With the 2009-10 college basketball season officially over, it's time for NBA teams to ratchet up their process of evaluating the top players in June's draft.
While studying potential NBA players is a 12-month grind that takes scouts around the country (and, these days, the globe), the next two months is the home stretch of a year's worth of work. How well these scouts, NBA front-office "foot soldiers," have evaluated players will determine whether a team (depending on where it selects) will end up with a solid NBA player, a potential All-Star or a bust.
Having been around basketball for 30 years as a coach and a broadcaster, I have watched many NBA scouts in action. As in any business, some of them work harder than others, some possess greater basketball acumen, and each has different experiences that they bring to an organization's decision-making process. Here are some of the key factors that should help you evaluate the evaluators.
1. Knowledge of the league
The biggest eye-opener for me about the NBA was the half-season I advance-scouted for the New York Knicks in 1999. After being around college basketball for 20 years and helping 18 players get to the NBA, I was still stunned at the level of athleticism and ability in the NBA compared to college. It would be like learning Spanish and Portuguese. The languages may look similar, but they sound completely different.
It doesn't matter how much college basketball a scout watches if he isn't constantly studying the NBA. Guys have told me that it takes three years to truly know the NBA. That's why many general managers make their college scouts take in two or three NBA games a month to stay current.
You have to be able to scout from inside the NBA out. You must understand the size, strength and length at each NBA position and how a college player's athleticism will translate to the league. In addition, finding out how a player's skill level for his position compares to similar-sized winning players in the NBA in critical.
West Virginia's Joe Alexander, drafted by the Milwaukee Bucks with the eighth pick in the first round in 2008, has had a rough adjustment to the league. He came in with a reputation as an excellent athlete at 6-foot-8, but if you watched him closely at WVU, he scored mostly inside against smaller players in the Big East. He posted up in Bob Huggins' five-man motion offense and jumped over people.
Now, Alexander's perceived strength has been negated in his first two NBA seasons by the level of athleticism he sees every night (when he plays). He doesn't possess the skill level to play away from the hoop at his height as a small forward, nor the size and strength to play near the basket. Recently traded to the Chicago Bulls, Alexander's NBA career is in no-man's land because the Bucks didn't correctly evaluate his game.
2. A relentless work ethic
Every September that I was a college head coach, I would get a call from current Denver Nuggets general manager Mark Warkentein. He had been a relentless recruiter in his day for Jerry Tarkanian at UNLV, and the work ethic carried over when he got to the NBA.
Warkentein just wanted to know whether there were any potential NBA prospects on my team or in my conference. He called every school out of more than 300 in Division I. I don't recall anyone else making those calls. Did his work ethic uncover a player no one else would have found? I don't know, but I am sure that, because of his detective skills, he created good will with college coaches who might be willing to give him information on prospects that would prove useful closer to the draft.
Because knowledge is power in NBA scouting, a good talent evaluator must be willing to watch one more tape, make one more phone call and watch one more game in person, often in out-of-the-way places other scouts wouldn't bother getting to.
One night, I showed up to watch Cal State Fullerton, with an under-the-radar sophomore at the time, Bobby Brown, play at Kansas State the night before I was to broadcast a Kansas game. It was a chance to see a talented young guard play on the road at a Big 12 school. But K-State's campus is a hard place to get to. I filed away the fact that the only scout at the game that night was the Spurs' Sam Presti. It's not a coincidence that the Spurs and, now, the Oklahoma City Thunder have done a good job of digging up prospects who seem to hide in plain sight. That's not an accident.
The more knowledge they accumulate, the more effective NBA scouts should be. Conversely, there have been occasions where I've seen NBA scouts slip out of a college game early because the local Ruth's Chris Steak House was closing at 10 p.m. As I sat courtside, I thought to myself, "If their general manager only knew."
3. A dispassionate eye for talent
A good scout should take emotion out of the evaluation process and, instead, have a dispassionate, clinical idea of a player's strengths and weaknesses. A preconceived notion of a player's ability can hurt an evaluation.
The Dallas Mavericks mistakenly passed on Louisiana Tech's Karl Malone in the 1985 NBA draft but did draft a very solid NBA player in Washington's Detlef Schrempf. Still, they heard about it from their fans. So, they thought they could redeem themselves when they drafted Randy White, a supposed Malone clone from Louisiana Tech with the eighth pick in 1989. The emotion of passing on Malone, originally, clouded their judgment the second time around. White scored 34,845 fewer points in his NBA career.
As much of a local hero as Gordon Hayward has become in Indianapolis this season, it will be very enticing for the Indiana Pacers to grab the Butler star with their first-round pick, if he stays in the draft. It would be a great storybook ending for the young man whose high school team won a state championship in the Pacers' Conseco Fieldhouse as a senior. Just don't count on it happening.
Larry Bird and his scouting staff will take the player most likely to help the Pacers win games, and he'll take emotion out of the decision-making process. Putting together a quality roster leaves no time for sentiment, and for that reason alone, Hayward will be scrutinized even more closely if he's available.
4. Sound basketball knowledge
The better a scout knows the game, the easier the evaluation process becomes for him. He must understand how coaches develop players and their skills. They must understand how a player fits into a coach's system and whether that player can learn the skills necessary to become a productive NBA player.
Wesley Matthews went undrafted out of Marquette last season but now starts for the Utah Jazz. He played in a high-profile league, the Big East, started all four seasons and is the son of a former NBA player. Every NBA team must have seen him at least 50 times during his career. How did everyone miss? While he fell through the cracks, the Jazz gave him an opportunity to play for their summer league team, and he was invited to training camp in the fall and made the roster. Someone did his homework and got a little lucky as well.
Here's what I think happened. Matthews came out of a college program that valued work ethic and execution, two traits that have been part of the Jazz culture under coach Jerry Sloan for over two decades. The Golden Eagles play a lot of screen-and-roll basketball out of a lot of different sets. Matthews was already ingrained in an NBA offensive system.
Secondly, while Matthews shared the spotlight with two other outstanding senior guards, Jerel McNeal and Dominic James, he ended up eighth on the all-time scoring list in Marquette history. In addition, he became the school's all-time leader in free throws made, a sign that, as a 6-5 guard, he relishes the contact that is part of NBA basketball.
It's possible that Matthews' skills weren't a fit for many teams. But what Matthews did well made him a good fit for Sloan's "execution culture." Credit the Jazz for finding that fit.
Ultimately, for all of the time and effort that goes into evaluating players for an NBA team, it comes down to "How does that player help you win?" Great talent, obviously, helps you win, but even some talented players don't understand what goes into winning. Finding players who love basketball, not just the trappings of the NBA, is critical.