How the Denver Nuggets' Analytics Guru Scouts NBA Draft Prospects

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How the Denver Nuggets' Analytics Guru Scouts NBA Draft Prospects
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If you aren't into numbers, you're allowing your NBA fandom to fall behind the curve. 

Or, as Tommy Balcetis might think about it, you're allowing the residual between your actual knowledge and expected knowledge (based on your years watching basketball and your experiences with the sport) to grow larger and larger. 

Balcetis, the Denver Nuggets manager of basketball analytics, knows his numbers. The Harvard graduate spent the 2013-14 season, his first in the front office, working behind the scenes for Denver, aiding player development, generating pregame and postgame reports for head coach Brian Shaw and—as is most relevant here—beginning the process of scouting draft prospects. 

When I had a chance to speak with him on behalf of Bleacher Report, it was quite clear just how much went through this man's head. You could see the gears churning behind his eyes whenever analytics were brought up, and his passion for the game was even easier to see. 

From traditional and advanced stats to camera-based data, from the necessity of the eye test to the value of analytics in injury prevention, Balcetis knows his stuff. 

We'll have more from the analytics guru at a later date, but for now, let's focus on the part of the Q&A that dealt with the upcoming draft. 

 

Bleacher Report: So one role you have is evaluating these college prospects in preparation for the draft. Without giving away any of the trade secrets, or the franchise secrets, what analytics do you use to do that? 

Tommy Balcetis: With college data, the information is slightly more limited. There are some good sources out there for advanced stats and basic stats. Ken Pomeroy does a really good job evaluating some of those players, and we use him a lot. 

You don't have SportVU. All you have is Synergy, and they have some analytics as well. So we use that, as well as other sources that give us basic and advanced stats. From there, with college players, stats may not always be the best gauge in how well they're going to do. It's no secret. 

It's much more about upside and knowing their mental capacities. Knowing whether they're hard-working or not, and all that stuff matters more than stats, but you still need to know how well they're shooting from three. There's a bunch of information about how some players didn't really shoot well from three, and when they came to the NBA, they improved drastically because of the system. 

We definitely look at stats, but with college players we look at the video a little more. And we try to get some background information on their mental preparedness. 

 

B/R: Are there any numbers that do seem to have a strong correlation between the two levels? 

TB: Rebounding. Rebounding translates really well. That's something that's almost like a hustle stat, when you think about it.

Shooting is tricky because (a) you can be the best player on your team and shoot a lot, and (b) the three-point line is obviously shorter. It's one of those things where rebounding really translates well, and it's been documented many times. 

Justin Edmonds/Getty Images

There's a reason why Kenneth [Faried] is with us. His rebounds back at Morehead State were great, and he's with us now, and he's continuing that trend. That's just one example, but it seems like it's documented at this point. 

 

B/R: It seems like most of this is the eye test then. 

TB: It is. It is eye test. It's interviews. And obviously, there are some numbers, but I would say their weight is lower than what it is in the league. 

 

B/R: When you follow the draft, so much of what you hear is "upside," or their "ceiling" or their "potential." Is there an analytical way to evaluate that upside, or is it all based on the eye test? 

TB: It's not all based on the eye test, and there are some analytical ways. We have body comp and stat comp, and other teams probably do it as well. They analyze what the players look like—weight, height, wingspan, all that kind of stuff—and they try to gauge. At least it gives you a comp in your mind, and you can evaluate from there. 

There are two different schools of thought. Some scouts don't like to have comps, just because they feel every player is unique. Other scouts love comps, just because it gives you an idea of how good the player can be. 

So that's probably the only way to do it numbers-wise, to have body and stat comps. That's not necessarily the ceiling, but that's at least the range the player can fall into. 

 

B/R: Speaking of the range, do you have a ceiling comparison and a floor comparison? 

TB: In our conversations, we do create a ceiling and a floor, but it's not based on stats. It's based on our knowledge. 

David Dow/Getty Images

 

B/R: So this draft class. Maybe a little bit too hyped, but it's gotten a lot of good reviews and been compared favorably to 2003 and other strong classes we've seen. In your opinion, how strong is this one? 

TB: It's very strong. The top five are all franchise-altering players, and that's definitely big. It's a deep class. It really is. In my opinion, the top 30 are solid players who will be very beneficial to your team. And again, the top five, even the top seven, could potentially change the course of your franchise. 

It's a very good draft class. We've been lucky to be in a situation where we have a good pick. Lucky is obviously an interesting word because, you know, we would've loved to have a better season at the same time. This was the draft class where we're happy we can be pretty creative with who we pick. 

 

B/R: Now speaking as you, not the Nuggets, do you have a personal favorite in the class? 

TB: No personal favorite, honestly. 

I like certain things that certain players do. I think the Europeans in this draft class—some of them—can be very good. Maybe the public in the States aren't familiar with them, but guys like Clint Capela in France. Pretty raw offensively, but he's such an interesting prospect because he's so athletically gifted. 

I love certain things about certain players. If I could build one perfect player, I feel like I could do that based on some of the skills of this draft class. Julius Randle has the toughness and mentality of a winner. [Jabari] Parker is just extremely talented overall. [Dante] Exum has that amazing upside.

Andy Lyons/Getty Images

If I had to choose one, I probably couldn't, to be quite honest with you. But I feel like there's something very elite about each and every one of them. [Nik] Stauskas' shooting, for example.

So that makes it pretty fun. 

 

B/R: I'm going to try getting you to pick. If Adam Silver decided there was an expansion team, and you're the GM, and you're given that No. 1 pick...who are you—again, you, not the Nuggets—building around? 

TB: Good question...

I love Jabari Parker. Probably him. That's my personal opinion. 

 

B/R: What sold you on him? 

TB: His approach, and the fact that there's little he can't do on the court. All that talent can go out the window if you don't have the right mentality, and I feel like he has the right mentality. He seems to be extremely well-spoken, understands the value of hard work. 

He went through Duke. Love it or hate it, it's a team and organization that really cares about personalities of their players and cares about their development. My best friend went to Duke, so I know a little more about it. 

I'd probably choose him. 

Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

 

B/R: Parker played, what, like 30 games [editor's note: 35] because Duke exited pretty early. So when the information is that limited, how do you get around it? 

TB: The eye test, honestly. It's just our scouts who have been doing it for so long, them looking at the player. Each of us has a chance to give our input on a player, and if there's a consensus, we feel pretty good about our pick. 

All that is us just trying to make informed mistakes, when you think about it. There are certain players in this draft who we believe can't fail. They're not going to fail. They're going to be solid players. Their floor is that they're going to be solid players. 

There are others who may potentially fail, but they could potentially be really, really good. So it's almost about impact versus upside. That's why each and every single one of us gives an opinion, then we just go with the consensus. 

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