Laramie, Wyo., is a long way to go for a game featuring only one senior who's a serious NBA candidate—a player who probably won't be drafted, I say to myself, if he continues to play the way he's playing tonight. Wayland White of New Mexico is 6'6" and has a 41-inch vertical leap, but he's so thin that he could slip through a sidewalk grate. In the first half of the Lobos' game with Wyoming he doesn't look merely tentative, he looks frightened. "He's playing way out of position," Finch says. "He's not showing any three [small forward] skills because he's playing the four [power forward]—and that's because his team doesn't have anybody bigger."
Fortunately, Finch saw White last year, when White played the three, and knows he is worth following. "That's why you put in the time," he says. "And did you see what his free throw percentage is?" I look down at the stat sheet: 33.5%. "That tells me his confidence is pretty low," Finch continues. "Just like that? A pass has found White wide open in the circle. "He didn't even think about looking at the basket."
Finch likes how hard White competes, and how he can finish a play with his off hand. But in his notes Finch writes (his emphasis): PLAYING OUT OF POSITION!!!! White too gets rated a UFA.
All scouts struggle with how to assess someone who's playing out of position, or someone who's a "tweener." There are tweeners in size—guys whose height and weight suggest they are either too slight to play the three, or big enough but not mobile enough to play the four—and there are position tweeners, whose skills don't neatly suggest the three or the four. Some players are double-tweeners, the ultimate misfits. Tweener may sound cute, but "it's a dreaded label at this level," says Finch.
Assessing a tweener is an exercise in imagination and detective work. When Finch watches Arizona's junior power forward Michael Wright, he sees a tweener playing out of position. Still, he loves how hard Wright works, and he can see the first signs of a perimeter jumper, indications that Wright has the ability to make the move to the three. "Some people say he's a late-second-rounder, but that's a joke," Finch says. "He's way too tough to pass up."
Those who believed that Jamison would flourish in the NBA knew that, in high school, he had handled the ball and faced the basket. Perhaps, as Finch often does, they had dropped by one of the USA Basketball team trials, an ideal setting for evaluating a player like Jamison in a different light, away from his usual team. Scouts know that if a player is coming from a relatively rigid program like North Carolina or Kansas, the system may not have permitted him to showcase all his skills. In the end tweeners require at least some guesswork. With Jamison, Finch says, "the Warriors were rolling the dice."
We've found our way to the first round of the Big East tournament, at Madison Square Garden, and at least one team in every game seems to be playing a zone. West Virginia sits back in a zone even when trailing Villanova by 16 points with six minutes to play. A college coach deploys his players as he wants to, not as an NBA scout likes to see them, and that is one of Finch's biggest complaints.
"I hate zones," he says. "You just have to pick out what you can. Like when the ball's swung, how quickly does a guy get to the ball side? [ North Carolina coach] Matt Doherty played a ton of zone two years ago [when he was at Notre Dame], and it was tough to get a feel for [Irish forward] Troy Murphy other than that he moves his feet pretty well."
Finch cites another example, former Syracuse guard Jason Hart. For four years Orangemen coach Jim Boeheim hid Hart at the top of a 2-3 zone, and if Hart was up to the task of playing man-to-man, it was almost impossible to tell. Only at one of the postseason showcases, last year's Desert Classic in Phoenix, did Hart's defensive skills become clear. "He locked up [former Hofstra and current Philadelphia 76ers guard] Speedy Claxton and every other point guard he played, and got drafted by Milwaukee," Finch says. Yet until the late spring, when the Desert Classic and the NBA's predraft camp in Chicago allow prospects to be evaluated under more controlled conditions, scouts often must make judgments based on meager evidence.
So today Finch is left to take note of mostly superficial details. One critical item is whether a prospect has an NBA body. "Calvin Bowman plays hard," Finch says of West Virginia's 6'9", 207-pound senior forward. "He's obviously athletic, even if he's a little limited in his game. But lack of strength is his big drawback. Bulk and weight mean so much in the NBA. If your strength is a problem in college, it'll be a huge weakness in the pros." Finch makes these notes: "Got pushed around too much...narrow, rounded shoulders...can he get bigger?"