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Inside the Debates and Frenzy of an NBA Draft War Room with a Former GM

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Inside the Debates and Frenzy of an NBA Draft War Room with a Former GM
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What is the experience of the NBA draft through the eyes of an NBA general manager?

Ed Stefanski, the former GM of the New Jersey Nets and Philadelphia 76ers, who most recently served in the Toronto Raptors' front office until last year, took Bleacher Report inside the processfrom the talent evaluation, making final preparations, what unfolds in the war room, memorable moves, thoughts on how Joel Embiid impacts this year's draft and much more.

With his consent, Stefanski's storythrough a conversation with B/R's Jared Zwerlingis presented here from his perspective. It has been edited for clarity and length.

 

Leading Up to the Draft

Coming up to the draft, if you're not prepared, you're in big trouble. All year long, you're collecting information, collecting more when the college season's over, trying to get backgrounds from players' coaches, opposing coaches in their league, and even going back to high school and AAU. You're doing the medicals, you're doing all the background checks, you've got private investigators going out and checking to make sure you haven't missed something. Your contacts are crucial.

All your scouts are in the office probably 10 days before the draft. You're going through a ton of tape, back and forth and narrowing the list of prospects down. I like to put the prospects in groups of five in the beginning, and then you can move guys around into those groupings. It's easier. I like a lively board room before the draft. I want people arguing. No one is going to hurt my feelings. You have to respect the other person's information and intellect. When I was a GM, I always went last after I heard everybody, and I always made Rod Thorn in New Jersey go last, too.

In assessing players, you may do a second workout. Maybe you just weren't sure when you saw him on the court, maybe you had some more questions for him to answer to try to get the feel of him as a person a little bit better. When we brought players in, we'd always do a dinner, lunch or breakfast with him to find out things. Then you talk to all your staff members who've picked him up at the airport, who worked with him physically, who medically did stuff with himwhat kind of kid was he, was he receptive, did he respect you?

You may also do a psych test to do more of a background on the player. Is he going to be a leader? Is he going to be a follower? Will he be good in the locker room if he has problems with his teammates? I'm a big believer that you need character players, and I know talent will trump character, but there better be a big, big spread, because if the talent and the character are not close and there's a problem there, I'd be one to walk away.

Matt Slocum/Associated Press

Overall, the red flags are raised around whether he was coachable, and how did he handle timeouts? It's much more than the game; it's how the kid comes out to warm up well before the game. It's how he handles timeoutsdoes he listen to the coach? If he makes a good pass to one of his teammates and he drops the ball, does he get upset with the player and not trust the kid the next time to try to give him confidence? Then you try to find out how he is off the courtis he a kid that tries to do the right thing?

Kids are going to make mistakes. I have four boys and you've got to raise them, and they're all different. I think it's importantand I believe most teams do this—that they have a support system set up so when that kid comes into a brand-new town they have someone to help him, from the general manager on down, trying to teach him how to be a pro and how to handle himself. And it's much easier if you have good vets on your team. They can put their arm around a kid and help them. That's building a program; that's what you've got to do in an organization.

 

The Days Before the Draft

You have to let other teams know what you're thinking and if you're interested in possibly acquiring a second-round pick or moving your second-round pick. You may have a situation where you have some cap space or you have something to help another team, and it's important that teams know what you would be willing to possibly entertain in an offer. I was in situations where before draft night, I asked my owner for money to buy a second-round pick.

We talk to every GM. In past years it was always phone conversations, and then teams would text me ideas. I'm more of a talk-to-the-guy-on-the-phone person, but I have no problem texting back my thoughts, too. I think sometimes when you text you don't hear the guy's emotions or what he definitely wants to do, and you can misread the text. If you're not talking to the GM, you may have a real strong contact with his draft or player personnel departments. There are a lot of ways to connect. I've done deals in which I talked to the GM after I talked to a couple of people in his office.

When you talk to GMs, you try to find out what players are protected. Having said that, everybody's available, except for some of the studs. If you make a deal worthwhile, everybody will listen. People get upsetagents or playersbut that's the NBA. You have to listen. It's not that I don't like the kid and I'm disrespecting him, but I always give a heads-up to agents and players. The communication lines are there. But I hear some people say they got disrespected.

All GMs are different, but they're all going to play close to their vest. But if a guy wants to deal, he's going to tell you some things. It all depends on where the team is, where they are veteran-wise, what this draft means to them. Do they try to mislead you? Maybe so. But once they do that, then you know who you're dealing with. But most GMs have to figure out what's best for their team.

There can be big-time contention, but once you've finalized your draft plans, everybody has to be on board. That's called loyalty, and when we open that door to the board room as one, whoever we draft is part of our organization. He's part of our team and family, and we'll work hard with him. You can argue, you can yell, you can scream respectfully and make your point, but once the boss puts his list together, we've got to be one. If you try to argue it out in the draft room, holy smokes, there's no way. I've never had that happen, but I'm sure there are stories out there. 

Charles Rex Arbogast/Associated Press/Associated Press
The NBA Draft Combine is only one of a number of evaluation tools front offices use in analyzing draft picks.

 

Draft Day and Inside the War Room

I always hadand I started this when I was the director of scouting with the Netsa laminated form with different scenarios for Rod Thorn and the director of scouting. I didn't want anyone to spill soda or coffee on it. We had every scenario on it. It's almost like a cheat sheet that the NFL coaches use during games. We talked to every team in the league, and we mapped out what they would possibly do for us.

Agents love draft day, and you've got to feel for them, too. When they're in that green room or they're with their players somewhere or on the phone, they want to know and feel comfortable where their players are going to go. So they're always looking for a promise so that he can shut the kid down from all these workouts. Even up to a couple picks before, they're calling you and trying to find out what they want so they can tell their guy to relax. It's stressful for everybody on draft night in some respect, and the players don't know where they're going. They've done a ton of workouts. It's a grueling time for these players.

On draft night, I'm not stressed out. I'm feeling very comfortable that we put all our work in during the year. Very rarely do we not know who we are going to take. Now, if we are in the midst of a possible trade and things like that, we don't know. But we know our draft order; you just go down the line. Things, of course, can happen, especially phone calls for a trade, so you have to be ready. But you work out so many scenarios with your group leading up to that draft that you're never thrown off on something; there's nothing we didn't talk about leading up to that draft.

So what's it like to be inside the board room? I actually don't call it a war room. In New Jersey, it was Rod and me, and I was with Bryan Colangelo in Toronto. You always have your director of scouting and your player personnel man there, and your head coach is always in there. We always had big enough rooms where the scouts were there, too. The scouts put a ton of time, effort and work in, and it comes down to sometimes two picks for all that work.

I've worked with different head coaches who have been really great at giving you their input. All year long, they have been working their backsides off trying to win basketball games, and they know that the general manager, the director of scouting and the scouts are out there. I've had most coaches say to me, "Ed, go with who you guys think because I haven't seen this kid. I only saw him in a couple workouts." And I think that's the best way to do it. I think your head coach has to have an input, and a major one, but I don't think you can ask him who he likes or doesn't.

On the table in the room, everyone has an iPad with all the information. There's still a couple of files sitting on the table if you want to grab and read the report on the kid. We have all the scouting reports, the medicals, the background checks, everything there.

David Dow/Getty Images
Cavaliers GM David Griffin must sort through a number of opinions, scouting reports and trade opportunities before he makes the first pick in the 2014 draft.

It can get lively in the late first round when someone wants to try to deal or trade into the second round; that's when you have a lot more action. I wish everybody could witness the board room where you're going through the players. It's an amazing night to watch all that work that you've put together and how it comes out.

If someone was available that we really liked, we would make a move. You have to be prepared, too, because there are only five minutes between picks. Even after the draft is done, if someone picks a player that we really like, I have made phone calls to that GM. Usually, it's harder because the guy is somewhat excited about getting his player, and then he's probably even more excited that another GM is calling to see if he can get him. That usually happens in the second round.

My most memorable draft trade was Eddie Griffin for Richard Jefferson in 2001. What was crazy about that night was there was major flooding in Houstonhuge rains for two days. We had the deal and we were on the phone, but then the phones went out in Houston and you can imagine the commotion in the room. I know Rod told the intern, "Don't dare get off that phone. Just keep that line open all the way." The line finally got through.

Another deal to remember was when we made a sign-and-trade for Kenyon Martin to Denver in 2004, and we got two first-round picks that ended up being Nos. 14 and 21. We made that trade because we didn't feel at that time we wanted to pay the money for Kenyon. Those two picks turned out later on to be integral in getting Vince Carter to New Jersey. First-round picks are huge, especially in today's world. They're even more important now because of the new CBA, and you need guys who are under contract for four years at a reasonable number.

The only way there's contention is if your head guyyour president or your general manageris not in agreement with what has gone into the draft. And that's hard. In New Jersey and in Toronto, we would argue it out beforehand. You put your work in, but then a volatile owner could come in and say, "Hey, we're taking this guy or that guy." 

I've heard stories of GMs being overruled by their owners, but I've never had that because I've always asked the owner wherever I am to have a meeting a few days before the draft to give him everythingwhere we are, what we're thinkingso he can feel part of it. He's the man, he's the owner, and I think all GMs should probably do that.

Most owners enjoy going through the predraft process and knowing what's happening. He hears all the scouts' opinions and things like that. After that meeting, you have a one-on-one with your owner, and if he has any issues or questions, that's when you get them done. I don't think you get those issues or questions done the day the draft is going on, or you're in big trouble.

Years ago, to send in the pick, people from a team would go to New York City and they'd be in one room and they'd make the call for the player. Now, you're just on the phone with the NBA. It's easy. You also have the numbers of all the attorneys at the NBA if there are any issues. The NBA is very, very prepared for the draft.

USA TODAY Sports
A foot injury for Joel Embiid has complicated the draft options for a number of teams in this year's draft.

I've always looked at drafts about who we could or shouldn't have taken. There are reasons you made the pick and then sometimes you say, "Why didn't we do it?" But when you make that pick, you move forward. I think you give a player three years to know if you have a starter on your hands or a rotation player. You'll know if you have a star on your hands pretty quickly. I think it takes a little bit of time, but patience is hard for people. These kids are 18, 19 years old.

After every pick was made, we all shake hands and say, "Great job," of getting the guy. Then we'll call the agent and get him excited and tell him, "We're happy to have your guy and we'll be in touch." We'll have the PR people call whoever the agent's publicist is to set up a press conference the next day. Then we'll get on the phone with the player and the president and GM will talk to him, and then the head coach, too. We'll bring him into the city and we'll bring some family members with him. This is the start of the process to make him feel at home, and to help him become an NBA player and a professional.

As soon as the draft is over, we're allmyself and the scouts and the directorson the phone calling players we wanted but weren't drafted. We've been working with their agents well beforehand, and we really want the kid to come in. If you need a third point guard and there are a couple point guards you like that dropped out of the draft, you're in a great spot because you can add them to your summer league roster.

Like in Toronto in 2012, we needed a player and Bryan and I talked about a swingman we both liked, Alan Anderson, when he came out of Michigan State. His outside shot wasn't reliable coming out of Michigan State, so he went overseas. He was tough as nails, we loved his work ethic and we both said, "Why don't we give him a shot?" Alan came in and he was terrific for us. He gave us a year-and-a-half, and now he's playing for the Nets.

So after all this work you did to prepare for the draft, it still revolves back when you saw these kids in college, you liked them and then you followed their careers in Europe or the D-League. It's a continuous process on all of these guys.

 

Jared Zwerling covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.

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