This is different from anything I’ve ever written before. No clips, no prospect names, just philosophy. I think about basketball for more hours of the day than I’m proud to admit, and these are the thoughts that frequently roam inside my head. Throughout the past year, I’ve actually developed my scouting philosophy. Identifying who’s good and who’s bad is the easy part, but deciding what genuinely matters going forward is what separates us. Scouting is similar to everything in life, you need pillars that guide your decision-making. There will always be outliers that force you to bend the rules, but typically, these are the principles that ensure consistency. Last week, a two-minute clip of Bob Myers from the Sloan conference appeared on my twitter timeline. He talked about how playoff basketball is a different game than regular season basketball, and what you need to succeed in the postseason. He echoed a lot of my thoughts, and inspired me to lay them out in this piece. The point that resonated with me the most is when he described one-trick-ponies getting exposed in the playoffs, because they don’t have multiple ways to beat you. It likely doesn’t matter how elite you are at that one skill, it’s typically not enough. Playoff success is the ultimate goal. Every organization strives to win a championship. Consistent regular season prosperity and postseason struggles are detrimental for a franchise. Bob Myers’ clip motivated me to find philosophical pillars that correlate to playoff success, and tie them back to scouting prospects. You won’t see any 2020 prospects mentioned in this piece — and that’s completely intentional. The goal of this piece isn’t to sway you on a prospect because I like them, but instead, encourage you to brainstorm your philosophy based on the prospects you like. I want to allow readers to understand how I think, and why that lands me in one camp or another with a prospect. Anyone can read scouting reports and recycle the thoughts as their own, but this is different. This is unique to me. I’m not saying no one shares these views, because I know that’s simply not true, but these are the wheels that spin inside my head. These are the pillars of my scouting philosophy — confirmed by the playoffs.
Shooters Can’t Just Be Shooters
When thinking about Bob Myers’ short monologue that I introduced in the first paragraph, shooting specialists are the first archetype that comes to mind. At their peak, they can carve up defenses with their constant movement and consistent pressure. But, if forced out of their comfort zone, where can they provide value? In playoff schemes so far, elite shooters are often locked-and-trailed at all times, in an attempt to run them off the line and force them inside the arc — where they’re less comfortable. There have certainly been games where the best shooters in the world have gotten neutralized, and that makes giving them significant minutes in a playoff series that much harder to justify. In order to prevent this from happening, shooters can’t just be shooters, it’s simply not enough. As I mentioned above, shooters typically face a lock-and-trail coverage. For those who aren’t familiar with that term, it’s when the defender stays attached to the shooter’s hip and follows him — from behind — all over the court. The goal is to minimize space for the shooter and force him into the most difficult shot attempt possible. The main downfall of this approach is that the defender is essentially always playing from behind, gifting the shooter an advantage inside the arc — if they’re able to capitalize on it. The final point is what separates series-swinging shooters from regular season shooters, what can you do when handling the ball with a 5-on-4 advantage? In my opinion, the key ancillary skills in this scenario are a functioning handle, reliable in-between game and sound decision making. Due to the direction of our league, we’ve seen most shooting specialists become wing-sized. While this is extremely beneficial most of the time, it brings serious questions when it comes to ball-handling ability inside the arc. Now, I’m not saying they have to be Kyrie Irving, or even Paul George, but the specialist needs to be functional enough to get to their spots with a defender on their hip. The handle is important to me because it unlocks everything else. You can have buttery touch on floaters and pull-ups, but if you can’t get the shot off, it becomes neutralized. You can have incredible vision, but if you can’t get the help to commit, it becomes neutralized. The idea of “one elite skill” is very theoretical when it comes to playoff basketball. If you don’t have multiple ways to exploit the defense, you’re going to be very limited when it matters most.
The Wrong Initiator Will Get Exposed
Recently we’ve seen big wings initiating offense become more common. Handling and playmaking responsibilities that were typically delegated to smaller shifty guards, have now been picked up by smooth lengthy wings. Similar to the shooting specialists, added size is usually beneficial, but the playoffs bring out a different threshold for creation. You need a bag to win in these scenarios — it’s that simple and imposters will become vulnerable. Your success as an initiator in the playoffs is a testament to how well you can read and react — both skill-wise and mentally. Teams spend days studying their opponent’s footwork, tendencies, mannerisms and everything else you could imagine. Whatever came easy on a Tuesday night against Charlotte won’t be as smooth in Game 5 of the conference finals. NBA coaching staffs are too smart and the players are too good. Creation in the playoffs is all about counters. No defense is bulletproof, and while they might be sitting on your go-to spin move, that doesn’t mean every avenue to the rim is shut off. However, it does mean that elite skills and the wherewithal are required to improvise and punish the defense. That’s why Luka Doncic was absolutely unstoppable in the bubble — it’s genuinely impossible to guard someone with his poise, deceleration and strength. In Draft circles, “potential primary” is the ultimate compliment, but I think we should probably halt how frequently it gets thrown out. As I mentioned in my mailbag a few months back, becoming a successful primary requires you to create advantages and capitalize on them. Having one without the other still makes you a valuable player, but it’s not enough to be a positive-impact offensive engine. If these playoffs have reiterated one thing, it’s that you need multiple ways to create those said advantages. If you’re always relying on burst or strength, defenses will have a field day. You need to be comfortable in multiple actions, play types and spots. Predictability is the detriment of all success in the NBA playoffs. There are certainly some writers and scouts that underestimate what it takes to be an offensive engine, but we often see front offices make the same mistake. Instead of easing their blue-chip prospect into a suitable role, young “studs” will often get the green light, resulting in decent box score numbers, but on overextended usage and at the expense of real development. I hope Giannis and Siakam’s — among others — struggles reveal how high the bar truly is for playoff creation. Sure, the “wrong initiator” might win 45 games during the regular season, but failure is inevitable when it matters. Every initiator is unique in how they create, but shifting the defense without a ball screen, possessing scoring gravity off the bounce, real playmaking chops and intelligent decision-making are requisites. If all those boxes aren’t checked, there’s a strong chance you have the wrong initiator.
The Secondary Initiator Is Real And Necessary
I just rambled about how difficult it is to be a primary initiator in the playoffs — which makes it much easier to comprehend this pillar. I’ve been very vocal about the spike in heliocentric usage over the past decade. For those who aren’t familiar with the term, it refers to the type of offense where one player handles scoring and playmaking responsibilities at a very high usage rate and is surrounded by competent, but limited role players. While I do think this is an effective team-building strategy to get franchises off the ground, it’s become pretty evident that it’s not sustainable to win a championship. In order to win a ring, you can’t just have Batman, you need Robin. Think back to everything I mentioned in the previous paragraph, being a primary is extremely taxing — both physically and mentally. Most notably, the Mavericks and Rockets epitomized the limitations of heliocentrism in the bubble. Luka was absolutely incredible, but whenever he needed a breather, or even a possession off, Dallas collapsed. Harden is arguably one of the most transcendent offensive engines the game has ever seen, but when he wasn’t creating, everything became problematic for Houston. Offensive-minded non-primary guards often don’t get a ton of love as prospects, and in all honesty, I get it. You have very little room for error and there’s a fine line becoming a spark plug off the bench and a secondary initiator capable of winning a championship. However, I tend to give those prospects more of a look, because I know how valuable the latter archetype is. Now, the big question is, what separates the two? Shot-creation, capable spot-up shooting and reliable playmaking are the foundation for a viable secondary. But, the best secondaries aren’t just a linking piece, they’re counted on to consistently elevate the offense every possession. Unlike primaries, they need to be capable — and effective — both on and off the ball. On-ball skills such as advantage creation, shot-making and passing are requisites. Off-ball skills such as shooting off the catch, relocation and cutting are also necessary. Ideally, your championship secondary should be able to run a weak side pick-and-roll and come off a pindown screen. As I stated above, this archetype has very little room for error, and for every play type that they can’t thrive in, they become less likely to hit the valuable outcome. Evaluating this archetype is very difficult and technical for that reason, you have to be well-rounded while also maintaining an elite skill-level. Yes, there are multiple boxes to check and the floor isn’t all that special, but the peak version of this player is certainly worth chasing.
Pull-Up Shooting Is THE Skill
The conceptual thought process behind this entire piece was sparked by my constant internal debates about where the game is going. The prevalence and importance of pull-up shooting is arguably the biggest trend in the league today. The three-point boom certainly enabled the pull-up volume we see today, but its biggest impact comes from the gravity it generates. Spacing typically gets equated to spot shooting and demanding closeouts. However, the truest form of space-creation for a five man offense is having a pull-up shooting threat. Possessing the ability to rise up from anywhere inside 27 feet is nightmarish for a defense, and usually forces them to be much more aggressive in coverage. Playoff basketball is a matchup chess game, and a lethal pull-up shooter has the power of a Queen. Occasionally, they can single handedly dictate their opponents rotation. If your everyday center is slow-footed with tight hips, well, he might become unplayable. Outside of generating unquantifiable space and gravity, the pull-up also serves as the most effective avenue of late game offense. Towards the end of playoff games, the defense gets scrapy and offenses tend to get stagnant. Previously in basketball history, this might be a time where you would post-up an All-Star center and live and die by his post hook. I’m not saying pull-ups didn’t exist, you still had all-time greats who got to their spots and were extremely comfortable shooting off the bounce. But, the league wide popularity of pull-up shooting wasn’t even in the same stratosphere as it is today. This avenue of late game offense is here to stay for the near future, requiring every team to have their closer. If you’re 280 words into this paragraph and are still questioning its validity, the Sixers are the ultimate litmus test. Of course, they’re on the opposite end of the spectrum with their current roster construction that lacks any creation off the bounce, but think about how different they looked with Jimmy Butler — especially at the end of games. Having someone who can reliably create and make shots is no longer a luxury, but rather a necessity. As this relates to draft prospects, remembering how difficult it is to develop pull-up shooting is imperative. Teaching a spot up is one thing, but the footwork, touch and rhythm required to be a good pull-up shooter is very tough. While evaluating prospects, we need to crown pull-up volume and not underestimate the skill’s value. I’m not a proponent of bad shot-selection that includes settling for too many jumpers, however, I think there are some instances when it might be a little too frowned upon. Sure, there are cases where the settling represents a bigger issue regarding that prospect’s wiring, and in that case, there’s no excuse. But, separating the two and getting to a place where we can hold prospect’s accountable while also encouraging them to get live pull-up reps is crucial. This skill doesn’t grow on trees, and it’s value is increasing by the day.
Role Players Must Be Able To Shoot Spot-Up Threes
Throughout this entire piece I’ve talked about the complexity and intelligence of NBA scheme defenses. The defense’s goal is to stifle the opponent’s star by making things as difficult as possible. You might be asking yourself, what’s the easiest way to do that? The answer is, limit spacing. On the surface, it’s an easy concept to comprehend — the more space players have to operate, the better they are. But, how that space is created is a whole different story. In the previous paragraph, I talked about how pull-up shooters carve up and stretch defenses like no other archetype. That will always remain true, but typically, players with everyday pull-up volume are primary or secondary initiators with relatively high usage. Role players usually don’t fall into that category, but they are still more than capable of swinging a playoff series. Over the past year, I’ve really started to appreciate off-ball skills like relocation and cutting. There is a huge misconception that these skills are simply effort based, and that couldn’t be further from the truth. Both facets require genuine feel, patience and attentiveness, making them plus skills for typical role players. With that being said, the easiest way to provide value off the ball is by being a reliable spot up shooter. Most role players spend the majority of their time off-ball, and unless you’re an elite shooter, sets and actions aren’t typically being catered to you. Being able to keep your matchup honest and relatively attached while off the ball is absolutely vital. In terms of skill development, spot shooting should be pretty close to the easier end of the spectrum. It’s incredibly replicable, with the footwork and rhythm being consistent on every rep. However, there are multiple nuances that directly impact how valuable a certain player is in this regard. If you’ve read my past tweets or articles, you’d know that volume is absolutely essential. If you’re not going to shoot it, defenses won’t respect you, even if you theoretically can shoot. Wiring and the willingness to take threes is extremely important for role players. Some uneducated basketball minds have called Robert Covington an “average” or “mediocre” shooter because of his middling percentages, but his volume and willingness to always take threes is a huge part of what makes him so valuable. I promise, this isn’t just me spewing thoughts, it’s very visible when watching games. I’ve talked about how important it is to be a reliable floor spacer, but I want to really harp on how detrimental it is if defense’s can blatantly ignore you. Enabling an NBA defense to deploy a free safety to muck up actions and roam the floor is the quickest way to struggle on offense. Within this paragraph I mentioned that spot-shooting is one of the easier skills to develop, but I still err on the side of caution while projecting forward. There are indicators such as touch, free throw percentage and mid-range numbers, but there isn’t one formula, and no shooting profile or trajectory is alike. Given how detrimental it is to be a non-shooter, banking on indicators for a player to become valuable on the court is a dangerous game. I wrote about how we shouldn’t overlook potential elite shooters, and the same ideology carries over to the other side of the coin. Some players are just bad shooters. Sometimes, it’s too big of a negative to overcome, and as evaluators, we have to identify that.
POA Defense Still Matters
Let’s just get this out of the way: team defense is superior and more meaningful than POA defense. However, with the current style of matchup-hunting, on-ball defense becomes necessary in the playoffs. My issue with the common discourse around POA defense is that the “studs” get overrated. PatBev is praised for his ability in this aspect, but Luka still hung 40 on him with ease. There are a very small number of POA defenders — if any — that will stop an opposing star. In reality, they make things a little more difficult and rely on their teammates and scheme to finish the job (see, Miami Heat). The discourse around on-ball defense shouldn’t be centered around praising good defenders, but rather identifying how disastrous poor defenders can be in the playoffs. Team defense will always be more important because you can impact every single possession, which isn’t possible at the point of attack. I’ve been very adamant that poor-defensive centers are pretty much unplayable if you want to win. Bigs are involved in most screening actions, and are also relied on to rotate and protect the rim, making their involvement and potential impact consistently prevalent. In the regular season, poor defensive guards can be hidden off the ball, minimizing their involvement as much as possible, which in turn, softens the blows. In the playoffs, it’s all about matchups, and initiators are going hunting. Towards the end of games, it becomes more and more difficult to hide poor defenders, making detrimental POA defense a much bigger negative than it typically is. Teams and players have been getting very creative with ways to get their initiator his ideal matchup, often using the first 15 seconds of the shot clock to force a switch — which I’m not completely sure how I feel about, but that’s for another day. While scouting prospects, effort and defensive success often go hand in hand. Wiring can certainly sway me with a prospect, however, I believe that a good coach or organization can simply get a player to try in high leverage situations. Limitations such as frame, slow feet and slow processing are bigger red flags marks for me. My spiel on POA defense shouldn’t encourage you to hunt prospects who move the needle in that regard, because they’re so few and far between. Instead, I hope it makes you conscious of how exploitable being a complete disaster on the ball is. Team defense will always reign supreme, but being utterly unsalvageable on-ball gets more of a pass than it should.
Draft Smart Players
Last but certainly not least, one of the few crown jewels in my philosophy. In the playoffs, everything has less room for error. The rotations are quicker, the screens are harder and every possession truly matters. In high leverage situations, you need to be competent and comfortable seeing the game and acting on it. There isn’t time for second-guessing, and instincts can absolutely make or break a possession. This thought process can be scaled to multiple roles and archetypes, which is why it’s such a strong pillar in my process. For superstars and initiators, reading help rotations and identifying schemes are vital for playoff success. I talked about how high usage players have to check two boxes, advantage creation and advantage capitalization. Players can still create advantages with physical tools and skills, but it’s not nearly as valuable if you can’t capitalize on it, and that comes from intelligence. Can you read who is dropping down to help? Who’s helping the helper? How aggressive is their stunt? These are all questions that initiators have a split-second to internally answer, and must react accordingly. In terms of develop-able skills, I tend to think that feel and processing speed are relatively difficult to improve. For right or wrong, I view it as a “you have it or you don’t” kind of thing. Sure, there are avenues for improvement and premeditated reads can always be ingrained, but I believe the true processing speed required to initiate is extremely hard to teach. For role players, the decisions are far less taxing, but they certainly still exist. When should I rotate? Who can I help off of? What do their rotations look like so I can be ready to make a plus-one pass? These questions are prevalent for every single player on the court, and often directly impact the final result of a possession. Basketball is a game of compensation, no player is perfect. Becoming a positive impact player is essentially this: can your strengths allow you to overcome your weaknesses. In my opinion, on-court intelligence is one of the biggest pluses in that aspect. Let’s take a hypothetical situation into account. The defender is playing as the weak side rim-protector, the opposing center unexpectedly slips the screen, forcing the help defender to react quicker than anticipated. For this scenario, there are two types of defenders, the smart player and the athlete. (Disclaimer before we continue, if someone is smart and athletic, bet on him and don’t look back). The smart player lacks vertical pop to fully contest at the rim, but he read the slip and made the rotation in time, placing himself in perfect position. The athlete is a much slower processor, he misses the rotation, but relies on short-pop time and length to challenge the slip at the rim. Maybe the smart player draws a charge and the athlete gets scored on. Maybe the smart player gets finished over and the athlete flies in for a bucket-saving block. There’s no right answer, but rather, what are you willing to bank on. When it matters most, I’m much more comfortable with the solid rotation, and will live with whatever result. As I mentioned in the beginning of the paragraph, room for error in the playoffs is extremely thin to begin with. Players who are also slow processors on top of that, often find themselves in non-ideal situations. They often find themselves in situations where the tools they’ve relied on forever, can’t save them anymore. If a prospect displays outlier processing in either direction, strongly take that into account. It’s not a skill that shows up in the box score, but it undeniably plays a role in the final score.
Remember, there is no bulletproof way to do this. These are simply the principles that guide me while scouting prospects, but when push comes to shove, you also have to trust your gut. Every prospect has strengths. Every prospect has flaws. Until you learn how to prioritize both and factor it into your personal evaluation — it won’t quite click.