2023 NBA Draft Scouting Tips: Guards
Before the new season gets underway, our own Nathan Grubel is publishing a four-part series covering some key tips in scouting by position for the upcoming NBA Draft starting with guards.
It feels great to be back in the saddle, ready to study prospects for the 2023 NBA Draft!
Admittedly, I take some time away in July and August to refresh and recharge. The amount of time and effort that goes into evaluating hundreds of players during a draft cycle can be exhausting, and I encourage everyone to take a break in the offseason to avoid burnout.
Even so, I still focus on other basketball-related topics during that time that don’t steer me toward the upcoming class. I’ll take a look and review NBA Summer League film to evaluate rookie fits and how newly drafted players will fit with their new teams. Free agency and signings, as well as cuts, are also fun to monitor in the summer months.
As I’ve talked about before, knowing what’s going on in the NBA can help you advance further as a scout. It’s important to analyze and discuss roster constructions and trends in the leagues above those you’re focused on scouting.
All of those things give me plenty to sink my teeth into that’s different than what I primarily focus on in the fall and winter. But September is here, and with it comes a heavy dose of preseason prep leading into November.
So instead of trying to hammer out a bunch of prospect preview pieces (we’re already down a rabbit hole here at No Ceilings, and we are also starting down that path this week on Draft Deeper), I thought it would be beneficial to set the scene for the audience as to what I’ll be looking for in my coming evaluations.
Each scout has their own philosophies and methods, but sometimes we overlook sharing tips and insights as to what others should be looking for and get lost in what each prospect has or doesn’t have.
This series will try and steer the ship in the direction of the former. I want to lay out some helpful “boxes” I’ll be looking to check, so to speak, when studying players this year.
While I can’t fit every single characteristic or behavior into one piece, I’ll take four or five important traits and skills that I look for by position to give a better idea of what I’m learning to prioritize and identify in prospects sooner rather than later.
Minor disclaimer: I evaluate prospects based on four position groups which are guards, wings, forwards, and centers. I’ve discussed these categorizations on previous podcasts and in written pieces, but it’s important to note this up front for the coming weeks.
When I discuss guards, I’m talking about pure points or combos that could fit in either the one or two mold. I separate wings from guards in terms of, are they closer to being a 3/2 or a 2/3 than a 2/1? And forwards fall in a similar group when comparing them to wings. Are they much better suited to play up in position than scale down? Lastly, centers are just that by my evaluation. True bigs space the floor more frequently than ever; however, by defensive positioning and role within the flow of the offense, they’re geared towards impacting on the interior more often than not.
So with all of that out of the way, let’s get into some key tips in scouting by position, with this week’s focus being on guards!
1. Plus Positional Size And/Or Outlier Speed
I’m usually not one for “size-shaming” prospects because the game is meant to be played by a myriad of different athletes.
Unfortunately, as the league continues to trend toward “positionless” basketball, it’s getting harder to defend that notion and not factor size in more of the equation.
Guards who aren’t 6’4” or taller have a more difficult time than ever seeing over and navigating through defenses armed with guys who are 6’6”-6’9” in at least three positions, not to mention whoever is playing center (generally standing anywhere from 6’10”-7’1”).
Combine that with the length that these wings and forwards possess, and it makes for a tough go-round to try and shoot over defenders who are great at closing out and contesting. And going up against a team like the Toronto Raptors where they can play jumbo lineups with Scottie Barnes at the point, and it’s curtains for a lot of shorter guards in the NBA…
…Unless they possess an outlier trait or two.
Length can be factored in the opposite way, playing to the favor of someone like Donovan Mitchell, who is 6’1” at best but packs a ridiculous wingspan for someone his size. Really though, I’m talking about SPEED.
Yes, speed kills in the league just like it does everywhere else in professional sports. Guards who have that initial zip and acceleration are equalizers in a way because if they can catch a bigger defender off guard and get to where they need to go, then it becomes less about scoring one-on-one and more about collapsing defenders and getting them out of position to take advantage of finding the open man and keeping the ball moving.
Blazing end-to-end speed is obviously important to play the transition game, but the first step in the halfcourt, that initial burst, is more crucial than ever for those guards who aren’t blessed with plus positional size and length.
But along with size and speed, there’s one other important difference maker that all guards should look to implement into their games sooner rather than later.
2. Change Of Gears
It hasn’t just been the speed of Chris Paul that carried him through a masterful career in the NBA. There’s plenty that’s helped Paul become one of the game’s all-time greats. But the way he manipulates defenses in and out of pick-and-roll comes from his ability to change gears.
When one can decelerate and accelerate at the drop of a hat with the best of them, they become so incredibly hard to guard, especially with a swift handle. Paul’s mastery of both, as well as HOW he plays off the screener in pick-and-roll actions, gives him quite the leg up on defenders no matter how tall or long they are.
The best guards in the NBA, not just Paul, have the ability to start and stop to throw defenses off balance. Ja Morant, Darius Garland, Jalen Brunson—the list goes on and on. Whereas those who play at one speed on a consistent basis generally aren’t able to have the same impact on the game because NBA defenders are built to wall off and contest straight line drives without nuance.
Basketball, at its highest level, is a game of chess. Outwitting your opponent is everything, so tightening up your handle and finding the perfect blend of speed, acceleration, deceleration, and footwork can be as much of an equalizer as being bigger and stronger than those guarding you.
3. Paint Threat
So having the ability to change gears, dribble through traffic, and blow by defenders is great and all, but there has to be a “next step” for this, right?
As a matter of fact, there is: being a threat in the paint.
Having a mid-range game of some kind is crucial for top-shelf scorers in the NBA. Not every guard is going to become a pull-up maestro on the wings or along the baseline. After all, those areas are usually reserved for the go-to offensive options at the forward spots.
But being active in the paint and having a floater and/or ambidextrous and diverse layup package can be equally as terrifying for defenses to gameplan around.
One thing I’ve prioritized in evaluations is studying the floater game of guards. Jaden Ivey from last year’s draft, along with Immanuel Quickley and Tyrese Maxey to a greater extent, are excellent examples of what can happen when paint scoring comes together for guards who can effectively “take the space” on offense.
Maxey and Quickley do have better pull-up jumpers than given credit for, but both also have killer floaters in the lane that can bring defenders out, leaving the baseline cuts and dunker spot lobs open for business. As a matter of fact, no one makes better use of that manipulation than Trae Young for the Atlanta Hawks.
Ivey, on the other hand, doesn’t have as efficient of a jumper as any of those guards. He can get past virtually anyone on the perimeter, but if defenses are smart they’ll let him take the space in front of them and cut off his access to the rim, where he can finish with the best of them.
Where Ivey made sure to improve during his sophomore campaign was in the paint on floaters. Having that touch allowed him to punish big men for dropping too far on coverage and help defenders for not looking to double before he got in the lane.
Taking advantage of one’s strengths is as important, if not more important, than solely focusing on rounding out one’s weaknesses, and scoring in the NBA is no different. Getting to spots on the floor is one thing, but being a threat from those areas is another. Having a killer floater game or crafty layup package can really put defenses in a bind and add to building out a three-level scoring attack.
4. Angle Manipulation
Angle manipulation can be broken down in a number of different ways. Usually, when this phrase is thrown around, it’s more so to discuss driving lanes taken to the basket. Taking the right angle to play off the defense and find an easier path to finish at the rim is crucial for a lot of the league’s best wing scorers.
But for guards, I’m also referring to passing angles—throwing defenders off course using eye manipulation to create passing lanes and also playing certain driving angles to force defenders in one spot on the floor, opening up passing opportunities off of those drives.
Passing off baseline drives, using eye and body language off screens to get defenders to commit in the wrong direction—those are just two examples of manipulating and taking certain angles to pass rather than score. Again, the game of basketball is a chess match, and using every trick in the book to create an advantage is crucial at the highest level.
Johnny Davis was a prime example of this for me during the last draft cycle. As a matter of fact, our own Tyler Metcalf took a bunch of time, both through writing and podcasting, to talk about Davis’s passing and how creative he was on the move from all different angles on the floor.
His threat to score got defenders thinking he was always going to continue barreling towards the rim, but his ability to hit wrap-around passes on the baseline or cross court to the opposite corner opened things up for everyone around him, even if his fellow Wisconsin teammates didn’t always hit those shots.
Davis was known for his tough shot-making, but his nuanced approach to sharing the basketball made him a much more difficult cover than it’s given credit for being. During this upcoming draft cycle, I’m looking for guards to share the same affinity for passing as Davis and plenty of other creative backcourt threats.
5. Perimeter Shooting Versatility
And last, but certainly not least: shooting.
Everyone on the basketball court needs to be able to shoot in some capacity for offenses to run at optimal levels.
It’s no different for guards, who should be able to make shots in ways that extend past dancing with the ball at the top of the key and dribbling into a side-step jumper.
Being as much of a threat away from the ball as on it changes how defenses account for certain players within the flow of the game. Having the ability to shoot off the move can warp even the best of coverages and add a fun wrinkle to any offensive attack.
Take Jared Butler, for example. Butler was able to create his own shot from virtually anywhere behind the arc at Baylor, and his handle helped him to navigate through defenses and take advantage of certain spots on the floor.
But what wasn’t talked about enough with Butler was how he approached when he didn’t have the ball in his hands.
Butler shared point guard duties with Davion Mitchell, and boy, did he make the most of when he wasn’t tasked with quarterbacking his team’s sets and play calls. Whether it was screening for others and popping off for open catch-and-shoot looks, running off screens, or working off curls, Butler found opportunities to rise and fire beyond just when he wanted to pull up from distance. Consistently moving, regardless of whether he’s pounding the rock or not, helped the Bears keep defenses guessing and made him that much more of a weapon on offense.
Not to mention Mitchell hunted for those same looks himself when Butler had the ball. All of a sudden, that offense becomes that much more dynamic because both players can change and adapt their roles on the fly. If defenses want to practice a certain type of coverage to limit either one’s on-ball opportunities, then they can pick and choose their spots moving away from it and force defenders to pick their poison every trip down the floor.
Having defined roles on the basketball court is important because not everyone is meant to do everything. But having multiple freelancing options who can make the most no matter what they’re going up against is a blessing of the highest order. Versatility is a key buzzword in NBA circles and has been for as long as the game has been played. That much hasn’t changed, and when it comes to shooting, it’s as important as ever to prioritize.
Thanks for reading No Ceilings! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.