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When discussing draft prospects, it seems that people are often afraid to confidently assert that the scouts who drive the consensus are flat out wrong.  This surprises me, since they have been wrong to hilarious degrees in the past, and will continue to be wrong going forward.  They were able to recognize that LeBron James was a fairly awesome prospect, so that establishes that at least they have operative eyesight.  But they also thought that Darko Milicic was half a notch below LeBron as a prospect, even though he never possessed any basketball playing ability of note.  VJL recently made an excellent post on the irrelevance of hype, and I’d like to highlight some qualitative examples to show where high school scouts badly missed the mark.

Many scouts are woefully bad at assessing prospect skill level, especially in watching them go against high school competition. A recent example is UCLA’s Zach LaVine, when Chad Ford noted that a few scouts called him “Russell Westbrook with a jump shot.” Of course the only things LaVine has in common with Russell are his leaping ability and his decision to attend UCLA. Granted, he doesn’t get to show off much of his PG skill with Kyle Anderson and his virtuoso passing ability running the offense. But he also isn’t trusted enough as the backup PG, as those duties fall to Bryce Alford. And his assist rate (13.8%) doesn’t stand out from UCLA’s other wings as Jordan Adams (14.0%) and Norman Powell (12.7%) who are definitely not PG’s have similar assist rates. Ford notes that LaVine has a propensity to look for his shot instead of passing, but the fact of the matter is that he hardly has any dribble penetration skills whatsoever. On the season he is 11/28 on rim FG’s in the half-court offense, only 6’3 non-leaper Bryce Alford has fewer attempts at 10/25. Adams (44/67) Anderson (24/44) and Powell (44/73) all show vastly superior penetration ability. It is possible that his low attempts are due to lack of confidence in finishing in traffic given his thin build, but his handles look awfully pedestrian to me. He appears to be a SG through and through.

To bring back the Westbrook comparison, he led his UCLA team in assists as a sophomore in spite of playing a fair amount of SG with Darren Collison running the show. Like LaVine he didn’t get the chance to fully flaunt his PG skills, but at least he flaunted something, as the Thunder drafted him in large part to his strong performance as primary ball handler when Collison was out. LaVine has not begun to display flashes of PG skill, yet Chad Ford writes:

While he isn’t really running the point for UCLA, most scouts who have seen him in high school think he has all the tools to be a NBA point guard down the road

Why do they believe this? I don’t know, maybe they saw him dribble down the open court and finish spectacularly in transition and wrote down “POINT GOD” in their scrapbooks. If he develops his handles and passing at an inordinate rate then maybe he could be a PG, but to weigh that as a significant possibility at this stage is wishful thinking. Comparing him to Westbrook is silly so long as they have such an inordinate gap in PG skills, but many scouts are bad at deducing these sort of gaping differences so they wouldn’t know any better.

Now you may be thinking that while scouts may not be experts on deducing basketball playing ability, you gotta give credit to their ability to eye test tools. This is also wrong. Let’s take Noah Vonleh, in November of 2011 DraftExpress writes:

Standing a legit 6-8, with a 7-3 wingspan, huge hands, a terrific frame and excellent athleticism, Vonleh does not look like your typical 16-year old.

I imagine that the “excellent athleticism” was simply a commonly held belief in HS scoutings circles, as his ESPN recruiting profile notes that his “physical intangibles” include “extraordinarily long arms and bounce.” While he has done well as a freshman for Indiana, it is not due to leaping ability, as Vonleh has struggled to finish at the rim in spite of his size and length due to lackluster athleticism. To DX’s credit, they noticed that the initial assertion was incorrect and in their recent scouting video note that Vonleh is “not a leaper” and list lack of explosiveness as a weakness. But the bottom line is that HS scouts are not specially trained to deduce physical tools, and when they see a super long player like Vonleh dunking or blocking a shot, they conflate his impressive use of length with athleticism.  Consequently, it is not safe to take their tool assessments entirely at face value.

Now let’s see what ESPN’s recruiting service said about Julius Randle’s future:

His reputation as a good person and hard worker will aid him as he hopes to improve and stave off competitian for his slot

This is part of a short writeup on the #2 prospect in America, and they couldn’t even spell “competition” correctly.  I know this strays from basketball analysis, but most of their writeups do appear to have been translated from English to Estonian and back to English using Google translation.  Here’s their bottom line on Andrew Harrison:

Bottom Line:
He raises the level of play on his team because he leads by example with a competitive nature, focus and battle tested toughness. At his size he has blossoming lead guard skills and is terrific at making plays. What separates him from the rest is in his pace of play. His game is like a stop light he can go from green to yellow to red all in a moments notice.

Maybe I’m being harsh, but when a scout’s writing is barely literate, it makes it that much harder to trust their “expertise.” That isn’t valid basketball analysis– it more closely resembles a child’s attempt at writing poetry.

For all intents and purposes, high school scouts are casual fans who try their best to offer their best NBA projections of high school prospects.  Aside from the fact that extrapolating a player from high school to the pros is exceptionally difficult, it’s not a particularly prestigious position and does not attract the sharpest basketball minds. They are smart enough to know that LeBron James is great when they see him play, but they also have a number of baffling false positives.  If any of us actually met a collection of high school scouts and had the opportunity to pick their brains, I doubt we would come away with the sensation that they possess any sort of expert wisdom that we lack.

In order to maximize efficiency in prospect analysis, stuff like pedigree and hype should be almost entirely disregarded.  There may be exceptions for a player like Bradley Beal who was reputed as an elite shooter but ran cold from outside as a college freshman.  But when top prospects such as Andrew Wiggins or Julius Randle show troubling signs for their future, people seem slow to accept the relevance of these signs, as they feel that obvious warning signs are superseded by high school hype.  The bottom line is scouts don’t have any advantage over an intelligent basketball fan in information (at least not once we get a sizable college sample), analytical ability, or even expertise in assessing tools.  Personally I try to glean why they felt the way they did, take the perceived strengths for what they are worth, and then discard all bottom line conclusions as it is only noise that will dilute my own analysis.  Giving any more credence than that only leads to skewed perceptions and wrong conclusions.