The Matrix of Scouting
The process of NBA Draft scouting can be a rabbit hole of illusions. Let me give you some advice to free your mind.
“No great mind has ever existed without a touch of madness” - Aristotle
No painter in this world could draw the same picture. While they can have the talent and ability to draw something that is so identical in appearance, there’s always going to be something that differentiates itself from the other. An artist has their own style, their own vision and beauty when it comes to creating a masterpiece. Although the two images might look the same to the naked eye, it’s the process in which they were developed that makes them unique in their own way.
The same thing can be said about the scouting process when it comes to the sport of basketball. While evaluators and scouts are always eager to pick the minds of respected peers, there’s always an important realization that all of us must realize. You have to paint your own picture. It’s something that I believe makes the scouting process so magnificent. Not only is the NBA Draft community full of young brilliant minds that are passionate about throwing on countless hours of film…those same individuals are eager to pick the minds of their respected colleagues, realizing that it can help them see the game in a different way.
Throughout my time starting to take this NBA Draft grind seriously, I’ve been a bit “private” about my background. In order for me to do this piece right, I need to open up the “secret files” a bit. My name is Tyler Rucker. Some of you may know me as the “Joker-like” figure that runs Backcourt Violation on social media. I spent around ten years working in the NBA before eventually spending a year coaching overseas. The sport of basketball has been extremely generous to me over my life, and I was fortunate enough to pick the minds of numerous scouts and basketball personnel throughout my time in the NBA.
These individuals have given me a plethora of useful advice when it comes to scouting and player evaluation. While the No Ceilings team has been absolutely sensational when it comes to providing all of you with specific prospect education, I’ve always wanted to help those out there that are hungry to improve their abilities when it comes to the evaluation grind. So, that’s just what I’m going to do. I’m going to share with you some of my favorite lessons that I have learned over the years. As I said before, every artist is different when painting their own picture. This isn’t me saying that you need to use all of my methods.
But my goal here is to show you the canvas, light a fire in your mind and let your paint brush paint the picture.
The Matrix of Scouting
“Let me tell you why you’re here. You are here because you know something. What you know, you can’t explain. But you feel it.” - Morpheus
The biggest problem I’ve ever come across when it comes to the scouting process is being able to describe what I’m seeing. I know that last sentence sounds ridiculous, but I promise it will all make sense shortly. There’s so much damn shit going on during a basketball game. Your eyes can see something, but trying to put words into existence to what you are seeing can be extremely difficult. It’s one of the main reasons why I started to blog over the years about the scouting process. Some of us do our best talking when we punch the keyboards. Others know exactly how to grab a microphone and illustrate a player’s strength and weaknesses into an artistic flow. But each of us are going to be different and it’s going to take time to have both of those worlds collide and run down the same path. Here are some guidelines to help you free your scouting mind.
In-Person vs On-Tape
One of the most important thing’s you’ll ever realize when you’re evaluating a prospect. This is something that I didn’t really “appreciate” until actually experiencing the differences multiple times. It’s always fun to sit at home, get yourself a cold beverage and then binge watch NBA Draft film like it’s a new season on Netflix. The truth is that you’ll find yourself having an entirely different feel for a prospect when you go watch them in-person.
Just because someone is listed at 6’7”, doesn’t mean that you need to take their word for it. Go to games, get there early for shootarounds. Go stand as close as you can to the floor and sneak your way around security if you need to. Get a feel for their physical profile. Does that player look bigger in person compared to tape? Does he look like he’s going to have a plus wingspan? Does he move more fluidly on the court in-person compared to the player you’ve been fascinating over on tape? How does he look in warm-ups? Are they working on game shots? Is there a specific process in their pre-game routine?
All of these questions suddenly start running through your head when you’re watching someone live and most of these questions cannot be answered on tape. It’s a completely different type of evaluation. If you’re ever struggling to find an exact grasp for a prospect, GO SEE THEM. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve been puzzled about a player just to go see them live and finally realize “okay…I got it.”
Don’t Get Too High & Don’t Get Too Low
One of my favorite pieces of advice I ever got from someone in the scouting world. It’s been something that has always kept me leveled throughout my time as an evaluator. There’s going to be plenty of times where you’re going to catch a prospect at the “right time.” You see them firing on all cylinders and you quickly find yourself saying “okay, I got to move this guy up my board.” The same comment can be said for the other side of the fence. You get all excited to see a player who has been the talk of the scouting world and the one game you go see him live, he ends up putting up an absolute stinker. But I stress you to please, take this advice into consideration. “Never get too high and never get too low from one game.”
Some of you who have personally gotten to know me over the years know that I absolutely hate doing Big Boards throughout the year. The No Ceilings crew basically pinned me down to a table and forced me to do it, and I have to admit it has been fun to track the movement of players throughout the year. But I’m someone that likes to evaluate an entire slate of performances before I reach my final verdict. This is all crucial and I couldn’t have prepped the transition into the next segment better if I tried…
Follow Up and Track
Just because a prospect starts out the year hot or cold doesn’t mean you need to abandon ship. Guys get hot, guys get cold. That’s the sport of basketball. You know how we always say basketball is a game of runs? Well, it’s the same with evaluating draft prospects. Players are going to go on stretch runs in which things suddenly start to click. Since we all like to see some statistics back up facts, let me throw some knowledge at you. Here are two prospects that are going to be first rounders this year. Both of these players returned to college basketball for their sophomore years. The stats below are “stretch runs” throughout their freshman year.
Player A (2020-21)
First 16 Games: 8.5 PTS | 3.2 REB | 1.9 AST | 0.5 STL |35.8 FG% | 18.5 3P%
Last 7 Games: 17.1 PTS | 3.6 REB | 1.9 AST | 1.3 STL | 46.1 FG% | 34.9 3P%
Player B (2020-21)
First 17 Games: 3.8 PTS | 3.3 REB | 0.6 AST | 1.3 BLK | 56.3 FG% | 58.8 FT%
Last 6 Games: 16.7 PTS | 7.8 REB | 1.0 AST | 1.7 BLK | 74.6 FG% | 50.0 FT%
Player A? Purdue sophomore guard Jaden Ivey. Player B? Duke sophomore center Mark Williams. Now when I say “follow up and track,” I’m suggesting just that. Let’s say you watched Jaden Ivey last season at the beginning of the year. Well, if you just watched his first six games, you would have seen a young freshman guard that was averaging just 6.5 points per game while shooting 18.8% from three. But it’s always crucial that you process a full slate of performances. This is basically the same thing as going into a Doctor’s office for a routine “check-up.” You should have the same philosophy when it comes to Draft prospects. Dive in and get your initial evaluations on a player and then come back to see the potential growth that has happened over the years.
Don’t just pick a strong slate of games and say “okay, I have a feel for what type of player this guy is.” Don’t cheat yourself. Notice the growth that has happened from the beginning of the year towards the end of the season. Where did they develop? If they weren’t shooting the ball well at the beginning of the year, what changed? Does it look like his form has improved, and could he have potentially been putting in extra practice reps to work on his shot? These are just some of the questions you have to take into consideration when tracking the full slate of games over the course of a season.
A good rule of thumb that was passed onto me by someone. I’ll make sure to look at prospects during three different cycles throughout the year. Get a feel for them at the beginning of the year. Dive back into their game in the middle of the season. Then come back around to see how they’ve progressed near the end. From there, you can continue to dive into specific games and stretches and monitor the specific strides in their individual growth.
Intel is Everything
This is the mother of all scouting advice that I can ever share with you. I’ll be blunt with this. Evaluation is easy folks. I’m not saying that I’m going to be perfect when it comes to my end of the year big board rankings because that’s simply not true. We are all going to have our hits, we are all going to have our misses. If I shoot 75% from the field, I’m going to sleep like a baby. We can all sit around and watch Draft prospects and confidently feel great about our final Big Boards. The problem is…that’s not the crown jewel in NBA circles.
Intel is EVERYTHING. These young players are about to become professional basketball players in the greatest league in sports. Organizations are about to potentially invest millions of dollars in their future and they are going to do as much digging as humanly possible to figure out what this player is on AND off the court. There’s a reason why players slide and climb throughout the pre-draft process each and every year. It’s the same reason why teams are so eager to get in front of players and get to know them on a personal level. Yes, I cannot believe the tenth-ranked guy on my Big Board fell to the team selecting 23rd in the Draft. It happens every year and there’s always a story behind the scenes that you might just not know about.
Trust me. The stories and intel that teams dig up will WOW you. Some of the most talented intel gatherers around the league are incredible at their jobs and you wouldn't believe the type of facts they can roll out at you when it get’s closer to Draft day.
Find What They Can Do
I personally believe that this is one of the most important parts of the scouting process. Before you find out what a player CAN’T do, you first need to find out what they CAN do. If that player was a poker player, what is the best hand they could play? Why is a potential NBA organization going to invest a draft selection in their ability on the basketball court? Some in the draft community focus too much on quickly spotting the negatives when we should be trying to zero-in on the positives. In so many words, you have to find out what that specific player’s NBA “skill set” is going to be.
Once you can spot that, then the rest of the process becomes…easier. Then you can start to nitpick the entire slate and attempt to put the pieces of the puzzle back together. If a player projects to be a “3-and-D” type of asset, has he proven himself in both of those areas? Or are we simply just suggesting that he could become that? There’s a big difference. The NBA game is going to be a brutal adjustment period for any young player. That means that if a player has specific weaknesses, they are most likely going to lean on what they “can” do early on as they develop the rest of their game. Is that “strength” something that can get him early minutes in a rotation or are his weaknesses glaring enough that he will need to limit them before he sees the floor?
Pay Attention to the “Off Night”
This is where I personally get a little crazy so try to keep up. I LOVE to evaluate bad performances. I will go box score hunting and try to find the night in which a player just looked like they had a hellish experience. Why you might ask? Because those games can tell a lot about a prospect.
Let’s say you’re evaluating a bucket-getting machine who has been an absolute nightmare for opposing defenses throughout the season. This player has been a lethal shooter from the outside and continues to put up impressive numbers on a consistent basis. But for one game, that player simply cannot buy a bucket. His team is currently ranked in the top 10 and they find themselves in a battle down the stretch as they try to prevent a potential upset on the road.
So we’ve established that the player isn’t impacting the game when it comes to his scoring. Here’s the biggest question I have when I’m watching. Is he impacting the game in other ways? If his shot isn’t falling, what is he doing on the basketball court to contribute to trying to get his team is a victory. Is he stepping up his ability on the defensive side of the ball? Is he realizing that his outside shot isn’t falling so he’s making an effort to get to the basket and create free-throw opportunities? Is he working to put his teammates in position to succeed instead by using his playmaking ability?
Or has his cold shooting night just completely taken him out of the game? Is he sulking and depressed because he can’t find a rhythm when it comes to his shooting? Is he engaged when he’s on the bench and still attentive towards helping his team in a hostile environment? That’s why I fall in love with the “off-night” and I think evaluators out there can learn a lot about a prospect by watching some of their more “disappointing” outings.
Value vs Potential
This ties into some personal “Draft philosophy” but I do think it’s important to take note of when it comes to evaluating a prospect and it could help you with your Big Boards moving forward. When you find yourself intrigued with a player and you’re just flat out struggling to find a range for them, ask yourself this question. At what range does that player enter the conversation of “value vs potential.”
It might seem like a bit of a chaotic thought to process but I do believe that it’s crucial towards putting a pulse on a specific prospect. When it gets to a certain point in the draft, do you view that player as a potential valued selection or do you think he could still be a player that is viewed as having the upside to develop into something more. There’s always going to be a range in which NBA teams are going to be hunting for different types of prospects. Lottery teams are always going to drool over potential because they are going to convince themselves that a player can grow into something better than his current ability. But there’s also a range in the draft in which a specific player can offer enticing value.
That was the exact thought process last year with a prospect like former Oregon Ducks wing Chris Duarte. We all knew that Duarte’s "knock” was his age. But there was also a point in which you found yourself asking, where does the value become too intriguing compared to the potential? Duarte projected as a player who could contribute immediate value although his potential might not have been viewed as potentially high compared to others.
Fit is Everything…With Prospects Too
This is something that you’ll hear repeatedly when it comes to the NBA Draft. But I think you can twist this to focus primarily on a prospect. When you’re evaluating a player, you’re going to find yourself looking at the lottery order and wondering where that specific talent could best fit. What next team could allow this flower to blossom into something majestic and bring out the full potential of their basketball ability. But what if that player has the ability to adapt to his surroundings? What if a certain player has the tools to adjust to whatever his next team needs him to be?
The Draft is all about fit. Teams are looking to find the missing piece to the puzzle and move the needle forward. Organizations are looking to bring in talent that will help them escape the idea of another appearance in the lottery. Playoff caliber teams are looking for the next “boost” in their rotation. But when you find yourself evaluating a player, focus on versatility.
I’m not just talking about if a player has the ability to guard multiple positions on the defensive side of the ball. Has that prospect shown the tools to impact a number of different areas when his team has needed him to? If he’s made a reputation for being a floor spacer, does he also have the ability to put the ball on the floor and create in traffic? If defenses are creeping up on him, does he have the awareness to suddenly turn into a playmaking asset for his team? Teams will drool over players that can “fit” different adjustments during a game when needed.
One Year Doesn’t Tell The Story
We’ve seen this time and time again. Players come into a college season after some preseason hype and they don’t hit the ground running as expected. Take, for example, current Minnesota Timberwolves wing Jaden McDaniels. Ranked 7th out of high school, commits to Washington and before he ever steps foot on a college basketball floor, he’s mocked as a potential Top-5 selection in the upcoming NBA Draft. McDaniels struggles with efficiency and everyone in the Draft world panics because of the lack of production on the court. We are seeing similar situations this year with a number of 2022 NBA Draft prospects such as Patrick Baldwin Jr. (Milwaukee) and Kennedy Chandler (Tennessee).
Although a number of prospects might not “wow” us during their first year on a college floor, it’s important to remember that one year doesn’t tell the story. Both Baldwin and Chandler were players that were getting the attention of scouts during their play overseas for Team USA during the FIBA U19. While disappointing college seasons can always lead to evaluators “cooling” off on some prospects, it’s always important to remember that there’s still going to be plenty of scouts that have been tracking these individuals for an extended period of time.
It’s not just college players, as international prospects will fall under the same category. Just because a young talent overseas is struggling with getting serious minutes, doesn’t mean that scouts haven’t been keeping tracks on their progressions over the years. Do your homework and watch as much previous tape as you can get your hands on. You might start to find yourself believing in a prospect from a previous situation compared to the one they are currently dealing with.
Player Comps Suck
There’s no punchline here. I hate pro comparisons with a passion and they should be outlawed by society. Moving on…
Fall in Love With Progress
I’m a sucker for players who play multiple years in college. The reason why? You can track their progression over the years. If a player had a solid freshman year before taking a noticeable stride forward in their sophomore season, you can tell that the work was put in throughout the offseason. Don’t obsess with the idea of chasing youth. If you believe a player has the tools to become an NBA asset, then focus on production over the years. Nothing gets me more excited than seeing a player who has consistently approved across the board in a variety of areas.
This doesn’t have to just tie into upperclassmen as well. You can see it with freshman prospects, as they experience specific stretches throughout the year and you see a specific element of their game start to come to life. Take, for example, Duke freshman forward Paolo Banchero. Coming into the year, we were all expecting Paolo to potentially be the favorite to be selected second overall in the 2022 NBA Draft. After an impressive start to the year, that conversation quickly became “could he give Chet Holmgren a run for the first overall selection?” Paolo has been extremely impressive this year with his offensive production, especially when it comes to his scoring. But recently, Paolo has started to take strides in a different area that is starting to really stand out to me personally. Let me show you the numbers and tell me if you can see it.
First 15 Games: 17.7 PTS | 7.3 REB | 2.2 AST | 49.2 FG% | 34.0 3P%
Last 6 Games: 17.8 PTS | 10.7 REB | 3.7 AST | 50.6 FG% | 26.3 3P%
Now I know what you’re thinking at first glance. “Wow, you’re probably talking about the jump in rebounding?” Sure, that definitely stands out and that’s definitely an impressive jump for Paolo if he’s able to keep up those types of impressive numbers moving forward. But what has really caught my attention as of late is the playmaking ability. While that jump in production might not look as impressive as the rebounding, it’s the decision making that Paolo has shown lately on the court that has really caught my eye when it comes to evaluating. That’s the type of “progress” you want to see with prospects, because that starts to hint at the idea that there’s a more versatile weapon just scratching the surface.
Stick to Your Gut
“You are guarding all the doors and holding all the keys.” You’re the one that is going through countless hours of film watching. You’re the one that is making the effort to go see prospects in-person. Be your biggest fan. Don’t be afraid to go against public opinion. If anything…EMBRACE IT. I consider myself a little insane at times, but I always try to go against what the “narrative” might be surrounding a prospect. If everyone is convinced that some player is the next “riser” in Draft circles, I find myself wanting to go against the grain and stick to my own guns.
Just because 98% of the Draft community might have some combination of Chet Holmgren, Paolo Banchero and Jabari Smith in their top three, doesn’t mean you have to agree with it. Think Jaden Ivey is the best prospect in this Draft? Go for it. Not sold on Johnny Davis becoming a Top-5 selection? Believe in it. The evaluation process is a brutal marathon that will test your mind and patience. If you put in the work, you should set out to believe everything that your mind and eyes are telling you. I encourage you to try to be different and not obsess with the idea that someone has Player A ranked high so that must mean I have to move him up. If you grind and feel passionate about a player, bang the table for your beliefs. As I said before, no artist is going to have an identical illustration. We can all try to convince ourselves that we are seeing the same thing’s when it comes to prospect evaluation, but our visions are going to be unique in their own way.
Don’t Force It
This is the last piece of advice I will leave you with and I believe this is one of the most important ones to remember. If you’re watching a Draft prospect and you just find yourself absolutely puzzled, guess what? You can always come back to it later. Step away, make note of it and realize that you’re going to have plenty of other opportunities to further evaluate that individual. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been stuck on someone and have found that when I regroup and come back to it, that picture starts to finally get clearer.
This process is not meant to be figured out all at once. It’s something that requires patience. Your mind is going to be tested and exhausted more than you could possibly imagine. There’s beauty and madness to the evaluation grind. You might watch ten games of a prospect before you finally start to get a solid feel for them. Just keep your head down and know that you don’t need to force it immediately. If you trust the process, things will get easier with time.
I’ve been fortunate enough to pick the minds of some sensational basketball individuals over the years. I hope that this can help guide some of you through the journey of traveling down the rabbit hole when it comes to the evaluation process. The world of scouting is one that is going to make your mind expand each and every year. You’ll get frustrated and question yourself the deeper you dive into the madness. If you learned anything from this segment, I hope you understand that you don’t have to have all of the answers at once.
But I can only show you the door. You’re the one that has to walk through it.
Great piece Tyler, I agree with nearly everything you’ve written, but don’t have the means to personal evaluations for all these players. That’s where No Ceilings provides most of what I can’t evaluate. Thanks Tyler for your expertise, and all you do!!
Really interesting piece. Loved the point about off nights. Watching a prospect when their shot isn’t falling is really interesting. How they react to struggles and controversies is fascinating.