NBA's global scouting affected by COVID, leading to fewer international prospects in Draft
Video exists on every NBA draft prospect, from college to G League to second-division pro leagues in Lithuania.
“Film is really helpful,” Milwaukee Bucks vice president of global scouting Ryan Hoover told USA TODAY Sports in between the glow of an NBA championship and the reality of another draft and free agency.
But there is also immeasurable value for NBA scouts and executives seeing players in-person. During the COVID-19 pandemic, restrictions on travel and in-person events made that difficult, especially international scouting.
“There’s nothing like seeing guys in-person,” Hoover said. “You can watch as much film as you want, but to see a guy live, it’s just a different level. To be at a game three hours before it starts and watch him walk on the floor, interact with his teammates, how he focuses before the game. Is he taking it seriously? Is he goofing around? Do his teammates like him? Is he coachable? How’s his spirit, energy and vibe? All that matters.
“The human element piece and who he is as a person matters. You get to see so much.”
The NBA Draft is Thursday (ESPN, 8 p.m. ET) and free agency opens Monday at 6 p.m. ET.
Hoover and NBA front-office personnel scouted where they could – mainly in the South, Southwest, Great Plains and Midwest where some in-person attendance was allowed.
The Bucks consulted with human resources and told scouts and executives they weren't required to travel, and some didn’t.
“We didn’t make anything mandatory,” he said. “If you feel comfortable, travel. If you don’t, great. We understand.”
Hoover spent a lot of the college basketball season in Texas, Florida, Indiana and Wisconsin. There were games Hoover noticed maybe two, three other scouts in attendance. Several NBA executives put thousands of miles on cars, driving from college town to college town.
With all the data, video and advanced statistics available, basketball operations staffers still want that in-person experience.
“I feel bad for the players being evaluated because it lacks that extra layer that scouts love – when they’re observing a player at practice and in the games and see them interact,” Washington Wizards general manager Tommy Sheppard said. “That gives you a much better perspective on somebody. They’re being scouted and evaluated but to get that full picture, it’s much more difficult this year than ever simply because you couldn’t be at most of the games. This is just another example of why your network is so valuable and how much you rely on sources and your contacts to get a clear picture of a prospect.”
Conference tournaments and the NCAA Tournament played at single sites helped scouts attend games late in the season.
The draft combine also gave scouts and execs the opportunity to watch players and conduct interviews in-person. And teams were able to host players at their facility.
Scouting international players posed a greater challenge. Hoover said he travels to Europe about 3-4 times a season and other Bucks staffers take overseas trips, including Jon Horst, Milt Newton and Dave Babcock. But because of COVID, U.S.-based scouts weren’t allowed to travel for most of the international season.
It is not a great draft year for international players. Just two international players who didn’t play in the U.S. last season are first-round picks in USA TODAY’s mock draft.
But the international talent in the NBA remains strong. Milwaukee's Giannis Antetokounmpo, Dallas' Luka Doncic and Utah's Rudy Gobert were All-NBA selections in 2020-21, and in the 2020 draft, nine players from or with ties to Nigeria were drafted. At least two international players have been drafted in the top 10 in each of the last eight drafts.
The Bucks, like most teams, have European-based scouts who participated in the Bucks' twice-a-week player personnel Zoom calls.
“We’re very fortunate to have two really, really good well connected guys,” Hoover said. “The amount of information they gather, and the amount of clarity and ability to paint the picture as clear as can be is very impressive. We rely on them. Did it stink not be able to go over there three, four times? But at the same time, our guys didn’t skip a beat. We’re very prepared. We know these players inside and out and we feel great about it.”