NBA Scouts: Roles, Rules and State Secrets

As a senior in college, I contemplated many different jobs upon my graduation. After talking myself out of applying to jobs in politics, I ended up comfortably deciding to become a coach and a teacher. Being on the front lines of a basketball team was something I wasn’t willing to sacrifice, and to this day I’m thankful that was the path I chose.

Still, I wonder what would’ve happened if I chose the third path I stared down: becoming an NBA scout.

During my college years, I had conversations with a few people in league circles – one regional scout and one former general manager—about joining the ranks of the loneliest and most under-appreciated workers in professional basketball. As much as I love basketball, I was mortified by the commitment that I found out goes into being a scout.

You don’t have to just know basketball or love basketball. You have to make it your life, one-hundred percent. It is more than sitting in a chair and watching a game, making determinations about whether a player is good or whether your team should draft them.

There are many shoes that scouts can fill and many different positions within the umbrella of evaluation. Four main categories stick out:

Advance Scouts

Oct 29, 2018; Chicago, IL, USA; NBA coaching scout Bret Just attends the Golden State Warriors at Chicago Bulls game at the United Center. Mandatory Credit: Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

This past September, Ethan Strauss of The Athletic did a wonderful dive into perhaps the hardest workers in the NBA business. The world of an advance scout is one without glamor or recognition but is vital to the vast network of understood espionage that takes place in preparation for NBA games.

Each team invests thousands of dollars each year in flying some personnel—known as advance scouts—around the country to watch future opponents before the coaching staff begins preparations on those teams. It’s a grueling travel schedule, but the job itself is, to many, a nightmare.

The work done by an advance scout is crucial towards game-planning, particularly in postseason series. An advance scout does exactly that: they watch future opponents play in advance of their meeting. They even watch in advance of the rest of the coaching staff’s preparations for games. Most scouting reports on opponents are written by one assistant on a coaching staff.

That assistant will begin their preparations days, if not a week, in advance. They’ll begin to hone in on film, notice tendencies of the individual players and prepare a list of the most frequent or most potent actions on the offensive and defensive ends of the floor. To this end, this position is the only one where the scout is more closely linked to the coaching staff than to the front office and player personnel decisions.

The advance scout helps save that assistant some time and loads them up with details they cannot get on film. Most essential are play calls (mainly coming from hand signals) that originate on the bench with the head coach. Television cameras only pick up so much on the court, so in-person scouting is essential to understanding which plays and sets match which calls. When the camera does pick up the details, the job of the advance scout becomes so clearly vital to all who watch:

The quick panning of the camera catches Rick Carlisle shouting “One Out” to his players, with his index finger wagging away from his body as if to point outward. Knowing the play before the Dallas Mavericks would run it certainly brings the defense an advantage. These guys are trained to specifically watch for and find these details. Advance scouts then relay that information to the coaching staff, with detailed reports of the X’s and O’s of each set as well as potential triggers for when the play is initiated.

One part espionage, one part tactical acumen, and one part organization: These advance scouts are on the road for almost an entire season and must be attentive at all times, sure not to miss a single detail from their opponents. Understanding the way plays are designed, how an offensive play includes multiple options and if they’re built specifically for personnel can be challenging in real-time. A photographic memory and quick, but organized, note-taking, are prerequisites. Coaches like Gregg Popovich may call a play once every three months—and it’s on the advance scout to recognize the call and match it up with their notes from the past.

Some of us cannot even remember what we had for dinner last night.

If watching upwards of 150 basketball games in-person sounds interesting to you, you’re probably not alone. But watching for the structural framework of each play, and not as much on the individual players or highlights they create, is the essence of this gig. The grueling schedule, insane organization and massive amount of detail that goes into the job scares many away.

International Scouts

Feb. 1, 2018; Moscow, RUSSIA; Luka Doncic of Real Madrid drives the ball during the 2017-2018 Euroleague Basketball match between Moscow CSKA and Real Madrid. Mandatory Credit: Xinhua/Sipa USA via USA TODAY NETWORK

Imagine the same grueling and lonely travel schedule, but outside of the United States and further removed from home and the confines of the NBA. Front offices and scouting departments spend millions of dollars in an investment towards understanding future prospects and hoping to get an upper hand at predicting the next players on their radar.

To understand the unique qualities an international scout must possess, one must also understand the international system. Top prospects attend basketball-specific academies at younger ages, where they are constantly refined from a skill development standpoint. The level of competition is different in each country and through different academies. Some are tied with professional programs, and those have intense international competition teamed with them. The highest prospects on international radars compete in FIBA world championships, qualifiers and other international games that shine the best of each country against another.

Layering all these slices of data needs to be done by experts who understand the context of each situation, as well as those who have done the groundwork and tracked the progress of each prospect for a number of years.

The New York Knicks didn’t start looking at Kristaps Porzingis just nine months before he was drafted. Reports that track players like Porzingis are compiled for years through all his competitions, each serving as just another data point as they try to nail his long-term outlook.

The European game is different from the American youth systems, albeit high school, AAU or collegiate levels. International scouts must have familiarity with both in order to forecast how a certain player’s individual skill level will transcend those differences.

The vast majority of players scouted will never sniff the NBA, so this isn’t as glamorous as going to the top FIBA Tournaments or the EuroLeague championships once a year and compiling a list of top prospects.

There’s virtually no glamour involved in their lifestyle.

College Scouts

Of course, the classic framework from which we view athletic scouting comes from the traditional question we hear around the NBA Draft: “how will Player A’s skills translate from college to the pros?”

That’s the basic question college scouts aim to solve. These guys travel to games in person, watch games on tape and do so much digging to unearth every gem they can find about prospects. So much of this comes from in-person scouting because, as we all know, television can only show so much. These scouts evaluate more than just prospects’ on-court performance. Are they in the gym early before games and getting work in? How is their body language in difficult situations? Do they cheer for their teammates?

Most scouts do more digging into questions about players off the court than they do actually watching game film. I was fortunate to once be in the room when one of my old mentors, a successful high school coach, was called regarding a pro prospect that he coached for one year when the player was 14. They tracked down coach’s number and asked him about the prospect’s study habits, his practice habits, how receptive he was to feedback, his diet and his sleeping habits, among other questions.

This isn’t a simple job of X’s and O’s and basketball acumen.

In a world where every available piece of information is a data point, these scouts aren’t tasked with determining their relevance. At the end of the day, they aren’t the ones who have reputations put on the line for choosing whether to draft these players and hand them multi-million dollar contracts and investments. College scouts simply compile as much data as they can on each prospect.

College scouts must also maintain a strong familiarity with both the NBA and the NCAA games. The main question regarding translation means a scout must be fluent in both languages of the respective leagues.

How does a prospect at Syracuse, who exclusively plays zone defense under head coach Jim Boeheim, show flashes within the zone for how they might be able to play man-to-man defense in the NBA? How does a coach know not to pigeonhole a prospect because a college coach uses them in a certain way on their team that might not display their full abilities on offense?

Jun 25, 2015; Brooklyn, NY, USA; Devin Booker (Kentucky) greets NBA commissioner Adam Silver after being selected as the number thirteen overall pick to the Phoenix Suns in the first round of the 2015 NBA Draft at Barclays Center. Mandatory Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Devin Booker at Kentucky is a great example. He shared the backcourt under John Calipari with three ball-dominant, below-average three-point shooters in Aaron Harrison, Andrew Harrison and Tyler Ulis. As such, Coach Cal would run very few pick-and-rolls for Booker, knowing the spacing that existed around him could torpedo those sets and not just result in a turnover or poor shot for his team, but reflect poorly on Booker. Per Synergy Sports, Booker only spent 2.3 percent of his offensive possessions at Kentucky as the PNR ball handler.

Early in the 2018-19 season with the Suns, Booker gets more than 41 percent of his offense from those actions and is in the top half of the league in efficiency from them. It’s highly unlikely that the Suns discovered this talent after drafting him.

Some college scout along the way was able to piece together his abilities and skills from other facets of the game and surmise (correctly) that he would translate in this fashion. Other scouts will incorrectly draw conclusions about players. After all, investing in people and their development is always going to be an inexact science.

Pro Scouts

The least talked about, and perhaps most contentious position, are those of Pro Scouts. They combine the efforts of College Scouts, who look at individual players, with front office thumbing through the league. A pro scout’s main focus is to deliver advice and intel on other players in the NBA (or G-League) that might be useful to the front office. The buck stops at the desk of the general manager or President of Basketball Operations, but these guys help make the input.

Do you ever wonder where or how an NBA team poaches a player from a random G-League team for a two-way contract? They rely heavily on pro scouts.

What about young players who get traded and find rebirth in a new city to jump-start their careers? Somewhere, there’s a pro scout that’s strongly advocating for their shot at redemption.

Pro scouts are essentially the antithesis to advance scouts. Instead of watching the game for X’s and O’s, they are honing in on individual players and trying to best determine what they bring to the table. Free agency wishlists and boards are built through the foundation laid by pro scouts. G-League players given tryouts thanks to them. The list goes on.

Perhaps the most unheralded way pro scouts impact organizations in the rapidly changing landscape of the league is through stockpiling a team’s G-League roster. The organizations that routinely load up on the best gems have a combination of great work from college scouts and from pro scouts. Several NBA stalwarts have taken circuitous routes to NBA stardom, including the likes of Jeremy Lin, Hassan Whiteside and Robert Covington. All players were given a second chance somewhere along the way that started with the G-League. It’s a great place for pro scouts and front offices to roll the dice on a player they’re intrigued by.

Each scouting role serves a drastically different function within the organization. Some help coaching staffs more than the front office. Some don’t even watch many NBA games throughout their duties. The level of involvement in what you see on the court isn’t overwhelming, but each function is vital to the synergy of a team. These are the unsung heroes, the grinders not in the spotlight, that lay the foundation for teams to be successful.

Perhaps someday you’ll be crazy enough to want to join them.