By Marcus Shockley

There were two reasons why I wanted to have as conversation with Ryan Blake, the Director of Scouting for the NBA.

The first is obvious; I love basketball, own a basketball site, have a large player database and scout players from time to time. There’s nothing better for me to pick the brain of someone who is one the foremost authorities on scouting players for the top basketball league in the world. Ryan Blake motorcycle
However, the second reason doesn’t have anything to do with basketball.

One of the causes I always support and pay attention to is cancer research, having lost my own mother to a brain tumor over 25 years ago. That’s why my first questions to Ryan were not about basketball, but instead about his efforts to raise awareness for cancer research with his Coaches vs. Cancer Ride, in which he embarked on an ambitious journey to attend multiple venues on a Triumph motorcycle while promoting the American Cancer Society and Coaches vs. Cancer. Accompanied by Shirley, a mannequin, Blake started his journey in Chapel Hill as North Carolina took on Lipscomb.

Blake tackled the project quickly, organizing it himself, and managed to accomplish much of what he set out to do, including hitting 6 venues in 7 days, and a grueling 1,000 mile journey between New York and South Carolina. He had to curtail his efforts due to family illness, but says he definitely intends to do another ride in the near future.

It’s a commendable effort and one to be applauded, especially by myself.

However, I couldn’t have a conversation with Ryan and not talk about basketball. So let’s turn now to some thoughts about what’s going on in the NBA, the draft and a few other topics.

The first thing I wanted to ask Ryan was about how they scout a player. Do they factor in things such as a player’s personality and attitude or do they simply observe from afar, looking at their play on the court?

Ryan says they don’t have a holistic approach to scouting; meaning, they don’t delve into everything about the player on the court and off. However, they do pay attention to more than just how a player performs during the game.

Their job is to find players and tell the teams who they should start taking a look at, and then it’s up to the individual teams to take it from there. Ryan’s organization has scouting all over the world, and they are on the NBA’s pre-draft committee. They don’t limit their scouting to games, either. They will attend practices as well.

They’ve cut back on scouting international players and D1 players, simply because NBA commissioner David Stern has decided that he wants the NBA teams to manage more of that themselves.

I asked Ryan about mock draft sites, especially now that so many have cropped up. Are they credible? Are they a nuisance? Ryan said that some are indeed, credible. “DraftExpress puts a lot of time in, actually talks to people, goes to games”, but that many online sites are not that far-fetched. There is an added wrinkle, however, as even as draft sites are updated in real time based on games occurring during the college season, no actual team is going to tell anyone who they really like as a player. In fact, a team might employ misdirection to say they like a certain player, only to throw others off of the trail as to their true intentions. Blake also says that the draft order and player position changes from minute to minute in the seconds ticking up to the first pick, and no one on the mock draft sites is privy to that. He also said that they do offer some insight, because scouts like himself cannot talk publicly about undergraduates. Scouting isn’t an exact science, and Blake says when attempting to predict the draft, “No one’s ever going to be right”.

Blake also said that the mock drafts don’t impact him or his scouts, but they do contain misinformation from time to time, such as when Ricky Rubio was thought to be a lock for playing in the NBA.

This also coincided with several highlight clips of Rubio becoming a phenomenon online, as fans got a chance to see the young point guard for the first time, albeit in an edited form.

Blake, who is well aware of what teams are looking at and the players who may be coming into the league, knew there was no chance of Rubio arriving at that time, and got blasted when he went did a television spot and said as much, because fans were convinced he was wrong from reading online reports.

Ricky Rubio basketball
Flikr/jordimonti
Blake also said that while some sites are indeed credible, and people love the mock drafts, he said “people who say, ‘I’ve talked to all of the NBA scouts’ are lying”.

Next, I asked about the most common mistakes or areas of improvement that basketball players have when attempting to move from the college game to the pros. Ryan replied that most young players try to use their athleticism over substance, while veteran players know several key things that keep them in the league, such as:

  • How to play without the ball and play defense.
  • How to make other players better
  • How to be versatile enough to play a role. Do whatever the team needs done.

I wanted to know about high school recruiting rankings, if the NBA pays any attention to them, or what Ryan’s thoughts were. Ryan says his organization has people who keep up with the rankings and high school recruits, but that the age limit established in the NBA has helped tremendously when evaluating talent, and that after seeing players go up against D1 talent for a year, “you get to do a better evaluation.”

Ryan says that tons of players seem hyped until they reach D1, and they look like All-Stars while they are going against other high school players. The extra year tends to expose weaknesses and brings their prospects back down to reality. I mentioned to Ryan that if the one-year age limit has improved the product on the court for the NBA, would a further increase help even more? “Absolutely, it could,” he says, because more time evaluating only improves the chances of success when picking a player.

The other thing to consider about high school rankings is that NBA teams have so many players to evaluate, from the D-League to college and international, that it helps for them not to have to focus as much on high school. It’s a matter of finances and people to do the work, and focusing on scouting the veterans who want to secure jobs has made things more manageable.

One of the major topics looming over the NBA right now is the potential for a lockout, or work stoppage, in the coming year. “I just hope they can come together,” says Blake, who also added that commissioner David Stern has brought the groups together “brilliantly” in the past, and that there are so many good players who do great work in the community, it unfortunately gets overshadowed by their high paychecks and a few “bad apples”.

Finally, we discussed players entering the draft, and I asked Ryan if he felt players actually get enough quality information on their draft status and potential before entering. He said it’s a case-by-case basis. Some players do get good information, while others have people pushing them into the draft before their ready, or with inflated expectations. The numbers of early entry guys who were supposed to go in the first round but don’t are high. Blake says there are only 30 guaranteed contracts, and if you aren’t guaranteed to be a first round pick, it’s tough. Players trying to get into the league have to take a job away from a veteran, who isn’t going to want to give up his own contract for someone coming into the league. There are some cases where people with a vested interest in a player push the player to go pro because if the player can actually manage to get a contract in the second round, there’s money to be made.

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