McDonough Tackles Vital Year of Pre-Draft Scouting

by Matt Petersen

Before he was an NBA general manager, employee, or even an adult, Ryan McDonough had plenty of experience talking with important sports figures.

That’s what happens when your dad is a sports columnist for the Boston Globe.

“It was a lot of fun,” McDonough laughed. “It was before cell phones, so the house phone would ring and you were never sure who was on the other end. I talked to everybody from the commissioner of the NFL to O.J. Simpson to Dan Marino and John Elway. You never knew who was calling the house. IT was pretty cool as a kid to have a conversation with those guys. I became good friends with some of them. Red Auerbach was a great friend of mine, a mentor to me. That was pretty neat.”

“I grew up around sports. I always had a passion for it. From the time I was young, we were watching games with my dad, trying to break down teams and players, figuring out not just what happened, but why it happened. I got off to an early start that way.”

— Ryan McDonough

Such a childhood couldn’t help but produce a heavy mix of sports interest, passion and expertise for both McDonough and his two brothers. Sean is an ESPN broadcaster. Terry is a regional scout for the Arizona Cardinals. All three of them credit their early family experiences as the foundation of their ability to watch and evaluate the game.

“I grew up around sports,” McDonough said. “I always had a passion for it. From the time I was young, we were watching games with my dad, trying to break down teams and players, figuring out not just what happened, but why it happened. I got off to an early start that way.”

He hasn’t stopped since then, establishing a reputation as a top-notch talent evaluator in the NBA. His background and passion in that field is doubly important now that college basketball season is underway. The Suns potentially have four first-round picks in next year’s draft, making this season’s scouting effort vital for the team’s future.

McDonough feels the pressure, but he also embraces the fun. From watching games with his family through 10 years with in the Celtics front office, he built his NBA career on a foundation of accurately judging talent. He admits that next year’s draft will be “the best draft in a decade,” making this college season the basketball scout’s equivalent of a kid at a candy store.

“It’s fun,” he said. “It’s way too early to project where our picks are going to be or any other picks that we have, so you just evaluate them all. It is exciting going, knowing that you’ll have multiple cracks at it. You’ll have guys who will be available to you probably at different ranges in the draft. From what I’ve seen so far, there’s a lot of talent up there.”

It didn’t take long for McDonough or other NBA scouts/evaluators to see that was true. Four of the country’s top-five-ranked teams heading into the season – Kansas, Kentucky, Michigan State and Duke – played on the same night at the Champions Classic in Chicago.

Tournaments such as those are ideal. They offer more time-savvy opportunities to build and edit scouting reports, especially if the majority of teams involved boast likely draftees.

“I think a lot of people don’t realize what goes into that with the flights, the rental cars, the travel time,” McDonough said. “Being in a hotel, you might not get as much done as you do in the office. I try to limit my time on the road so I can be around the team as much as possible. When I do go out, I want to be efficient with it and try to see as many teams and players as I can.”

It’s still not as much as McDonough was used to compared to his tenure in Boston. He worked in several different capacities there, including as a scout and assistant general manager. Whatever his position, his primary duties revolved around talent evaluation.

Now he is “the man” of the Suns front office, charged with keeping as much focus on the current Suns as potential future players. Delegation and planning ahead play a much bigger role in order for him to oversee the entire team operation.

“It’s different,” McDonough admits. “Time management becomes more of a challenge now. I can’t get out to as many games and practices as I’m used to getting out to go see. That being said, we have a great staff with Pat Connelly and John Treloar and those guys leading it. Our scouts, Ronnie Lester, John Shumate and our international scout Emilio Kovacic, those guys have covered 90 to 95 percent of the top 100 players already. They’ve already seen them practice or play…we have great coverage. I have to be a little more precise, I guess, with my focus and try to be more efficient so when I go out it’s not just seeing one game and two teams.”

Despite the homework already done on the players and his staff’s collective eagerness in getting evaluations in, McDonough acknowledges that the scouting game necessitates measured patience. The order of next year’s draft won’t be decided until June. Between now and then, a player’s stock can rise or fall dramatically. Prospects who look good overall may not meet the team’s needs on the roster or from a chemistry standpoint.

“We have a very broad list,” McDonough said. “It’s that way intentionally at this time of the year. As the year goes on, it’s important to evaluate the top guys, but it’s also important to whittle down your list and try to figure out which guys aren’t for you, which guys aren’t for the Suns. Then you become a little more targeted and focused. Then you start ranking guys and breaking ties among guys who are close at certain positions.”

The majority of outside attention doesn’t hone in until the end of that process, when the season is done and groups of draft candidates are brought in constantly in the weeks leading up to the draft. While there is value in those workouts, McDonough remains adamant that the most accurate evaluations have already concluded by the time March Madness is done.

“I don’t think there’s anything more important than what the guys do in the actual games,” he said. “That’s the best barometer for how the guys will do in the NBA, is how they do against competition in college, especially when they’re playing high-level opponents or playing against elite players at their position.”

Smiley face

Suns General Manager Ryan McDonough at training camp

McDonough’s barometer is one of the more accurate ones in the league, one he keeps up to date constantly. He is rarely seen without his tablet, which he consults the second he feels the need or desire, though he laughs off the idea that he’s purely a new-age analytics guy, mainly because of his old-school childhood of watching games with his dad, the sports columnist.

“It wasn’t just basketball,” McDonough said. “We’d go to baseball games. We’d go to football games, hockey games. We’d break down players and teams. I learned a lot just about evaluating and what to look for. I started to form my own opinions, I guess, from a very young age.”

There’s little room to doubt, then, that McDonough truly believes the proclamation he made the day he was hired.

“[The draft] is the life-blood of your franchise,” he said.

It’s a good thing, then, that evaluating draft-worthy talent happens to be the life-blood of the Suns’ GM.