On Monday morning at their headquarters in Camden, three days before the NBA draft, the 76ers worked out the best player at his position in college basketball. No one seemed to care all that much, except him. He did not have an individual workout. Had his agent asked for one, the Sixers would have snickered at the audacity of such a request.
Instead, he joined five other players for a session that included a three-on-three full-court scrimmage. Most of the coaches and scouts ringing the court appeared to pay the minimum amount of attention to the action there; they commiserated with each other, glanced at their phones.
None of this bothered Angel Delgado. He knew the score when he got there Monday. He has known it at all his predraft workouts. “It’s been really fun,” he said. Delgado is 6-foot-10 and 245 pounds, solid and thick with muscle. In his senior season at Seton Hall, he scored 13.6 points and pulled down 11.8 rebounds a game, had a remarkable performance in an NCAA tournament loss to Kansas – 24 points, 23 rebounds, five assists – and won the Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Award, given by the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame to the top center in college basketball. He might have deserved the award more the previous season, when he averaged more points (15.2) and more rebounds (13.1) and shot better than 54 percent from the field.
These are the kinds of statistics and achievements and traits that once would have made Delgado a surefire NBA lottery pick. Once. But Delgado will be fortunate if a team in this year’s draft uses a late second-round pick on him. He’ll be fortunate if he’s drafted at all, because pro basketball is different now and has been for a while.
It’s no longer enough for a center to remain within a 10-foot radius of the basket, to relish the bumper-car ride among giants as they jostle to establish position, to do what Delgado did to Nana Foulland, a 6-10 center from Bucknell, during Monday’s workout: catch a pass in the post, fake to his left, and drop in a soft half-hook shot with his right hand, inspiring Foulland to punt the basketball toward the other end of the court out of frustration.
No, now a center, or any big man, has to be able to shoot from the outside. Such has been the sport’s evolution. During the 1996-97 season, for instance, NBA players who were 6-10 or taller attempted fewer than 3,000 three-pointers. Last season, they took 10,814, and the Sixers were in lockstep with the two-decade trend. Dario Saric took 399 three-pointers, second most in the league among players who were at least 6-10, and Joel Embiid took 214, the 24th most.
Over his four college seasons, Delgado took five three-pointers. He missed them all.
“It’s tough to evaluate centers who could – 10, 15, 20 years ago – be lottery picks,” said Elton Brand, the general manager of the Delaware Blue Coats, the Sixers’ affiliate in the G League. “I’m seeing that a lot. But you have to play in today’s game, and you have to have the space. You have to be able to shoot the ball. You have to be able to make reads. If you can’t do that, we can’t rank you too high.”
Since finishing his career at Seton Hall — he graduated in May with a degree in social and behavioral sciences — Delgado has been working with a personal coach to try to improve his outside shooting. Similarly, Pirates coach Kevin Willard had him practicing three-pointers and perimeter jump shots during the 2017-18 season, knowing that Delgado had to develop that ability if he were to have a lengthy pro career. But Delgado was so refined as a post player and so important to Seton Hall in that role that he had only so much time and opportunity to diversify his game.
“I keep doing what I’m doing best,” Delgado said. “You need a guy like me on a team, no matter what kind of game you play, no matter if you’re shooting five-pointers. You still need a guy to get you the ball and get you offensive rebounds. I’m getting a lot better. I’m getting a lot of shots up. But I can never forget what I do best. That’s rebound and play tough in the paint.”
There is a melancholy aspect to Delgado’s story and to his circumstances. He emigrated from the Dominican Republic in 2012; he spoke no English. Had he come to this country at another time, in another era of basketball, his size and talent would have put a world of wealth and fame at his fingertips.
“I really don’t think about that,” he said. “I feel God gave me an opportunity at this time. Millions of kids back in my country would love to be in this position that I’m in right now, so I just feel blessed and want to do my best so they can follow me as a player and person.”
He might yet have a lucrative pro career, here or overseas, but he is 23, considered old for a prospect, with less potential. His will be a harder, humbler climb. As the scrimmage Monday neared its end, a player fell to the floor, leaving a slick spot of sweat on the court. A minute passed. The coaches and scouts kept looking at their phones. Then Angel Delgado, who had been the best player at his position in college basketball, grabbed a towel, knelt, and wiped the floor.