Bias props up frequently in the NBA prospect evaluation process. I’m told it shows up in many other forms of decision-making throughout life as well…
Those who are making key decisions are informed by their past experiences and anecdotal knowledge. Their job is to understand how what they see, informed by a grasp of how bias operates, will be slanted.
In essence, we can only be aware of our biases, not remove them.
Therefore there are two key exercises for all scouts, general managers, owners and more to participate in: The first is an identification of biases. The second is a gameplan for how to ensure said proclivities don’t take the wheel.
Identification can be a difficult exercise for those who believe biases are bad—they aren’t inherently poor. For example, some drafters may be biased to selecting a player who has taken a unique and sympathetic journey to the NBA, such as growing up homeless like Jimmy Butler or overcoming a childhood death in their family.
It’s impossible to know whether this background knowledge tugging at the heartstrings is a bias developing toward empathetically wanting that person to succeed or a true data point for personality, perseverance and character.
Bias can exist in more trivial ways, too.
The key to bias is that, after identifying all the ways it can lead you down different tracks, you still must steer the ship in the best direction. That can be very difficult.
One occurrence where bias clearly impacted the draft process was last year’s selection of Cameron Johnson by the Phoenix Suns. Suns Senior Vice President of Basketball Operations Jeff Bower was a former college head coach at Marist and recruited Johnson when there. A relationship developed that continued, even though Johnson didn’t attend Marist.
Bower’s proximity with the family, ability to vouch for Johnson’s character, as well as his infatuation with the player’s skill was a driving force behind the Suns surprising the world and taking Johnson eleventh overall.
The Suns didn’t necessarily make the wrong choice, but it was a clearly biased one. (And very well may turn out to be the wrong one in the end.)
In an attempt at putting on a general manager hat, I’ll try to root out some of my own biases. There are a few college coaches whom—either through past performance of drafted players or an insider view of their own coaching structure— thatI would avoid drafting prospects from.
I was a catch-and-shoot player in my day, so I know I have a tendency to value 3-point shooting specialists more than others. I’m also getting to the point where, through a connection with a friend in the profession or knowing a player’s coach and background, my relationships find me rooting for a specific player because I care about those who back him.
So I know what you’re thinking… how the hell does this all relate to Tyrese Maxey?
Maxey is a great case of how bias towards shooting can influence the view of prospects: He shot 29 percent on 3-pointers at Kentucky as a freshman and isn’t without mechanical flaws. He was 25 percent on all catch-and-shoots, and 28.7 percent on any jump shot in the half-court.
Based on my bias towards shooting, you know those numbers carry a lot of weight in my mind, particularly when there are form issues that need addressing.
But Maxey is a dang good basketball player in other ways. In an attempt to overcome that bias and give him a fair viewing, I’m going to try my hardest to brush the shooting concerns aside and instead focus on what he does well.
There’s a glut of lead-guards being considered in the lottery: Maxey, Cole Antony, Anthony Edwards, Nico Mannion, Kira Lewis Jr.; international guys Killian Hayes and Theo Maledon; international league players LaMelo Ball and RJ Hampton; and even combo guards like Tyrese Haliburton.
That’s ten guys right off the bat with minimal separation, so this process really will come down to fit, preference and thriving on the little amount of information NBA teams have.
Of the group, Maxey is likely the best, most consistent on-ball defender. He has great form when guarding drives, moving his feet while making use of that long wingspan. As a coach’s son, a large part of his defensive grit seems to stem from how he pays attention to detail.
When an opponent is driving baseline, he’ll use his lead hand to cloud vision and contest a pull-up, all while subtly using his other arm to bump drivers. He’ll be a high-level on-ball defender.
Maxey is also difficult to screen—a highly-coveted skill in a league dominated by pick-and-roll guards. Maxey slithers through handoffs and off-ball screens to stay in guarding position. He’s quick laterally and has the vision to see those screens develop before he gets to the point of contact.
The best way to guard is to not require help, and Maxey is already a pro here.
Offensively, he is a tremendous finisher when he gets to the rim out of the pick-and-roll. He loves to throw alley-oops to open bigs and knows how to go either direction. There’s no true weak-hand for him, either.
Maxey has a James Harden-like deceleration once he enters the paint, allowing him to make the accurate read or control his body for a layup. He is very fast, but he’s not reliant on that speed to score. He’s a good creator with his passing (at times) and rarely holds onto the ball for too long.
If any flaw exists, it comes from pre-determining where he’ll pass rather than from being a ball hog or missing windows while they’re open.
Maxey converts when he gets to the rim, but he’s not just a one-level scorer. He was 7-for-14 on runners out of the pick-and-roll and shot a very respectable 7-for-17 on pull-up jumpers.
There’s a case to be made that Maxey will be a fine mid-range scorer and, despite his poor catch-and-shoot numbers, is a fine shooter when he has the ball in his hands.
Okay, now it’s time to embrace the bias for a bit… Looking through the lens of what I’m predisposed to, what does that reveal about Maxey?
Shooting for pick-and-roll guards is a big deal in my book. Think about all the All-Star point guards who are under 6’5″. How many can you name that are poor shooters from 3-point range?
I recently completed a video for our Division III basketball program about types of common ball screen defenses and what they force upon an offense. Most come down to nuance and preparation, knowing where to look and who to pass to in different situations.
But one can stop a screen in its tracks and only has one clean solution: Going under a ball screen dares a player to shoot it.
For guys who are elite passers but poor shooters (think Rajon Rondo), an element of their game is taken away when the defense can go under the pick and meet them on the other side. Their ability to pass and pick apart coverages changes when they are encouraged to be a scorer.
Ball screens are designed to create momentary 2-on-1 advantages due to the contact of the screener. Elite guards manipulate those moments and capitalize on the smallest sliver of advantage. Going under negates that advantage entirely since no screen is occurring and the defense is dictating to the offense what they can do: shoot it or the screen is meaningless.
When I evaluate guard prospects, pick-and-roll shooting is the skill most of my evaluation hinges upon.
Are you a good enough shooter to prevent defenses from going under? If yes, they’ll go over the top and give you opportunities to get into the lane, where you can finish or create for others.
If no, you risk handicapping your entire offense when the ball is in your hands and the defense says, “Go ahead, shoot. We dare ya.”
Maxey’s form needs some help. He’s got a low release: barely above his right shoulder and out in front of his body. Pull-up jumpers get fired off quickly that way, but they are easy to deflect since they’re low.
Maxey’s form suffers from a lack of arc at times, as he has a tendency to line drive his misses and clank off the front rim. That’s likely tied to the mechanics and the low release. It’s a shame since Maxey is blessed with long arms.
Many scouts look at free throw shooting as an indicator of upside for a player’s long-term shooting. The theory is that if the stroke is consistent there and a player has some touch from the line, they’ll be more susceptible to a true tinkering of their jump shot and the results will be lasting.
I find that theory to be hogwash.
While Maxey is an 83.3 percent shooter, being alone at the line is very different than spotting up from behind 3-point range.
I tend to judge players’ upside based on the cleanliness of their misses: Are they drawing iron? Are they missing with a lot of ‘in-and-out’ results, which can distort percentages? Are they on target left and right? Is their release the same when they make and when they miss?
Maxey’s answers to those questions aren’t encouraging. He’s smoked a lot of open catch-and-shoots and really struggles when under pressure and when contested.
He’s a streaky shooter who can be really cold on some days, and streaky is usually the enemy of pure.
The base and repetition of his lower-half is near perfect. He gets north-south, sees the ball into his hands and has excellent footwork. But something isn’t connected with his release, and it needs to be fixed.
His late-clock isolation creation is severely hindered since defenders take away the drive. But context is key in acquitting Maxey of complete responsibility. Kentucky’s spacing was subpar this year, and head coach John Calipari struggled to juggle multiple guards who are more creator than scorer.
Maxey was the best scorer of the group, and in the final ten seconds of the clock, the team defaulted to him. With other non-shooters around him, it was Maxey’s job to make something happen with suboptimal spacing, few shooters around him and a defense laser-focused on his every move.
There’s a strong likelihood his numbers increase when given more options to pass to and he has more space to make a dribble move. Still, that jumper needs to be fixed.
Draft Predictions and Overall Analysis
Maxey is good. He’s a strong finisher, creator and defender. But as I’ve acknowledged, he wouldn’t be my first choice.
Bias is a hell of a factor in that. I know what I like, and that’s what I’m going to go after. Every general manager is the same. Whether they’re searching for something that goes perfectly within their current team or drawn to a specific skill, these factors matter on draft night and impact how a player’s range can be short or wide.
In my opinion, Maxey’s on-ball defense will see him go somewhere in the mid-lottery area. He’s certainly capable of being a top-five selection and is knocking on that door already. He’s just not the type of player I’d want to hitch my wagon to.
Call me biased. I know I am.
Unless otherwise noted, all statistics are courtesy of Sports-Reference, Synergy Sports Tech or NBA.com/stats, and are current as of April 14, 2020.
Adam is a TBW staff writer and college basketball coach at Dickinson College. He loves watching for offensive schemes while specializing in individual skill development, shooting technique and coach-speak. Born in New Hampshire, Adam grew up as a Celtics fan but now claims to just love “good basketball”, which does not include mid-range jumpers.