Rich Sheubrooks: Master of International Scouting
by Matt Sanchez
He’s a long way from Wilmington, Delaware where he grew up dreaming about the game he loves. Rich Sheubrooks has worked at every level of basketball and has helped change the game through his international scouting. Over the past three decades he’s seen basketball in gyms, armories and on dirt courts all over the world. Today, he sits on his terrace in Sitges, Spain, a small town on the country’s southeastern coast looking to embark on the next chapter of his life. As he gazes out at the Mediterranean Sea, the phone rings.
Is it Jerry West, whom he worked for in Memphis, asking who the next dominant big man in Spain will be, and does he have a brother too? Perhaps it’s the Nike world headquarters saying they have a new camp for scouting international players and want him to be in charge of it. Or, maybe it’s Michael Jordan thanking him for his years of service and helping the Bobcats become a winning organization. It’s Kevin O’Connor and he’s looking to fill a newly minted position with the Utah Jazz, Executive Director of Global and Pro Scouting.
The following is a conversation the newest member of the Jazz had with utahjazz.com
Q: Tell us a little about your background? I know you were originally in coaching back in Texas. What is the transition to where you are now?
A: I was really lucky because I got to be around a guy like Coach Wooden years ago, doing some of his camps in Thousand Oaks and then being around Jerry West (Grizzlies) and then being around Michael Jordan (Charlotte)-three icons of the game. I worked for Nike at their headquarters in Oregon in the early 90’s, and I ended up coming over to Europe as the head of basketball/sports marketing for Europe, the Middle East and Africa. It wasn’t long after that when Jerry West came in with the Grizzlies and he talked to me about going to work for them. It just so happened at that time there were some key players in Spain, and it worked out great and I loved working for the Grizzlies. I wish I would have taken notes during that time when I would go on trips with Jerry West because it would have made one heck of a book. Next, I had just done a tour with Michael in Europe, looking at players and I happen to have a home in Charlotte and they asked me if I would be interested to coming to work with them. I ended up going to work for the Bobcats for the next four years and at the same time continued with responsibilities with Nike which was great because they really parallel with my global scouting position. I’ve also had the opportunity to do Basketball without Borders all over the world. I’ve also done some basketball camps for the last ten years in China and got a great opportunity to see players up close and it sort of evolved into the Hoops Summit, which really began in ’94. So a lot of these great young players, I had the chance to work with them and be around them for a week or so. And then recently, Kevin (O’Connor) had called me and asked if I would recommend someone for a global position and the more we talked about it, it sounded like something I would be interested in doing. With this job, it would give me and my wife the opportunity to spend more time back in the states and with our kids there and our families there, it sounded great. I’ve known Kevin for a long time and everyone has said nothing but great things about him.
Q: How long have you been in Europe? And how have you seen the popularity of the NBA increase over that span?
A: I’ve been in Europe for about 15 years. Everyone needs a hero and once some of the heroes started being produced here in Europe, more NBA games were televised. Guys like Karl Malone, John Stockton, Michael Jordan, and Magic Johnson were all heroes in Europe but they weren’t country heroes. But once their guys were playing in the NBA, the popularity increased tremendously. You have more registered basketball players in China than we have people in the United States, so the games are on all the time there. In Spain, there is a very high correlation between the guys from their country going to the NBA and the interest in basketball. What’s funny is, sometimes when we do a camp, some of the kids look like they have been doing nothing but looking at NBA Highlight reels. That’s why it’s so important to do camps and to teach kids the fundamentals. This past year in Africa when we were doing Basketball without Borders, it’s amazing how far the kids have come with their skill level. The fundamentals still need to catch up with the athleticism and when it does, it will be special.
Q: Soccer has always been the world’s game, do you think there’s kids internationally that dream about the NBA? As opposed to 15 years ago?
A: No question about it. Again, when you have a local hero then it drives a kid to want to succeed. It doesn’t always have to be an NBA player but it could be a player in Spain or in the Euro League that guys want to copy, so they get out and start working on their game. I think the dream is there, for sure. When I was in Africa this past year, all the kids know the NBA and the stars in the league. Their dream is to get to the U.S., first as a college player and then to the NBA. So, yes, they all have the big dream.
Q: How much do you attribute the Dream Team for getting the ball rolling internationally?
A: Tremendous impact. The guys playing today were very young or not even born yet, but their parents, cousins, uncles, etc. talked about the Dream Team and all knew who they were. That put the international aspect of the NBA out there to the rest of the world. The Redeem Team also had a big impact last Olympics as well.
Q: When international players were first popping up in the NBA, they had an unorthodox game and were labeled as soft and even the big guys liked to shoot threes. Have you noticed a trend towards more physical play?
A: I remember the first time Jerry West came over to Europe to watch some games with me and his initial reaction was that the international game was more physical than the NBA. I’m not sure it was appropriate to call guys soft a few years ago, and certainly not today. In a sense, U.S. athletes have always been quicker and more athletic and it made these guys look softer, but I really don’t think they are. You’ve seen it there in Utah, how hard guys can play and in the future, we’ll all see it.
Q: In recent years, the Jazz have been big proponents of international players. With your hire will this trend continue?
A: Definitely. Hopefully we can continue finding players around the globe that we can bring in and help the team. There are some very interesting players out there, especially in China. Not necessarily the next Yao Ming’s but very athletic and skilled. There are some guys in Africa that are very hungry to succeed. The physicality and athleticism of the players is tremendous. Although the skill level isn’t the same as players in Europe, their desire and passion is incredible. There will be more and more international players in the NBA. It’s coming and there is just no way you can stop it.
Q: Many teams in the NBA, the Jazz included, have been known to draft an international player and leave him overseas for a couple years to let him develop. What’s your take on this strategy and will it continue?
A: I think it’s an excellent strategy. They get to stay overseas and they get to play. Outside of the U.S. the guys playing in Euro League teams are playing against the best competition anywhere. It serves them better than going to a team and sitting on the bench for a year or two. There are some young guys that just come over too soon and it does them a disservice. They get to play a lot overseas and that’s the most important thing. It that helps them grow, physically and mentally.
Q: In terms of scouting, the topic of “Moneyball” has come to public forefront and gets people wondering, what is that makes a player project well to the next level. Do you look at a player and think he’ll succeed based on intuition or is it more numbers based?
A: In the United States, statistical scouting would have a better pairing, being able to see and compare competition and stats. In Europe when you take someone’s stats and try and compare that, it’s virtually impossible to look at what they’ve done here and try and project it to the U.S. Without naming names, there are guys that average four or five points per game and then get to the NBA and put up big numbers. It’s a little bit tougher to take numbers internationally and try and project it to what could happen in the U.S. First of all, there are so many different levels over here that guys are playing on. There are so many leagues in Europe and different divisions within those leagues. A guy could be putting up numbers in Finland and you’d assume he’d put up the same numbers in Italy, but he probably wouldn’t do well in Spain. It does make a lot more sense in the U.S. to scout guys based on their numbers because you know about their college or conference they play in. Sometimes I see a kid that’s 18 years old and I think, “could he be a McDonald’s All-American?” That’s why the Hoops Summit is so great because you get to see how these kids compare to kids in the states.
Q: Where are you based and what is your travel schedule like?
A: I live about 20 minutes south of the Barcelona airport. I live in a little town called Sitges. There are two teams in Barcelona and three teams in Madrid. I’m anywhere from 20 minutes to 4 hours away from 5 Euro League teams in Spain. I get to see all the teams: Russia, Germany, Israel, Greece, you can see all those teams here in Spain and usually several times. You name it, I’ve watched games there. I’ve about 3 million miles flying. A typical summer, I would do a camp in China then I’d go to Italy and watch a sort of pre-draft camp for the Euro League. The Czech Republic, Lithuania, Slovenia, South Africa, Finland, all these places just in the summer. My wife tells me that we travel to more places every year than most people would go in a lifetime.
Q: How much do you watch basketball in person as opposed to on television?
A: I would definitely rather see a player in person so you can get a feel for his size, mobility and see what he does away from the ball. On TV, you can’t always tell that. I could give you a read of the next three or four generations of the guys that will come along and be drafted. I watch guys from when their about 14 years old. It’s an advantage because in the U.S. you can’t watch high school players play so you have to wait until there in college and sometimes they are only one and done. So it’s tougher in the U.S. It’s great to be able to scout them for years over here.
Q: In regards to the Jazz, what does Kevin want from you in your new position?
A: He wants me doing the same things that I’ve done. Doing the Nike Hoops Summit, Basketball Without Borders and other things. I will get to see a lot more games in the states as well. Kevin would like me to do some pro scouting, international scouting and also some college scouting. My home in the states is very close to Chapel Hill and there are some great young talents in the ACC and SEC and I’ll be able to watch a few of those games and help out there. I am very excited about this new opportunity. It’s interesting, I used to live in New Orleans and I was doing some TV work when Karl was playing at Louisiana Tech, so I go way back with Karl watching him back then. It’s kind of come full circle with me coming to the Jazz now and I’m really looking forward to it.
Sheubrooks admits that he’s not getting any younger and prospects themselves are not getting any older. He loves what he does and has an instinctive skill for scouting players. “In reality, basketball is just a game,” he said. “Kids play it because they love it. They have a deep-rooted love of the game and I’m just thankful I get to be there to help them to discover it.”