Chris Wallace 2007 Draft Q&A - Part I

With the draft lottery quickly approaching, talked to Celtics General Manager Chris Wallace about all things draft in a wide-ranging interview that covered everything from international scouting, the draft and workout process, how the Celtics evaluate potential draft picks to actual evaluations of several of the top prospects in this years draft.

Wallace has been directly involved in the NBA Draft for the past 20 years with six different NBA teams, and has a wealth of insight into how the system has evolved over the past two decades. For the last 10 years, he's racked up plenty of frequent flier miles traveling between Boston and outposts all over the world scouting amateur and professional talent alike, and he's as dialed in as anybody when it comes to the NBA's talent evaluation process.

In Part I of the Q&A, we'll talk to Wallace about the changing face of draft workouts, why they are so critical to NBA teams and potential draft picks, how the recent rule changes and age restriction have changed both the college and international game, and why this year's draft is thinner than usual with respect to international talent. We also dove into how teams evaluate players from different levels of competition, and the challenges of evaluating young international talents who often get "hidden" by their professional teams.

Chris Wallace

Thanks for sitting down with me today, Chris. So what kind of work goes into a draft like this? Certainly everybody knows about the top two guys, but when you know you're going to be picking in the top five, does that change your approach at all?

"This is a very long process. I don't want to overemphasize it, but it's sort of like a law school student preparing for the bar. You don't do that in the month before the test. Most of these players, we've been watching them for years. But for this particular draft, we start off in November doing draft scouting, which consists of International and American college players. So you're not only scouting for a 1-5 pick, but also a second rounder. But you don't know when you go out in November at that point in time where your picks are going to eventually lie, so you go out to see the whole field, and obviously as the season goes on, and you judge how your team is faring, you'll adjust things accordingly. At the same time, you don't say to yourself, 'we're going to be in the top five' and just eliminate the rest of the players. It takes a great deal of traveling to see all of those players.

How much of NBA scouting is done in person versus on tape?

"We've seen virtually every player that gets drafted; somebody will have seen them at least one time in person, and in most cases it's multiple times. We've gone after guys who we did not see in person, for example like Dirk Nowitzki, although Rick Pitino did have a workout with him. That's not the way you'd prefer. If you just see someone on tape, that can be a risky evaluation. You need to see the players a minimum of at least once, and in an ideal situation three or four times in person. Once you've seen them in person and get a feel for their actual size, skill level, athleticism and intangibles, that first-hand view, then you can you do your follow-up scouting on tape.

As far as the process of narrowing it down at the end of the season when you have an idea of where you're going to draft, is it simply a process of "these are our top 10, 15 guys?"

"No, there's no real hard and fast number right now. I mean at some point, there's a cutoff. We'll see on May 22 where we line up in the first round, and that'll determine where we put our focus, not only in your tape evaluation, but also how many players you bring in for workouts. And quite frankly, for the teams that finish one or two in this lottery, I would anticipate that there won't be workouts for those players. I would imagine those players will just go and interview."

The rules have changed with the workouts...What's your take on the whole process and where it's heading?

"Well, it's made for a very condensed period. We're allowed to start working them out on June 5, the draft is June 28, and you generally don't work people out that day, so let's just say you went up to June 27, that's 22 days. So you have to be really organized and target who you're going after [for workouts]."

And there's a lot of politics as far as getting guys to work out, who they'll work out against...

"It's not so much politics, but all these guys have agents, and the underclassmen who haven't decided yet whether they're going to remain in the draft past the cut-down date in June, they all talk to somebody, if it's their college coach or whoever is helping to guide them, and so the players who are legitimate draft choices are going to have multiple possibilities to visit teams. You very seldom hear about just one team bringing in a guy for a workout. We're bringing in players who we project to be likely available at the spots where we'll draft. So the players, and their advisors, have a real dilemma, to determine what level in the draft do I have our player visit. He can't go everywhere in those 22 days; he'll get worn out. As it is, he's going to get stretched thin doing workouts five to seven days in a row at some point. Sometimes they have to make some hard calls, and all of a sudden the player slips past their previously projected spots, and now they haven't worked out for the teams beyond the sort of 'Workout Mason-Dixon line'. That can create a problem, because some teams won't draft a guy who they haven't worked out. If they don't have that policy, it's just natural that they'd favor the people who they've seen latest. That can be a real no man's land when a player slides into an area where he hasn't worked out [for those teams].

Do you think the league is moving toward the NFL model, a combine structure where its less individual team workouts?

"I've been doing this since the 1987 draft, for six different teams, and at the beginning, there weren't as many workouts as are now scheduled. And the workouts didn't have the significance, and there wasn't any media coverage. But in the last decade, they've taken on a tremendous importance. In some ways, the workouts are more important than what the player has actually accomplished in his career, with the exception of the guys who've had the great careers. The workouts are so crucial, and I'm not saying that they should be, I think that they're somewhat overrated; I really believe that the players' performance in the NBA is more likely to fall in line with his past performance and intangibles than if he's high or low in the workouts, but the workouts are extremely important in determining where a player is drafted, simply because it's the last thing everybody has seen. And in the workout process, your coaching staff gets involved. And NBA coaches generally do not go out and watch college games during the season. They don't watch a lot of college basketball on television. The average fan watches much more than they do during the course of the season. They come into the process at this point, and their first-hand view is the workouts."

"The workouts have taken on a very important piece of the puzzle for most teams, and the players have had to adjust accordingly. Now you see so many players leaving their hometowns and colleges to visit workout gurus, to get them in shape for the actual draft workouts that the teams conduct."

You've been involved in quite a bit of international scouting, and we've certainly seen a groundswell of international talent entering the NBA. But it doesn't appear that there's as much international flavor near the top of this year's draft. Any reason behind that?

"I don't think that this is a bonanza of an international draft class. There've been drafts in recent years where out of the 60 players selected, you might see 18-20 or more players selected. I don't known that it will be that strong this year. Your first international player this year is going to be Yi Jianlian from China. That's a certainty."

So he's far and away the best International prospect this year?

"I don't see a European, Australian or player from any other continent getting ahead of him. I don't think there's any way that occurs."

And what about Tiago Splitter, who seems to declare every year and then pull out?

"Splitter is a hard player to peg as far as where he's likely to be selected. You see some mock drafts that have him in the late lottery, the late teens, some even in the low 20s. But there's a complicating issue with Splitter..."

He's got a contract issue, correct?

"He does not have a buyout of his contract until after the 07-08 season, so he's really at the mercy of his team, as to whether they'll let him out [of his contract] for this season. He may not be able to play this year in the NBA."

So that would likely lower his stock?

"Some teams with multiple picks may not be concerned, and some teams may prefer that situation if they don't want to load their roster up with young players. But I think it's difficult for most teams to select a player real high when they don't know for certain if they are going to get him next year. But getting back to the [depth of the International talent], with the new rules, you don't have the 18-year old International player, which has reduced the ranks of the International prospects."

People seem to think that the age limit has been a good thing for the collegiate ranks when you look at guys like Greg Oden and Kevin Durant getting that year of college ball under their belts and the exposure that comes with it, but is it a good thing for the International player as well?

"Most of the International players do not have as significant a place on their own team as their American counterparts. For example, you watch Kansas play, Julian Wright and Brandon Rush are going to play within a certain parameter of minutes every night. Their shots and role on the team from game to game is not going to vary dramatically. In Europe, it takes more for the coaches, particularly from the top-end teams, to have the trust to play young players than it does for college players. In college the age group of players is 18-22. But that's at the lower level of the experience chart for international teams because there are no scholastic sports in most of the world like there is in this country.

So Rudy Fernandez or Tiago Splitter, two players in Spain, they are pros. They are among the younger players on their team; there are guys over 30 on their team. And the coaches are under tremendous pressure to win. The long term is the next quarter. It's not like you can in college, building up for two-three years down the road. So all of that works against these players having significant roles. We've had guys come into the NBA and get drafted very high and see very sparse playing time."

When it comes to comparing the skill sets of a guy like Yi, who's playing against a different type of competition, how do you make those kinds of assessments for guys who aren't playing against American collegiate competition, and going about ranking the different levels throughout the world?

"The Eurolegaue just had their Final Four, and that's the highest level of basketball outside of the NBA. That is the collection of 24 of the strongest teams in Europe. The second strongest league is the ACB, the Spanish league. Spain has by far the strongest domestic league in Europe, and Europe has by far the best basketball competition of any continent outside of North America. Those leagues are superior to the NCAA because you have older professional players. But its difficult to accurately nail all of the different levels of competition and say, we're going to to give this guy more credence because he's playing for Panathinaikos or Macabe Tel-Aviv, which are Eurolegaue powerhouses, versus a guy playing in the Adriatic league, which is not as strong. What I've always thought that's more important than merely competition is your talent level.

Dirk Nowitzki, for example, came out of Division II Germany, which would be, at best, low Division I NCAA, maybe even Division II, and he just played one game in the United States in the Hoops Summit. So he did not have a vast body of work like a Rudy Fernandez, who's played for his international team in countless competitions, he's received significant playing time in the ACB and the Euroleague. [Nowitzki] didn't have that type of background. But he was such an extraordinary talent that he could overcome that lack of great competition. If competition alone was the determining factor, then every great player in the NBA would be from the Final Four teams, or ACC MVPs, or Big 12 MVPs. It doesn't always work that way."

Along those lines, when elite college players are only sticking around for one or two years, how much impact does NCAA tournament performance factor into how teams evaluate a player? A guy like Mike Conley, Jr. had a pretty nice tournament and really made a name for himself...

"In a perfect environment, it shouldn't weigh heavier. What should weigh heavier is your entire body of work and your suitability for the NBA. Excelling in the NBA is a totally different dynamic than excelling in Europe or college basketball. You're playing against very good to great players every night, on virtually every possession, and you need to have similar physical characteristics, athleticism, strength, height and weight as the best players at your position or your just undersized and at a real disadvantage. So that should be more of a determining factor than how you did in the NCAA tournament. But this environment isn't perfect, and much like the draft workouts, what the evaluator has seen the latest is often what weighs heaviest in his mind. It is important, and if you have all of those characteristics and you also aced the NCAA tournament test, then you're probably going to do very well."

As far as some of the systems guys play in, like a Georgetown kid playing in the Princeton offense, or something like that, how much does that translate to a guy's ability to acclimate to the professional game?

"Most college systems aren't perfect segues into the NBA. You'll see more zone defenses, not as much pick and roll, so I don't think it's nearly as important as it is in football, where a guy plays in a spread offense or the shotgun. I think basketball, even at the highest level in the NBA, is a skill-reaction game, and if you're good enough to come to this level, and be a rotation player, you'll be able to adapt to different systems. You probably aren't just a creature of your system in college."

The pro game certainly seems to be changing with more of an emphasis on speed and more perimeter play given the way the game is being officiated. How does that impact how you evaluate these players?

"You have to keep pace with what is winning in the NBA when you do your evaluations. You don't want to be a total copycat, because sometimes things change, and a different type of player starts to become successful. But you do have to be aware of it. The game, as you well said, is getting more athletic, the perimeter player is becoming even more dominant in recent years because of the rule changes, because its so easy for a top-notch perimeter player like Paul Pierce, LeBron James or Kobe Bryant to live at the free throw line. So we have to take that into account. I don't think mere size and strength is as important as it was in the past unless it's accompanied by some athleticism and talent."

Continue on to Part II, when Wallace gives us breakdowns on some of the top players in the draft.

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