa Bay Pro Combine.
Former Illinois forward Giorgi Bezhanishvili slams down a dunk during the first day of the three-day Tampa Bay Pro Combine. [ SCOTT PURKS | Special to the Times ]

While fun would be nice, the biggest motivating factor for everyone involved is exposure.

The Pasco Tourist Development Council spent $50,000 to become the event’s title sponsor in hopes of drawing more attention to the area’s growing sports scene. For players, this was one of the first real combine events since the coronavirus shutdown last March.

In-person scouting is still limited, so organizers worked around it. Players went through the same kind of speed and agility testing as they would at the draft combine to give front offices reliable, laser-timed measurables.

Because NBA executives wouldn’t be sitting courtside, the event streamed games through a basketball broadcast platform (thesuvtv.com) and used a scouting service (InStat) to help teams evaluate players virtually.

“Eyes are still on you all the time,” Krutwig said.

For Krutwig, that meant a chance to show off his slimmer 6-foot-9 frame. Bezhanishvili wanted to prove that he can dribble and pass better than what he showed off the bench at Illinois.

“I’ve got to give it my all,” Baxter said. “Because this is going to be a life-changing deal for me, you know, if everything goes exactly as planned.”

Oldsmar Christian product Troy Baxter was one of the 40 pro basketball prospects at the Tampa Bay Pro Combine.
Oldsmar Christian product Troy Baxter was one of the 40 pro basketball prospects at the Tampa Bay Pro Combine. [ SCOTT PURKS | Special to the Times ]

If everything goes exactly as planned for Baxter, he’ll use this event to play his way onto NBA teams’ draft boards.

And if everything goes exactly as planned for the combine, it will rival the success of the Portsmouth tournament, which produces a handful of draft picks most years, and become a permanent fixture of the pre-draft process.

“I think the city wants it,” Hepburn said. “I think the timing is perfect. Hopefully we can pull this one off and do great with this one, and we’ll have it for the next 10-20 years.”