Evaluating potential NBA players is a challenging, imperfect process, so a good place to start is with a coherent and consistent approach.
For me, a central concept worth remembering when going through film is that any prospect is being evaluated for what they can be in the NBA rather than how good they are at that stage. It can be a constant struggle to compartmentalize whether or not a player is doing well from how translatable that success or failure is against a different level of competition, but maintaining that thought process is exceedingly important.
To put it a different way, when evaluating prospects’ ability with the ball in their hands, my key questions to ask are:
- What is and is not working for them?
- Will that translate against significantly stronger opposition?
- What are the differences between what I am seeing and what they are seeing, and how can I reconcile those differences?
One key situation where it is necessary to embrace the difference between college and pro competition is when evaluating whether someone can create separation with the ball in their hands. Most prospects are only defended by NBA caliber athletes a few games at most per season so this question needs to be answered more in the abstract even whether using film or evaluating in person.
A useful example here is Adam Morrison. He was a spectacular college player who averaged 28 points per game on 50% shooting from the field and 43% shooting from three as a justified Player of the Year candidate alongside JJ Redick in 2006. The evaluation problem that led to Morrison being overdrafted and then eventually out of the league was that at Gonzaga he created enough separation to score reliably but those gaps were narrower at higher levels due to the superior athleticism of the players on the floor and Morrison did not have enough to create consistent opportunities one-on-one. It is fair to mention that his torn ACL in 2007 did not help, but the fundamental issues were present before then.
That said, going too far in the skeptical direction can lead to mistakes as well. Seven years after Morrison went third overall, CJ McCollum averaged 24 points per game as a senior at Lehigh and a remarkable 21.3 per game over his four-year college career. While McCollum showed more burst and a better handle on tape than Morrison, I had concerns that he would be able to create separation after making the jump from the Patriot League to the NBA even though he had done well in limited opportunities against stronger competition. His success as a pro has been a mix of quelling some of those doubts and also being such a good shot maker that he can convert looks which most other guys miss. There is actually an interesting thought process about whether it can be worth it to miss on a few talented players to avoid a larger pool of more likely busts since it is impossible to filter out prospects perfectly with available information.
Vision / Anticipation
Early on, it can take a while to properly evaluate a point guard’s passing vision on film for a simple but understandable reason: the difference between the camera angle and the player’s actual line of sight. Since most games are filmed from significantly higher than eye level, it can seem like prospects are missing teammates they should be able to see when their ability to see those passes turns out to be blocked by an opposing defender or players moving around the floor. Calibrating that difference gets easier with time and experience but there are still moments of frustration when someone misses a seemingly obvious play before it becomes clearer that another explanation makes more sense.
Transition opportunities help because there are fewer bodies in the frontcourt and it also shows what a ballhandler prioritizes when there could be multiple viable options at the same time. Also keep an eye on whether the prospect keeps their head up and surveys the court as they move the ball up because that can be a significant indicator in terms of their approach.
Lonzo Ball stood out in this regard last year and it translated immediately with the Lakers. There are a multitude of previous examples but the more notable ones are actually prospects at positions other than point guard who exhibited this trait, like LeBron James in high school.
Similar to the issues evaluating a player’s court vision from film, figuring out how well a prospect anticipates what happens on the court presents problems because what the television audience sees and what the player sees are often meaningfully different. While sometimes it can be them making a pass or read that seemingly comes out of nowhere but makes sense with their angle, more often they can appear to look bad because something outside their line of sight or focus ends up mattering, like a cut from the far side or a screen that never gets called out. There is no perfect solution but experience watching film and familiarity with a prospect and his situation eventually makes it more manageable. For whatever reason, I do a much better job evaluating a player’s anticipation and feel in person than on film, though perspectives can vary even more in those circumstances depending on the arena and that option is not available a vast majority of the time.
One other thing to remember is that part of the beauty of sports is that no evaluator or evaluation process can ever be perfect. Even the best prospects need to improve significantly as pros to come close to their ceiling and other factors like surrounding talent, system and off-the-court dynamics affect how they look and develop even after being drafted just as they affect how we evaluate prospects. The biggest hope is that more experience, often by making mistakes, improves our judgment down the line.