BOSTON — NBA front offices generally work with the same body of work to evaluate future prospects—combine results, video breakdowns and anecdotal reports from scouts. But understanding a player’s mental makeup requires a much more nuanced, individualized process.
That's where Austin Ainge comes in.
Ainge, son of Celtics general manager Danny Ainge, serves as the team's director of player personnel and scouting, and he is responsible for advising decisions on Boston's four 2015 NBA draft picks. Prior to that, he was a scout for the Celtics during the 2008-09 season.
Ainge must find answers to a multitude of impossible-to-quantify questions: How does a player handle coaching? How motivated is the player? How will he respond to the external pressures of NBA life?
Bleacher Report sat down with Ainge for a exclusive interview this past week to get a better sense of how the Celtics get inside the heads of draft prospects.
Bleacher Report: Does the team consult with any psychologists or others who advise it on personality evaluation?
Austin Ainge: We don’t use a formal psychologist. We all try to get to know the players and evaluate their personalities just using our own intuition and experience with that. We try to get the opinions of a lot of important people in their lives that have been around them to better understand them. We feel that if they have been competitive and been a good teammate in the past, it’s likely to continue in the future and vice versa. We feel comfortable with that.
B/R: From a league perspective, what are you noticing on that front? Does it seem to be trending in that direction?
AA: It seems to be cyclical. In my short time in the league, I’ve noticed that teams will go to some sort of system, or get a psychologist, and then do that for a few years, then go away from it. Then, another team will try it and go away from it. I think most of the teams do it the way we do it.
B/R: Is chemistry something that the Celtics try to engineer? Can teams quantify/predict how people will act in a team environment better than they were able to five years ago?
AA: It’s hard for me to speak league-wide on it. For us, we feel often that if players have done well in the past with it in college, or their pro team in Europe, it’s likely to continue. Really, it’s about getting guys that want to win and are focused on winning more than themselves. Then, everyone seems to get along when they have that common goal. Everyone who wants to win…it doesn’t mean they can’t have selfish moments, but in the end, if you are ultimately focused on [winning], we feel good about being able to get along.
I will say [chemistry] is not the easiest thing to evaluate. Just like talent and health, these things can change. Different situations often change a guy’s behavior. If they are not playing, if they don’t feel appreciated, if they can’t meet expectations, they are going to be unhappy. That’s anybody, even the best kids. I think situation matters a lot.
B/R: Do you try to learn from those situations that have come up with draftees in assessing players?
AA: We absolutely do. It really is a lot like parenting. We try to create an atmosphere where we hold guys to a standard but know that we do care about them, and we want to get better together. That’s the environment you try to create.
|Recent Celtics Draft Picks|
|2014||No. 6 Marcus Smart||No. 17 James Young|
|2013||No. 13 Kelly Olynyk (acquired from Dallas)||No. 53 Colton Iverson (acquired from Indiana)|
|2012||No. 21 Jared Sullinger||No. 22 Fab Melo||No. 51 Kris Joseph|
|2011||No. 27 JaJuan Johnson (acquired from Brooklyn)||No. 55 E'Twaun Moore|
|2010||No. 19 Avery Bradley||No. 52 Luke Harangody|
B/R: Are international players viewed as particularly high-risk or high-benefit in terms of character/personality/locker room fits?
AA: The NBA is a culture shock for college kids, and even more so for kids from another country. The NBA is a unique environment, so there is going to be transition for any young kid, but I think coming from another country and culture is even harder. It does take a special toughness and confidence to deal with that, especially since a lot of times you don’t play a lot as a young player.
B/R: What has the organization done over the past few years to weed out potential red-flag prospects?
AA: There are guys every year, whether it’s concerns we have about their off-court life, or their health or game. We eliminate guys based on those reasons every year, and that’s the process. I will say it’s a bit of a sliding scale, right? You have to be better than your problems. We are willing to put up with a little more [with some guys].
Without talking about some of the background issues we have found in players, I’ll make a parallel: Leon Powe had knee issues in college, and it was a big risk [to take him] in the first round in 2006, but at some point in the 40s, it was worth the risk. [Powe was selected at No. 49 in the 2006 NBA draft and traded to Boston]. You can use the same exact thing sometimes with their personality and/or off-court issues. Sometimes you say, "let’s give them a few months in training camp and see if they can mature."
B/R: Some teams will use some unique questions with prospects that have nothing to do with basketball, such as "How many pennies are in a million dollars?" or "How many basketballs can fill this room?" Do you guys try anything like that?
AA: We don’t grill them on that. We try to get a general feel. We don’t try to make them super uncomfortable.
B/R: What are teams trying to learn by asking questions like that?
AA: I think they are just trying to see how guys react on the spot. It’s not to see if they get the right answer, just to see how they think about an answer. We try to know about the kids before they come in and ask them specifics about the things we have found.
B/R: How valuable of a resource has Brad Stevens been for evaluating prospects, given his past relationship recruiting some players?
AA: Brad has many years and hours of experience talking with young people, and then seeing how they were when they got to your team. That’s the experience we all have and every year is adding to our database of intuitively adding to how a person is. You just do the best you can.
B/R: How much does the front office go back and look at past drafts as learning lessons? Do you dwell on past successes or failures when looking at your upcoming selections?
AA: We always evaluate our own process and own decision-making in every aspect. Our medical stuff and analytic stuff, we have invested a lot in lately and have gotten a lot better. Our owners have allowed us to increase our scouting staff, coaching staff. Almost everything in our organization has grown significantly in the last four years, and we are always trying to do better.
What Might Boston Do on Draft Night?
Boston enters draft night poised to act on the assets it has amassed in the past two seasons.
Eleven players are already under contract for the 2015-16 season, making it unlikely the Celtics will have the space to keep four rookies on the roster next year. The team’s surplus of picks can be offered in package deals, with the hope that Danny Ainge can land an impact talent in the top half of the draft.
"We're always looking for quality over quantity," Ainge told Chris Forsberg of ESPN.com on Tuesday. "We have a lot of picks, so we'd like to make fewer picks this year and next year and so forth."
Whether Boston’s four picks (Nos. 16, 28, 33, 45) in 2015 and other remaining assets are enough to entice a team to move down on draft night remains to be seen. Ainge could also combine some existing young pieces on the roster with the picks to help make a deal and open up some space on the roster. However, in order to take the next step of the rebuild in a weak Eastern Conference, Boston must close the talent gap and fill some serious needs using all possible avenues.
Promising big men such as Willie Cauley-Stein and Myles Turner could serve as defensive anchors for years to come in the paint and are both expected to be available in the bottom half of the lottery. The Celtics desperately need to upgrade their perimeter shooting as well, making sharpshooters such as Devin Booker and Frank Kaminsky attractive possibilities for the team to nab in a deal.
Whatever happens, expect Boston to be aggressive Thursday night as the franchise attempts to cash in some trade chips to land a core piece for the long haul.