Meet The Staff: Bill Branch
Branch saw roughly 90 basketball games last season for the Thunder.
“It sounds less than it is,” he said, “But…”
But the memory can get kind of murky when you’re traveling from one city to the next gathering as much information as possible on NBA and Development League players, or heading overseas to Spain, where he saw international prospect Serge Ibaka play this season, or when he finds time to visit his family back in Charlotte, or make the monthly trips to Oklahoma City for face time with the organization.
So yeah, Branch has seen about 90 games, give or take.
As the Director of Pro Player Personnel, Branch assists on the most important decisions the organization makes. Entering his third season with the franchise, Branch’s primary duties include overseeing the scouting, evaluating potential players and aiding general manager Sam Presti with player-personnel matters.
In many ways, Branch is like a utility baseball player, only he gets called upon more often than not.
But the one constant in his job, or even his career for that matter, is the use of his eyes and instincts to make decisions for the Thunder.
“I think seeing games live are important to me,” Branch said.
It’s something Branch has been doing in the NBA for the last 22 years.
And he carved his path back in college.
A defensive back for nearby Lenoir-Rhyne College, where he majored in sports management, Branch had a limited playing career in basketball. But he was always a fan of the sport.
During college, he developed a bond with his advisor and head of the sports management department, who helped him land an internship interview with the then Charlotte Hornets, which was just an expansion team in 1987.
Branch got the internship through December, and remembers there being just four employees in the entire organization. Then and there, he realized the opportunity to make a name for himself. And he did just that.
Branch answered phones. He filed reports for coaching applicants. He worked in ticket sales. He did whatever was asked of him. Over time, he saw the franchise expand.
“I liked it so much and I just thought, well, my internship is over but they don’t know it’s over,” Branch said with a slight chuckle. “So I’m just going to keep going. I mean, they weren’t paying me anything. I paid my own gas, I drove down, I worked and I started working in the basketball department.”
It was then that Branch began to learn the inner workings of a professional basketball team.
Now on the basketball side of things, Branch was filing roster reports, scouting, maintaining the draft magnet board, driving players to the airport or to a doctor’s office for a physical. Soon enough, he shed the intern label.
And it was a complete on-the-job training. He was at practice everyday learning about basketball. He would sit in an office with four coaches, two scouts, himself and would just soak everything in. The available resources were invaluable.
“You had access to people, and that intimacy of going to lunch every day with a coach, or spending late afternoons in front of a TV watching film with a coach were invaluable to me because, not being a basketball player, I didn’t know all the Xs and Os. And I felt behind the eight-ball because I wasn’t a player. That’s the biggest thing.”
But Branch knew no limitations, so much so that designed the team’s first computerized scouting database to track college and pro players.
As technology evolved, Branch knew the Hornets needed to keep up with the times. The current system Charlotte had in place wasn’t cutting it. The only database they had was a stack of manila envelopes with players’ names labeled on the front, players like Rex Chapman, Rony Seikaly and Will Purdue, and about eight pieces of paper with information about each player.
So Branch confided in a friend who worked for the Atlanta Falcons. They had a more relevant database. Branch traveled to Atlanta, where he spent time learning everything about the system.
Now that he had the information, Branch had to pitch the concept to the Hornets’ general manager. At the time, the Hornets were using typewriters, not computers, and filing cabinets, not databases. But in the summer of 1988, Branch sold his idea to the team.
“It was pretty archaic, but what it allowed us to do was we did a weighted scale with players,” Branch said. “Again, it became manual. The reports came back to me and I had to log every single report. Look, I had to run with it to prove to them. At the end of the year, we put together an incredible draft book. Then, eureka, it went off.”
And that was only the start to Branch’s NBA career.
After spending 10 years with the Hornets holding positions like administrative assistant, scout and director of scouting, Branch moved on to the Denver Nuggets, where he spent the next 10 years. First, he was an advanced scout. Then, he moved onto the position of assistant coach/director of scouting.
It was his time as an advanced scout that’s helped him in the position he’s in today.
As an advanced scout, Branch had to focus on the most minute details. It also allowed him to understand the Xs and Os of the game to an extreme level.
“I felt more like a coach than ever before,” he said.
Branch would keep track of how many times a team would hedge defensively on a pick-and-roll. Do they zone it, and if they did, what player would do it the most? Was he quicker? Taller?
“There’s a propensity when you do advanced scouting, is you track every play, and then you track if it’s on the left, on the right, what quarter, what frame of the quarter is it,” Branch explained. “All of that is very mind numbing, but at the end what you come out with is, ‘oh my gosh, they’re only running this play in the fourth quarter in need situations. Wow, I don’t know if I realized that.’ Now if the game was evolving and you’re just trying to pick it up you might not realize that they ran it in the first quarter or the second.
“I’d say the advanced work is probably the most detailed. Whatever a guy does is a trend. Do teams switch, and if they switch when do they switch? Do they switch like sizes or not like sizes? There’s a million ways to cut it up. Sometimes you do all that work and there’s no real trend that comes out of it. But the ones that have obvious trends are the ones you can present.
“I don’t know if people think about that all the time, but advanced scouts think about that all the time.”
It was that type of commitment that led Branch to work with the NBA’s Basketball Without Borders program in South Africa. And it was that line of thinking that brought him to USA Basketball, where he served as a scout for the men’s national team that won the gold medal in 2008.
Get Branch to talk about his involvement in USA Basketball, and it not only brings out his ridiculously high basketball IQ but also his humbleness.
Working for USA Basketball required him to scout in various countries away from his family.
The highlight of the experience came in Shanghai, when he and fellow scout, Todd Quinter, met up with the team for a few days prior to its departure for Beijing.
While in Shanghai, Branch attended every coaches meeting, every film session, every team function. But it was the first night with the team that he’ll always remember vividly.
The team was feasting on an Italian dinner at the Ritz Carlton. Everyone – players, coaches, support team – was there. And all of a sudden Jerry Colangelo, the national director, raised his glass for a toast to Branch and Quinter for all their behind-the-scenes work. When the team captured the gold medal, something dawned on Branch.
“It felt good to think that maybe there’s a chance that I’m helping this a little bit,” Branch said. “Listen, we’re the best players in the world. I was like the last candle on top of the big cake. They had everything. We just added a tiny bit of decoration. I don’t want to oversell what advanced scouting is, but it felt good to be a part of. I was so happy to see them win it. It was a chance of a lifetime.”
So when Branch joined the Thunder in 2007, he brought with him a lifetime of experience.
While he no longer has to do the Xs and Os, that has given him a different perspective on things, and in some instances a leg up on the competition.
“I think all of those things have affected the way I see the game and the way I see players,” Branch said.
Because of his job demands, he only saw about a dozen Thunder games in person last season. Thank goodness for TiVo and portable video equipment.
But there’s also uniqueness to his approach.
Because Branch spends close to all of the year on the road, he likes to arrive at an arena some two hours before a game, when hardly anyone, save for a few players and coaches, are on the floor. As much as he pays attention to a player, the coach is just as resourceful.
It’s then that he can find out about a player’s character, which fits one of the principal traits the Thunder organization looks for in a player.
“Because I have a relationship with the guy, he might tell me something useful down the road,” Branch said. “He might tell me something that benefits me understanding who the player is because part of the player is, if you understand his mindset, if you understand what his needs are, what his motors are, it helps you understand him when you see him play. It helps you understand why he is that type of player because you know more about the person.
“And again, character is such a vital part of what we do here. And I’ve been on teams where that wasn’t vital and I know how that can destroy a team, especially when you’re struggling. If you don’t have character, things go sideways pretty quickly.”
As the Director of Pro Player Personnel for the Thunder, being a strong judge of character is one of the most important aspects of Branch’s job.
Contact Chris Silva