2023 NBA Draft Scouting Tips: Wings
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 continuing with wings.
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 keep the scouting insights coming moving forward with the wing position!
1. Plus Length
It’s become a popular drinking game to take a shot every time Jay Bilas says “wingspan” during ESPN’s NBA Draft Coverage.
Even though it’s become laughable to hone in on the same thing for virtually every player who walks up to the podium on draft night, it’s actually that important given where today’s game is trending.
Players who possess shorter wingspans are that much behind in the NBA. Defense is all about effort and hustle, but the physical tools matter in terms of versatility.
And without versatility, one’s role could change drastically on the court. After all, a lot of famous coaches have been quoted saying that as a player, your position is what you can guard.
Truer words have never been spoken.
What drives scaling up defensively? LENGTH! Yes, height matters to a certain degree, especially in the backcourt offensively, as I wrote in my last piece. It certainly helps on the low block as well, as centers who are shorter than 6’11” don’t have as much of an advantage on either side of the ball.
But plus length allows guys to make plays on the ball that some others can’t. Be it a deflection playing passing lanes, swiping for a steal without having to play so far up on a guy you can smell him, or getting that blocked shot from behind like many of the well-known chase-down artists in the league today.
Tari Eason is one example I can think of off the top of my head from the previous draft class, where his length mattered on a night-in, night-out basis.
Eason was constantly relying on his tools to win the battles on defense, and boy, did he make things happen. Regardless of the things I wasn’t crazy about with his offensive game, I rarely had unkind words to utter about his defense other than that he was one hell of a gambling man on certain possessions.
Players don’t rate incredibly high in both steal and block rates if they don’t have plus-sized wingspans. Go and look at the top wing defenders in the NBA today, and you’ll see the same exact trend.
For wings, I’m not as focused on pure, blazing speed down the court because not everyone needs to be constantly putting pressure on the rim every trip down the floor. Some guys are better off baseline cutting, camping out in the corners, or coming off screens. And while I appreciate transition play as much as the next guy, I’d much rather have a cerebral defender with a +4 or greater wingspan difference who knows exactly how to use what God gave them.
That is why it’s become a favorite physical characteristic of far better evaluators than myself. So if you don’t think it’s an important indicator of success at all positions, it’s incredibly valuable for wings in today’s switch-happy, pick-and-roll driven league.
2. Defensive Footwork
Along with length, the other thing I appreciate seeing on tape for young prospects is footwork on the defensive end.
Footwork is much more than just sliding one’s feet laterally well enough to keep pace with the position you have to guard. It means keeping up with smaller, quicker guards to contain them on the perimeter.
And along with keeping a certain balance, not tripping over yourself when trying to run around and deal with the 50 screens each team could set possession by possession is much more difficult of an ask than it sounds.
Getting skinny on screens, using one’s hips to defend, and not relying as much on one’s hands are also examples of footwork that people don’t always think of yet are important because they come back to balance and coordination.
Try playing defense in the NBA against a team that hunts for mismatches constantly by calling for screen after screen at the top of the key. If you can’t get around screens up top and are forced to switch and go under every time, you’ll leave the wrong man open time and time again and get burned.
Wings who have to stick with certain matchups have to have the ability to navigate through traffic and stay balanced doing so. The bar is set so high nowadays on offense that players can hit shots from anywhere at any time. Or, at the very least, they can get to their spots virtually whenever they want.
Using the proper technique on defense starts with above-average footwork. After all, how can you keep your head up and focus on what’s in front of you if you have to constantly look down at the ground and make sure your lower body is in check every second you’re moving?
Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, Kobe Bryant, Michael Jordan. Go back and watch some of the best perimeter defenders in the NBA, both present and past. All four of those guys are wings, and while they possess length and the requisite speed and athleticism, they’re also footwork technicians not just in setting up their scoring package offensively but in sticking with multiple positions on defense.
A much more recent example from the prior class is Johnny Davis. Go back and watch how he stayed on his toes and never let anyone catch him off balance. His lower body strength, footwork, and competitiveness allowed him to stand out as one of the best defensive guards in the country at Wisconsin.
There’s so much more to basketball than just running, jumping, and shooting. Feet and hands are great indicators of success at every position, and learning how to position oneself, anticipate the offense, and keep balance to get there can help even an average wing make the swing up another level.
3. Quick Decision-Making
If I were to mention the phrase “decision-making” from a basketball perspective, I’m sure most people would immediately think about the higher usage guards who have to pick and choose what to do with the ball on more possessions than not.
In reality, one would be surprised how often it’s the wings who have to keep the ball moving for an offense to hum and sing at its highest level.
Basketball is Jazz, after all (shoutout to TrueHoop’s Coach David Thorpe), and no great jazz band is without balance and timed crescendos and decrescendos.
If everyone in the band is too loud, looking for their time to make sure they’re heard, it throws the music off and can make it unbearable to listen to them. But when everyone is in lockstep with one another, putting the band’s best interest before each other, that’s when pieces are executed, and the music is smooth.
Back in the day, I was actually a lead saxophonist for a jazz band, so I’m very familiar with what balance sounds like. Everyone should get their time to shine over the course of the song, and that should happen in a similar fashion on the basketball court.
Making quick decisions to pass or shoot keeps the offense moving and the defense on their toes, with less time to react to what’s happening. If the offense slows down and becomes too focused on one particular player or players, that’s when possessions break down, and offenses become much less efficient.
Yes, there are a handful of guys in the NBA who have everything built around them, and they dictate how many isolations are queued up throughout the game. But that’s at most about 10 to 15 players in the league, meaning the vast majority need to play a distinct role offensively around those superstar talents.
Keeping within the flow of the offense and knowing when to drive, when to shoot, or when to pass sounds easy in concept. In the NBA, though, the game moves so much quicker than even in college, so it’s more difficult for young guys to adjust.
So while it’s not always the easiest thing to scout to translate at the next level, I try and watch for guys who don’t let the ball stick as much as possible, especially with wings. After catching the ball in the corner, it should be a split-second decision to attack the closeout, take the shot, or make the pass. Same with guys who are receiving a pass on the wing for the easy swing to the corner or surveying the court in that split second to drive on a defender closing out hard to get two feet into the paint and finish or dump it off.
These are all things that should happen almost instantaneously. That’s the level of quickness and precision that the NBA game demands, especially from wings who are meant to fill in around guards and bigs.
And if you need any examples of what that looks like in the NBA, look no further than the Phoenix Suns, who have had a number of 6’5”-6’8” players for years who embrace getting that ball out quick, be it on a pass or shot.
Decisiveness is key to keeping the best offenses revving, and it is crucial to see signs of it in wings, even at lower levels.
4. Scoring Versatility
Similar to what I wrote about with guards regarding shooting versatility, I expand that out to “scoring” for wings.
After all, not every player slotted at the two or the three is a lights-out shooter. There are plenty of slashers in the league who make their money getting their man off balance with a quick first step, getting into the teeth of the defense, and bullying their way into tough finishes at the basket or, after getting that separation, can go to a nifty spin move or euro step to convert the deuce.
And, if they can use some of that quickness and footwork to set up a balanced step-back jumper in the mid-range, then boy, am I incredibly intrigued.
But players have to be able to do more than standing in the corner waiting for an opportunity to catch and shoot. As I spoke about with guards, it’s more than ONLY dancing with the ball or spotting up. Having the ability to run off screens or cut and curl for open jumpers with balance and poise can change the course of a game and offer up far more opportunities to score.
For wings, it’s about slashing and cutting in a timely manner when the defense least expects it to create an angle for a well-executed pass that can lead to an easy score—maybe incorporating some of the movement shooting I discussed with guards.
Even adding things like a mismatch post game can create some interesting opportunities and wrinkles for an NBA offense, as we have seen from Saddiq Bey at times for the Detroit Pistons.
Being one-dimensional, even as a role player, doesn’t quite cut it in the scoring department anymore. Making quick decisions, as I discussed, but having the moves and countermoves off of those decisions no matter how the defense reacts is key. And depending on what schemes and coverages are being deployed, one needs to be able to take what the defense gives them.
Slashing, cutting, posting up, running off screens, even operating as a secondary pick-and-roll creator. All of these are ways for wings to get involved in scoring the basketball and are more than just being a spot-up threat. The more skill one possesses, the more one can be in the thick of the offense.
5. Ball Handling Ability
And last but not least, the one thing that can tie together scoring versatility and quick decision-making is ball-handling.
I would never expect every wing to be able to whip out the same dribble package as Kyrie Irving or Stephen Curry. But there is a difference between securely handling the ball on the move vs. sloppily coughing it up on a drive.
Ball-handling ability isn’t just pulling off combination moves to create separation. At its core, it’s also ball security. Limiting turnovers comes not only from reading the defense and responding abruptly but also from tight control over the rock.
Now, don’t get me wrong—any wings who can create off the bounce like some of the better guards in the NBA immediately have my attention. But to go along with the Suns’ example I mentioned above, that’s not the story with someone like Mikal Bridges.
As a matter of fact, his dribbling came into question during his college evaluation as a weakness of his. There were plenty of scouts who thought his handle wasn’t tight enough to activate more of the mid-range game he showed in college at the NBA level.
I tended to disagree with that notion, as I saw someone who showed signs of improvement in that regard during his senior campaign and believed that he was good enough to securely and safely get to his spots where he could rise and fire. Sure enough, Bridges has an underrated pull-up game and has FINALLY started to unleash more of it in the league.
That’s what I want to see from wings. The players who aren’t the next great isolation threats, can you at least get to certain spots on the floor or get to the rim without coughing it up?
Some guys dribble the ball too high, and some dribble it too far away from their bodies. Some can’t even go to their non-dominant hand for a few dribbles before it gets a little awkward on the move.
But those who do have a command over their handle, at least to some degree, open up those other opportunities I referenced earlier. All of a sudden, they aren’t thinking twice about attacking along the baseline or taking a few dribbles to get two feet in the paint. They’re more confident in getting to where they want to go to where they can rise up from unexpected areas on the court, depending on how well the other team studied the night before.
Teams that rack up the most wins don’t turn the ball over. That goes for more than just point guards running the majority of the show. BALL SECURITY IS EVERYTHING!
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