Some thoughts on Talent Identification
Here in Victoria the junior basketball league championships are getting near the business end of the season and soon representative clubs will be going through trials for teams for the 2017 season.
Teams usually hold these trials for their representative teams over a few weekends and coaches try to pick through the talent hopeful of making that prestigious VC team to represent their club. The challenge for the coaches is being able to identify the best players available for their teams and each club has different methods and philosophical beliefs on how best to get this done.
In junior basketball the first thing to consider is whether you are picking teams to win now or picking the players who have the best chance of going on to be successful senior players, is it better to win the under 12 championship or produce senior players? I’ll leave that to each club.
In the book “Blink” by Malcolm Gladwell the general theme of the book is how very experienced people are able to make accurate judgements of things in their area of expertise very quickly. The art expert who has many years of experience can access quickly whether a piece of art is a forgery or not, whereas the inexperienced may take many tests and much research to come to the same conclusion. The talent scout who has many years under his belt can very quickly assess the potential of a prospect off subtle observations that aren’t as apparent to the less experienced.
So what are some of the things that coaches should be looking for when trying to access the talent at their tryouts?
Assuming that your club is about trying to develop the best possible basketball players number one for me is athleticism. The kids who are fittest, quickest, strongest and most agile have the best chance of reaching elite level of play. You can teach players the skills of the game but it is very difficult to make much difference to their athleticism. Simple tests like suicide runs, Yo Yo tests, vertical jump tests and push up maximums may help identify the better athletes of the group.
Another good way of identifying some athletic talent is to take stats during the competitive stages of the try out process. We used to take stats during all our practise sessions during my time with the Townsville Crocodiles, not always the normal game type stats but things that included blocking out, defending dribble penetration, grabbing offensive rebounds and our most telling stat was deflections. Deflections are when a defender gets a hand on the ball either by great ball pressure or deflecting passes. Over a two-hour practise session, a good defender would usually get about 6-7 deflections. Once we had young bloke come to try out for us my first year at the Crocs, when he walked through the door it was pretty clear he had some athleticism but this kid had never made a QLD state team or even been involved in the ITC program that targets players in the 14-17-year-old age group with senior potential. He had a pretty good session with us but I didn’t think he was anything to get too excited about until I grabbed the practise stats, he had 17 deflections for the session! From that point onwards I looked more closely at him and he eventually ended up making our roster, in fact he went on to play for over 10 years in the NBL and made the 2012 Olympic team, his name is Peter Crawford.
Another common misperception with athletic kids is because they are moving so much quicker than everyone else they can look out of control, in fact they are probably a bit out of control as their basketball skills probably haven’t caught up to the speed they can function at yet. There was once a young girl who played with the Bulleen Boomers and she was just starting to make an impact with their WNBL team, however the coach thought her out of control and both the coach and player were frustrated with finding a working relationship. The player eventually left to join the Nunawading Spectres, coached by Tom Maher, who saw enormous potential in this young lady and gave her the opportunity to grow. He could live with a few errors as he could see the final product was going to be pretty good. Well she went on to be a triple Olympian, play in Europe and the WNBA and is about to be inducted into the FIBA Hall of Fame, her name is Michele Timms. One coach saw her athleticism as an issue another saw it as gold.
Height or potential for height is also important for basketball, I’m not saying it’s everything but unless you are exceptional in one of the fitness categories above then height which usually includes wingspan can be a determining factor in a player’s potential. The best thing to scout for a players height ceiling is to look at their parents! If mum and dad are midgets, then little Johnny or Katie are also unlikely to get much taller. People can get too carried away with height though, it is always good to remember it’s not the size of the dog in the fight but the size of the fight in the dog!
Monique Conti who was recently voted into the World All Star 5 at the recent under 17 Women’s World Championships where Australia won the Gold Medal was almost left off the Victorian National Performance Program because some thought her too small. It was old dog Mike McHugh who has coached at two Olympic Games who pushed her case for inclusion, he could see in a blink that she had something special, luckily sanity prevailed.
It is also important to remember that tall kids often will take longer to reach their potential, their bones and muscles have grown much quicker than the shorter kids so coaches need to take that into consideration. The biggest errors I have made in my assessment of a player’s senior potential has been with tall kids, they often appear soft or uncoordinated but once they reach maturity things start to come together and the game is certainly easier for taller players. The omission of Andrew Bogut from the first team at Dandenong Rangers and missing junior State teams is a good reflection of coaches not seeing the potential of a tall player who hasn’t grown into his body just yet.
The final thing I would be looking closest at is the players love of the game. It might sound corny but are they late or early for practise? Are they paying attention? Do they ask questions? Are they always looking for a reason why they can’t practise? Are they giving their best effort to every drill and trying to win every competitive situation? These are important characteristics.
The talent identification process becomes a bit different as players move up to more elite levels of play, at this level usually everyone is athletic or tall, its more the intangibles of personal characteristics that can make a difference.
When we had the final selection camp for the National Young Men’s team in 1997, I went into the camp pretty well set on who was going to make the team, however one player grabbed that final spot on the team unexpectedly. He was a bottom, bottom age player – most of the of the team were 20 or 21, he was 19. His father was having a fight with cancer, he promised his father he was going to make the team to show his father that if you fight then anything is possible. He came into the camp and basically willed himself onto the team, showing every possible fighting quality you could want from a player, as a coach you wanted that guy in your group. That player was Matt Nielsen who went on to be a triple Olympian, make the NBA and Euroleague and I’m such a genius I had him out of the team until that final selection camp.
My final example of a Blink type talent ID moment was with Brad Newley. I had always sent my assistant coaches to the National Championships for under 16’s, 18’s & 20’s to make sure we were always up to date with the best young talent coming through. But it was a call from Barry Barnes, former National Men’s Coach, who opened our eyes to Newls who was at the AIS at the time. Barry was concerned Brad wasn’t being noticed, he felt Brad had the potential to be a great player, others were suggesting he should go to college. On Barry’s recommendation I invited Brad up to Townsville to try out, it was obvious after about 10 minutes he was a talent and certainly capable of playing minutes in the NBL immediately. We signed Brad, he went on to win NBL Rookie of the Year and lived happily ever after. Barry was able to see something in Brad that others couldn’t.
Experienced scouts tend to simplify the talent identification process whereas less experienced coaches may try to over analysis the skills, body and attitude of a player. Jerry Krause the GM of the Chicago Bulls who was credited for drafting Michael Jordan in the 1984 NBA draft (Let’s not forget the GM dummies of the teams who passed up on him in the draft where he was taken number three) had a pretty simple method. He simply wanted to know if they had Balls, Brains and Heart! All pretty important characteristics of a professional athlete.
So for all those coaches about to make selections for their representative teams, keep it simple. The Blink moment comes to experienced coaches as they have seen many, many players who have gone on and those who haven’t, try to see the obvious, don’t delve too deep or make it too complicated.