May 30, 2008
Thats merely one example, but the evaluation of a basketball player involves significantly more than determining whether he can shoot, dribble, pass, rebound and defend. To find out more about how the scouting of NBA draft prospects actually works, I enlisted the help of Hornets assistant to the general manager Brian Hagen. One of the leagues brightest young basketball minds, the 30-year-old Hagen spends parts of the season traveling to NCAA games and conducting interviews to learn as many details as possible about the players the Hornets may be interested in drafting each June.
Here are eight things you might not know about the process of scouting NBA prospects:
1) If youre a player being evaluated as a potential NBA draft pick, scouts are watching you 24/7.
Basketball is unique among the four major sports, explains Hagen, because you can tell a lot about what type of person a guy is from his facial expressions. In football and hockey, players wear helmets, so you cant see their faces. In baseball, its not a free-flowing game where emotion is a big factor. But in basketball, you can watch facial expressions. You can see how a player interacts with a teammate. You can see how a guy walks to the bench when he gets taken out of a game, and see how he treats his coach.
How does he react to adversity? How does he react when a teammate makes a bad play? What kind of leader is he? Does he whine? Does he complain a lot? There are so many things you can see when you go to scout a game that are unique to basketball scouting.
We watch every aspect of a player. How does he warm up before a game? Does he take it seriously? Is he out there with a coach working extremely hard on improving a specific area of his game that may be a little weak? Or is he out there just tossing up shots that hed never attempt in a game situation?
2) Scouts interview as many people who know a player as possible, because scouts cant believe everything they hear...
NBA scouts often chat informally with the college head coach of a potential draftee to gain more insight on the player. This can get a little tricky, though, because if you want an honest assessment of a player, his coach may not be the best source.
In general, NCAA head coaches have considerable incentive to talk up the positive traits of their players to pro scouts, because college programs that send their players to the pros often reap long-term benefits in recruiting. High school players focused on becoming an NBA player someday want to attend a school where other players have frequently made the jump from college to the league. That means that NCAA programs with multiple alums in the NBA hold an intangible advantage in attracting scholastic hoops stars.
You have to take what people tell you for what its worth, Hagen says of college coaches. Obviously there are people and coaches in this business that each of us are closer to than others, and we have a trust factor with those people.
But you have to dig deep. You talk to high school coaches and guidance counselors, college assistants, college compliance directors people who may not have as much at stake in terms of a players future.
Its not a one-day or two-day process; we scout guys over a two- or three-year period. We watch a player over a large body of work. When you do that, you start to get a better feel for that player on and off the court.
3) so they need to be able to read between the lines.
Since a college coach isnt likely to trash one of his players to an NBA scout even if the coach truly does not like that player scouts need to pick up body language and subtle aspects of how their questions are answered.
Hagen: Ive never personally spoken with anyone whos really tried to hurt (a players reputation) by saying negative things, but you can just tell by the way someone says something how they genuinely feel about a player. And I dont think it takes a rocket scientist to be able to see it. Usually when you talk to someone, they either have a lot of high praise, or if they dont feel strongly about someone as a player or a person, they stay on that median line, riding the fence. If someones doing that, you have to dig around. It could be a case where a player had a falling out with a coach? Sometimes that happens. Thats why we try to cover every base twice. We dont want to leave any stone unturned.
Toughness comes in a couple different forms, Hagen explains. I think the most important is mental toughness. Its not toughness such as a guy who is going out on the court, pushing people around or getting into fights. Its more about, Can he handle adversity on the court and off the court?
An 82-game NBA season is like a long race, and there are a lot of ups and downs. The best teammates are the ones who can handle them and keep a steady focus. They can come every night and bring their A game without a big drop-off."
At every level of basketball, a coach will take a mentally tough player over a weak, mentally soft one who has a little bit more talent. If a guy is mature, he can handle everything that is going to come at him. Its not always going to be a rosy ride in the NBA. There are going to be losses, and some long nights. Youre going to have bad games. You have to be able to handle them like a mature, tough player.
5) In many cases, a players behavior and personality dont change when he gets to the pros.
By the time a player reaches the age where he is being considered as a draft pick, hes already played on organized teams for years and developed a track record. With few exceptions, players continue whatever habits theyve developed, good or bad.
Hagen: I think Bill Parcells once said, If you dont bite when youre a puppy, youre not going to bite (as a grown dog).
A lot of times if a player is not tough at a young age, hes probably not going to become a tough, tough guy. You can tell by watching how a guy competes. If youre not there (mentally) every five games in a 30-game college season, what does that translate to in an 82-game season?
6) Pro basketball scouts are interpreters, trying to translate NCAA to NBA.
The problem with using college performance and statistics as a parallel indicator of how a player will fare in the pros is that there are significant differences in the game itself at the two levels. Just because a player can create his own shot in college, for example, that doesnt mean hell be able to do so in the NBA. Just because a player was able to excel based on pure athleticism in college, that doesnt mean he can do likewise in the pros, where players are bigger, faster and stronger.
That translation of college to the pros is what all of the scouts in this business are trying to find out, Hagen says. How does what a guy did in college translate to our level? From a basketball standpoint and a skill standpoint, as well as his athletic ability. Thats what were trying to figure out, not only from watching draft workouts this month, but from watching a player year-round.
7) A players IQ is important but not as important as his basketball IQ.
The NFL uses a much-discussed Wonderlic test that helps measure football players intelligence and cognitive learning skills. NFL talent evaluators believe memory and smarts are crucial for a player, partly due to the complexity of football playbooks. Basketball playbooks are not quite as extensive as those in the NFL, but NBA scouts do watch closely to see if players have certain characteristics that are important in the game of hoops. Traits such as basketball instincts, including knowing where to be on the floor at the right time and anticipation, are critical for a player. To use a real-life example, one of the reasons Hall of Fame forward Larry Bird was a great NBA player was that despite his relative lack of quickness or leaping ability he was a master at anticipating action, often sensing how a play might develop before it occurred.
One of the things you try to gauge is if a player has a great feel for the game, Hagen describes, or whether hes just a great athlete who is like a fish out of water when hes on the court. A higher IQ in general might help a player in some way, but its the basketball IQ that scouts are really trying to see. Does a guy understand how to play? Does he understand the flow of a game?
In some cases, a lack of understanding of the game or noticeable difficulty learning a teams offense can spell doom for a young NBA player.
Hagen: There are some players who come into the league who have a very difficult time grasping offenses, but theres a reason fans dont hear about them: Its because those players are not around very long. If you cant grasp plays or an offense, coaches and front-office people dont have time to wait on you. If youre waiting for your players to learn the offense, youre probably going to get fired. For the most part, guys you see on the court in the NBA every night dont have that problem. The players who dont grasp offenses are not around.
8) In the NBA, players need to have people skills.
A players ability to interact well with others becomes magnified when you consider the length and hectic nature of the NBA schedule. The pro season stretches from training camp in early October to mid-April (and beyond for teams that reach the NBA playoffs), meaning the amount of time teammates spend around each other is substantial, whether its on the team plane for cross-country flights, in hotels or in the locker room. If a player is prone to causing friction with his teammates and does not get along well with other people, it can become a major negative in terms of how he is valued by his team.
One of the things thats important to the entire Hornets organization is that were trying to create an atmosphere of family, Hagen relates. Its important that a guy can relate to his teammates, not only on a professional level, but also a personal one. We dont want to bring in someone who is going to mess up what we think is developing into great chemistry. We have guys who get along well and play together well.
As were getting background information on a player, were finding out if hes had run-ins with people or hasnt gotten along well with teachers, for example. Its important when youre building a winning atmosphere, that you arent bringing in guys who dont share the same belief system that we have.