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Friday, June 23, 2006

A Scout's-Eye View of the Game

I recently had the opportunity to spend some time with Indiana Pacers scout Kevin Mackey and learn how a professional basketball talent evaluator watches a game. First, we went to a Division I college basketball game; later, I took notes as Mackey evaluated a videotape of a Division I college basketball game featuring a prospect. For obvious reasons, I promised not to mention the names of any of the players or teams; in any case, the point is not so much what Mackey thinks of a given player but rather how he thinks about basketball in general and player evaluation in particular. Mackey is perhaps best known for coaching the Cleveland State Vikings to a Sweet 16 appearance in 1986, including an upset over the third-seeded Indiana Hoosiers. Mackey also has head coaching experience in various pro basketball minor leagues, where he coached many future NBA players, including Darrell Armstrong, Mark Blount, Michael Curry and Adrian Griffin. Mackey led the Atlantic City Seagulls to three consecutive USBL championships.

“Seasons begin and end, but player personnel is year-round.”

The above quote is one of the first things that Mackey tells me and it is well worth remembering. Mackey must be aware of the strengths and weaknesses of the players currently on the Pacers’ roster so that he can properly evaluate whether or not a prospect can help the team. The first thing that a scout must consider is talent: can this player play at the NBA level and contribute in a meaningful way? Physically, a scout is looking for players who have an NBA body and NBA athleticism. Next, a scout evaluates if the player can do these things at the NBA level: (1) shoot; (2) get open; (3) rebound; (4) pass.

However, just because a player has NBA level talent does not mean that he will be an effective NBA player. This is something that a lot of fans—and players—do not understand. Putting up big numbers and filling highlight reels with slam dunks do not prove a player’s NBA worthiness. It is vital to observe the action off of the ball: (1) does the player understand what he is supposed to be doing? (such as setting a screen, cutting, double-teaming, playing help defense); (2) is the player unselfish or is he just trying to pad his own statistics?

As Mackey puts it, some players "suck their thumbs" when they don’t have the ball; their body language clearly communicates that their main interest is scoring and that they are unwilling to do anything else to help the team. Other important characteristics to observe include the player’s attitude toward his coach, his interactions with his teammates and his response to adversity, which could come in the form of missed shots, physical play, a blown call or a mistake by a teammate. These kinds of things are difficult to pick up during a television broadcast; only in person can a scout gauge a player’s presence/dominance.

Mackey says that most players are not equipped to play both ends of the floor and sometimes it is difficult to project how a player’s skills will translate from college to the pros. For instance, will a great college shooter be able to get his shot off in the pros? A scout must determine if the player’s positives at one end of the court outweigh his negatives at the other end. Mackey notes, "Toughness translates from one level to the next. You look for toughness."

Mackey became a scout after a long coaching career, so part of his mindset is to evaluate a player based on what it would be like to coach him; other talent evaluators are ex-players and their experiences on the court shape their perspectives of how a player should move, look and perform. One former player turned NBA talent evaluator insists, "Players tell you if they can play by how they move." He always arrives at games early so that he can observe how fluidly players move during pre-game warmups. I couldn’t help but bring up a football example: Bernie Kosar, who quarterbacked the Cleveland Browns to three AFC Championship games but moved so awkwardly that it looked like he could not chew gum and walk at the same time. Of course, there are always exceptions, this talent evaluator concedes, but in general great athletes have a presence and move with a certain grace and fluidity.


When Mackey and I arrive at our seats, he explains that he is focusing on four players in this game, two from each team. Mackey builds a "book" on each player—a combination of their statistics and observations about their strengths, weaknesses and tendencies. He says, "Players have DNA"—unique traits that form their identities as athletes. What if a player who is lightly regarded plays extremely well? Then Mackey has to determine if the player just got hot for one game, had a favorable matchup or has in fact improved his skills. He will make a note to follow this player’s performance for the rest of the season. If the player was completely off of the radar, the likelihood is that he just had one good game and will soon revert back to his normal level.

During the game, Mackey fires off comments in a staccato style. After a careless turnover, he says that you "throw a football but you pass a basketball." He waits until stoppages of play to jot down notes so that he doesn’t miss any game action, observing that this part of his job is similar to what a beat writer does while covering a game.

Mackey says of one player that he is small, but, pointing to a stat sheet showing his team-leading scoring average, that he must be doing something right to score this much. Mackey nods approvingly when this player makes a two dribble move and nails a three-pointer. Still, it doesn’t take long for Mackey to identify his weaknesses: he must get tougher and learn how to drive to his left.

When a different player drops some passes and fumbles the ball a couple times, Mackey exclaims, "He has hands like feet." A minute later, Mackey says, "You can find guys like that under a bridge. I bring in guys like that (to training camp), I won’t have a job."

After watching the game for about ten minutes, Mackey says that the four guys he is looking at are limited and that his highest projection for players in this game would be the CBA or the NBDL. The best of the bunch, relatively speaking, is a player who has NBA size and is a good open shooter. The problem is that he is not tough—he doesn’t fight through screens on defense. Still, after he makes a few shots, Mackey says that he "shoots the deep ball. That’s an NBA talent." Because of his build and his ability to shoot, there is a slight possibility that he could develop into a useful NBA player.

Mackey dismisses the most athletic player of this quartet with the acronym "JAG"—just another guy. Playing the devil’s advocate, I point out that his team runs no plays for him. Mackey agrees, but says that how well a player rebounds tells you a lot because that is based solely on the player’s effort, drive and toughness: "You don’t need your mother or your coach or your teammates" to help you get rebounds. This player has obvious physical gifts but he is not doing much and is having little impact on the game. Later, when we look at a halftime boxscore, Mackey circles the number of rebounds by this player’s name and shakes his head; if a reasonably athletic player is not dominating the boards against college players, what chance does he have to succeed in the NBA?

The ability to catch the ball, hold on to it and make a play is rare but very important--players who have great hands are few and far between. Mackey says that hands "are a talent. Good players hang on to the ball." The small guard with the decent scoring average drives to the hoop but has the ball stripped away. He may have been fouled but nothing was called. I ask Mackey about that: When he was coaching, what would he say if he was chewing out a player for losing the ball and the player responds by saying that he was fouled? Mackey replies simply that coaches don’t want to hear excuses. If the referee did not blow his whistle then there was not a foul and the player must be tough enough to retain possession. If a player has any trouble dealing with the level of contact in college basketball then no scout is going to even consider recommending him as an NBA prospect. Players must be able to accept a lot of contact and still finish at the basket in order to play at the NBA level.

Most of the early action involves perimeter players until a reserve big man checks into the game and receives some touches in the post. To be a legitimate NBA prospect, a post player must be able to catch, turn and shoot in traffic. Not long after he enters the game, this post player drops a poorly thrown pass. I ask Mackey if he holds that against the post player or against the guard who threw the pass. Mackey answers that it was the guard’s fault but notes that a great receiver—an upper echelon post player like Tim Duncan--would have batted the ball to the floor and then controlled it. Mackey says that Moses Malone had small hands, so he would sometimes bat the ball until he could grab it. If a skilled player can get a hand on the ball then he will usually find some way to catch it, so this poorly thrown entry pass tells Mackey two things: the guard is not a good feeder of the post and the player he passed to does not have superb hands.

A few possessions later, the post player receives an entry pass that he can handle. His moves around the hoop are so mechanical and plodding that I thought that I was watching an old Godzilla movie made with stop action photography. Mackey puts it a different way: he has no "stuff" around the basket and is "not clever" with his low post moves. A good post player moves crisply and decisively and if the defense cuts off his primary move then he immediately goes to a counter move—stop his baseline hook shot and he spins to the middle for a short jumper. Instead, this player tries to use his size to muscle up a shot. When he is stopped short he has no counter move.

After the game, Mackey says that he does not need to see any of these players again this season; if they are smart, they will stay in school, develop their skills--and earn a degree, because none of them is a serious NBA prospect at this point. Next year, Mackey will probably watch them play again to see if any of them have substantially improved.


Before we watch any tape, Mackey points out some "NBA questions" that he has written on the grease board that hangs on one of his office walls. They are:

--Accomplishments to date
--NBA physical tools
--Skill set
--Size for position

The first two can be classified as "background"—what a player has done until now in high school, college and/or international play. Mackey calls the last three "want to" traits—intangibles such as whether the player will play hard, not back away from physical contact and continue to have a good work ethic if he gets a big contract. Understanding is another intangible—does he make the right pass, is he in the right position, does he recognize situations on the court.

Mackey says that he has not listed the questions in order of importance but, for instance, if a player does not have NBA physical tools or athleticism then he really needs a great skill set to compensate. Steve Kerr is an example of this—he lacked athleticism, but could really shoot and had a good understanding of how to play. Earl Boykins, T.J. Ford and Eddie House are examples of players who are undersized but possess outstanding quickness.

The major advantage of film study over watching a game live is the ability to rewind plays. The two disadvantages are bad camera angles at times (in terms of what the scout wants/needs to observe) and not getting the chance to feel a player’s presence and see his interactions with teammates, coaches and referees. The only way to get a complete picture of a prospect is to combine film study with in-person observations of a prospect. Tapes of college players may either be recorded from regular broadcast television or broken down into clips consisting exclusively of a certain player’s offensive or defensive sequences from a particular game.

Mackey has selected the tape that we are watching to look at one player in particular—let’s call him "the prospect." Early in the game, the prospect takes two dribbles and then hits a jumper in the lane—Mackey rewinds the tape and says that this is an NBA caliber move. The prospect gets where he wants to go on the court, plays under control and is not in a hurry. Mackey likes the way that he uses his off arm to ward off the defender but without doing it so blatantly that he commits a foul. Later on, the prospect scores a basket and draws a foul by giving the defender his hip while protecting the ball. I suggest that his moves are stronger, quicker and more decisive than any moves made by the players in the game that we watched in person and Mackey heartily agrees.

All teams have a book on numerous prospects prepared by Marty Blake’s scouting service. This book contains thumbnail biographies and various statistics. Mackey turns to the page in the book about the prospect and notes some concerns that he has about him, the foremost being his poor free throw percentage—actually, his shooting percentages from all ranges (FG, 3-point FG and FT) are not great. His shooting form is not the best but Mackey is not worried about that. He says that the most important thing in becoming a good shooter is repetition. Larry Bird and Reggie Miller did not have classic form but perfected their deadly shooting via countless hours of repetition.

What Mackey wants to determine is how effectively the prospect would fit in with the Pacers’ players. Can he make other people on the team better by driving to the hoop, drawing the defense and dishing the ball to open shooters? Mackey says that sometimes a player plays better than his numbers might indicate. College coaches move players around to different positions to get wins. This is understandable—winning games is their job—but often leads to players performing in roles that are different from what their roles would be in the NBA, hindering a true evaluation of them. The style that a team plays affects a prospect’s statistics, as does the quality of his teammates. Statistical analysis is very much in vogue in baseball and is rapidly gaining popularity in NBA circles. Mackey agrees that it is an important part of the puzzle but says that the "eyeball is number one."

On a couple occasions, the prospect dribble drives, penetrates and then makes passes to open shooters that are not converted into baskets. Those would be good NBA plays that NBA quality shooters would convert into baskets, but because his teammates missed the shots the prospect’s assist totals do not accurately convey his ability as a playmaker. Mackey likes that the prospect handles the ball well and is an athletic kid. Mackey rewinds the tape again when the prospect gets a strong offensive rebound and converts. Soon after that, he makes another NBA caliber driving move and finishes at the hoop with his left hand. Later, the opposing team tries to apply some ball pressure against the prospect, but he is not fazed. Mackey notes that he’s not a jet, but he uses his body to protect the ball and has a good handle. He uses size to get into the lane and understands how to pass the ball. On defense he is able to keep ball handlers in front of him and is in the right position most of the time. Mackey summarizes the prospect’s performance: "He can come in and play with grown men; he’ll pass the ball"—as opposed to a player who would come into camp shooting all the time and irritating veteran players.

Getting Ready for the Draft

All of the information from the team’s scouts is assembled together before the draft. Technological improvements have helped make scouting more sophisticated and there are fewer secrets now because of it—for the teams that take advantage of the opportunities that the new technology presents. Specifically, there are high quality DVDs or videotapes available of almost any serious prospect that a team may be considering; advances in computer technology make it easy to break down a game tape and extract all of that player’s key offensive or defensive plays for examination. I mention that a few years ago my favorite part of the NBA draft was when a team would draft some foreign player that only Hubie Brown had heard of and then Brown would break down that player’s game while TNT showed some grainy black and white footage that looked like a bad home video. Mackey says that sometimes you still may end up with grainy footage of foreign players, but much less frequently than in the past.

In some cases, a team’s scouts will disagree about how to evaluate a given player and that player’s ability to fit in with the team. More information is gathered when players are brought in by the teams for interviews. These interviews may be conducted by a group of scouts or by one scout individually. If a scout is not present for an interview he can submit a question that came up based on what he saw/researched. For instance, "Why did Player X not play until his senior year of high school?" The answer may reveal academic, legal or family problems that could be red flags about this player. Other parts of the final evaluation process include a medical examination, psychological profiling and the coach’s assessment of what the team needs.

Teams conduct many mock drafts to try to anticipate what the other teams will do and to figure out which players are most likely to be available to them. Of course, Mackey would not say for publication what the Pacers think about this year’s draft but he says that the Pacers did 35 mock drafts at various times leading up to the 2005 draft and that Danny Granger—a player who the Pacers really liked--was never available. The interesting thing about the process is that different teams have different needs and different aversions to perceived risk. Mackey believes that questions about Danny Granger’s knee may have caused his draft status to drop. The Pacers were delighted to get him with the 17th overall pick in the first round. Early in the season, even before Granger received much playing time, Mackey raved to me about his toughness. Granger averaged 7.5 ppg and 4.9 rpg and was selected to the All-Rookie Second Team, just missing the cut for First Team status.

The Pacers—and 29 other NBA teams—hope to select another Granger in the 2006 draft. Their scouts are working 365 days a year to find him.

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:22 PM



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