Skip to main content
Original Issue


An errant outlet pass thrown last June in the cozy gym of Moody
Bible College stood about a one-in-five chance of braining an
NBA legend. Kevin McHale and Larry Bird, Jerry West and Elgin
Baylor, Willis Reed and Red Holzman, as well as 250 or so other
representatives from every team in the league, ringed the three
courts in a sweat-suited frieze, patting backs and bending ears.
As executives, scouts and coaches, they had gathered in Chicago
to eyeball 60 or so draft-eligible players, some familiar
(Kentucky forward Rodrick Rhodes) and some foreign (Zydrunas
Ilgauskas, a 7'1" Lithuanian). Scrimmaging for four days under
the scrutiny of some of the keenest minds in basketball, these
assorted twentysomethings were inkblots in that most fascinating
of Rorschach tests: sizing up NBA prospects.

As the pro hopefuls ran through some standard NBA sets, Laker
assistant coach Larry Drew bird-dogged from the bleachers. The
camp, designed to take players out of their comfort zones, has
no familiar systems or longtime coaches in place for
reassurance. As a result, the league's likely lottery picks
don't play here; they don't care to subject themselves to this
kind of examination and risk a possible plummeting of their
draft-day value. But many potential late-first- and second-round
choices are on hand. "Those that have a defined talent will
stand out right away," said Drew. "You can feel it."

On the near court Travis Best, a point guard from Georgia Tech,
ran that NBA staple, the high pick-and-roll, to the left of the
free throw line. In one sequence Best used the screen to
penetrate left, draw the double team and dish to a cutter for a
gimme. On the next he drove the paint and finished himself with
a clever layup. Drew, an ex-playmaker, got excited. "The other
guys here are working too hard, but you can see how fluid he
is," Drew said. "His stock rolls on those two plays alone." Best
would wind up going to Indiana as the 23rd pick three weeks later.

A basketball scout has certain advantages over his brethren from
football and baseball: fewer participants to watch in action at
any moment, constant movement that yields streams of insight,
ready visibility of each misstep from courtside. That edge is
borne out by the numbers: Nearly 75% of the NBA's starters last
season were first-round picks. And yet every year, after teams
have spent as much as seven figures on their scouting
operations, millions of cap-consuming dollars are doled out to
rookies who will amount to little more than bench ornaments,
while future All-Stars go undrafted.

For, in truth, the appraiser's art is not merely in assessing
talent. Indeed, his preliminary remarks about a prospect are
likely to be of a simplistic, binary nature. He shows
up/disappears. I like/don't like him. Or that favorite,
straight-to-the-bottom-line comment: He can/can't play. The
operative skill really lies in the projecting of future pros.
Can that scout transpose the NAIA scoring champ or the Big Ten
blunderbuss or the Greek jump shooter--mind, body and soul--from
his formative environment to the high-speed, high-pressure,
high-salaried world of the NBA? And can he then accurately slot
that player in the draft's order?

"In basketball, more than any other sport, you can only do what
the defense permits you to do," says Portland scout Bucky
Buckwalter. The implication: What is permissible in college
will often be forbidden in the pros. The two scales have such
different calibrations that even Stu Inman, an astute coach and
executive with Portland, Milwaukee and Miami from 1969 to '93,
predicted less than surefire stardom for the three NBA
supernovas of the last decade. "As much as I liked Michael
Jordan, I have to admit I never saw nearly as much ability as he
has shown," Inman says. "I'd say the same thing about Larry Bird
and Magic Johnson. Magic's a winner, and you loved him, but high
dribble, suspect shooting.... Bird labors up and down the court,
bad body, can't jump; I don't know who he can cover. I never saw
the genius in those three kids."

Whenever a Laker scout sees a prospect, he fills out a small
evaluation form and gives a 1-to-5 rating in 18 categories
ranging from "effort" to "balance," while also writing down
personal observations and noting statistics. All these cards are
collated and the staff's vision coordinated until that moment
when West, the executive vice president of basketball
operations, must phone in L.A.'s picks during the draft. And yet
West, one of the shrewdest and most successful executives in NBA
history, whose team has had tremendous success in the draft in
recent years (page 38), frankly admits that his team's decisions
are nearly as random as a coin flip. "We take our draft very
seriously, as I'm sure everyone else does," West says. "[But]
there's probably been times after when we say, 'How in the hell
did we draft this guy?'"

So just what in the heck are these basketball brainiacs really
seeing when they watch a flock of All-Americas race up and down
the court? The answer comes in the form of the questions each
scout must ask himself as he assesses a prospect.

How athletic is he? In the pros the irreducible equation is one
versus one: Getting a shot off, let alone hitting it, against an
NBA defender requires extraordinary quickness or size. Those
with both, as well as skill, can write their own lottery
tickets. Kevin Garnett, a 6'11", 220-pound forward, was taken
fifth by the Timberwolves in the '95 draft largely because of a
workout in which, according to one onlooker, "He ran and jumped
like Superman." That display was so seductive that it did not
matter much that Garnett was 19, had just graduated from high
school and had worked out without facing any defense.

Conversely, skill without athleticism is not reason enough for
being drafted. To wit: Arkansas's Scotty Thurman, a 6'5" guard
who went unchosen in 58 picks last June. An All-SEC performer, a
superb clutch shooter and a Final Four hero, Thurman lacked both
the explosiveness to beat a defender off the dribble and the
lateral quickness to cover on the perimeter. "It wasn't obvious
all the time," one scout says, "but when you did see him in
man-to-man situations against a quick player, you could see
where his feet just weren't good enough."

A scout must look for such telltale moments, when the conditions
during a college game mimic those of the pros. Because of the
absurd, end-to-end style at Loyola Marymount, Bo Kimble averaged
35.3 points a game as a senior but seldom had to put the ball on
the floor to create his own shot, a necessity for an NBA
shooting guard. Despite Kimble's never demonstrating this skill,
the Clippers picked him No. 8 in the 1990 draft; last year he
was out of the league. On the other hand, playmaker Sam Cassell,
the Rockets' first-round choice in '93 out of Florida State and
now an integral member of the two-time world champs, instantly
captivated John Killilea, Houston's director of player
personnel. "Sam dove, stole the ball, rolled over and threw it
to someone at midcourt," Killilea recalls. "Then he scrambled to
his feet, got back into the play, and when someone shot and
missed, Sam got the rebound and put it back in. Right then and
there I had the same feeling for Sam that I had for my wife the
first time I met her."

Does he have an NBA body? Anyone who has watched a pro game has
a rough idea of the typical player's build (broad shoulders,
long limbs, sinewy muscles) as well as the height and weight
specs for each position. Those are the guidelines against which
scouts measure potential draftees, and no part of a prospect's
anatomy escapes their gaze. "Usually I look at kids' butts,"
says Will Robinson, the Pistons' director of player personnel.
"I like small butts because that means they can probably jump

The wingspan of Scottie Pippen, a 6'7" forward from Central
Arkansas, prompted Bull G.M. Jerry Krause to trade for him after
Seattle had selected him fifth in '87. Dick Van Arsdale, the
director of player personnel in Phoenix, avoids drafting what
the Suns call "10-to-2-ers." "They're duck-footed--like 10 to 2
on the clock," Van Arsdale says. "Most guys run pigeon-toed."
And good hands are, of course, vital for hoops, the larger and
softer the better. "Especially for a big man," says Sacramento
scouting director Scotty Stirling. "If he can catch the ball, he
has a chance to play."

No aspect of a prospect's body matters more than his height. Big
men may be the hardest to get a fix on: The number of quality
opponents they face in college is limited, and because of their
size, their skills are often slower to develop. At the same
time, Marty Blake, the NBA's scouting guru, has estimated that a
team has a chance to draft a quality center only "once every
19 1/2 years," a stat that has driven those lacking a presence in
the pivot to desperate lengths. Take Larue Martin. The Blazers
did--with the No. 1 pick in 1972. Why? Because, Inman says, "he
was the only center available." Martin, out of Loyola (Chicago),
lasted only four seasons, with career averages of 5.3 points and
4.6 rebounds a game.

What's in his heart? The NBA demands survival skills; that spin
move that was so reliable in college will be the first to be
stripped from a player's arsenal in the pros. Will that rookie
then, out of pride and determination and sheer love of the game,
devote the time it takes to expand his repertoire--even if he can
already retire on his first contract? As Robinson puts it, "I
don't know how anyone can play until he gets punched in the
nose. Will he back down, or is he going to fight back? When I
miss on a player, I always know why: I couldn't measure how much
heart he has." One warrior the Pistons were right about was
five-time All-Star Joe Dumars, a bargain at No. 18 out of
McNeese State.

"If two guys are comparable talentwise, I'm a big believer in
character," Golden State G.M. Dave Twardzik says. Another exec
says, "A leopard doesn't change his spots. Just look at Derrick

Those who consider psychological makeup on a par with physical
ability cite as evidence the ill-fated lottery picks of '86. Len
Bias, picked second by the Celtics, died of a cocaine overdose
two days after the draft; Chris Washburn, chosen next by Golden
State, was plagued by personal problems; William Bedford, the
Suns' selection at No. 6, went into drug rehab. Each had the
ability and build of an NBA star; none ever averaged as many as
seven points in a season. "You can't draft on potential," says
Ed Gregory, the Warriors' director of scouting.

A player's attitude may be partially discerned from courtside;
his facial expression after a bad call, his reaction to being
benched or his resiliency on an off night can be epiphanous for
a scout. But over the past decade, in which the average
first-rounder's salary soared roughly 700%, teams pumped more
money into evaluating all aspects of a player's makeup.
Psychological tests--with up to 600 questions, including things
like "Did you grow up playing with dolls?"--are now standard
issue. Private eyes, who run down rap sheets and known
associates and even speak with neighbors, are hired for up to
$30,000 per case when teams are in doubt about the character of
a potential No. 1 pick. And almost every first-rounder is
subjected to a series of interviews with coaches and
front-office personnel. "How many other businesses hire
well-paid employees without sitting down with them?" asks Celtic
G.M. Jan Volk.

Direct contact is often the most revealing approach. One team
passed on center Luther Wright, the No. 18 choice by Utah in
1993, after Wright 1) left his return ticket on the plane, 2)
kept a scout waiting for him in a hotel lobby and 3) wandered
off in the middle of a discussion with an assistant coach.
Wright, who now plays for the USBL's New Jersey Turnpikes, was
shown the exit sign after 15 games with the Jazz. In 1989 the
Celts soured on Missouri center Gary Leonard, who arrived in
Boston wearing shorts, sandals, red suspenders and a T-shirt,
then opted not to don dressier clothes before meeting the team
brass. Leonard, Minnesota's pick at No. 34, is now out of pro

Most important, getting up close and personal is the only way to
test the buzz about a player, the consensus from scouts and the
press. Remember: Utah Dream Teamer Karl Malone and Portland
All-Star Clifford Robinson were considered by some scouts to be
"soft" coming out of college; budding stars Nick Van Exel of the
Lakers (page 46) and Robert Horry of the Rockets had "attitudes."

Does he have a feel for the game? If height, as the bromide
goes, is something you can't teach, then so is "feel." It's the
intuitive understanding of the game's flow, the ability to
anticipate every move on the floor, the knack for making good
decisions. Those especially blessed with it will have successful
careers despite palpable limitations, such as being a half step
too slow (Pacer point guard Mark Jackson) or a half foot too
small (5'3" Muggsy Bogues of Charlotte) or a half ton too heavy
(Indiana forward John [Hot Plate] Williams). Mark Price, a
proven scorer at Georgia Tech, slipped to No. 25 because some
scouts questioned whether, at 6 feet, he was big enough to get
his shot off in the pros. But his court savvy helped him develop
into an All-Star for the Cavaliers, who acquired his rights from
Dallas following the '86 draft.

Unlike height, however, feel is not subject to a tape measure.
Killilea tries to discern it by the way a player moves without
the ball in the half-court; Stirling looks for it during fast
breaks, when split-second decisions have to be made. West has
found himself "mesmerized" at games by kids who are invariably
in the right place at the right time. "I don't care how quick or
fast he is or how high he jumps," West says. "Those guys who
seem to know and have the basic instincts to play the game the
way it's designed to be played are the ones who make the best

What skills does he have? Scouts believe that the toughest
position to fill besides center is point guard; along with being
athletic and tough, the great playmaker must possess an uncommon
streak of creativity in order to break down defenses and
distribute the ball to his teammates. The multifaceted player
who can not only score in the clutch but also pass and rebound
and defend is a rare breed as well. (A trick for spotting them:
Imagine that the player had to change positions--say, from
shooting guard to small forward--and gauge how well he would fare
there.) Once a team has those bases covered, it needs
role-players to fill out the roster: shot blockers, three-point
deadeyes, low-post and perimeter defenders, assist men. As a
result, many a well-rounded All-America fails to fit into the
specialized square holes of the NBA.

"You find players who are pretty good at everything--nice this,
nice that, but not great at anything," Gregory says. "A lot of
those guys fail. The superstars have two or three skills that
are outstanding; a guy has to have at least one. Danny Ferry [a
reserve forward for Cleveland who was taken second overall in
the '89 draft] is a good example. It's not that he can't
contribute to the NBA, but he was drafted too high. He doesn't
have one skill that is outstanding."

The specific gifts needed to do one thing superbly in college
often do translate directly to the pros. For instance,
rebounders who have that blend of instinct, strength,
explosiveness and tenacity frequently fare well at both levels.
Dennis Rodman, who averaged 17.8 boards as a senior at NAIA
Southeast Oklahoma, was taken 27th by Detroit in '86 because of
that skill.

Whom is he like? At the Moody gym this summer, Detroit director
of scouting John Hammond was giving an enthusiastic rundown on
6'9 1/2" Theo Ratliff (whom the Pistons later drafted 18th).
Ratliff had quietly blossomed into a rugged rebounder and shot
blocker at Wyoming; his 425 career swats are second in NCAA
history only to Alonzo Mourning's 453. "He could be an Antonio
Davis for us," Hammond said.

The quest for the next Antonio Davis, Indiana's backup
center-forward, underlines the league's bandwagon mentality,
most recently proven by a run on Europeans (page 60), thanks to
the success of Sarunas Marciulionis and Vlade Divac, a couple of
late-'80s imports. Despite the fact that legends like Bird and
Magic fit no obvious mold, staff meetings before the draft are
as packed with similes as pitch meetings at a Hollywood studio:
He's like a lefthanded Mo Cheeks or He's like Danny Manning,
only 6'7". While these sorts of comparisons are often necessary
for getting a fix on a player, they can also lead a team
mightily astray. In 1985 Dallas passed at No. 8 on a Louisiana
Tech power forward with a mother named Shirley. That was Karl
Malone. Four years later another power forward from Tech reared
by a Shirley was available with the eighth choice. So the Mavs
grabbed Randy White, who in five seasons never remotely
approached the Mailman's ZIP code.

Is he a winner? Those who discounted the diminutive Bogues
overlooked the bottom line: The teams he played for in high
school, college international competitions and predraft camps
usually won. Sacramento director of player personnel Jerry
Reynolds mentally juggles lineups to measure a particular
player's impact. "Take Ed O'Bannon and UCLA," Reynolds says.
"Put any other small forward in the mix. Could they have done
the same thing and been as good? Put O'Bannon [the Nets' pick at
No. 9] in place of Michael Finley and try to see how Wisconsin
would have done. If your answer is, 'Yes, they could have been
better,' then you probably have a pretty good hand."

Of course, just how good is a measure that no scout can truly
know before the NBA games begin. Thus the G.M. is in a position
of needing to weigh a number of educated guesses from his staff
while considering the bigger picture of his current roster and
his team's style. He must also guard against having his judgment
warped by time and emphasizing a prospect's recent displays
rather than the full arc of his college career. In 1989 the
76ers drafted Louisville forward Kenny Payne 19th after his
impressive workout. Payne lasted just more than three seasons.

On the other hand, the Magic was smitten by Anfernee Hardaway
during his private 90-minute workout and swung a deal for him
that could keep them contending into the next millennium. For
every rule there is an exception; for every question, a million

That is, after all, the nature of the Information Age. It's a
far cry from 25 years ago, when one full-time scout's baseline
view on a wintry Saturday might determine a top-10 pick. In this
time of globetrotting gumshoes, satellite-TV hookups and the
Internet, there are no secrets anymore; finding a sleeper is as
likely as discovering the next megastarlet at Schwab's. But
there is still mystery in scouting, which makes it all the more
intriguing. For, ultimately, an edge--any edge--lies in the eye of
the beholder.

COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER Pippen played out of the spotlight at tiny Central Arkansas but soon proved he was anything but a reach as a No. 5 pick in '87. [Scottie Pippen playing basketball for Chicago Bulls]

B/W PHOTO: UNIVERSITY OF CENTRAL ARKANSAS (INSET) [See caption above--corner of photo above peeled away to reveal Scottie Pippen playing basketball for Central Arkansas]

COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH A slam-dunk pick for the Lakers, Divac prompted other NBA teams to take a crash course in foreign relations. [Vlade Divac playing basketball for Los Angeles Lakers]

B/W PHOTO: ALLSPORT (INSET) [See caption above--corner of photo above peeled away to revealVlade Divac playing basketball in Europe]

COLOR PHOTO: DAVID E. KLUTHOThe Pistons knew McNeese's Dumars could score from outside, but they also liked him for what he had inside. [Joe Dumars playing basketball for Detroit Pistons]

B/W PHOTO: MCNEESE STATE UNIVERSITY (INSET) [See caption above--corner of photo above peeled away to revealJoe Dumars playing basketball for McNeese State]

COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGHRodman's flair for rebounding has been as fashionable in the pros as it was at Southeastern Oklahoma State. [Dennis Rodman playing basketball for San Antonio Spurs]

B/W PHOTO: THE SPORTING NEWS (INSET) [See caption above--corner of photo above peeled away to reveal Dennis Rodman playing basketball for Southeastern Oklahoma State]

COLOR PHOTO: LOU CAPOZZOLA/NBA PHOTOSThe Cavs got a bargain in Price, a No. 25 pick whose court sense more than compensates for his lack of size. [Mark Price playing basketball for Cleveland Cavaliers]

B/W PHOTO: MANNY MILLAN (INSET) [See caption above--corner of photo above peeled away to revealMark Price playing basketball for Georgia Tech]

COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGHPortland's Robinson, a late pick at No. 36, quickly rejected the notion that he was too soft to survive life in the NBA. [Clifford Robinson playing basketball for Portland Trail Blazers]

B/W PHOTO: ANTHONY NESTE (INSET) [See caption above--corner of photo above peeled away to revealClifford Robinson playing basketball for Connecticut]