2020 NBA Draft

How scouting for the NBA Draft was done during the pandemic

It's been an unusual year for scouting college and international players in preparation for the Nov. 18 2020 NBA Draft (7:30 ET, ESPN).

No tournaments. No combines. No group workouts, with waves of young NBA hopefuls traveling city by city, drilling, scrimmaging and interviewing.

Instead, the 2020 NBA Draft on Nov. 18 will be a virtual event, staged from ESPN’s headquarters in Bristol, Conn., with limited on-site participation from select prospects and league personnel. Replicating the traditional booing of Knicks fans after the New York franchise makes its pick will be only one of many challenges.

For the teams involved, the order in which players’ names get called — Anthony Edwards, James Wiseman and LaMelo Ball seem likely to hear theirs earliest — will be stitched together out of thousands of hours of research, video reviews, phone work and Zoom availabilities. And include a lot fewer frequent flyer miles accumulated by the scouts and other front-office executives involved.

Drafting during a pandemic might not look all that different, but how everyone got to that point — nearly five months later than usual, navigating newfound restrictions and obstacles — certainly will have been.

“It’s a situation of expansion and contraction,” said Chris Ekstrand, longtime draft expert working again as a consultant to the NBA. “There’s been a huge expansion in the amount of time teams have had to prepare. The contraction would be, well, we did not have the NCAA tournament; we did not have a 5-on-5 combine. There are a lot of components of it that we haven’t had.

“If you’re a team that has a lottery pick, you could watch every minute of every game that a guy ever has played and go through everything with a fine-toothed comb. But there has been a reduction in the events that you’ve been able to see.”

The Nov. 18 date has been fixed for a while — well in advance of a tentative Dec. 22 opening night and Dec. 1 for the start of training camps. Yet it has been burdened with its own set of uncertainties, spread among the constituencies of players, agents and teams.

Teams, of course, always prefer more info than less, with eyeballs valued more highly than video but way harder to achieve in 2020. Players have had to wait — and wait — for what essentially are their job interviews, happy hiring calls and first paychecks.

Agents have had their own set of concerns, compiled in a recent survey by The Athletic as a list of unattributed but cautionary comments. Among the responses:

  • “Completely and utterly derailed [the process]. It was a nightmare. Some of these guys have been working out in a gym alone since the end of March. … Over five months being completely in the dark with the when and how.”
  • “Instead of a 6-to-8 week pre-draft process, it was like 6-to-8 months. The cost associated with training, housing and feeding is not cheap … As for the players, doesn’t affect the top 20, but does the [next] 20-40 guys. Can’t help themselves with pre-draft workouts, especially with athletic testing. For teams, they lost what they valued most of all: information.”
  • “In a normal pre-draft, you spend so much time with [your] guys … There are some agents out there that haven’t even met their clients in person because of everything that’s happened. It’s only Zoom. That’s such a crazy concept because this is such an important time.”

What went from near-complete isolation did improve recently, with small contingents of team reps traveling to see players, rather than the more traditional vice versa. Golden State, which holds the No. 2 overall pick, reportedly sent a tight traveling party to Atlanta and Miami to attend workouts. However, some teams have had to yield to coronavirus shutdown travel restrictions, some have weighed their own level of risk.

“When we have a guy in our building,” said Toronto’s Patrick Engelbrecht, the Raptors’ director of global scouting & international affairs, in a recent video conference with reporters. “They’re on our turf, they put on our practice uniform, they go through our paces. Our minor-league development coaches work them out. Our head coach, our assistant coaches, they’re sitting courtside.
“There’s a different level of, let’s say, intensity in the gym when you’re doing a workout in your own facility.”

Engelbrecht, whose team has had the added complication of the U.S.-Canada border restrictions, said it’s been nice to see some prospects in person as “proof of life” after this long shutdown. But he added there’s a different level of exposure for the player, with no peers against whom he can compete.

“[With] 1-on-0 workouts,” Englebrecht said, “you don’t have somebody to sort of pace yourself with. If you start missing a bunch of shots, you’re out there all alone and you could be out there drowning.”

The NBA has helped to facilitate to teams needed medical info on players of interest. Agents have assisted with the Skype or other phone hook-ups in lieu of traditional interviews. Scouts who otherwise still would have been on the road last spring have been home, gathering and dissecting assessments from months or even years ago.

Many teams’ staffs will tell you – in sincerity or in cover-their-behinds mode – that they have been able to adapt and feel good about their evaluations. That’s where the luxury of five additional months has helped.

“We’re ready to pick,” Minnesota’s vice president of basketball operations Sachin Gupta said in a media call near the end of October focused on the Timberwolves’ No. 1 position. “The NBA is doing a great job trying to salvage the draft combine process and pre-draft process. We still have measurements and testing and medical flowing in … Certainly lots of different scenarios and plans that we’re working through, but we feel good about our evaluations at this point.”

Orlando assistant GM Matt Lloyd told The Athletic their staff had draft research just about wrapped up when the college season ended abruptly, sans tournaments, in early March.

“We probably would have … holed up in the conference room and watched a bunch of the first-round and second-round games together and had some discussions about players,” Lloyd said, adding that any late trips would have been on a need-to-see basis.

“At that point in March, the next step would have been going to Portsmouth [Invitational Tournament] and going to the McDonald’s All American Game and going to the Hoop Summit [featuring college and international talent].” That event, set for April 10 in Portland, also was cancelled.

Staying home hasn’t been all bad. While many have worked our way through Netflix lists or the home library, NBA college scouts and front-office execs have studied and re-studied game footage as if it were shot by Abe Zapruder. When they gather around their respective draft room tables in the coming days, few will have to take anyone else’s word for what each player can and cannot do.

“Every guy in our office has seen every guy,” Engelbrecht said. “Most of the guys we’ve really liked, multiple people in our office have watched every single game that they played. This draft is like, what, 16 months, 17 months in?”

The 2019 Draft took place June 20, 2019 at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center.

One consideration, though, is the pitfall of paralysis by analysis. Too much video can exaggerate a prospect’s flaws as surely as it highlights his strengths.

Said Engelbrecht: “You have to be careful when you’re judging young men going through a pandemic. Some may have gym access, some may not. Some may have an agent who has resources to do ‘X, Y and Z,’ some may not.

“You’ve got to be careful because you don’t want to be one of those ‘study long, study wrong’ [types]. Where you get so much information and it’s a 17-year-old kid, and you’re just putting too much into every little factoid that you can find out about a guy.”

Various scouts bemoaned the loss of in-gym moments out on the road, where they can glean info from casual encounters with folks in a player’s inner circle. There also has been less sharing, the way colleagues and even rivals do when employed at the same task.

“It’s really tough to get a consensus,” Engelbrecht said. “There’s generally a pack of people that you’re constantly around. We talk about prospects – it’s only natural – and you can start to get a feeling of where guys are going to go, just based on the crowd.

“Not having that has been different. You sort of know who the [top] 40 players are, but you have no idea what the order is.”

One quirk of this extended timeline affects the evaluation of overseas prospects, Engelbrecht said.

“There’s never been a moment since I’ve been working in the NBA where you’re scouting for a draft and the following season already has started in different parts of the world,” he said. “So it’s very strange. There are some international prospects where we’re watching the beginning of their season, but yet they’re in this year’s draft.”

Even in the best of times, the Draft — heck, drafts in all sports — gets dubbed an “inexact science” because of the unknown variables that hover right through the night’s final pick.

This year, good ol’ 2020, it means having to cope with the more urgent inexact science of the virus before getting around to the fun one.

There will be issues, too, from Nov. 19 on, when the usual timeline of summer league and other workouts and practices likely gets fast-forwarded. Instead of heading to Las Vegas two weeks after their virtual fist-bumps with NBA commissioner Adam Silver or his deputy Mark Tatum, these guys will be getting to work in their franchises’ training camps.

That’s when the potential downside of this year’s Draft prep could start to reveal itself. Maybe the Class of 2020 will develop more slowly or wind up fitting badly where they’ve been picked. Then again, maybe teams will discover they’ve been spending too much money, and scouts too much time in airports, when their assessments pan out about as accurately as in the past.

If nothing else, the shutdown and long run-up to the Draft might offer an extra excuse to your favorite team’s front office when the next can’t-miss prospect in fact does.

As with most of the NBA’s improvisation and audible-calling to cope with the virus shutdowns, though, there appears to be consensus of safe vs. sorry.

“The stuff that they’ve done has been very cautious and I think smart,” Engelbrecht said. “It’s very hard to govern this many gyms, this many agencies … You’re always going to have some people who push the envelope a little bit. But if you opened it up and said it was a free-for-all, that would not be a great idea.”

Just as with the Orlando bubble restart, things might not be ideal but at least the playing court is level. Resourcefulness isn’t an underrated trait anymore for NBA teams and their staffs. Scouting departments either have lots of research on the players on the board Nov. 18, or they have plenty of it.

“We have 30 games of footage of a guy. In some cases, a couple years of footage,” Engelbrecht said. “I don’t think we should overreact to not being able to go into every single gym, with every single player in the gym and everybody competing against each other in that gym.”

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Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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