How do professional teams draft the right athletes?
Posted by Dean Holden at October 14th, 2013
by Kevin McGran, 14 Nov 2012
How do you evaluate the best players to draft? You’d have to be a pretty good evaluator of future performance. That’s a difficult task.
Some look to talent, some to character, some to statistics for answers. In truth, there’s no right way or wrong way.
But a group of elite sports executives — from hockey, basketball and the NFL — debated their way on Tuesday at the Prime Time Sports conference: Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke, Winnipeg Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff, Raptors GM Bryan Colangelo and New York Giants assistant GM Kevin Abrams.
Here’s a look at some of their answers:
Q: How much do you rely on analytics?
Abrams: We hardly use it at all. It’s an 11-on-11 sport. It’s hard to say if a player does one thing on one team, he’d do it on another. He could be a 1,000-yard running back for Mike Shanahan in Washington, doesn’t mean he could do it for anybody else.
Burke: I don’t feel they add any value at all.
Cheveldayoff: We’ve developed internal analytics, not from stats, but from information (from scouts) we are taking ourselves and process that with some purpose.
Colangelo: I find myself in the middle, between the old-school way of scouting and the new-school way of looking at things. We, the Raptors, put about $250,000 a year into the process. We dumb things down for the purpose of evaluation process of prospects and in terms of applying it to a game. I do believe analytics is a huge component to what we’re doing. We’ve even got a camera system — six cameras installed above. I’m sure hockey will someday utilize this. The cameras take 24 shots per second. The amount of data mined from this camera data is incredible. If you look at a boxscore, you’re looking at about 800 points of data. We’re looking at 800,000 points of data per game. We’re one of 12 teams with the system in place.
Q: When evaluating a player, what really are you looking for? Does talent trump everything?
Abrams: Talent is your starting point. But you’re looking at medical history, character evaluations, word of mouth, psych evaluations and interviews. We’ll use the results of the combine either to affirm or red-flag players.
Burke: Character. We place a great value on that. There is no substitute for raw skill. You can’t match that with character, or coaching, or diet. That being said, a lot of great athletes never make it in a team sport. To me, over time, I think character is the ingredient of the stew that is championship teams.
Cheveldayoff: You can’t replace skill. When it comes to the scouting side of things, there are two things: What he can see and what he can’t see. What he can see: skill, skating, size. What separates the good teams from the bad teams is the amount of emphasis they place on what cannot be seen: mental toughness, attitude, do they have what it takes to win, the background, the parents, their motivation.
Colangelo: There’s a checklist: talent, physical tools, basketball IQ, how they perform, how we anticipate they’ll perform. Character. Emotional make-up. Marketability. Each component is part of the process. The toughest is what’s inside a player. You can’t see the heart, the emotional aspect of things.
Picking eighth, I passed on somebody I consider a top-five talent in the draft because we felt like he didn’t have the right mental makeup. I passed on someone we thought was a top-three physical specimen because we felt he wasn’t the right fit for our team and didn’t have the right mental makeup.
Q: How useful are league-run combines?
Abrams: We use the information as a cross-check versus what we already have. The player’s gotten good at training for the combine. A guy loses 20 pounds and looks faster. Our 15-minute interview, their answers are pretty canned, but you can address issues a player might have had, get his side of the story. The best part is showing video, if he knows what other positions are supposed to be doing in a play, whether he understands the entirety of what the defence or offence has to do, or whether he’s focused on his task. He knows his job and no one else’s and speaks to what kind of versatility he’ll have when he gets to the NFL.
Burke: We use it to buttress or repudiate what we’ve seen. Our primary scouting tool is still eyeballs. We go watch them play. The other stuff is just to double-check. We interview a bit earlier in the year.
Cheveldayoff: You have to do a lot of your work early in the season … if you truly want to get down to what you can’t see in a player.
Colangelo: Our combine has really become somewhat of a joke. Not all the players show up. The agents have controlled the process. It’s gotten worse each year. The most important thing for us is talking to the players, going face-to-face, get them to show their personalities. I had one player tell me he wanted to fix computers, which is stunning given what his god-given talents were.
Q: How do you manage a War Room on draft day?
Colangelo: The decision of who you’re going to select has happened long before the draft begins. The flow of the draft might change. You might move from Plan A to Plan B, or Plan D. It’s a process that takes six months and gets more intense and electrifying. By two weeks out you want to have a pretty good idea what your direction is.
Burke: If you haven’t done a whole lot of work before you get there, you can’t make a deal on the floor.
Cheveldayoff: When you get to the draft floor, you will see banter, you will see the phone ring, talk of moving your pick. You never know what’s going on in the minds of the other teams, unless you ask. You hear the cliché you can’t believe the guy was still there when we picked. In some cases, that’s true. The last draft, it was so deep, the order was all up in the air.
Q: How much does a poor draft pick cost a team?
Abrams: Our model is different because we don’t have any place to incubate players. Once you draft them, they better grow up in a hurry because if they’re going to be on your 53-man roster, you’re going to need them at some point in your season. … To miss on a draft pick is more of a missed opportunity than a financial loss.
Burke: The flip side of the coin on drafting is development. You can change your success ratio if you can develop players. If you have good coaching and a good farm system where you can turn these players into better players, then all of a sudden you look a lot smarter.
Cheveldayoff: The draft is the lifeblood of your organization. The only way to truly build your organization is through the draft. But it’s a long process. You trust the instincts of your scouts. They’re not always going to be right. There’s injuries, there’s illness. But if you do make a pick that isn’t quite what you hoped for — well, a gentleman who helped me get in the business once told me you draft players, you don’t adopt them. You have to understand if they don’t turn out, move on.
Colangelo: Clearly the new CBA has put more importance on retaining your draft picks, but also making the right selections. We’re in a business of instant gratification. You can’t judge the success of the draft on draft night. … If you do this long enough, you’re going to have your share of mistakes. What you want to avoid is the major mistake: the Michael Jordan vs. Sam Bowie. Greg Oden vs. Kevin Durant. It’s Ryan Leaf vs. Peyton Manning. Those are the ones that are catastrophic to an organization.
Burke: Yeah, and there’s someone else’s name on your door, too.
Q: What’s your worst draft pick.
Abrams: The great lesson learned for us is we took a defensive tackle in the early 1990s out of University of Miami. We weren’t convinced. But we allowed ourselves to make a decision that was based too much on need as opposed to a conviction.
Burke: We drafted a defenceman named Jason Herter who played at North Dakota. He had medical issues we didn’t know about. (Vancouver’s first round pick in 1989, eighth overall. Played one game in NHL.)
Cheveldayoff: I’ll tell you in five years who it might have been, but I like to think I got a lot of scouts fired for the New York Islanders when they chose me (16th overall in 1988, never played a game in NHL).
Colagengelo: I had a draft selection in Phoenix, No. 22. I picked a kid named Casey Jacobsen (287 career NBA games) from Stanford and Tayshaun Prince went 23rd. (Prince is now eighth all-time in Detroit Pistons scoring.) I missed because we had Shawn Marion and felt Prince was more or less a duplication. But I made it up by taking Amare Stoudamire at No 9. And then a kid (Utah’s) Paul Millsap went 47th (in 2006). And at 35, we took PJ Tucker. That was a mistake.