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My Favorite NBA Draft Scouting Stories | The Morning Dunk
In a special offseason edition of The Morning Dunk, our own Nathan Grubel recalls some of his favorite scouting stories over the last six years, with lessons to be learned from each.
As much as I love learning from my mistakes in scouting, yes, I can admit I do love it when my thoughts and observations turn out to be correct.
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But the absolute most joy comes from those moments where I’m able to identify a good NBA player who’s projected to go a little later than the top few picks in the lottery.
It’s one thing to watch a player like Paolo Banchero or Chet Holmgren from this most recent draft, for example, and see the talent and outcomes that should lead to either being selected with a first or second overall pick.
I feel, however, it’s most rewarding to watch a player who’s not on people’s radars and go to bat for them to have a chance.
That’s why I wanted to write this piece to highlight some of my favorite scouting stories over the last six years. Some of the players I selected to highlight did, in fact, turn out to be stars. A few, however, aren’t “stars” but are good quality rotation players who have already had moments in the playoffs.
What makes some of these stories even more fun is they come from in-person scouting trips, something I’ll touch on throughout this piece. Getting to study the film is engaging and rewarding for trained eyes, but I thoroughly enjoy getting to games and practices to study a player’s habits and interactions with his teammates. And, of course, it’s a pleasure to see a guy have success on the court to change the narrative behind their respective draft stock.
There’s ALWAYS a lesson to be learned, even if one’s evaluation is deemed to be correct. Each of these stories has a takeaway that stands out to me as I continue to grow and evolve as a scout.
Let’s dive in to some of my fondest memories over the last six years and learn together!
Donovan Mitchell, Utah Jazz
2017 NBA Draft, Pick 13
I won’t take a ton of credit for claiming to hit on my evaluation of Donovan Mitchell. He, along with some of the players discussed in this piece, was a late lottery pick, so it’s not as if he came out of nowhere and shocked scouts.
His story in the NBA, however, has been far better than his draft slot would suggest.
Mitchell is a multi-time All-Star, and a highly coveted trade chip on the market as his future with the Utah Jazz seemingly is coming to a close.
A 20-plus PPG scorer on a routine basis, Mitchell’s offensive game is dynamic primarily because of the leap he’s taken as an outside shooter.
Going back and watching tape of Mitchell at Louisville, his speed and verticality popped off the screen with his drives, finishes, and dunks at the basket. What wasn’t as obvious was his perimeter scoring arsenal, particularly from deep.
Sure, he connected on almost 36% of his threes on 6.6 attempts per game, but the range on his jumper, along with his efficiency on even higher volume and self-creation, is a little surprising to me. Mitchell can walk into any shot at any time, and one can feel confident it’s going in.
A capable pick-and-roll playmaker and scorer in college, with shooting ability, toughness, and plus athleticism and defensive appeal in the backcourt, and I was left wondering what he was actually missing in his game.
Wingspan aside, smaller guards always have a hit-or-miss chance in the league in terms of starting. Mitchell could’ve ended up as a good sixth man or valuable bench scorer, and I wouldn’t have been shocked. But with so many good-to-great skills, it was foolish to me to believe it wouldn’t work out for him to flourish as a starting guard.
Now Mitchell is widely regarded as one of the NBA’s most talented backcourt threats, at least on the offensive end. What hasn’t translated is his defense, but nevertheless, he’s still a highly impactful player.
That year I had Mitchell as a top ten prospect, and I stuck to my guns with him. No, I didn’t have him ranked as high as he would go in a re-draft exercise. But I heard enough scouts say he was a mid-first round grade or lower.
I never understood the argument against him after watching enough of the tape and looking back on his numbers. Sometimes, good things can happen when you stand by your observations and trust your scouting instincts.
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Oklahoma City Thunder
2018 NBA Draft, Pick 11
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is another guard who I had ranked comfortably inside of my top ten during his draft year. Where I take pride, though, is that I felt that way even before that season started.
This is one of the biggest takeaways I can offer up for anyone reading this. DO YOUR PRESEASON PREP WORK AND TAKE IT SERIOUSLY!!!
For many scouts I worked with that year at private scouting firm EV Hoops, SGA was at best fourth in their PG rankings based on intrigue coming into the year. After reviewing some of the high school film I saw, I also didn’t have him first at his position.
BUT…I walked away feeling like he was the guard who was going to take the biggest leap up our composite draft board.
Did it work out that way? No, because Trae Young captured the hearts of many on our staff and rightfully jumped up the rankings, both positionally and overall.
I personally ranked SGA very highly on my board incredibly early on in the process and felt justified having him in the lottery, especially after his second-half run with the Kentucky Wildcats.
Once John Calipari turned the keys over to Gilgeous-Alexander, Kentucky took a massive leap. His scoring attack, tempo, demeanor, and leadership at 6’6” with plus length were fun to watch in action.
SGA remains an enigma to this day, to me personally. There were plenty of moments I’d watch his film and try to dissect what just happened on the court. He did things I couldn’t fully explain in words, and that’s what drew me even more to his game.
That’s what we’ve seen from some of the best players in the league. They do things we’re only left to appreciate in breathtaking fashion. SGA has remained the crafty, clever guard in the NBA and has become one of my most underrated three-level scoring talents whose praises I sing every chance I get.
I wouldn’t have had him on my radar as early in the process, however, if I hadn’t done my homework on the upcoming freshman class.
Take some time, go through every team’s roster, and pick out intriguing players. Watch their film. You may uncover a diamond in the rough quicker than anyone else out there who isn’t paying enough attention to their preseason scouting efforts. I have another example of this very premise a little later on here.
Kevin Huerter, Atlanta Hawks
2018 NBA Draft, Pick 19
Kevin Huerter is one of my most memorable scouting stories for a good reason.
The very first scouting trip that I took during the 2018 draft cycle was to a Maryland-Butler game. The Terps had a few guys worth taking notes on, and Keelan Martin for Butler was their biggest target for our staff at the time.
I had no knowledge of Huerter before the ball tipped, yet I immediately became drawn to him within a few seconds of action. A 6’7” guard who took over primary ball-handling duties for his squad and was looking to get others involved, not just hunt his own shot? Color me intrigued.
His passing was what really got me excited. Huerter was making crisp passes during that game out of the pick-and-roll, progressing through his reads, and firing that ball all over the floor. Throw in his sweet, sweet shooting stroke, and I was sold.
I called my boss immediately after the game and said, “I know we’re supposed to talk about everyone on the list you gave me, but who is this Huerter kid??”
While he hasn’t been a star in the league, Huerter has had his moments for the Atlanta Hawks. He even helped propel Atlanta to a number of wins over the Philadelphia 76ers to help get the team to the Eastern Conference Finals.
Now he’s with the Sacramento Kings and has a chance to help another squad yearning for playoff action get to where it needs to go.
Even though you may like a prospect who isn’t getting a ton of buzz early on in the process, don’t stop scouting him and making your case to others. It took NBA Combine drills for Huerter to shoot up draft boards and land where he did in the first round.
But watch the games, and study every team as you would Duke and North Carolina. Go watch some games in person for teams close by you, and maybe you too will stumble upon a few surprise prospects on your scouting journey.
Derrick White, San Antonio Spurs
2017 NBA Draft, Pick 29
Speaking of in-person scouting trips, one of my favorite pilgrimages to make during a draft cycle is down to Portsmouth, VA, for the annual Portsmouth Invitational.
For those who aren’t familiar with PIT, it’s a tournament held in a high school gym meant to highlight college seniors and older prospects. It’s an intimate setting where NBA teams send their scouts to interact and mingle with one another while also getting one last look at some veteran talent that could possibly come in and win a roster spot or, even better, earn a first-round draft selection.
Smart organizations, like the San Antonio Spurs, take this exhibition very seriously and send a whole team of evaluators to report back on which prospects stood out. I remember counting AT LEAST five designated assigned seats for Spurs scouts.
And guess who ended up drafting the prize of that year’s camp? Yep, you guessed it—the dang Spurs.
Derrick White didn’t come in to PIT with the highest of regard. A transfer who wound up at Colorado, White had a good college career but not a great one. That being said, he played his ASS OFF at Portsmouth. White defended the hell out of the ball, and he was raining jumper after jumper over some pretty good competition. He played himself onto the first round of my board, which is also where he ended up going in the draft itself.
Don’t get me wrong, the brightest of stars aren’t always in Virginia for the four-day stretch. But there always seem to be some real hidden gems who pass through that gym, and I’m always eager to see who gets invited each and every year.
You never know where or how you’ll find a prospect like White, who hid in plain sight for quite some time. Even though his NBA Finals stretch wasn’t the most memorable, White was an important rotation piece for the Boston Celtics this past season after Brad Stevens swung and made a trade for the veteran guard.
Always watch a game both in-person or on film and expect to take SOMETHING away from it.
Oh, and if you’ve never been to the Portsmouth Invitational, do yourself a favor and make a trip at least once if you’re a fan of the NBA Draft. I promise it’s an absolute blast. It’s a similar open setup to NBA Summer League; one could end up networking with some pretty awesome people who work with or are in the league. And at the end of the day, if you want to work in this business, you HAVE to make connections!
Bam Adebayo, Miami Heat
2017 NBA Draft, Pick 14
Bam Adebayo went to the Miami Heat one pick after Donovan Mitchell in the 2017 NBA Draft and, to this day, is one of the franchise’s core pillars.
While not the most conventional center prospect, Adebayo would make “wow” plays each and every single game for Kentucky during his lone season in college.
An incredibly athletic and gifted big man, few players ran the court in college or worked as hard on the glass as Adebayo. He embraced his role as a worker on the interior on both ends and lived up to many evaluator expectations.
What he didn’t get to show, however, was what has made him special in the NBA.
This will happen with prospects each and every year. Players have skills that could help them stand out but don’t play into the specific game plan drawn up by College Coach X.
Adebayo didn’t flash much of any of his ball handling and passing for the Wildcats. He got up a few mid-range jumpers (and looked good doing so), but a massive part of what makes him unique in the league is his ability to make plays for others out of the short roll or bring the ball up the floor and initiate the offense.
Having two good facilitators with size on the floor in Adebayo as well as Jimmy Butler helps to keep the offense flowing and the ball constantly moving. Adebayo has proven himself as someone capable of doing more within the offense to Heat coach Erik Spoelstra, and he has even extended his shot outside the paint and has taken steps each season to improve his efficiency.
As one of the most switchable defensive big men in the NBA who also boasts an intriguing perimeter game, it’s pretty fascinating how Bam didn’t end up going higher in the draft.
This brings me to the lesson I learned with Adebayo’s draft case: NEVER OVERLOOK ANY HIGH SCHOOL TAPE!
Even if you can’t find full games to watch of a player before he gets to college, at least do yourself a favor and go back to watch some of the highlights. Players flash skills in high school all the time that they don’t get to showcase in college.
Adebayo was one of those players who grew up with the ball in his hands more often than he had it at Kentucky.
My old boss moved him stealthily up his board the week of the draft for that reason: he went back and studied up on who Adebayo was before Kentucky. He even took some time to ask around and talk to others who had done the same research.
Never leave any stones unturned. As with Mitchell, I wasn’t as high on Bam as I could’ve been at the time. But I did have him again as a top ten prospect because I trusted those around me to put in the work and watch more. I wish I had gone back and learned that lesson sooner, but it’s an important one to take away from Adebayo’s evaluation nonetheless.
Desmond Bane, Memphis Grizzlies
2020 NBA Draft, Pick 30
I will forever be fascinated with the story behind Desmond Bane.
By his senior year at TCU, Bane had transformed into a nearly 17 PPG scorer who was efficient from inside the arc, a flamethrower from beyond it, and a trustworthy rebounder, playmaker, and defender at the guard position.
While not possessing plus length or exceptional athleticism, Bane was still listed at 6’5” coming out of college and built like a brick house. His thick frame allowed him to bully opponents in college and is something that’s also helped him defend at the NBA level.
I understand the concerns that some may have had with drafting Bane, where I had him ranked, which was inside the top 20. Guards who don’t have outlier physical traits and are late bloomers with a non-blue chip track record can be a tough sell to some teams who would rather bet on plus size, length, and athleticism on the wing.
Bane wasn’t billed as a high-level playmaker in college and hasn’t been better than average scoring or assisting out of the pick-and-roll in the league, either. So really, if he’s not able to keep up with quicker guys on the perimeter and knock down spot-up shots at a better-than-average clip, why would you put that much faith in an older prospect?
At the end of the day, one has to trust their scouting instincts and the work ethic of the prospect. Bane seemed like the kind of high-character player I’d want to make a bet on in every interview I saw. Always trying to improve his game and take on a bigger role, Bane was ready to come into the NBA and prove himself as a starter.
Now one of the Memphis Grizzlies’ top offensive options, some of the question marks around his game still remain. But his absolutely LETHAL spot-up game, scoring approach, toughness, and defensive ability have meshed so well with everything the Grizzlies have around him.
Don’t underestimate FIT with a prospect. Bane’s identity and strengths help bring out the best in everyone around him. He’s more than capable of walling off other guards on the defensive end and funneling matchups into two excellent shot blockers in Jaren Jackson Jr. and Steven Adams. He’s a lights-out shooter from the corners off of Ja Morant’s kickouts from the pick-and-roll. And Bane is a really good transition player as well, which helps play into one of the most up-tempo teams in the league.
Bane is a great story because the team that drafted him did the homework on what made him the player he is. And in turn, we can all take away a few lessons here. Not only the fit aspect but never outright assume a player is done adding new skills or growing in terms of efficiency once they step into the NBA.
Alperen Sengun, Houston Rockets (From OKC Thunder)
2021 NBA Draft, Pick 16
One of the most debated prospects from the 2021 NBA Draft, I was on the side of Alperen Sengun from the moment I laid eyes on his tape.
Admittedly, I, more than others, use the word “unique” far too often. Looking at Sengun’s physical make-up, there isn’t a ton “unique” about him. He’s a 6’10” back-to-the-basket big with a wide body and average length. Sengun is built well and plays tough, but his game is more finesse than expected.
The one part of his package where I can use that word is in his passing. Sengun has legitimate flair to what he does on the offensive end, finding ways to dish the ball around his back, hit the corners, skip passes, you name it. His bag both with his back turned and facing up is remarkable for a player at his position. No, he’s not Nikola Jokic (no one ever will be), but what he can do passing can help any offense function at a high level.
Sengun’s biggest question marks came back to his potential as an outside shooter and every concern defensively in the book. An almost-exclusively drop coverage big with a non-plus wingspan to contest shots at the rim isn’t at the top of every team’s defensive wish list. Factor in his more limited mobility, and it becomes clear why the majority of scouts questioned his overall upside in a league that hunts mismatches well and can force certain big men out of games.
Where I bought in heavily was in his offensive game.
I get all of the defensive concerns, and even after seeing his rookie year, I trust his anticipation on that end to see the game and get to the spots he needs to get to on the floor. Sengun just has to learn how to play those spots better and not get into foul trouble so early on in contests. He may never be a plus on that end, but if he can hover around average, he’ll stay on the floor to SHINE on the offensive side.
And boy, does his game SING on offense.
I mentioned the passing already, but his post game is some of the best I’ve ever scouted. The footwork, counters off his initial move, patience, and touch around the basket are all superb. And those strengths leave opposing defenses in quite the conundrum. Double team him the second he catches the ball on the block, and he can rocket a pass out to the open man for the shot, drive, or extra pass. Leave him alone in the post, and he can score on some of the best matchups in the game.
Sengun rebounds well on both ends, can operate from the elbows, and once he lives up to the promise I believe he has as a shooter at the top of the key, there’s little he won’t be counted on to do.
Big men this skilled on offense can really help bolster the core around them. Sengun’s ability to play off of more dynamic perimeter threats is exactly what the Houston Rockets need from that spot.
Getting past any talk of team fit, though, I chose not to engage in a lot of major debate about Sengun. I felt that you either saw it or you didn’t. Understanding the upside is one thing, but believing it is a completely different ball game.
Sometimes, choosing to believe in what others can’t or don’t see is a scary thing, especially in the scouting world when the prospect in question is playing overseas. Not every evaluator working outside of league front offices has the same level of film access, let alone getting to actually know the player.
But there are examples in NBA history where making calculated bets on those outlier talents is worth the risk.
Sengun could still fail to live up to his promise; he’s only going into his sophomore season. But I choose to put my faith in him as a developing talent going forward, and there were plenty of flashes that pointed towards the upside after his rookie campaign.
And for those reasons, Sengun is one of my favorite scouting stories over the last few years.
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