With the 2019 NBA Draft literally days away at this point, I thought it was a good idea to share some insight on what it takes to watch out for in draft scouting. I have to give props to one guy in particular has he really made me think of it, Emre Vatansever, recently joined the Chicago Sky (WNBA) coaching staff.
This piece is not a way to look at the proverbial mock drafts or how to read into the words of the few experts that give you bite sized insight on NBA Draft entrees. There are tons of SWOT analysis pages and insight articles that deal with that stuff.
Frankly, my aim in writing this up was to go a different route all together. Without it being too well covered, there really are a set of rules that can be utilized to evaluate talent that will impact the league for years to come. What better time to go over them at this point.
#1 There is an inherent difference investing in human beings!
First of all, we need to understand that the game we all love is a team game and it takes a group of individuals to buy in to succeeding together to be able to build things up. When analyzing things we might disect individuals to be skillful but overall the trajectroy they are on relies on how well they will come together with others and hopefully be in an optimal circumstance.
Putting stats and science aside for a second (as much as the analytics guy inside me is telling me something else), the social aspect or rather understanding people is vital.
Currently basketball is a business of seeing people live up to probable potential and while in all efforts we try to predict things its not an exact science.
Maturity, character, compounding team chemistry and IQ are all the buzzwords that analytics cant be accountable for and its through experience we can attempt at understanding such value of those that we look at while drafting.
Bare in mind that many GMs and advisers have taken the route to be where they are because they can proverbially suss out the good from the bad to an extent. Numbers tell you a story and there are so many facets to consider while figuring out whom to trust is as Isiah Thomas once put it “not about basketball”, the personality, the way these kids come into the league how they will be around the rest of the team, will they be coachable and listen all are things that are looked at. Lets not forget each year there are draft entrees and they all know the game, the so called investment to pick one of these kids is beyond their playing ability.
#2 Overestimating a player’s downside or upside is something that should never be done!
In past cases I have witnessed when a draft entrée has been compared to a current player its been a very major issue. Living up to hype and not being able to fill in those shoes is such a big error to fall into its flat out dangerous. Any player that comes into the league versus from where they can be in a year or two potentially will be much different (better or worse is that part that is to be seen) but say if you compare Cam Reddish (current draft entrée) to PG13 (currently) you already are setting expectations and a ceiling to live up to.
No one expected Brooke Lopez would have developed a three point shot at this point of his career. Compare that to where he was as a draft entrée Lopez grew leaps and bounds! Human beings have a canny knack to be able to adapt and learn crafts at an impressive rate when they work hard on it.
#3 Defensive aptitude determines how a position is seen
Across the globe coaches or even scouts I talk to or converse with give different answers to what a player should fall under in terms of positioning but it’s a fact that in modern basketball the old model of PG, SG, SF, PF and Center are really no longer adequate. At best 3 poisitons ball handlers, wings and bigs are the dynamic to which the game has shifted and are rotating around, in terms of play style.
The pace of the game and the possessions that are played out nowadays require switching (a strength that almost all players need to have). No one can be one or two dimensional anly longer, a big that can’t make a reasonable mid range shot, or be a perimeter threat or have lateral quickness attached becomes to convenstional to play in the NBA and is merely overlooked. I know that some analysts still prefer to talk in terms of 1-5 and numerically assigning atributes but even in doing so we end up hearing the 5 that can pass or the 1 that can block. The 3 that can defend the perimeter and play the PNR. Multi-positioning is the new status quo in the NBA. 76ers – Simmons, Golden State’s – Green, LBJ, The Greek Freak are all players that really don’t fit a mold they play to their strengths and impact the game to flat out win.
Players like Ben Simmons, Draymond Green, LeBron James and Giannis Antetokounmpo don’t really have a true number because their skill portfolio isn’t seen typically for someone of their size. In essence, in order to play someone to their strengths, the numbers have to be somewhere between incredibly fluid or meaningless.
That does not mean that disregarding the old time labels or knowing what a PG, a PF or a Center mean should be forgotten or overlooked. They are good to know and to utilize when need be. Formulating a strategy to build a profile around a prospect by using perpectives is a good way to look.
No team currently has one of each position on the floor in order to be successful. A team of five wings can be successful. Having two combo guards instead of any point guards is a method to success. There is no blueprint for how to combine these positions, just ways to think of them based on their strengths.
#4 Weakness and evaluating it is a thing of the past!
A wise collegiate coach once taught me the importance of not over-fixating on the phrase “weakness.”
“Don’t convince yourself of what a player cannot do just because they cannot do it yet,” he would say. “A weakness is just an area they haven’t shown the time or ability to improve, and until you are certain they have not improved because of ability and not time, it’s not conclusively a weakness.”
Flat out tell a player he is weak in one area and see how hard he works to become the best at it from than on!
Terminology plays a large role in how we analyze and are open to that concept.”
It’s a glass-half-full mentality that puts the emphasis back on the player and the coaching staff to round out a player’s game, and it’s such a powerful frame of reference: Just because something isn’t visible doesn’t mean it isn’t there.
Players get harmed by this concept all the time and often are undervalued on draft boards as a result. Some players do not get the opportunity to showcase all their skills before arriving in the NBA, and it’s on a scouting department to identify those hidden aptitudes.
The best example lies with the Phoenix Suns and Devin Booker, who, coming into the draft process, was labeled as a weak offensive creator. There’s a reason for that: His usage at Kentucky.
Booker was only used as a ball handler in the pick-and-roll on 2.3 percent of his offensive possessions in college, according to Synergy. Yet, he finished this season with 34.5 percent of his offense coming from ball screens and another 12.5 percent in isolation. He created for himself on nearly half his offensive production, breaking that pre-draft mold that he was “predominantly a jump shooter”.
The scouting department in Phoenix was able to unearth this upside as a playmaker—perhaps some of it out of necessity, as the team has lacked any semblance of traditional point guard depth—and now Booker is one of the most heavily-used ball handlers in the NBA.
Which leads to the next point…
#5 How to value leaned skills vs. natural skills
NBA coaching staffs and front offices are equipped with more resources at their disposal than any basketball league around the globe. The quality of teachers and the depth of their instruction is underappreciated.
In essence, an education to skill development reaches its highest levels while a player is in the league, not before it. So many skills—whether how to play the game correctly, how to improve a jump shot or developing a signature move—are gained after a prospect is drafted.
Those are all learned skills or parts of a player’s toolbox that can be imprinted upon them by an outside mentor. A franchise with great confidence in its coaching staff (and veteran player leadership) will trust that the necessary skills to reaching one’s potential can be taught in-house. We see a shift to emphasize natural skills through the draft process, things like a vertical leap, wingspan or speed. Yet, those cannot be taught or improved.
As cliche as it sounds, a balance must be found between both.
A player with no learned skills already (who is usually described as being “raw” or a “raw athlete”) only has so much upside because time isn’t on their side to develop those skills (in time during the length of a “prove it” NBA contract). Players with little in the way of natural talents, despite a high level of skill, may never be able to make an elite impact in such an athletic league.
Finding players with both is the key.
A front office should focus on identifying which learned skills a player does not have yet that their team can teach them. If a strong athlete is not a good shooter yet, what is it about that improvement area and the strength of the organization that can change that narrative?
Think back to Kawhi Leonard, a notoriously subpar shooter at San Diego State. The San Antonio Spurs, with world-renowned shooting coach Chip Engelland, correctly identified that this was not only a skill Leonard was able to learn but one they were able to teach. That marriage is vital, and why the scouting process is meaningless without a long-term plan for helping that prospect improve.
#6 To fit in is a two way street!
For those same reasons, we have to take a look at the fit between the two parties. Too frequently we think about it from a team perspective.
If the Miami Heat have Hassan Whiteside, who is a true post player, why do they need to draft Bam Adebayo? We tend to think of fit in terms of the path to playing time for the prospect and holes on the roster for the franchise.
Do not lose consideration about fit for the player. There are questions that exist which we cannot answer (more on that later) but are absolutely necessary: Does this person fit with our current roster and core? Are they built to live and thrive in our greater community? Can we as an organization bring out their strengths, both with our on-court talent and behind-the-scenes staff?
Fit can be forgotten when only one actor is the decision-maker, like in the draft setting. Prospects have no control of where they end up, so teams tend to view fit only through their lens.
Successful recruiters and evaluators understand that maximizing a player’s potential comes when they are in the right environment. The number of players that make a larger impact on a second team or after their rookie contract expires is countless and is most likely due to the improper marriage resulting from the draft process.
#7 Player value has to fit the market
I’ve always believed in one simple concept as a recruiter: If you love a player, go get him. There is a tendency to over-value the consensus of a player and let that dictate whether a college coach will actually give a player a scholarship offer, waiting to see if the rest of the recruiting landscape agrees with their initial assessment.
The NBA Draft is a different animal due to the limited nature of draft picks at a team’s disposal. Being locked into an order means front offices must understand the market for each prospect and where they are likely to fall. Essentially, teams are only looking for one thing: a player they like that provides the most value to them at a certain numerical pick.
This is a difficult concept to nail in the early part of the first-round. The concept of trading back complicates matters, and leveraging that position is much easier when the draft board and the market are clearer. Towards the end of that first round and into the second, there really is little that matters in terms of market value. If a team likes a player and believes that, relative to that draft position, they can provide impact, they should draft them.
#8 Lean it! Contextualizing is vital!
Decision-makers don’t just wrestle with what something is, they must seek to understand the why. Context around every prospect is important.
Why did Trae Young have such a high usage rate in comparison to Shai Gilgeous-Alexander? Why did Donovan Mitchell play without the ball in his hands at Louisville? Why did Devin Booker only be utilized as a pick-and-roll ball handler on rare occasions?
The answers to these questions—and challenging the common conception with the question why—is what unearths gems or provides important context in evaluation.
That extends beyond skill set but also into statistics. Players that come from the University of Virginia, one of the slowest paced teams in the country, will have a vastly different statistical profile than those from the University of North Carolina, which plays at one of the fastest tempos in college. They also run different offenses, where a lead guard at Carolina will have greater assist numbers than one at Virginia, which runs a true motion and rarely scripts ball screens for its players.
Does that mean the Carolina player—who has both the experience as a pick-and-roll point guard and a statistical portfolio that boosts his resume—is a better prospect than the one from Virginia? Of course not. All it means is that we must unpack the context to understand why the visuals around their trajectory are so different.
#9 Age is of Value
A first-round draft pick is a four-year commitment from an NBA team. If all goes according to plan, they re-sign that player for either a four or five-year extension, now locking up their franchise pillar to become one of the highest players on their payroll.
All of a sudden, eight or nine years go by, and as that player is ready to ink their third contract, their Bird rights are incredibly important.
No team enters the draft thinking they will fail to unearth their next franchise pillar; Such a defeatist attitude would indicate a team shouldn’t make the selection at all and is better suited to trade their pick. They all believe they have found a long-term commitment.
The starting age of a draft prospect plays a huge role in determining where they are selected partially due to that long-term contractual outlook. If a player is drafted at 19 years old, they finish their rookie contract at 23. The aforementioned four-year extension would run until they are 27, still firmly in their prime to sign another long-term deal for their third contract. Now the franchise gets around twelve years of a player in their prime.
But consider what happens if the player drafted is 22 on the date of their first professional game, entering the league after their senior year in college. They are 26 when their rookie contract expires, and a four-year extension takes them until they are 30. Is there a great deal of value in locking them up to a third long-term contract?
Budgetary planning is vital for a general manager, and so many teams have great confidence in their own skill development staffs. Taking a younger player that needs growth in years one or two of their contract—but who will reap the benefits in year ten—is valued more than taking a ready-to-play senior that the team can only get seven or eight quality years out of.
None of this is rigid, but when spending millions of dollars on long-term commitments, we have seen a trend of younger players getting drafted earlier. It’s not as much an indictment on their playing ability as how close they may be to their ceiling.
#10 The most important data is the one that it kept private!
Here’s where things get tricky, and where I likely come off as a giant hypocrite.
The most important pieces of the scouting process take place behind closed doors and never reach the public eye: These are the conversations with college and high school coaches, the character references, the medical information and in-depth analytical studies that only a group with immense funding can undertake. Very few out there have the relevant information to make determinations on all this, and even if an outlet acquires that data on one prospect, there is no way to compare it to another.
What we do on internet outlets is make determinations based on the information we have. But we also must realize that our data points are inherently incomplete. We lack the staff—and often the league-wide access, even if we have team-specific contacts—devoted to in-depth analysis and digging of so many different avenues.