Scouting The Future Of Scouting In The NBA

Right now, NBA teams are especially into a very specific type of player—long, athletic, and with very specific skills. Here's a look into what's (probably not) next.
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Illustrations by Damon Agnos

It’s that time of year. March Madness is here, gangly Balkan teenagers are flaunting raw talent in the Euroleague, and our favorite gurus are frenziedly updating their mock NBA Drafts and lists of players to watch. As we read the strangely objectifying, armchair psychologizing profiles of young basketballers, it’s worth thinking about how we might assess such players in the future. On that topic, I have a few predictions:

Today’s Hot Trait: Short Necks
Tomorrow’s Hot Trait: Long Necks

Chicago Bulls GM Jerry Krause famously highlighted the importance of neck length in 1999, when he predicted a bright future for Bulls draftee Elton Brand. “The height is something that’s very deceptive,” said Krause. “He almost has no neck.” Krause saw neck as wasted height; Brand’s short neck gave him a higher standing reach than, say , another 6’8 man with equally long arms but a longer neck. Brand would thus be better situated than his imagined counterpart to block a shot or dunk a basketball.

BUT…what advantages might that imaginary player with the longer neck hold? With his long arms starting lower to the ground, might he not more easily swipe an opponent’s dribble? Might his own dribble not be lower, and thus less susceptible to swipeage?

Similarly, consider the psychological impact of a long neck on one’s opponents. For centuries, the display of disembodied heads—usually on stakes or spikes—has served as a warning to those who might test the law. For example, London long displayed the impaled heads of traitors above its eponymous bridge. Perhaps this practice took advantage of a primal human fear of heads-on-spikes, or perhaps we inherited the fear from those who developed it upon exposure to said heads. (Don’t be so quick to scoff, friends.) Either way, the sight of a long-necked defender near the basket—his head so distant from his torso as to seem detached from it—must surely tickle the ol’ fearebellum.

Today’s Buzzword: Long
Tomorrow’s Buzzword: Broad

Sure, “wingspan” is great, and now you know that a long neck offers certain advantages, but have you considered the subconscious drivers of our obsession with “long” players? It’s not sexual anxiety, though it may be sexual—though probably not in the way you’re guessing. Oh, I’m being coy again!

Let’s rewind: What do most of today’s scouts and GMs have in common? They were of a formative television-viewing age during the 1980s, when the sitcom Cheers ruled the Nielsen ratings. They were children then, or young adults, and being (most of them) straight, butch, white dudes with a thing for sports, they likely identified with Sam Malone, former jock and forever Lothario. Sam’s love interest? The bookish Diane Chambers, who would get the Lothario reference. (Sam wouldn’t, much to her chagrin.)

What does this have to do with Sam Perkins, you ask? Or Karl Malone? Or Tom Chambers? Aha! See how the mind jumps around? Do some electroencephalography and project the results onto the cave wall: enjoy the light show. Now take a hallucinogen and ponder a seemingly changed pattern.

When someone mentions “long”, today’s scouts and GMs are reminded, if only in the deepest, most adolescently lustful regions of their brain, of actress Shelley Long, who played the aforementioned Diane. On draft night, one well-known analyst has been known to grow heroically tumescent beneath the broadcast desk at each mention of the word. That same analyst was both moved and confused by the film White Men Can’t Jump.

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As for tomorrow’s scouts and GMs? Perhaps they’re watching Broad City today. And really, who wouldn’t want broad players? A broad player is great for setting picks, and a sufficiently broad player could easily necessitate the use of two narrower defenders, freeing teammates for a 4-on-3. Hardly a narrow advantage!

Today’s Star: The Alpha Dog
Tomorrow’s Star: The Beta Cat

What do draftniks, pick-up artists, cuckold fetishists, and TV’s the Dog Whisperer have in common? They’re all obsessed with the concept of “the alpha!” It seems every year there’s a player of uncommon skill and athleticism whose NBA potential is questioned because talent evaluators are unsure whether he possesses the requisite “alpha dog” mentality.

But just as the macho rock of the late 1960s and early 1970s led to glam, and the digitization of music led to the revival of vinyl, so must the era of the training-science-obsessed, aggro alpha dog give way to the rise of the retro-tech, anti-macho beta cat.

What is a beta cat, you ask? A beta cat is a basketball player who is slinky and quick like a cat, yes, but also spidery in physique, weight room-averse. He wears short shorts and plays the game with finesse. To the beta cat, emphatic dunks are passé, laughable peacocking. The beta cat is content to go with the finger roll or the light-touch dunk. Think of George Gervin, Alex English, Jamal Crawford. James Worthy, dunking with no more force than necessary.

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The “beta” in his title comes not from his rank in the pack—he has no interest in hierarchies—but from his devotion to a video technology of the era from which his aesthetic arose: The Sony Betamax tape. The beta cat stays away from cutting-edge training facilities and tablets of all brands, preferring instead to take hundreds of shots in an empty gym and, afterward, to go home and watch game tape on his Sony Betamax. The beta cats meet annually at an undisclosed location to watch a pristinely maintained Betamax copy of their favorite movie: the anti-nuclear proliferation Alex English classic, Amazing Grace and Chuck.

Today’s Buzzword: Motor
Tomorrow’s Buzzword: Battery

America was built on the car, which probably wasn’t a good idea because it’s not environmentally sustainable and you don’t want your foundation on wheels. Nevertheless, it’s clear that today’s scouts and general managers grew up in a country fascinated with the motor vehicle, which is probably why they’re always talking about “Big 3s” and why the general managers abbreviated the name of their position to sound like the famous car brand General Motors.

Millennials, on the other hand, are always on their phones, and care more about DMs than GMs (the car kind). Sliding into a GM (again, the car kind) is what the Dukes of Hazzard would’ve done if they’d driven a Corvette instead of a Dodge. In either case, it was extremely BM of them to deface their car’s roof as they did.

The engine of yesterday was the motor; the engine of today is the battery; the engine of tomorrow has yet to be determined, even by TED Talks. But the buzzword of tomorrow is the engine of today, which is “battery.”

Today’s Hot Position: Stretch 4
Tomorrow’s Hot Position: Stretch 4 2.0

Rejoice, tokers! Our baffling need to place a “.0” after the “2” denoting the second iteration of a phenomenon leads to everyone’s favorite position bearing the metonym for your favorite activity. I’ll go with the stretch 4 2.0, Bob!

 

There it is, draftniks: A glimpse into the future of scouting, the field that perhaps more than any other in your life resembles eugenics. They say that with knowledge comes power, so it stands to reason that with foreknowledge comes forepower. I’m not exactly sure what that is, but use it wisely.


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