The NBA’s Hottest Commodity: Intel
Former NBA scout and current NBA draft analyst for Babcock Hoops, Matt McKay, breaks down the meaning, the value and the process of gathering the NBA’s hottest commodity: intel.
The first pick in the 2019 NBA Draft is likely to be guaranteed nearly $20,000,000 in salary over the course of his first two years in the NBA. Maybe the team on the clock with the first pick in June will view the selection as a no-brainer, but if history has taught us anything, it won’t be. Money aside, making the correct or incorrect choice while building a roster can alter an NBA franchise’s course for years to come.
For right or wrong, three out of the last six top NBA Draft picks have received more than their fair share of scrutiny relative to the sky-high expectations each player had coming into the league. In some alternate universe where we were allowed to re-draft, it’s highly unlikely that Anthony Bennett, Andrew Wiggins or Markelle Fultz would go first overall in their respective drafts. With that said, properly evaluating NBA Draft prospects is no simple feat. It takes time, dedication, patience and a strong sense of discernment, amongst other things. On a fundamental level, it’s a form of pattern recognition in addition to the ability to accurately project what will and won’t translate from one level to the next. We’ll touch on other aspects of the scouting landscape in future articles, but today, let’s focus on a big piece of the puzzle: intel.
Intel — short for intelligence — is historically defined as ‘the collection of information of military or political value.’ For our purposes, we can replace ‘military’ and ‘political’ with ‘NBA front office.’ However, there’s a reason we call the conference room where teams hold their draft meetings ‘the war room.’ It doesn’t get much more intense than sitting in the war room on draft night. Operating with better information than your opponent can provide a monumental advantage when you’re on the clock. In other words, these intel nuggets are the little puzzle pieces of information that can help make or break a draft night or trade deadline decision. If you’re an NBA team, it’s important to have guys on a roster that can fill up a box score; it’s also important to fill a locker room with guys that won’t be at each other’s throats every day. How can teams help mitigate this potential issue? Intel. Not just any intel, but good intel. What’s good intel? For starters, it’s incredibly important that the information is accurate. Positive or negative information about a player isn’t worth two cents if it’s not accurate and indicative of the player’s personality, character and M.O.
Now that we’ve defined intel, let’s talk about how to go about acquiring it. The best and most accurate information typically originates with an authentic relationship with someone who’s ‘in the know.’ Maybe it’s a former teammate or a coach. Maybe it’s a school administrator or a support staff member. These relationships and connections are typically more fruitful when they come about organically, but they do have to start somewhere — I’ve met some of my closest connections and friendships via a mutual friend connecting the dots. Keep in mind: it’s one thing to receive information from these relationships and use it internally to help your group make better-informed decisions; it’s another to tweet it. Confidentiality is key. If you have trouble holding a conversation, acquiring intel may not be an appropriate task for you. On the other hand, if you’re relationship-oriented, equipped with industry knowledge and enjoy building connections, familiarizing yourself with the NBA’s hottest commodity can be as easy as 1-2-3:
1. Information is power.
I remember as if it happened yesterday – I was one year and several weeks removed from my graduate assistant days at the University of Washington and I had just entered year two of my stint with the Portland Trail Blazers. In addition to my customary morning bagel and coffee run for upper management, I was handed a sheet of paper with about four dozen names of players and tasked with acquiring as much information as humanly possible on mostly a bunch of guys I’d never heard of. I was given a crash course on the ABC’s of acquiring this information and I quickly learned the true importance of what NBA teams call ‘intel’. Little did I know at the time that this would become my niche, of sorts, throughout my time working in the NBA.
Were we preparing for the trade deadline? Nope. Free agency? Definitely not. The NBA Draft? Getting warmer… What was all of this information for? We were putting together our draft book for the Idaho Stampede – Portland’s minor league affiliate team, at the time. The D-League Draft, since rebranded as the G-League, was around the corner and I had less than a week to glean pertinent, helpful information on my list that was primarily comprised of players at low to mid-major schools all over the country, as well as some role players on high-major teams from the Power Five conferences. I worked the phone over the next few days. I chatted with countless coaches and support staff members, I built some connections and I gathered relevant intel and helped prepare our group as much as possible for the eight-round draft. One player in particular that we did our homework on was Northwestern’s Reggie Hearn: we learned about his tireless work ethic, his love for the game and deduced that his best days were ahead of him. He projected as a guy that was going to maximize his potential and all signs pointed to him being someone that would help the Stampede. On a macro level, the end result of all the intel-gathering left us better-prepared than we would have been otherwise and on a micro level, it netted us a late draft pick, who ended up starting for us that year.
It was a rarity for a sixth-round pick to make it through the initial cuts at training camp, much less become a starter. Needless to say, to get him in the sixth round of the D-League Draft was a big win for us. With so many names in the draft pool and so little time to properly prepare, information was definitely power when it came to the 2013 D-League Draft. This was one of my first lessons learned in the NBA.
It’s one thing to make decisions – it’s another to make informed decisions. That’s where having some contextual background information can elevate a hunch into something more concrete. If we were completing such a large amount of due diligence for our minor league affiliate teams’ draft with tens of thousands of dollars on the line, just imagine the level of work that went into preparing for the NBA Draft in June, with millions of dollars on the line! That same year, we drafted C.J. McCollum with the 10th pick in the 2013 NBA Draft. McCollum is now considered one of the best guards in the NBA so I’d say that the due diligence paid off that time around, too!
2. Uncovering a player’s mental makeup can help better predict their future performance.
Or on the flip side, failing to uncover a player’s mental makeup can prove to be a costly mistake when trying to build a successful team. If a team neglects to shed light on a player’s character or background during the draft preparation process, the expiration date on the player’s time with their original team can come sooner than expected.
My colleague, Jeff Feld, pointed out in his recent piece for Forbes, that team options on rookie scale contracts were declined on six first round draft picks this fall. Three of those players, Marquese Chriss, Malachi Richardson and Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot, had already been moved by the teams that had drafted them. This certainly isn’t always the case, but declining a team option on a rookie scale contract is often an indicator that the team isn’t satisfied with a young player’s career trajectory. Having rookie scale contracts on the books is a crucial component to a well-balanced cap sheet, so seeing a general manager choose to let a second or third-year player become an unrestricted free agent doesn’t necessarily reflect positively on the team’s scouting staff. The point of gathering intel isn’t to uncover something bad or negative about a player – it’s simply to paint a clearer picture of what a team is literally signing up for, in addition to on-court production.
3. Be methodical throughout the gathering stage and weigh the information properly.
Remember that discernment that I mentioned earlier? It becomes front and center during the weeks and days leading up to the draft. Things get crazy! ‘Sources’ will leak rumors to throw teams off the scent and to increase or decrease a player’s draft stock. Wild accusations get tossed around and if you aren’t prepared with a foundation of reliable information beforehand it’s easy to get caught up in the hoopla. For example, if you’re a team that has performed due diligence on a player and concluded that their character is top-notch, it’s easy to toss aside a bogus draft day rumor about the player being gang affiliated, for example. You don’t want to be the team grappling with that news because you didn’t make a single intel call all year. The more good info at the helm, the better. You can’t eliminate every single surprise, but gathering good intel can give a team’s ownership and upper management peace of mind when making a potentially franchise-altering decision. Intel is an imperative element of decision-making, along with a player’s talent, medical information, analytics, team fit, etc.
I’ve spent the last 11 years working on the team side of basketball: first as a student manager at Westmont College, then as a graduate assistant at the University of Washington, before entering the pro ranks in the front offices of the Portland Trail Blazers and Charlotte Hornets. Now, as a member of the draft coverage team at Babcock Hoops, my experience provides an opportunity for me to apply these practices as our group prepares for the 2019 NBA Draft. We’re here to provide comprehensive knowledge on each draft prospect as we inch closer to June. Be on the lookout for more articles, and mock draft updates in the near future!