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Finch and the several other people who evaluate talent for his team fill out a sheet like this on every player they see, each time they see him. Finch's take on a prospect will be cross-checked against those of other scouts, and together they'll try to reach a consensus in a roundelay of meetings during the weeks leading up to the draft. Each scout has his own idiosyncratic preferences and sometimes peevish dislikes, and through the spring the staff will break down tape to reconcile conflicting assessments.
Finch's report on Hand includes an additional, more cryptic notation: "Not a penetrator off the p/r...goes too east/west off picks." Because of the 24-second clock and, until the rules are relaxed next season, the ban on zones, pro basketball is a pageant of tidily prescribed acts performed by matched sets of players. One of these acts is the "p/r," or pick-and-roll, in which a guard must be able to read a screen and instinctively shoot, pass or dribble. Finch doesn't think Hand drives "north/south" enough when he takes the ball around a high pick. "Watch," he tells me. "He veers off from the elbow instead of taking it down the middle."
"In addition to his quest for eye-popping talent, Finch is conducting a parallel search for practitioners of lost arts like these, the subtle tactics he and his teammates used when they played. "I'm a purist because that's how I thought of myself as a player," he says. "I believe the difference between wins and losses lies in the little things. A lot of kids are so talented that they don't think the game anymore. It drives me crazy. Just because a guy runs off a pick fast doesn't mean he runs off a pick right."
Many of the skills whose scarcity Finch rues are those for which his employer would be pleased to pay huge sums. The ability to corner on the pick-and-roll is only one of these essentials. Finch loves to see a player run the break on the wing and dive for the basket at the foul line. He even gets his jollies from such Hoops 101 fare as the crisp jump stop and the cartilage-crunching high-post screen. His search is so rarely successful that, when he finds throwbacks, he may develop quite a crush.
"I love the way [USC senior forward] Brian Scalabrine pulls the ball in when he gets into triple-threat position," Finch says, meaning he can shoot, dish or drive to the basket. "He's a true 6'9", and he can face you up and drive to the basket. He'll thrive in the pros. And [ Los Angeles Lakers forward] Mark Madsen, he drills you every time he sets a pick. He's awesome."
Several years ago Finch found a player who had mastered the technique of playing off a screen—ducking or feinting to get the weight of a defender leaning one way so he could go the other. The player, a guard at Oklahoma State named Adrian Peterson, tore his ACL at the predraft camp and never made it to the league, but Finch had fallen hard for him. " Joe Dumars was the best at setting his man up that way," he says. "Maurice Jeffers [a senior swingman at Saint Louis] is pretty good at it too. You either curl or you go backdoor, or you're poppin'. There are only one or two guys in each class who really excel at it.
"I love the game for the game. I love thinking the game. When I see a kid who loves the thinking part of it, like [ Illinois's 6'4" senior forward] Sergio McClain, I can get lost watching him. I just wish Sergio were five inches taller or had a shot."
Finch concludes that Carolina's Haywood is a bona fide 7 feet. That's why I find it odd that Haywood is having such trouble with the tag team of Virginia players he's matched against, Travis Watson and J.C. Mathis, both of whom are four inches shorter. Haywood gets beaten for a layup after a futile attempt to play denial defense. At the other end he fumbles a pass for a turnover, and he wastes a lob from a teammate because he's so slow off the mark. Haywood may be a senior, but he seems adolescent.
Finch is much more charitable: "It's tough to evaluate Haywood because he's so friggin' long. He gets pushed off the block real easily because his center of balance is so much higher than that of the people guarding him. He'd have an easier time going against seven-footers. At this level he doesn't face them, but in the league he would."
The guy who had impressed me, Hand, left Finch indifferent. Haywood had done nothing to impress me, yet Finch excused him. I was still the gentleman with the alligator clipboard.