(EDITOR’S NOTE: This interview was conducted before Hammond left the Bucks to become general manager of the Orlando Magic.)
The Bucks used the 15th pick in 2013 to draft a very raw prospect from a league in Greece that provided little competition and then in 2016 invested the 10th choice on a high school player from suburban Toronto, and now look. Giannis Antetokounmpo, not so raw anymore, is a star in his fourth season and Thon Maker starts for a playoff team as a rookie.
If the draft game is challenging enough, evaluating someone from beyond Division I in the United States or the top leagues of Europe, and far beyond on occasion, increases the degree of difficulty, and yet the Milwaukee front office led by general manager John Hammond had done it twice in the last four years. And not in the 20s or into the second round, the usual place to take a flyer. Twice in the top half of the first round and once in the lottery.
Even if Antetokounmpo wasn’t an exact fit for the flyer category since other teams projected him for the late-teens, as the Bucks knew as the night started, there was an increased risk choosing a prospect who rarely played against anyone close to the level of a DI talent. There was the additional pressure picking in the aftermath of a 38-44 season – the argument could be made, and perhaps was internally in the run-up to the draft, that the smart move was to go with a safer pick, not gamble on the guy with much more upside but also the guy who would be making a massive adjustment in competition as well as a cultural transition. Maker was more well known, had attended high school in Virginia before moving to Canada, and had the important judging ground of playing in the annual Nike Hoop Summit in Portland, Ore., with top international prospects and elite U.S. high school seniors, but still didn’t have the background of a DI or Euroleague schedule.
The Bucks are in the playoffs and headed in a very positive direction because twice in recent years they accurately projected through, or ignored, weak competition, with Antetokounmpo a top-10 player in the league at 22 years old and Maker finishing a promising rookie season.
On the clock: Jerry West
On the clock: Kiki Vandeweghe
On the clock: Larry Riley
NBA.com: Let’s go back to 2013, as the draft is getting closer. To rate draft prospect Giannis Antetokounmpo did you feel you needed to rate the level of play Greek basketball?
John Hammond: No, we did not. We watched him, we evaluated him to see the player he could some day be. The evaluation wasn’t as much, “Well, he’s playing here, so we make adjustments for that.” We strictly judged him on what we saw him as and what we thought he could potentially be.
NBA.com: So you don’t really take the competition into account, whether it’s someone playing at a lower level in Greece or somebody playing DIII ball in the United States?
JH: Maybe to a certain extent. But I think that’s unfair to the evaluation process if that is what you do. It’s a factor. But I don’t think it’s the major consideration.
NBA.com: Is it an extra challenge at all when you’re trying to project a player that hasn’t faced much big competition?
JH: To a certain extent. If you go through the draft, and I don’t know many years we can go back, easily the last five years and maybe farther, the top 20 picks in most every draft are filled with guys that have limited experience, whether that be guys that are playing limited minutes internationally or sometimes guys are playing limited minutes on their NCAA team. There can be the factor of the level of talent they’re playing against. That’s what is obviously making the draft much more difficult today. It’s because their body of work is limited from the evaluation standpoint.
Related: On the Clock Jerry West
NBA.com: Do you scout the players any differently if it’s a situation like Giannis, like Thon Maker a few years later?
JH: No, I don’t think so. I really don’t. I think you go about your business. We, like every other team, go about our business in the manner in which we think is appropriate to make these decisions. I think at any point in any draft there is a risk/reward factor. I don’t know that any team has any secrets in going out and watching someone and saying “This particular evaluation tool that we have is separating us from everyone else.” I’m talking about from the scouting that occurs when you go to observe a player.
NBA.com: What about the background research, the checks on a prospect’s personal life? This has obviously become very important for all teams no matter where they’re drafting and where the player is coming from. But is it an extra challenge when it’s somebody who is relatively knew on the scene like Giannis and from a foreign country to learn as much as you can about this guy?
JH: Yeah, I think it is. And I think staffs are growing and background work is improving and sometimes you can get some kind of psychological testing done on players, even players like we’re referring to in international situations.
NBA.com: What was is about Giannis that jumped out to you, that you said, “This is really going to translate”? Are there one or two reasons you really believed in him?
JH: Loved his length and also loved his skill set. And we also felt that he had the gift of knowing how to play the game. You could see he was very comfortable in the game. He had a good ability to ball. He was basically playing the point-guard position a lot of times for his team. He was getting the rebound and taking it himself on the break. Or sometimes other players would get the rebound, sometimes the smaller players would throw it to him to handle the ball. He was like the point guard for his team. Someone at that size was handling the basketball and along with that had just a really good feel for the game. We always say that feel for the game is one of those things that is almost impossible to teach. It’s just a gift that the player had, and I think that Giannis had that gift.
NBA.com: Was it one of those situations when it came time to pick No. 15 the cliché about “We couldn’t believe he was still on the board”? Do you want to fall back to that old line?
JH: Going into that draft night, we had our rankings on our board at 15 and we had Giannis at 15. He was our guy at 15. And then we had others, we thought, quality players following him in our grouping. At 15, we probably had four names, maybe a fifth. Probably four names that we thought that realistically would be there. Giannis was at the top of our board at 15. That’s about as much as I want to say.
NBA.com: Let’s play the What If? game. If you had pick No. 8 or 10 or 12 would have you have taken him that high or do you think that 15 was probably right about where he deserved to go?
JH: We felt like 15 was his range. Somewhere in that range. Whatever 15 means – that could be like 14 to 18. We thought that was his range, somewhere in there. We thought that’s where he was going to fall.
NBA.com: And once pick No. 14 was called and you knew exactly your options at 15, was Giannis the automatic pick or was there still some debate among those four or five other names?
JH: No. Like every other team, we had our grouping for our pick and we said, “OK, if Player A is there at 15, that’s who we’re going to take.” That was Giannis. Player B was there, C and D were there, but Giannis was the guy who was our A player at 15.
NBA.com: I have to say I appreciate the honesty in talking about where he was picked compared to where you expected him to be picked. I thought it was right there on Page 1 of the general manager’s handbook that you have to say, “Wow, we couldn’t believe he was still on the board at that point.” I thought that was a league rule. “We had him rated much higher than that.”
JH: I wish I could. But I can’t go there.
NBA.com: Was there a certain point that you have a conversation with Herb Kohl, the owner, and say, “This is not necessarily a name that’s going to sell you a lot of tickets right away. He’s not a familiar name to fans who are used to watching NCAA games on TV.” Do you kind of have to prepare the owner for what’s going to happen in the next few days, the reaction?
JH: No. He knew our grouping at 15. I don’t think he was surprised when we made that pick.
NBA.com: I don’t know if there are nerves for you on draft night in general. But is it any more nervous when you’re taking a player that’s far less proven than maybe some of the other bigger names, in having to project the player that maybe hasn’t faced a lot of top competition? Are you any more nervous picking Giannis Antetokounmpo than a player that had a couple years, even one season, in the NCAAs?
JH: Sure. I think there always is that moment of trepidation. You have some concern because you know that the immediate perception of the pick – some people use the terminology of trying to win the press conference – when we make that pick that’s not going to happen. That’s not going to get people’s attention probably and get people really excited initially about that player at that time.
NBA.com: Is that something you have to factor in or you just go into it knowing you’re just going to ignore the reactions the next few days and ride the wave and see where it ends up in five years?
JH: We had made our decision. Our ranking at 15 was who we were going to take. We made that pick and we tried to explain after that who we thought he could potentially be someday, but at the end of the day you’ve got to also wait and go through it and see how it all plays out.
NBA.com: Is projecting a player one of the hardest parts of the draft game. It’s not “How good he is now” that people focus on. It’s much more what is he going to be the next five or seven or 10 years.
JH: I’ll go back again and say that is the world that we’re living in today in the NBA draft. When you look at the drafts over the last five to 10 years, that is the state that we live in. Look at the ages of these players. You start saying that the top five, the top 10 picks, the 15 picks and maybe even the top 20 picks in the drafts, year in and year out a large percentage of these players are going to be 19, 20 years old and have limited experience.
When you’re picking in the top five picks, you hope those guys are going to be who they’re supposed to be. That’s All-Stars. The deeper you move in the draft, there is more uncertainty as to who they can be eventually in their careers. The reality of the draft is that there’s players taken at different times that hit. There’s Hall of Fame players that have been taken in the late-teens. In the second round. You look at the NBA All-Star games year in and year out the 10 starters that march on the floor to start that game, for the most part they’re top-five picks. So when you have an opportunity to choose a player that isn’t in that grouping, you feel very fortunate.
NBA.com: Was there any carryover, was there maybe a confidence boost as you’re coming up on the 2016 draft and again you’re thinking about a player who did not have the NCAA experience? When Thon Maker is there and you are picking at No. 10, is it helpful look back and be able to lean on how well things went the last time you took somebody that didn’t play at the same level as the rest of the draft class? Did it help make your decision in any way?
JH: It might have played a small part in it. We had a chance to watch Thon the last couple years, in the Hoop Summit game. We had a better ability to evaluate Thon going into his draft than we did Giannis.
NBA.com: So it didn’t feel the same?
JH: I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again. They were two separate players and two separate picks, one was 15 and one was 10, and two separate draft classes.
NBA.com: What about when you were looking at Thon? What popped? This was a guy had a lot of positives around him, but were there one or two things where you said, “Right there. That’s going to work”?
JH: We loved his length. We loved his ability to shoot the ball. With the game moving to where it is today, can he be a stretch big? We’re still hoping that Thon can be that player consistently as he moves forward. But more than anything with Thon was then when we had the chance to get to know him, we just fell in love with him as a person. I loved (director of scouting) Billy McKinney’s line on Thon. When Thon left us after the draft workout, Billy said, “You can be guaranteed that player is going to become the very best he can possibly become because he’s going to work that hard.” He’s never going to leave anything on the table. He’s always going to give you 100 percent and give himself 100 percent and give himself the best opportunity to become a player someday in this league.
NBA.com: You said that Giannis went right about where you thought was realistic – the end of the lottery, the middle of the teens. What about Thon at 10? Do you think you guys had him higher than some other teams? It’s always difficult to know, but your general sense. Was there much concern he could be gone before you or do you think you were getting him at the starting point of his window?
JH: I think the assumption is probably that he would go a little later in the draft and we were selecting him on the high side.
NBA.com: You had different ownership at the time. Did you have to have to have any conversations and say, same as we talked about with Giannis, that “We’re not going to win the press conference on this one? Is there any discussion that has to take place with the bosses?
JH: No. They were part of the draft process.
NBA.com: I know you’re not surprising them when you make the pick. But as it’s getting closer and you’re saying, “Here’s one of the guys we’re looking at,” are you also making it clear this isn’t going to be the popular pick?
JH: Now if you’re talking about the Giannis connection, I think Giannis’ rapid improvement had probably made that pick easier to sell because immediately everyone started trying to compare the two, even though that really wasn’t a part of our decision.
NBA.com: Did it also make a difference that even though Thon had not played against the NCAA competition most use to get a baseline or get a general sense of where a player is that he had at least played a lot of games in high school in the United States and had played games in Toronto. As you mentioned, the Hoop Summit against good competition in 2015. Did that help you feel more secure or more certain about where he was and where he would project?
JH: Any decision that you make when you talk about player acquisition – signing a free agent, trading for a player, and probably no more so than drafting a player – you go through the process and you try to make the very best decision possible. Usually the processes, for every team, are very thorough. I think most every team that makes their pick feels great about it as they’re making it. They believe that player can be who they think he can become. You have the moment of celebrating the pick and you eventually go down and talk with the media and discuss with them who you think this guy can be. But there’s always that moment. There’s always that moment when you get in your car at the end of the evening and you close the door and it’s just silence. You have that moment of, “Man, I hope this works.” I think it’s always true of any type of player acquisition, but no more than the draft.
Scott Howard-Cooper has covered the NBA since 1988. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.
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