Basketball scouting takes the right mindset.
The work itself comes with a lot of uncertainty. Unlike with statistical analysis, you can’t just rely on hard data.
So the ability to carefully examine the way you think proves essential for a basketball scout.
It’s how you do a good job!
It’s how you get better as you gain experience, instead of repeating your mistakes.
In this article I cover two important, related concepts we need to understand:
- Becoming familiar and comfortable with the presence of uncertainty.
- Recognizing the limits of our own judgment and finding ways to adjust our mindset.
Let’s get into it.
Note: I choose to focus mostly on the role of a personnel scout here.
Nevertheless much of this mindset applies to advance scouts as well.
You’re reading this article instead of sitting in front of your television watching re-runs of First Take.
Therefore I will assume you already accept the idea that there’s a significant element of uncertainty in sports and that sports radio narratives don’t explain everything.
(If you don’t, just stop reading now. Seriously. I’m not joking.)
But I want to go a step further than saying games have uncertainty.
There’s tremendous uncertainty in the way you watch and understand sports.
You don’t get to see the whole picture — no matter how much you know, no matter how objective you try to be.
In Moneyball, Michael Lewis writes, “One absolutely cannot tell, by watching, the difference between a .300 hitter and a .275 hitter. The difference is one hit every two weeks.”
You don’t know — you can’t know — what you will be seeing on any given day.
So many different things can happen.
There are an unlimited number of possible explanations for what you witness in a game.
I’ll take a stab at listing common possibilities:
- A bad game
- A typical game
- A good game
- A career game
- Playing hurt
- Playing sick
- A teammate or an opponent being hurt or sick
- Bad coaching
- Good coaching
- A good opponent
- A bad opponent
- Personnel issues
- Personal issues (maybe their kid is sick?)
It goes on and on.
And often you don’t know and will never know.
If you turned on the TV on May 10, 1987 to watch the Warriors play the Lakers in Game Four of the Western Conference Semifinals, you might have come away thinking Sleepy Floyd – who set several NBA playoff records on his way to scoring 51 points – was one of the best players on the planet.
Likewise, in one of the 2013-2014 season’s first games, the defending champion Miami Heat, anchored by three of the world’s best players, lost to one of the league’s worst teams, the Philadelphia 76ers.
You don’t know what you will be seeing on any given day.
Sometimes you’ll look back years later and still not have an explanation for what happened in that game.
So we settle for having the best mindset we can.
You can do your best to put it in perspective, but your mindset will always have its limits and holes.
I wrote “you,” but I of course mean me, too. It’s true for all of us.
To move forward you must accept it.
You do it by having the willingness to question what you are seeing.
While it is “easier” to settle for the first comfortable explanation, the easy way is rarely the path to the truth, and never the path to getting better.
Instead of taking what you see at face value, give yourself a moment to step back, consider why you are seeing what you are seeing, and look at the big picture again.
It means understanding yourself first.
To practice and develop this skill – and make no mistake, it is a skill – you’re going to need tools for the task.
Here are a few to start with.
Mindset and biases
You might already be familiar with the concept of cognitive biases, but in case you’re not, here’s a quick primer.
Cognitive biases are tendencies that we all have to think and behave in ways that lead us away from objective or rational judgment.
They’re a part of the human mindset. You can’t just turn them off. But you can learn to anticipate and recognize them so that you do your best work.
Wikipedia maintains a helpful list of cognitive biases you can look through.
I can’t attempt to cover all of them in this article. There’s just too many.
But I’ll cover a few of the ones I’ve found the most significant and most relevant to scouting.
I’ll let Wikipedia handle this one, because the definition there looks spot on to me.
Confirmation bias is the tendency to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that confirms one’s beliefs or hypotheses, while giving disproportionately less consideration to alternative possibilities.
Confirmation bias means seeing only what you want to see.
If you fall victim to confirmation bias, you tend to ignore things that go against what you already think.
To scout effectively, you have to seek out new information even though it might violate your expectations or opinion.
The more “stuck” you are in your opinion, the less accurate and valuable it will be.
You need to let your evaluation evolve and give it the new information it needs to do so.
Advice for getting started in your mindset work
Drop the habit of using media narratives as a way to evaluate.
Players aren’t all “the best ever” or “the worst ever.” Nor are all draft prospects future superstars or future busts.
Basketball scouting rarely brings you that much certainty. Leave those narratives to the talking heads.
You scout on a spectrum. If you do a good job, your evaluation moves along that spectrum as you acquire more information about the player.
It’s how your mindset improves.
Selection bias reminds us that what we’re looking at isn’t necessarily a full, unbiased picture of the whole thing.
Highlight videos offer a perfect example.
No player has ever looked bad in his or her highlight video.
Carefully choreographed workouts provide another vivid example. The player is showing you what he or she wants you to see.
Selection bias impacts your game evaluations as well.
This is where our uncertainty discussion from earlier comes in to play.
Are you only watching the good games or bad games?
Are you seeing particularly favorable or unfavorable matchups for the player?
What else might be going on?
Avoid this common trap.
Scout or fan, we often tend to focus on the highest profile games.
The Monday night national TV game on ESPN versus the #2 ranked team in the country.
The Final Four showdown in Indianapolis against the still-undefeated juggernaut.
It’s understandable to want to focus our attention on these pivotal games.
But maybe by doing so, we lose something else valuable: perspective that things outside those big games can tell us something meaningful, too.
Make the effort to diversify the information you’re taking in.
Herd mentality is the idea that our peers influence our opinions.
What you think is influenced by what other people think.
Player evaluations receive a ton of coverage now, especially related to the NBA Draft. You are bombarded with other people’s opinions about players.
Some of these people with opinions are seen as experts whose evaluations carry a significant amount of sway.
I’m not saying to completely ignore what other people think.
Indeed, collaboration and seeking out other perspectives can offer a great deal of value to you.
But you do need to think about where your opinion ends and where other people’s opinions begin.
There is a balance here.
Other people’s opinions exert pressure on you, especially when they are colleagues you respect.
It can be hard to resist common mindset traps.
I remember a time several years ago when I was at a high school basketball tournament. I was sitting with three or four other scouts and coaches watching a couple California teams play.
There was one player in particular I really liked.
He was a tall guard who played with a lot of poise. This player seemed to have a deep understanding of the game for his age. He moved fluidly with the ball in his hands, and without it. He knew where to pass and where to cut.
I was impressed.
He was only a freshman at the time, but I thought he projected to be a high Division I player.
The other scouts and coaches I was sitting with had reached a different understanding as they talked among themselves.
“This guy’s not physical enough.”
“He’s not aggressive enough to play at a high level.”
They said it over and over.
I started to doubt myself.
Am I wrong? Maybe they’re right. They’ve been around the game a lot longer than I have.
Maybe I should forget about this player.
After thinking about it a while, I decided not to abandon my evaluation.
I advocated for that player in my scouting reports.
He’s a good rotation player for a high major school as an underclassman right now.
I like to think I got that one right. But it would have been easy for me to give up, agree with the other scouts, and move on.
This one is especially difficult. Even experienced scouts struggle to find a balance between gathering information and falling victim to herd mentality.
What I found works best for me is asking myself questions like, “I think this player can shoot. Why do I think that?
“Is it because I watched closely and made a careful evaluation that this player can shoot?
“Or did I hear enough other people say this player can shoot to make me believe it?”
By asking these questions, it allows me to consider where my observations and opinions come from.
Recency effect and the anchoring effect
These two related biases describe how we weigh different pieces of information in our thinking.
The anchoring effect outlines how we tend to focus too heavily on one specific piece of information, usually the first one we acquired.
The recency effect suggests we more easily recall items that we saw, well, recently.
In a scouting context, it means the first time we see someone play, it makes a big impact on us. While that makes sense, you don’t want to let the anchoring effect and confirmation bias lead you to fall in love with players at first sight.
The recency effect often pops up in relation to the NCAA Tournament, with strong (or weak) performances in March having an inordinate impact on a player’s draft stock.
Advice for getting started
Knowing how much to weigh one performance versus another is largely a question of judgment and experience.
For the time being, you will become a better scout by making it a habit to consider every piece of relevant information you have, rather than focusing on only a couple.
Try not to fall in love (or hate) with a player the first time you watch him or her.
Avoid jumping to the conclusion that a player’s most recent game matters so much more than the rest of his or her body of work.
In addition to the universal biases covered above, we each bring our own beliefs and preconceptions to scouting.
You love basketball. You’ve spent a lot of time watching it and thinking about it.
It means you’ve developed ideas about the kinds of players and teams you like – and the ones you don’t care for.
To be an effective scout, you have to be aware of what your ideas (your personal biases) are.
Because if you aren’t, you won’t be able to conduct yourself honestly.
Advice for getting started
Start with making a list of the types of players you like. Then make another list of the kinds of players you don’t like.
If you’re having trouble thinking in terms of categories of players, try listing specific players before going deeper to explore what it is about those players you like or dislike.
Knowing is the start.
Then as you go about your work, make an effort to think too about the flaws of a player you like and the strengths of a player you don’t like. Try to paint the whole picture.
Resist the urge, for example, to draw a conclusion about a player simply because he doesn’t conform to your expectations of what you think he should be.
Otherwise you might end up with the people who thought Dirk Nowitzki was “too soft” to be a star player on an NBA championship team.
By refusing to allow your personal biases to drive your evaluations, you can trust your work, and other people can trust it, too.
Developing your mindset
Let’s walk through a full example together.
Suppose you were a college scout whose first in-person evaluation of Kansas forward Thomas Robinson could come on January 16, 2012 against a 17-0 Baylor team that would eventually reach the Regional Final.
You’ve heard about Robinson. He’s a 6’9” junior forward who averaged 7.6 PPG and 6.4 RPG the previous season as a sophomore while playing about 15 minutes a game.
But this year, he’s been on a tear as a full-time starter, including a strong performance against top teams in November’s Maui Invitational.
In this game against Baylor, you would have witnessed Robinson destroy a Bears’ front line that boasted four future NBA players. Robinson roasted them to the tune of 27 points and 14 rebounds.
All the writers and scouts are saying the same thing: this guy is going to be a big-time player at the next level. (Herd mentality)
Robinson’s performance would likely have made a huge impression on you. You might have left Allen Fieldhouse seduced.
As you scouted Robinson a few more times, you would probably see more and more of what you want to see. (Goodness, this guy can rebound and jump!)
You’d quickly, unconsciously brush aside things that don’t fit with your vision. (So what if he can’t shoot or pass well? So what if his dominant performances aren’t coming against NBA-level bigs?)
There’s confirmation bias setting in.
Looking for more assurance that Robinson is the real deal, perhaps you go back and watch tape of his best games. Or maybe you look to his workout numbers for further evidence of his athleticism and potential. (Selection bias)
You especially love how hard he plays. He’s exactly the type of player you’d love to have on your team. (Personal bias)
Robinson went on to become the #5 overall pick in the 2012 NBA Draft. He’s now with his 5th NBA team and has yet to stick anywhere as a consistent contributor.
I don’t write this example to pick on Thomas Robinson, or to suggest anyone was silly for thinking of him as a great NBA prospect.
What this example does is illustrate the steps along the way in which we can become increasingly less objective in our evaluations of a player.
It means that as we go through our basketball scouting processes, we must remain conscious of the things we are seeing and what we are telling ourselves.
Wrapping up a basketball scout’s mindset
We have come full circle to something I said at the beginning.
To scout is to render judgment. It is subjective work.
The future is uncertain. Uncertainty is boundless.
Sometimes you get it right. Sometimes you get it wrong.
Most of the time, you’re neither exactly right nor exactly wrong.
Few scouts predicted Draymond Green would become … well, Draymond Green.
But would Draymond Green be Draymond Green if not for Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, and the rest of the Warriors’ crew?
What scout could have foreseen those variables in 2012?
Should we blame the scouts for not realizing what came to pass?
No, I don’t believe we should.
I believe in doing your best.
I believe in trying to get better.
To me, to do that means asking myself questions such as:
- What are some different explanations for what I’ve seen from this player?
- Have I taken the time to watch this player in a variety of situations, rather than cherry picking a certain type of environment or performance? Did I ignore something important? Am I being fair?
- To what extent have I been influenced by what other people think?
- Is it possible I’m totally wrong here? What evidence would I have to see to be convinced I’m wrong? Does that evidence exist? Could I find it?
I ask myself these questions so that when I come to a conclusion, I know that I can trust the steps I took to get to reach the end. It allows me to reach my scouting goals.
That’s all for now. Wishing you well on this long journey of developing our mindset together!