Hype surrounding the NBA draft is forever focused on words like "potential," "athleticism" and "wingspan" (drink!), so we forget the months leading up to the event are basically a job interview where minds and values are also cross-examined.
For good reason.
The NBA remains a copycat league, where successful team-building follows the blueprints of the San Antonio Spurs and Golden State Warriors.
"You realize you can win championships with all good guys," an NBA scout told Bleacher Report. "You don't need to have any knuckleheads on your team like previously thought to win games. I think teams are starting to appreciate good character and realize what that has to do with winning."
That thought process, more than ever before, is an essential component to how teams evaluate prospects and make draft-day decisions.
"You have to give some allowances to where they are in their growth stage," the scout said. "I think age and maturity play some part. I think our expectations for a 22-year-old are a little bit more than an 18- or 19-year-old. You want someone who is respectable, coachable, has gotten over themselves to the point that they're willing to learn—that they know who they are and what they need to work on."
In last year's draft, Karl-Anthony Towns had some of the highest character marks, and he cruised to the 2015-16 Rookie of the Year Award.
"Towns might have been the most high-character guy in the draft," a scout said. "It's rare when talent meets character at that level. You need talent. There's no one who has stuck in the NBA without talent. When character meets the talent, it's the beginning of something special usually."
Which 2016 prospects could shoot up draft boards based on their intangibles? And what makes them different from their peers? Bleacher Report polled a group of NBA scouts to build a short list of high-character players, and then we spoke with their college coaches about what makes them special.
Virginia's Malcolm Brogdon, Oklahoma's Buddy Hield, Utah's Jakob Poeltl and Wichita State's Fred VanVleet emerged as the clear winners.
Other prospects with high marks included Gonzaga's Domantas Sabonis, Michigan State's Denzel Valentine, Duke's Brandon Ingram, Vanderbilt's Damian Jones, Florida State's Malik Beasley, Michigan's Caris LeVert, North Carolina's Marcus Paige and Iowa State's Georges Niang.
Malcolm Brogdon, SG, Virginia
After the NBA Draft Combine last month, an NBA personnel man told Virginia head coach Tony Bennett that Brogdon was the most impressive interview he'd witnessed during his 14 years in the league.
"That does not surprise me," Bennett replied.
Biased? Maybe. But he's not alone—every scout polled for this story mentioned the UVA star without hesitation.
"He's the guy that everybody wants their daughter to date," one of the scouts said.
Or their politicians to resemble.
Brogdon graduated in three-and-a-half years with a degree in history, then finished his master's degree on public policy in a year-and-a-half. His goals outside of basketball include establishing a not-for-profit program to bring clean drinking water to Africa.
This past year, he lived on "the Range" on UVA's campus, housing that Thomas Jefferson designed and built. It's a prestigious honor to be selected to live on the grounds—Brogdon and teammate Caid Kirven are believed to be the first basketball teammates to ever live on "the Lawn" (undergraduate equivalent of the Range) and Range at the same time.
"He's a guy who you know is going to be successful beyond basketball," a scout said. "That's the difference between him and some of those other guys on the list. He's a guy you would hire to work in your front office; you would hire to manage your finances. He could do anything. There's not many guys in any draft you would say that about."
Virginia experienced unparalleled success during Brogdon's career. The Cavaliers won 89 games in his final three years and surpassed Ralph Sampson's teams for the most wins during a three-season span in program history.
That success followed a broken left foot that forced Brogdon to miss the final four games of his freshman season and held him out his sophomore year. In an age when most players are in a hurry to get to the NBA, it's rare to hear a guy call a setback like that "a blessing in disguise," but that's how Brogdon phrased it.
"He appreciates every opportunity," Bennett said.
The scouting report includes questionable athleticism and an awkward-looking jump shot. Still, nobody doubts he'll succeed.
Bennett coached him differently; During the best season of his career this past year, the coach challenged his star to be even better.
"In some cases, it was a little bit of a risky move on my part because he could have been like, 'I'm carrying this team in scoring and doing a lot of things, and you're challenging me,' and I told him, 'We need you,'" Bennett said. "He took constructive criticism, and he took it another step.
"He said I'm going to do exactly what Coach says we need, and I'm going to bring these other guys with me. He was so compliant and so engaged. You knew for us to be good, it couldn't just be him being as good as he could be. He knew the whole team had to come up and other guys had to stretch themselves."
Bennett said he watched Brogdon teach other guys how to become leaders and how to work. He asked one of his harder-working players what it was like to train with Brogdon. "I thought I worked hard and got extra work on my game," Brogdon's teammate told Bennett. "This is another level."
"He is an absolute winner, and he's going to make someone's team better," Bennett said. "Whatever comes his way, he adapts and then he moves forward. He has a real good perspective. He's a person of faith. His faith anchors him in a way that there's a peace and a steadiness about him that's noticeable. Yet he's one of the most competitive and tenacious guys but very steady. He's not out there head-butting or knocking guys; it's a real focused intense that you see in him."
Buddy Hield, SG, Oklahoma
"Most of the guys in the NBA will work; you just have to tell them to. The players who are self-motivated to work and are doing it because there's a sense of purpose whether they want to be great, realize how lucky they are and want to make the most of it—those are the guys you want as part of your program because it's contagious." — Anonymous NBA scout
The legend of Buddy Hield fills the Lloyd Noble Center at Oklahoma, and the stories that OU's coaches like to tell happened when no one was in the stands.
Hield had one of the most impressive seasons in the last decade of college basketball, winning National Player of the Year and taking OU to the Final Four. The behind-the-scenes work is what his coaches believe made it possible.
Hield arrived in Norman, Oklahoma, with a funky-low release that was fundamentally flawed. He made only 19 threes on 23.8 percent shooting as a freshman.
But Hield beat Oklahoma head coach Lon Kruger to the basketball offices most days. He'd skip pregame meals to get shots up until the coaching staff told him he couldn't do that anymore. He spent so much time at the Lloyd Noble Center that he figured out a way to play reggae music over the arena's main speakers.
Hield's mantra is he shoots until he's comfortable. "I'm a weird player," he told B/R earlier this year. "If I'm uncomfortable, I'm going to stay here as long as I can."
"Never had anyone in 35 years come as close to spending as much extra time," Kruger said. "Not even close."
Hield had the ultimate test of character this past season—he had to deal with Buddy Mania as the face of college basketball, the guy everyone wanted to see shoot. Assistant coach Chris Crutchfield estimates that Hield would sign 100 to 200 autographs after he left the press conference following games. OU's coaches told him he didn't have to do that.
"He said, 'Coach, when I was a little kid and grew up in the Bahamas, I never had anybody to look up to and get an autograph like this, so if these kids want my autograph, I'm going to give it to them,'" Crutchfield said. "It took an hour after every game to try to get through those people.
"It's amazing. Just watching him go through his routine. He never changed. His personality never changed. He had pressure to perform every night. If you're going to write a book on how to handle that, he did it."
Jakob Poeltl, C, Utah
In the first week Poeltl arrived on Utah's campus, the Austrian big man went through a training exercise with Navy SEALs.
The team broke into groups of five, and the SEALs gave each group 30-40 items in a blanket. They had one minute to memorize as much as possible. The other groups had no real strategy and struggled. Poeltl divided the blanket into five sections and told each teammate to remember the items in his sections.
"I remember kind of looking at the commander after that, and he kind of made [eye contact] with me," Utah head coach Larry Krystkowiak said. "It was just something, you went, 'OK, this guy is always thinking ahead.' That was one of those first defining moments when we said he's got a little something special to him besides the basketball."
Poeltl emerged as an unknown freshman to become a possible lottery pick. He was a definite first-rounder had he come out last season, but Krystkowiak believed he wasn't ready, and Poeltl decided to stay in school to work on his flaws.
"The thing I made perfectly clear to both of those guys [Poeltl and former Utah guard Delon Wright] was you can't come back this second year with any kind of feeling like you're doing somebody a favor," Krystkowiak said. "We made sure those guys continued to grind, and we coached them really hard.
"I've seen guys come back for another year, and you can kind of tell they go in the tank. It's almost like they can't get over the fact that they're not in the NBA yet."
Poeltl addressed every one of his weaknesses. He developed a back-to-the-basket game, added strength, improved his free-throw shooting and was less foul-prone.
|Jakob Poeltl's year-to-year numbers|
|PPG||RPG||FT%||Fouls committed per 40 min.|
"His learning curve was pretty dang steep, and he just picked some things up and ran with them," Krystkowiak said. "That was on the court and off the court. Watching him socially and with our fans, within the community, he took full advantage of the two years we had him.
"Some people get so caught up in their own deal all of the time, and I think he was real cognizant of all the moving parts that were needed in order to make the team good. He seemed to have a feel for when to let somebody have it or when to be there to pick somebody up. I think he had a good sense for being a teammate."
Fred VanVleet, PG, Wichita State
Wichita State was short on returning big men two years ago, and VanVleet put it upon himself to make sure Shaquille Morris, a redshirt freshman at the time, would be ready. VanVleet told Morris that summer he would train with him, and they ran the stairs at Wichita State's track stadium every morning.
On July 5, 2014, Morris no-showed, and VanVleet called him out on Twitter:
"He's ultra-serious," Wichita State head coach Gregg Marshall said. "He came in that way. Very mature, precocious, wise beyond his years. I wouldn't say fun, because he's a great guy, but he's very, very serious and determined to be successful."
VanVleet is the one player on this list who does not appear on mock drafts, but he'll be in high demand once the draft is finished.
"VanVleet is so polarizing from a scouting perspective," a scout said. "He's way too small [6'0"], but he's just such a winner. How do you overlook that? That has to be factored into the calculus at some point. They experienced winning at such a high level."
|Most wins in last four years|
|2. Wichita State||121|
|5. (tie) Duke/KU/Louisville||116|
The scout proceeded to look up how many games the Shockers had won in VanVleet's four years: the second-most games of any program in college basketball during that stretch. They made a Final Four his freshman season, had an undefeated regular season his sophomore year and went 9-4 in the NCAA tournament for his career.
In four games that VanVleet missed as a senior, the Shockers went 1-3, with the one win coming against a Division II opponent.
"What I would say is this: He does things that are hard to teach," Marshall said. "They're instinctive. And I would say the intangibles that he brings, if you give him a shot, you're going to fall in love with those intangibles and you're going to find out when you work with him on a daily basis that he's more gifted than you give him credit for physically. And in the end, he's going to win.
"That's all I can say. His team is going to win. He wants to win and does more to help you win than any player you could have ever imagined. It's very rare when a player wants to win more than a coaching staff. He's one of those rare players."
C.J. Moore covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @CJMooreBR.