An Approach to the NBA Draft

NBA: Los Angeles Lakers-Press Conference
June 23, 2017; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Los Angeles Lakers president of basketball operations Magic Johnson speaks as newly drafted player Lonzo Ball is introduced to media while general Rob Pelinka listens at Toyota Sports Center. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Scouting players is a complicated process. There are many different approaches to how a person may evaluate a player. A person can’t just look at baseline NCAA or International statistics and say whether a player is particularly good or bad. Even if that player is good, does that mean the player will succeed at the NBA level? Draft picks can be franchise-altering decisions, and if done well, create a team for success.

I’ve separated my observations into ten different categories. I may not even look at two different players with the same approach, but I do use this as a template when watching games.

Basic Measurements and Health

This is very simple. I’m 5’8” with a 6’1” wingspan. I weigh roughly 160lbs. I don’t have a great standing reach. I’ve had multiple sprained ankles. I cannot grip a basketball with one hand. Clearly, I’m not exactly the prototype of a good NBA player based on these physical attributes alone.

However, a player that’s 7’1” with a 7’6” wingspan, 300lbs., can palm the basketball with one hand easily, and doesn’t look too clumsy running the floor? He can make it, even with evidence of knee injury history at the high school level.

Who is this guy?  Andrew Bynum. While he may not have a Hall-of-Fame career, he still played in the NBA for eight years and made the All-Star team in 2012. That’s a much better outcome than a lot of guys at the NBA level. The question is, “Can he get on the floor and compete?” I can’t. He did. It’s that simple.

Athletic Tools

Athletic tools are usually seen with high flying dunks, but there are a lot more elements than just a big vertical.

Does he have a great first step? Does he have great lateral quickness defensively? Does he react quickly to the ball? Does he have a great motor?  Can he outrun the competition in transition? Can he dribble with either hand multiple times comfortably? Can he finish at the rim comfortably with either hand? Does he have quick hands to strip the basketball? Can he play with a high degree of sustained effort through 30 minutes? How about 36 minutes?

There are a lot of elements to what it means to be athletic at the NBA level.  Each of these tools can reveal themselves in different ways.

What Does The Player Do Best?

This can be myriad things. One of the things that stood out to me when I first started watching Dejounte Murray at the University of Washington wasn’t his total lack of a jump shot, but how effective he was attacking the rim repeatedly. I think Trae Young’s best ability is his passing. Landry Shamet stands out with his perimeter shooting.

Players leave their imprint on the floor. Sometimes it’s not always as successful. Shamet can go cold. Murray may struggle to finish at the rim. But these guys will show the most confidence in this specific skill because each player will keep going to it all game long. Slashers slash. Playmakers create plays. Shooters shoot. (Editor’s note: Life motto.)

Another thing to think about is does that skill translate to the NBA level?  People will have different opinions about the same skill. However, if a player shows success against tough competition, a variety of offenses or defenses, and it can be quantified through analytics, then it’s reasonable to believe that the skill will translate to the next level.

But, I will add a caveat here. It doesn’t guarantee the skill will translate, even if the numbers match. The eye-test and experienced basketball minds need to evaluate and see if the analytics match as well.

Just because Player A shows that he can finish 70 percent at the rim doesn’t mean that it’ll translate directly to the NBA at that percentage. Lonzo Ball is a player that sticks out as an example. Lonzo shot 78.9 percent at the rim at UCLA making up 35.9 percent of his total field goal attempts. Those shots were assisted 51.5 percent of the time.

However, fans that have seen multiple Laker games will easily recognize that he struggles to finish at the rim when he’s attacking the basket.

All of this ties in with how dynamic is that one specific skill?  If we see that Player A can shoot 45 percent behind the arc, how does he do it? Is it because he shoots well in catch-and-shoot situations? Pick-and-roll situations?


What Complementary Skills Does A Player Have?

Let’s assume a player has NBA-level perimeter shooting in dynamic situations.  Can he counter effectively? Can he attack a closeout?

Klay Thompson and Stephen Curry are known as a couple of the best shooters in the league, but it’s the fact that Thompson can attack closeouts and Curry can attack and create plays that make them so devastating offensively.

It’s much easier to see skill sets on offense compared to defense. A majority of plays offensively are done with the basketball. Defense can be trickier to examine. One of the recent trends at the NBA level is how effective an NBA big can switch onto a guard and yield a low PPP against.

Julius Randle has never been known as a high-level rim protector. In decades past, blocked shot average was the key indicator of rim protection. Now, we look at field goal percentage against. Do opponents shoot below average at the rim against him? Does he contest perimeter shots and shots at the rim on switches equally as effectively? When it comes to Randle (without looking at the numbers), I’d say, yes.

What Can The Player Do To Keep Himself On The Floor When He’s Having A Bad Game?

All of these NBA skills, high level or not, all assume that the player is 100 percent physically and mentally engaged. However, we’re all human. Players have bad games, too.

If a player is best known as a shooter, can he still draw perimeter gravity despite going 1-8 behind the arc? Can he draw some free throws and break out of his own shooting slump? Can he defend well enough to be at least a net zero DBPM and stay on the floor?

Ball once again comes to mind when it comes to this. Whether he’s shooting well or not, his defensive ability, rebounding prowess and pushing of the pace leading to open shots is what keeps him on the floor.

Against Sacramento in early January, he finished 2-of-10 from the floor and 1-of-7 from behind the arc. However, he also grabbed 11 rebounds, dished out 11 assists and recorded five steals, one block and committed only one turnover.  He finished that game with a +33 in just under 37 minutes of play.

How Good Is His Character And Work Ethic?

Basically, is he a good guy off the court? Is he coachable?

This isn’t just for the sake of a player’s own skills progression, but also to the business side of the NBA. Can he put himself in bad situations that may alter his career or relationships on the team? Did he work hard to get to where’s at right now? Players can enter the league with Hall of Fame talent and not end up with Hall of Fame careers.

How Easy Is It To Improve The Skills That Need Improvement?

There are certain skills that are far more difficult to learn than others. The easiest skill to examine is perimeter shooting. Too many guys at the NBA level have improved shooting at this level for it to be considered an exception.

Other skills are more difficult to learn at this level because it requires a specific level of awareness and action. A role player can make himself a better 3-point shooter, enough to draw gravity and be a legitimate threat. It’s far more difficult to have the same player to develop dynamic isolation ball-handling and become an elite shot creator.

What’s The Player’s Best Archetype For Success

How does the player fit best with the team drafting him? This isn’t about drafting by position specifically. It is about the best environment for development.

My favorite current player in the NBA is Josh Hart. He left Villanova as their best offensive option as a great finisher at the rim, a 40-percent arc shooter and legitimate shot creator at the NCAA level.

However, this season, he was given time to develop NBA 3-point range. Prior to injury, he finished at 48.9 percent behind the arc on 45 attempts through 10 games in February.

While the Lakers need 3-point shooting, Hart was drafted for his other qualities. I’ve argued that he was the best player available at the pick. He had shown great shot creating, ability to get to the rim, finish at a high level, create plays for his teammates, and be of outstanding character.

This shows just one specific skill to one specific player. Brandon Ingram had a much bumpier road.

During Ingram’s rookie year, he was mostly thought of as a 3-and-D archetype, reluctant to attack the basket. Despite being a net negative on the NBA floor, he was given a lot of playing time to gain experience. All of that experience clicked late in the season with his success playing point guard in Lonzo Ball’s absence.

He started as a 3-and-D archetype, made himself into an isolation player at the beginning of this season and transformed into a drive-and-kick playmaker capable of pushing the pace.

The Lakers supported his skill progressions and allowed him to play different roles for the team over the past two years and despite the recent improvement, he has much more refinements that can still be implemented to make himself an even more effective NBA player.

What is the Player’s Best Overall Projected Archetype with Projected Potential Fulfilled?

This is a tough question to answer. Not every player fulfills an idea of projected expectation. The guys with the best work ethic and character tend to be the guys that stick in the league the longest and realize their upside.

Ingram entered the league as a 3-and-D player. But, in his prime, could he be one of the best pick-and-roll ball-handlers at the wing position?

What if superstars get added to the team. Does it affect his development in that particular area? Can he succeed as equally as an off-ball player?

This ties right into…

How Do You Rank The Assessments Between Each Player?

Different scouts, GMs, team executives, armchair GMs, NBA twitter, and countless others value things differently. It depends on how someone values the above categories.

Did people really think that Giannis would be this kind of attacking monster in the paint? There were scouts that did and scouts that didn’t. He didn’t exactly show great shooting or other polished skills, but he definitely showed the physical tools before the athletic tools really kicked in.

If someone values projected overall upside over the other categories, Giannis flies up in that draft. Others may value fit for the team which may create the best environment for the drafted player’s individual success the most. Some, tend to look at the skillset and see what’s translatable to the NBA level for the most immediate impact.

The End of it All

With all of these elements, it’s easy to see why NBA scouts, GMs, and executives can have disagreements about how each player is perceived. Each person comes with their own experiences with basketball, usually with a heavy background of playing basketball over their entire life.

Others watch players from afar, using their experiences to prioritize different skills, upsides, archetypes, and room for potential.  But as an NBA fan, we want each of these guys to be placed in the best places to succeed and have tremendous careers. When they succeed, we get a better league.

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