Travel, Relationships and Luck Crucial in Expanding Realm of NBA Scouting

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Travel, Relationships and Luck Crucial in Expanding Realm of NBA Scouting
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About a mile away from the NBA's Las Vegas Summer League, more than 250 NBA types gathered last week to learn the ins and outs of talent evaluation at the first-ever Pro Scout School.

Run by Pete Philo, the Indiana Pacers' director of international scouting since last fall, the two-day program offered a series of workshops and panel discussions to a group that included general managers, front-office personnel, coaches, scouts and media.

"It's the next big thing," said Philo, who previously worked for the Dallas Mavericks and Minnesota Timberwolves, where he led the drafting of Ricky Rubio, Nikola Pekovic and Alexey Shved. "A lot of people from the NBA were there. Even agents were really excited about it because they learned how to save time on recruiting talent, and head coaches and assistant coaches in college learned how to evaluate better. We shared philosophies, some evaluation formulas. We taught people how to really look at things, and what translates and what doesn't from overseas to the NBA."

Few know more about international scouting than Philo, who in 2003 co-founded what soon became the best showcase of international talent in one gym, the Eurocamp, which has produced more than 80 NBA players.

Philo, who also played internationally and was mentored by Dallas Mavericks GM Donnie Nelson—who drafted one of the first big overseas players in 1989, Sarunas Marciulionis—spoke with Bleacher Report and shared some of the key tenets of the modern scouting landscape. They're presented here in a first-person perspective, edited for clarity and length.

Courtesy of Pete Philo
Pete Philo (third from right) at the Pro Scout School with (from left to right) TPG Sports Group vice president Charlie Wend, Pacers GM Kevin Pritchard, Knicks director of pro player personnel Mark Hughes, sports executive Jim Stack and event moderator Fran Fraschilla.

 

1. Relationships are paramount.

People tell me they want to be an international scout and I'm like, "Who do you know overseas?" It's not about evaluating talent. To me, that's secondary now. It's relationships, it's getting contract information, it's being able to get into a practice where they shut Americans out, especially NBA personnel.

You've got to know people you trust and how to navigate overseas. I've been very lucky because I ran the Eurocamp for nine years from 2003 to '11. A lot of people had to come through me to get their players in, so I built a lot of relationships, and that's helped me to this day because now I can get information—contract, medical and background stuff—pretty quickly.

 

2. The true test is translating a player's skill set to the NBA.

Mistakes are made when you automatically think because someone's a good player, he should be a good player in the NBA. But it doesn't work like that. Everything is different overseas—rules, rotations, terminology, size, length.

For example, in Europe, they teach the bigs from the outside-in, and this is one reason why European bigs have the ability to dribble hand off, shoot and read the game well from the high post. Some leagues do a better job of translating than others, and you just have to do your best to figure that out. There's also a major disconnect between NBA front offices and any YouTube stuff. We rarely look at clips. We're looking at skill, positional size—things that translate—and the players' feel for the game.

 

3. There is also a divide between agents and scouts that can hurt players.

In 2003, a then-record 31 international players filed as early-entry candidates. Entries got hot at that point because agents started picking up on the idea that if they put a player in a year before he's draft-eligible, he'll be on the NBA radar. It's still happening at a high number, and sometimes that backfires if not executed properly. Every year, there are only around eight international players drafted. There are usually three or four in the first round, and there are usually five to seven in the second round.

Petr David Josek/Associated Press/Associated Press/Associated Press
Damjan Rudez signed with the Pacers this summer after becoming a regular attendee at Pete Philo's Eurocamp.

 

4. Scouting an international player shouldn't stop if he goes undrafted.

Everyone develops or grows at different rates. Take our recent signee Damjan Rudez. Damo had attended my Eurocamp three times, one time making the All-Eurocamp team. He was a 6'7" small forward a few years ago and he tried to do a little bit of everything too much. His game was very loose. He could always shoot the ball, was athletic and had the body type of an NBA prototype—very long, huge hands and lean.

He went undrafted in 2008, but I followed him closely to see if he would mature as a player. He bounced around Eastern Europe playing for well-known teams and then signed with the best European league in Spain. He grew to 6'10", and every coach I spoke with was telling me that he had committed his career to shooting the ball and not trying to do everything. He turned into one of the best shooters in Europe.

 

5. Every NBA team sets up its international scouting staff differently.

Some teams have regional guys—in Eastern Europe, Western Europe, Asia and South America. The Pacers don't use a bunch of guys, as I am lucky to have relationships everywhere. I have one guy in Europe, Alex Pajovic, whom I communicate with every week. He's based in Belgrade, Serbia, and gives us information from somewhere, or I'll send him somewhere if I get a tip from somebody I trust.

Then Pacers GM Kevin Pritchard or team president Larry Bird and I will go over there and take a look at the main guys once Alex and I have narrowed down the pool. So I don't go over and see 80 guys. We have a constant flow of rankings and information, and then toward the end we start to narrow it down so we can be very efficient on our trips.

 

6. Scouts are on the road roughly 220 days per year.

Ten, 15 years ago, you could go to three and four countries—Croatia, Serbia, Lithuania, Argentina—and get 90 percent of your work done. But you can't do that any more. If it's a 14-day trip, I'm probably going to hit 12 countries. And let me tell you something: You get tired, and you need a couple days to recoup. The demanding travel is the most challenging thing about being an international scout.

It's tough for health, it's tough to maintain a healthy lifestyle when you're traveling at that pace; and then you combine that with different cultures, different foods, different languages, different mentalities and sifting through the dos and the don'ts of each city. But on the positive side, I've been to 75 countries. I've seen more of the world than most people.

Rocky Widner/Getty Images
Vlade Divac (pictured), Drazen Petrovic and Sarunas Marciulionis helped usher in a wave of international talent when they came to the NBA in 1989.

 

7. Even with the rise of technology and social media, scouts still need to travel.

I can drop you right now in the middle of Lithuania and you may not know where the heck you are, but I can steer you to a certain gym that has very good players in it. It helps to have a lot of information on web sites, but at the end of the day, you still have to get there. There are still players out there that are unknown.

Information flow has changed because people want to tweet about the next great player. But a lot of times, guys will make a mistake, and people like me don't forget that. If they're tweeting hard about a guy that he's the next great thing and if we go on a wild goose chase and he can't play, I'm not going to trust that guy's information again. There's information and there's good information. There's a big difference.

 

8. Travel nightmares do happen.

One time, my plane had to be rerouted, and I landed at a little tiny airport, and it was around 11 at night. I had to somehow get from Sarajevo to Croatia, and I had to cross borders, which is kind of a no-no. And as an American, you can get a bit of a hard time.

Another time in the Czech Republic, I was on a train from Prague to Brno, and it was a two-and-a-half-hour ride. It was a pretty beat-up train, and I had all of my luggage with me. Sometimes the border patrol or the local police officer will walk through the train for inspections, and when you're a foreigner, they notice you. So the police asked for my passport and I gave it to them, and they opened up my suitcase and they threw my clothes every which way on that train. My suitcase was completely dumped and then they threw my passport at my feet.

Thanassis Stavrakis/Associated Press
Greece's Olympiakos basketball club is one of the few international teams nowadays that are financially successful.

 

9. Financial woes overseas have increased the need for international scouting.

The market has been hit pretty bad over there in the last three years, and the money has shifted. A lot of teams have gone bankrupt. The money was in Spain five years ago, then it went to Russia; now it's in Spain again and Turkey. Italy has been hit really hard and has only one or two teams that are in the green right now. And Greece has Olympiakos and Panathinaikos. After that, many teams are hurting.

All of that changes the landscape because there are a lot of players and not all of them can get paid their market value. Sometimes that means that maybe you can get a good player to come to the NBA on a decent contract.

 

10. Look out for China and India next.

Basketball is growing very fast in China. Of course, Yao helped grow the popularity, but China has continued to open doors to more coaches and grow the game that way. The players also are very receptive to coaching, and that's why I think eventually China should be a strong market for players. Is that a year from now? Is that 10 years from now? I don't know. But there are some good players coming up the pipeline, so I would imagine sooner than later.

As for India, there are a lot of grassroots things that need to be implemented and then basketball can grow with that. It's a big market, but you've got to have knowledge of the game and have to understand the game before you can become a global player.

 

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

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