In a popular children's song called The Lady with the Alligator Purse, there's a stanza that goes like this.
"Mumps!" said the doctor.
"Measles!" said the nurse.
"He's sick!" said the lady with the alligator purse.
That ditty pretty much sums up my skill as a basketball diagnostician. If I were an NBA scout evaluating college talent, I'd be the one with the alligator clipboard, scribbling things like "He's good!"
One day about 15 years ago, I made the mistake of telling Tom Newell, a player-personnel man with the Indiana Pacers, that I thought Louisville guard Milt Wagner had a nice, rangy, pull-up, well... NBA kind of game. Newell shot me a look icier than a Chris Dudley free throw and said, "Not when you factor in the hand check." It should not surprise you that Wagner turned out to be a rancid NBA player.
Of course, when I conclude that a guy can't play, he winds up being pretty good. I had Antawn Jamison pegged as an NBA flop when he came out of North Carolina three years ago. Those dinky junkballs near the basket may have worked against Clemson, but in the pros a 6'8" guy gets that stuff sent back in his face. Or so I thought. I'd neglected to account for Jamison's release, which scouts recognized as one of the quickest in captivity. That mooted his size and led to his selection as the fourth draft pick in 1998. The last time I looked—sheepishly—Jamison was averaging nearly 25 points for the Golden State Warriors.
I watch plenty of college basketball. I've followed the game professionally for more than 20 years. What is it the pro scouts see that I don't? To find out, in January I got hold of a copy of the NBA's list of authorized scouts and began calling around, hoping to find a bird dog willing to be my little birdie. My approaches weren't welcome. The Chicago Bulls' past success has led many front offices to adopt the Jerry Krause paranoid management style, and team after team and scout after scout turned me down. Cleveland Cavaliers general manager Jim Paxson thoughtfully added, "Oh, but could you let us know who's on your list, so we know who not to draft?"
When I finally found a scout willing to take me into his confidence, it was with the proviso that I keep his identity, and his club's, secret. In a nod to David Stern, he insisted that I not quote his thoughts on any nonsenior unless the player declared for the draft. I gave him the code name Finch—Scout's surname in To Kill a Mockingbird—and promised not to divulge any detail about him other than that he had played in the league.
An NBA scout doesn't earn his salary for pointing out the Michael Jordan or Allen Iverson in each draft. Such players have so much evident explosiveness, instinct, drive and other game-changing talents that even you and I could identify them. Rather, a club's player-personnel staff spends most of its time sorting through the compost heap of less obvious candidates for the draft, which on June 27 is expected to feature more college nonseniors than ever before and an unprecedented six high schoolers. Finch invited me into that world of nuanced observations, finely drawn distinctions and almost imperceptible clues to a player's potential. It's a place in which a scout who fails to factor in the hand check is like an economist who neglects to adjust for inflation, and in which He's good! is a sorry basis for a decision.
North Carolina is about to play at Virginia, and Finch is trolling University Hall trying to get a fix on the actual size of one of two seniors he'll be evaluating this afternoon. Tar Heels center Brendan Haywood is billed as a 7-footer. "Most schools add an inch or two," Finch says, citing one of many reasons that NBA teams have their scouts see players in person and try not to make more than 25% of their judgments based on videotape. "In person you can see if a guy looks away when the coach talks during a timeout, or pouts when he's taken out of the game. You also get a better idea of a guy's concept of team defense, and the mechanics of his shot."
The other senior Finch is observing, Virginia guard Donald Hand, looks to me to have a magnificent shot. He sinks three of five three-pointers and outplays his Carolina counterparts, Ronald Curry and Adam Boone, as the Cavaliers run the slower visitors back to the border. However, Finch, who has seen Hand before and will see him again, files the following back to the office: "Looks like he's thinking too much when he shoots from the perimeter...takes him awhile to get his shot off...fades back on his jumper...it's almost a surprise to him when it does go in." There's much the scout likes about Hand, but on his evaluation sheet he checks the box marked UFA, meaning he envisions Hand's going undrafted and becoming an unrestricted free agent.