NBA scouts put prospects' March performances into context
NCAAs may not have as much impact on prospects' stock as some think
Many NBA scouts, executives actually head to Europe during March Madness
More topics: David West's injury, Marc Gasol on playing in Europe, college coaches
How much does a strong showing in the NCAA tournament help an NBA prospect? The question has never been more relevant, as more than a dozen potential first-round picks had led their teams into the Sweet 16 convening Thursday night.
Here's the answer: Not as much as you might think.
"When I was a scout," a current GM said, "this was the time of year when I'd go to Europe. I'd always scout Europe during the NCAA tournament."
He wouldn't ignore the NCAA results. But he also didn't want his judgment to be led astray by the madness.
"I felt like I'd already done so much work on the college players before the tournament," he said. "No matter what any of us say or do, at the end of the day we're in this business because we love basketball. And when you go watch Jimmer Fredette get 50 points or whatever, you can't help but get excited. It doesn't mean you're bad at your job; it just means you're human. So you walk out of the tournament and everybody's going nuts about this one guy and he becomes the flavor of the month.
"I definitely subscribe to the idea that you've got to be careful when it comes to the tournament. You can refer back to Sean May [who was taken with No. 13 pick after leading North Carolina to the 2005 championship] or to Juan Dixon [No. 17 after leading Maryland to the '02 championship] or to other examples of guys who were drafted too high. You're battling human nature more than anything else."
It's true that a large number of high-ranking NBA executives are scouting in Europe this week. It's also true that many scouts see value in studying the tournament, especially in this draft, frontloaded as it is with underclassmen and other characters who are difficult to judge.
"The tournament is absolutely valuable because you get to see how a kid does when he's out of his element," an Eastern Conference scouting director said. "You take a kid like Jimmer Fredette from a mid-major program [BYU] -- he's not going to play against the level of players he'd see on a nightly basis in the Big East or the Big 10 or SEC or ACC."
Fredette wound up shooting 3-of-15 outside the arc (and 8-of-14 inside it) for 32 points in No. 3 BYU's 83-74 loss to No. 2 Florida on Thursday in the Sweet 16.
"So now you get to see how he does against better competition in the tournament," the scouting director said on the eve of that loss. "It would be foolish to stop evaluating him."
This scouting director went on to say that Duke freshman point guard Kyrie Irving earned extra points just by returning from a season-long toe injury and risking his draft standing in the tournament.
"It would have been easier for him to not come back and just wait to work out with the top two or three teams in the draft," he said before Irving scored 28 points Thursday in No. 1 Duke's 93-77 loss to No. 5 Arizona, led by likely lottery pick Derrick Williams (32 points, 13 rebounds). "It shows me he didn't curl up and take the easy way out. His decision shows a lot of competitiveness."
Another GM noted that some players have revealed their stardom in March.
"I think about how Carmelo [Anthony] was up and down during his year at Syracuse, but then he came into the tournament and showed who he was," the GM said. "And Dwyane Wade was the same way [with Marquette]."
So how is a scout to discern the difference between the NCAA star who will excel in the NBA, as opposed to the NCAA star whose tournament run creates a false impression for his NBA future?
"You have to follow guys all year," the GM went on. "You study the person and his work ethic, you do the psychological tests. Wade and 'Melo were killers, and when you study them, you should know they are special."
Irving appears to have that special quality. Meanwhile, North Carolina freshman Harrison Barnes continues to develop confidence after a rough start this season.
"He's obviously a quiet individual, he takes things internally and doesn't speak out," the Eastern scout said. "He wanted to blend in. He had a little success early in the year, and then he started to struggle -- and that started the questions of whether he's not as good as we thought. All of our scouts were saying his shooting is erratic, he doesn't have great confidence."
Now that Barnes has been playing at a high level over the last month, NBA teams have a better understanding for his personality.
"It shows he didn't crack under the pressure," the scout said. "He didn't scream out. Here's a kid who was the No. 1 player in high school, and if we'd had the draft in December, he would have been drafted in the late 20s based on how he was playing at that time."
Now Barnes is once again viewed as a potential top-five pick (though the scouting director was of the belief that Barnes will return to Carolina next season). His growth shows that the evaluations never stop. They'll continue through the remainder of the tournament and into the private NBA workouts of May and June.