NBA scouts are the unassuming, unrecognisable first weapon employed by any NBA team in seeking out and acquiring new talent. They may be virtually anonymous and easily missed, but they play a crucial role in an NBA organisation’s decision-making process and the locating/recruitment of new players.
Most fans can name a few head coaches in the league. Some can probably tell you the names of some of the top agents. Almost none will be able to tell you the names of the top scouts. And maybe that’s to their advantage. Anonymity is as much of a tactic as anything else in the battle to attract the best players.
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We got the lowdown on scouting straight from the guys in the field. A number of current and former NBA scouts gave us an idea of what their life is like behind-the-scenes.
They will remain anonymous to protect their livelihoods and reputations. And to avoid any negative repercussions they might experience as a result of being the focus of attention and giving us their honest opinions of the trade.
What’s the best thing about being an NBA talent scout?
"I really liked looking for things that other people might miss – either in a player who everyone knows about but you see something other people don’t or in lower-level prospects. My favorite part of the job was scouting the back-of-the-draft prospects who might just get a summer-league invite. When Jeremy Lin was at Harvard, I mentioned that I felt he could be an NBA player and everyone sort of laughed at me. A lot of it was borderline racist too. Things like, ‘Yeah, an Asian is going to make it in the NBA…’ That pissed me off. I stood by it and said, ‘I think he’s good enough.’ Then, he played in summer league with the Dallas Mavericks and he did well. I enjoy looking at a guy like that and seeing something in them that other people missed."
“I always feel like my opinion is valued. They don’t care what outsiders or other people are saying, they want to know what I think. There may be a player whom every team loves, but they’ll hear me out if I don’t like the player’s game – and vice versa. My input is valued. Or, at least, they do a good job of making me feel that my input is valued (laughs).”
“You meet a lot of great people who have really interesting stories. I met a bunch of older college coaches who had so many amazing stories. You meet other front-office people or former players you never imagined you’d meet or get to know. You’d meet these handlers and player managers with fascinating stories too. Getting to know so many new people is definitely a great part of the job. I know not all scouts get to do this – the level of involvement is different from organization to organization – but I always enjoyed interviewing draft prospects too. I enjoyed the conversations. You get to know which players are really smart, fascinating, worldly and interesting. And, of course, you find out which players are the opposite.”
“The best thing about the job is the relationships you build and the people you spend time with on the road.”
“International scouting can be fun, but you have to understand what you’re getting into. It’s not like you’re going to be in Italy for seven days and enjoying yourself. You’re going to a bunch of cities, watching a bunch of games and filing a bunch of reports. Bringing your wife and having her hang out at the hotel while you’re working and then meeting up just isn’t feasible. And to make that kind of trip worth it, you need to go over there for 10-to-14 days and see as much basketball as possible. But it can be fun to travel the world.”
“If you love to travel, it’s great. Every scout has their favorite cities and favorite restaurants that they go to. We all share that information too – from hotel information to transportation tips to restaurant recommendations to good parking areas.”
Scouts through history...
What’s the worst thing about the job?
“If you’re working any job in a front office, you’re traveling a ton and you’re consumed in your work. It affects all of your relationships. With my girlfriend, she’s understanding and she travels for work sometimes too. Still, it’s affected our relationship. I’ve tried working at night when my girlfriend is sleeping, but that’s not ideal either. It affects my friendships too. I rarely get to see my closest friends. Then, when I do see them, they’re upset that it’s been two months since we last caught up. That’s really tough.”
“The travel is definitely the worst part of the job. The scouts who are single couldn’t care less about traveling; they’d be fine traveling 300 days of the year. They can adjust because they don’t have many responsibilities. When you’re married and have kids, that takes a toll on your family. You aren’t spending the necessary amount of time with your wife and family. It takes a toll on your body too; you typically aren’t eating healthy or sleeping right.”
“I think the travel is one of the hardest parts of the job, if not the hardest. When you’re doing pro-personnel scouting, it’s not as bad because you’re in major cities with big airports and a lot of flights. When you’re doing college scouting or international scouting, it’s more difficult because you’re trying to get to places that aren’t near an airport or there’s no direct flight. That’s when the travel is exhausting.
“Also, you’re detached from your family for large parts of the year. The worst thing about scouting college players is that you miss so many graduations, birthday parties and important quality time with family and friends because you never have your Saturdays. Every Saturday, you’re gone because that’s when the big college games are being played. You really don’t have a weekend and that’s definitely a tough part of the job.”
“You’re with a team, but you aren’t really with a team since you’re on your own on the road for the most part. You have to be comfortable with a solitary lifestyle. The amount of time spent on the road is very challenging for guys with wives and kids. You have to have a really understanding and awesome wife because there are going to be parts of the year when she’s basically a single mother. She also has to be really flexible and understanding when it comes to where you live and the lack of job security. A lot of guys bounce around from team to team or city to city every four-to-five years. You’re judged on how the owner feels your boss is doing. It’s not like most careers. If the president of a company gets let go, not everyone below him is getting cleared out. But that happens in the NBA; we’re really dependent on the success and contract of our boss. That’s another downside to the job.”
“Early on, I was a regional scout and I was in an area where I could watch a lot of college teams, so I didn’t have to travel. But then they started having me travel more and more. They’d send me to conference tournaments and then the NCAA tournament and you get sucked in. Eventually, I was offered a Director of Scouting position – different organizations name it different things, but that’s what it was. I didn’t take it for a variety of reasons. Around the same time, I found out that my wife was pregnant. I realized that if I was going to continue down this career path in the NBA, I’d be on the road a ton and I wouldn’t necessarily like my lifestyle. If I was a single guy or my wife had a job where she was always traveling too, maybe it would’ve been a good fit. But I started looking around at all of the front-office people I knew and most of them were divorced and they never saw their kids. Most of them. And I’m not just talking about scouts, I’m talking about a lot of front-office people I knew. I didn’t want that kind of relationship with my kids or my wife, and that’s the main reason I got out.”
“One of my good friends – who’s held a number of different front-office jobs around the NBA over a long period of time – told me, ‘Get out. Get out now. If you don’t get out, you’re going to get divorced and 20 years down the road, you’ll only be qualified to do this. You don’t want that.’ Now, he was very cynical (laughs), but I did get that kind of feedback from various people in the business.”
What do most people misunderstand about the day-to-day job of NBA talent scouting?
“A lot of people think it’s this luxurious life, but it’s the opposite of that. That’s not to say there aren’t good parts. But you spend a bunch of time traveling, a bunch of time talking to handlers and a bunch of time gathering background information. There are times when you’re watching film or seeing a player in person, but there’s more to it than that.”
“People always ask me, ‘How did you get such a great job?’ They think it’s amazing because I’m traveling the world and doing what they view as fun work. But it’s not always fun. The traveling is brutal. As a scout, sometimes you’re visiting seven cities in five days. You’re watching a ton of different teams and writing a ton of reports.”
“Being a scout can be a lot of fun, but if you’re doing it long-term, there are more cons than pros. It definitely takes a toll on your family. With that said, I think it’s something that you have to go through and the best way to prepare for a front-office job. As a scout, you’re in touch with so many different people – players, agents, GMs, team presidents – and you create a vast network of people who can help you in the long run. I think it’s excellent preparation.”
“The biggest misconception is, ‘Hey, I could easily do that job.’ Anyone can watch a game and anyone can be right about a few players, but having success in this job over the long haul is more difficult than people think. It’s very difficult and takes a lot of work. And I can’t stress how much of this job is gathering background information.”
“More time is spent on gathering information than watching basketball, and I don’t think a lot of people realize that. You’re trying to figure out what a guy does in his free time, what kind of activities he’s interested in and who he is as a person. I would talk current and past coaches, friends of the family, handlers and anyone else who would have information about the prospect.”
“Sometimes I feel like a private investigator (laughs). Most of my job is gathering intel. I call anyone I can. I call equipment managers, doctors, physiotherapists, teammates, friends, coaches. I want to find out as much as I can about a player. Is he completely healthy? Does he smoke? Does he drink? Does he have a good relationship with his wife? These are things that we want to know before investing in a player.”
“I can’t emphasize enough how much of this job is doing character research on players, and that’s really difficult info to get. You need sources who have information, and then you need to be able to decode the information to see how much is true, how much is exaggerated and how that own individual’s biases may taint the information. It’s not just finding sources, it’s finding reliable sources.”
“A lot of people will say, ‘You get paid to watch basketball!’ but you’re getting paid to watch basketball in a completely different way. I’ve talked to a lot of musicians who say that they can’t enjoy music the same way anymore. If they start listening to music, they start evaluating and deconstructing every little part of a song. That’s kind of how I feel when I watch basketball now. You aren’t watching the game from the perspective of a fan, you’re watching it to break down certain things. That’s not to say that watching games like that isn’t enjoyable in its own way, it’s just different. It’s a misconception about scouts that I run into because people don’t realize we’re watching the game differently.”
“When you’re watching a game live, you aren’t necessarily looking at the game. You’re looking at how the player warms up, how he reacts when the team is losing, how he reacts to the coach yelling at him, how he interacts with his teammates, whether he has confrontations with the referee or fans, how he acts during timeouts, how he handles being benched. There are so many things that you’re watching for that have nothing to do with the player’s skills.”
“Even my friends don’t exactly understand what my job entails. They think you’re trying to uncover a player that nobody knows about, like you’re going to walk into a gym and uncover the next Giannis Antetokounmpo and nobody knows about him. In reality, it’s really hard these days to find a player nobody knows. You’re trying to notice things that other people don’t notice and know as much as possible about the player. The goal is to fill my team’s database with as much information as possible about as many players as possible.”
“A lot of people think that there’s only one type of scout, which is a huge misconception. If an NBA organization wants to do a good job when it comes to scouting players, they need to have advance scouts, college scouts, international amateur scouts, international pro-player scouts, D-League scouts and pro-personnel scouts that evaluate the other 29 NBA teams looking for possible trade targets. Many fans think that one scout does all of those things, but that’s impossible. A scout who’s good at judging young talent may not be good at judging a current pro player and how they’ll fit in a specific system. They’re used to projecting how good a player will be in a few years versus what a player can do now in a particular role. You need to have a lot of scouts with different roles.”
“There are differences. Advance scouts, which I think have the hardest job, are breaking down opponents that your team is going to face. You literally have to be able to diagram the plays, get the play calls and send them to your coach. That’s a lot of pressure, and you need to get all of that information in the system and back to your coach that night because it’s important stuff that may be crucial to winning your next game. With pro-personnel scouting, you’re watching every player on the floor. With college or international scouting, you’re watching a handful of players.”
“There are some organizations that will have one regional scout who evaluates all of the college, D-League and NBA teams in his region. Other organizations will have different scouts assigned to the different levels. It varies from team to team.”
What advice would you give someone who is considering becoming an NBA scout?
“Whenever I get asked this question, I tell people, ‘Form relationships and form a lot of them.’ You obviously need to know about the game, bring something substantive to the table and be right more than you’re wrong as an evaluator, but relationships are the most important thing. You can know everything there is to know about scouting and basketball, but you’ll never make it into the NBA without relationships. And just know what you’re getting into. There are a lot of great things about the job and I know people who love it, but anyone who is thinking of starting out in this business should know about the travel and the toll it takes on families.”
“Finally, the most important thing, is that you can’t judge a player solely from looking at their stats. Stats and analytics have a lot of value and can help you evaluate a player, but you need to go beyond that as well. Stats don’t always tell the whole story; maybe the player isn’t in the right system for him, maybe he’s not surrounded by the right players, maybe the coach isn’t utilizing him well. A player can have bad stats – and even look bad – but you need all of the information and you need to understand the situation.”
“Make sure this is something that you’re passionate about. You aren’t going to love every part of the job, so make sure this is something you are passionate about to make this worth it. I would also tell them to try watching a game the way a scout would, focusing on one player – on and off the court – and try to write a report. See if you enjoy that kind of thing and how you do. Also, find a mentor who can help you and provide direction. Then, if you get a scouting job, work your ass off. I will never stop working hard, because I know that’s how I’ll get replaced. The hard work you do defines you.”
“Watch as much basketball as possible – and not just the superstars like LeBron James. You have to watch the little guys. The big stars will show what they can do and they’re hard to miss on. You need to be able to identify the little guys, the role players, who can make an impact and produce more than they’re expected to and provide great value where they’re picked. Watch a ton of basketball and read about the ins and outs of the Collective Bargaining Agreement.”
“The most important thing for a scout is their sources. A scout’s sources are what allow them to gather the intel that nobody else can get.”
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