The Necessary Balance of Scouting
Former NBA scout and current Director of Basketball Operations for Babcock Hoops, Matt McKay, Jr., breaks down the necessary balance of scouting: video vs. in-person.
With the 2019-20 NBA season a few weeks in, front offices all over the league have begun the annual balancing act of feeling out their current rosters while preparing for the infusion of talent that lies ahead within the 2020 NBA Draft.
For many front office members, 2020 draft preparation is well underway, as plenty of scouts have scoured the world this summer evaluating prospects. Events like the FIBA U19 World Cup in Greece and the NBA Global Academy Games in Atlanta provide teams a great “bang for buck” when searching for their team's next draft pick. I had the good fortune of attending the Global Academy Games myself and can personally attest to the quality of players in the event.
In recent weeks, the league has set its sights down under, as two projected top-10 picks -- LaMelo Ball and R.J. Hampton -- are currently playing in the NBL. Needless to say, there are endless opportunities for evaluators to earn frequent flyer miles.
Other scouts and front office members have been streaming the games from the comfort of their office or couch. Who’s right? Both! Kind of…let me explain.
In this article, I’ll aim to tap into my experience as an NBA scout to shine some light on a different balancing act: evaluating players via video vs. live and in-person. I’ll also share some of my story by weaving in and out of some personal anecdotes as I break down some of the intricacies of both types of scouting.
Let’s get to it.
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realize that the more prepared you are as a staff, the better shot you have at getting your ducks in a row to nail the draft; whether you have one pick or six, the stakes are high. It’s the best way to add immediate value to your team, and to do so on the cheap, thanks to rookie scale contracts. How do you nail a draft, you ask? Being as prepared as possible. The best way to be prepared is to have an accurate grip on a player’s ability and potential as an organization projects how that player may fit into their specific team’s ecosystem; you can’t accomplish this without having properly scouted the prospect.
First, some musings about video scouting.
Video scouting isn’t something I ever specifically sought out per se -- but for whatever reason, it has proven to be a major common thread throughout my career in basketball.
Here are a few examples:
In 2007, as a student manager with Westmont (an NAIA school in Santa Barbara, CA) men’s basketball, one of my duties turned out to be helping set up and break down the team’s film sessions. That first year, we were still using VHS!
In my stint with Northeastern University Women’s Basketball in 2008, I was exposed to a video-editing software called Sportscode for the first time.
In 2009, during my time with the University of Washington Men’s Basketball as a student manager, our video coordinator took me under his wing and I was trained on another video-editing software called DVSport, and also began using Synergy to break down player tendencies.
By the time I left Washington, I had a good amount of video experience under my belt as a byproduct of little more than being around the office, willing to take on any task thrown my way. As I soon learned while working with the Portland Trail Blazers, some things never change...
It was early on in my time as an intern with the Blazers and I was getting lectured (I say lectured, which may have a negative connotation, but I was soaking this stuff up!) by our video coordinator, Tim Grass, one evening at the practice facility: “You may not realize it now, but video could be your way to stay in the league. You’re not just helping me out, you’re building up a technical skill set that’s valuable to every team in the NBA.”
That first season in Portland, in addition to my normal duties with the scouting and basketball operations staff, I stuck around late to complete some basic offensive/defensive breakdown projects for the Blazers’ video staff. They also had me live code games -- no room for error here! This was a stressful task having to clip certain instances in the actual moment while watching a live game. It may have seemed mundane, but in actuality, diving into video was helping set me up for success in the future.
Fast forward a couple of summer leagues and I was sitting at a conference table in a suite at the Aria Hotel in Las Vegas, across the table from Rich Cho and Chad Buchanan, the then GM and Assistant GM for the Charlotte Hornets. They offered me a job in their front office, and a big part of that initial job was managing all of Charlotte’s video personnel needs pertaining to the draft. Those next few days after accepting the job, I couldn’t help but smile and think about that lecture in the Blazers video room.
My role in Charlotte always included a bunch of video, but eventually evolved into a college scouting role that kept me on the road for approximately 25 days per month during the college season.
I’ll get back to that rigorous college scouting schedule. But first, let’s take a look at some of the benefits that come along with video scouting:
Off the top, when watching video, you can rewind as many times as you’d like and take notes while the video is paused. Video scouting reports allow you to be extra thorough.
Secondly, video scouting is more cost efficient. For instance, you can get to know a young euro player a lot cheaper on video than flying halfway across the world to see him play less than 10 minutes of live action.
A strong case can be made that it’s generally more efficient overall: you can watch about a game an hour or so, when skipping commercials on DVR or just watching a player’s minutes on InStat, another video software company that breaks down raw film on players and teams.
Lastly, scouting via video allows you to hear the commentary. This is especially helpful when some of the commentators really do their homework and share helpful info. Every once in a while I’ll glean a helpful nugget or two just by paying attention to the color commentator.
While I worked in Charlotte, we relied heavily on video to help us prepare for any type of player acquisition. Sure we had eyes and ears just about everywhere while going through our process, but we coupled that with hours and hours of video breakdowns before making a decision. For every game I watched live, I easily watched or cut five or six games on film.
There are two sides to every coin, and there are definitely some deterrents when it comes to video scouting. First of all, your “feel” for the player simply isn’t going to be as strong when watching film compared to evaluating from the fifth row. You’re also limited to where the camera is pointed - there may be some relevant stuff going on that a TV feed will never portray: interactions between players, coaches, officials, and team managers; conversations happening on the bench, in the tunnel, in the huddle, etc.
Now that we’ve touched on some of the good and the bad when it comes to video scouting, let’s shift our focus to live scouting.
I can’t speak for everyone, but live scouting isn’t as simple as nestling into your seat right before tip and locking in on a specific player or list of players until the final buzzer. For me, whenever possible, live scouting starts the day before at practice. After practice, I take a staff member out to dinner to catch up and talk shop. The next morning -- game day -- I attend shootaround. I love attending shootarounds, because they offer a completely different environment than a practice or a game. Here’s what I’m looking for:
Who’s awake? Do they look half asleep and unprepared, or locked in and ready to go to battle?
How are their actions when the lights are off and it’s just the team, the commentators, the TV crew, the janitors, and myself in the gym?
Anywhere between 90-120 minutes prior to tip, I’ll get to the arena and chat with staff as players come out for their pre-game routines. Why get there so early? Again, here’s what I’m looking for:
Who’s first on the court? Who’s last?
Who’s taking it seriously? Who’s goofing around or looking like they’d rather be at home on the couch?
With this approach, by the time the ball is tipped, I’m usually “several bullet points in” on the guys I’m writing up and there to see.
The sheer size, build and physical presence of a player.
General actions off-camera: interactions with teammates, coaches and officials during timeouts, and body language.
How a player answers questions and handles themselves amidst the media in the post-game presser.
As a scout and more recently as a member of the media, I also take full advantage of the access to the media room and resources available there, like media notes. College programs each have Sports Information Directors that do many things, including compiling pre and post-game notes for members of the media. It’s fully part of my process to swing by the media room and gather the pre-game notes in hopes of obtaining some helpful bit of information, whether it’s from a player’s bio or a stat/trend that I may have missed otherwise.
There’s also a built-in networking aspect being at a live game. There are a lot of great people in this industry, and it can make an 11-day road trip slightly less rigorous if you’re able to connect with old friends for a post-game meal. Speaking of long road trips, that can also be a legitimate deterrent to being on the road. It takes a physical and mental toll on your body to be a “road warrior.” It might sound fun, but sleeping in a hotel 75% of the time is a grind! Most people would be lying if they claimed to be as sharp and coherent on night eight of a road trip than they are on night one. Scouts aren’t out there on the floor playing the games, but most are flying around the country in coach -- with their fingers crossed for an exit row -- which isn’t all that glamorous!
But back to my point: properly balancing live scouting with video scouting creates a pathway for decision-makers to optimize their process. I experienced it with two NBA teams and still experience it now in our current setup with Babcock Hoops: if our group isn’t on the road watching a practice or a game, we are watching games on video and jumping on the phone to discuss thoughts and ideas provoked by the film study. The exact percentage breakdown of how much time to allocate to each is going to vary by group, but it is impossible to discount the importance of the necessary balance between live and video scouting.