"How do we evaluate a prospect" : a discussion between a GM, a coach and a sports director
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A few weeks ago, we, at Envergure, decided to record a podcast to answer a crucial question : how do you evaluate a player ? We talked to professionals for more than an hour about this topic and guess what: the idea of talent hardy ever came up
To evaluate is one thing. To recruit and sign a player to your team, is another. Since we needed different points of views coming from different teams, three wise men were kind enough to accept our invite: Julien Monclar, general manager of French 2nd division team ADA Blois, Guillaume Vizade, head coach for another second division team, based in Clermont-Ferrand and Nicola Alberani, sports director of the SIG Strasbourg's basketball club, a first division and BCL team. Romain Leroy, assistant coach for the same Strasbourg team and a regular member of our podcast, was also present.
We have decided not to script the entire podcast but tried to capture the big ideas. Hope you'll enjoy it and if so, share it.
What is the recruiting process in your club ?
Julien Monclar (GM, ADA Blois) : we’re a relatively small-sized organisation so when we sign a player, it's always a joint decision between the coach and myself. The president is kept up to date since he signs contracts, but has no influence on the decision process whatsoever. We don't have any scouts, so we both do the work. The assistant coach sees a lot of games as well, we can consult him too. It's important for us to make decisions together as a team, the coach and myself. There is a mutual trust which works pretty well.
We can take advice from coaches we trust, coaches who can have a certain expertise on a league or on a team, for instance. If the player we target plays there, we can talk about that and use our thick rolodex. It has to be someone we know, to trust his insights. My coach says : "we don't know anybody who's not tough on himself, everybody is", the real question is, to which degree they are and on which points. When we scout, we have to get objective facts as much as possible We know it's hard, but that's why I need a strong relationship with someone for him to have my attention for real. Agents can have a word, but through filters. The more we know them, the better we know how to adjust these filters.
Guillaume Vizade (coach, JAVCM) : I don't have any GM, like Julien, to make calls to agents and whatnot. I have to do everything myself along with my assistant, who I built the scouting program with. Then I select profiles that match the identity we want our team to have and show them to our executive director David Melody. Together, we move toward the decision making together. I do the negotiations myself. It's easier for me, compared to a bigger team, to make the decision, because less people are involved. On the flip side, it is a big workload for me between two seasons.
Envergure : So how do you evaluate the players you then try to recruit ?
For each player we would watch 3 or 4 games supported by the scouting tools we have : Intat, Synergy, etc.I also look at advanced stats on Real GM for example. These tools are very useful and can save me a lot of time. On Instat, for example, I can select one area of the game. This summer I recruited a point guard who was playing in Latvia and Estonia, I watched mostly the pick'n roll situations referenced during his season. It was something like 300-400 clips but it only took me the span of a game and a half. Qualitatively, it's something else.
Envergure : Nicola, how do you work in a bigger club, in the first division ?
Nicola Alberani (Sports director, Strasbourg) : I scout all year long, I watch a lot of games by myself and make a list of 60 - 70 players by spring. There are different criterias I have, and crossing names off the list is a ten months process. By April or May, I give the coach a choice between two or three players for each position. I like the coach to know that he has the last word, but he should not have to worry about the whole recruiting process. To me a coach should think about the present, not worry about the future. So my daily job is to talk with scouts, sports directors, coaches, assistants, etc. My value is my network. And I like the assistant coach to be connected with us, everybody has to know if we are gonna take this center who can't play the short roll, this point guard who has a little bit of tunnel vision, etc.
Can we be more specific about the criteria ? What's THE most important thing when you recruit ? This is the fit / talent question, yes.
Nicola Alberani : I don't consider myself a scout. I look at the context. Why is this player performing in this specific context ? Why is he not in another one ? Who was with him on the court. The criterias are obviously the budget, the team's identity, the coach's personality, but most important is my idea of what basketball is. To me it's a sport based on mental toughness and intangibles. Beyond that, I am looking for information about the player's character, anything you can't see on tape.
Guillaume Vizade : Everybody thinks about fit versus talent. Sometimes it's settled by the financial aspect though, especially in the second division. It's a subtle balance but the decision, at the end of the day, is mostly about the human being. We are looking for information, intel about personalities. That's how you can make a choice between two or three names. Which type of personality for which type of talent ?
We try to create team balance, or also least think about it, because until they're all together in a gym, everything is hypothetical. Personalities change within context. That's why I think differently when I recruit a young french player and when I recruit a foreigner. The foreign player, I try to recruit him to do a job on my team he has already done somewhere else : a leader, a starting point guard. I want him to have had that role before. For french players, we are more likely to go for the upside, with an evolving role. These players can bring a real gain, and make the team overperform its preseason ranking or budget.
Julien Monclar : We make a long list because we know which positions we are going to recruit next year, then we make a short list. From there, with the coach, we are trying more and more to interview the desired players. We don't want to sell our environment, we want to worsen the picture. Before the team fit, before the context and the coach, the first synergy is the one between the club and the player. What we have to offer, is it in line with what he expects ? When a player goes rogue because his expectations are too high, it's a failure. So I have to make sure the player and us are on the same page about the workload, the working conditions, the context, everything. The role he will have ingame as well, but it's less important because we aren't really into special status in our team.
Then, about the criterias, I think about three of them. Aggressivity, mobility and versatility. At our levels, talent AND aggressivity are a rare thing, so it has to be balanced on a team. Mobility is very important, whether it's pure quickness or lateral quickness. If we lack mobility in one position, we are going to fix it. Versatility has been a trend for a few years. We like to have interior players who can play both positions, we also like to have tall players playing on the backcourt.
Tell us one recruiting mistake you made, and what you have learned about it
Nicolas Alberani : Everything is better after the mistakes. First, you have to have an idea for the team you work for. I don't like "generalist" teams, I never want to recruit the best point guard, the best center or the best forward. In France, only LDLC-ASVEL (the only Euroleague team in France) can do this. For us, the others, we need to have an identity. For example, Nanterre, they play fast and they shoot a lot from the three point line. That is an identity. This will help you to get a DNA for your team. Then you have to balance your team, complementarity is an issue. When I was in Rome, my last year there I did not have a lot of money. I built a team with too many young players. They were good, there were Melvin Ejim and others. But it wasn't working because there wasn't any experienced player with them. Less talented but more experienced. You need to look for complementarity not only on the court but in the locker room as well.
Julien Monclar : The main mistake, as Nicola said, is denying the team's identity. We built this team, in Blois, around sharing the ball, the responsibilities, the value of effort, a clean hierarchy between the players. We went up from division 3 to division 2, we remained with ease the year after, and then the year after we won it. We were supposed to go up to division 1, that did not happen for different reasons (*), which was hard. During the summer, we did not know if our future was division 1 or division 2, which are different deals when you try to recruit.
I understood pretty quickly it was going to be division 2, so I recruited for another year in this league. But we did it being vengeful. We had a new arena, we had won the year before, so we had more money than ever. We tried to sign the best player for each position, so we went for Joe Burton, a 5. Immensely talented offensively, but not really within our values in terms of defensive effort, and a lack of mobility. We believed in it, we had struggled the year before when facing strong defenses at this position, so we said ourselves : "why not, maybe we can turn him into another player, and add value at that position". It failed. The team spirit was up and down, we won 19 games, which was good, but there were hard times. This made us realise we took the wrong path, so the year after (2019-2020) we made a team that looked like us, we had a huge solidarity in the locker room and we won the league again.
Guillaume Vizade : In our leagues, with our budgets, opting for talent first is always a risk, because the big talents are playing in division 1 and other leagues in Europe. Sometimes we can get a tremendously talented player, but we’d be just a stepping stone for him, I tried to go for the talent with a Dominican player, Gerardo Suero. We made a choice, we took a risk. I had a few feedbacks which could have made us think twice about him, but we took a chance. The talent was obvious on the court, he plays the 2 position, he was dominant in his local league and played for the national team. But this player, in Clermont-Ferrand, was rootless. He had never been to Europe, had a hard time developing social relationships, integrating the town, the club, even the style of play. By Christmas, he was asking us to go back home. So it wasn't even on the court, because he was producing (11 points in 20 minutes), but it was a bad social fit. Today I am attentive to this topic, more than before, When I recruit a player and when I interview him.
Let's talk about the players' psychology, which seems to be prevailing when you are recruiting. Nicola, you were talking about "mental toughness" before...
Nicola Alberani : This is the most difficult part of the job. Talent is easy to buy on the market. But if you look at the teams, they are signing players who fit with their identity. A player who can score, who can take 15 shots a game, is easy to find. To evaluate mental toughness, I'm looking for information from people I trust and people who know me, who know how I work, my idea of basketball, etc. I don't like to call everyone, everyone is not sincere, but if your network is large enough, then you can get the right information, which is the hardest commodity to get.
Julien Monclar : The thing is, you have to go with your guts sometimes. The psychological aspect is really hard to evaluate. Some players are very good during interview, but are really just saying what we want to hear. So, you have to separate them from the sincere ones by using your instinct.
Mental toughness is important, it's easier for us to evaluate french players, because during the interview - which is more like a discussion - you can trick them, see how they react. At the end of the day, for us, it's not the most difficult thing to assess, but I can understand it is when you scout a lot of players, especially outside of your country. For us, the most difficult thing to appraise is the brain, how a player understands the game. Our playbook is thick, we have high expectations about the reads, the reactivity, it's harder to get for sure on tape than to know if a player can win a one on one, make shots, take rebonds. This is where sometimes you have to bet, it's the point of emphasis for me, trying to assess a player's basketball IQ. When it's there, you can go very high.
Guillaume Vizade : Basketball IQ is obviously the focus for me. It's the reason why I'm a basketball coach, it's the thing I try to develop with every player, to give them options with my sets and teach them the right way to read. We play up tempo, we take risks, my players take responsibility. So obviously, it's important. The other thing I pay a lot of attention at is versatility. The sizes and weights of players are evening out, regardless of the positions on the court. So we have to have players with great versatility, it's a trend that keeps going on everytime a new coach enters the league. It is becoming almost mandatory today, having a guard who can post up, a five who can play the four to open different sets. It gives us a better game. So we try to think about that when we recruit. I am signing player x to do this, because he knows how to, but i think he has the potential to do this other thing, maybe if I develop his mindset he can be something else and take a step in his career, etc.
Envergure : It seems complicated to evaluate
Guillaume Vizade : It can be. For example the depth of american basketball players is enormous, but there is one thing very difficult to know for sure, especially if they play in minor leagues in Europe, it's how they play off the ball. They usually have an enormous usage rate, too high probably, but if you want to play with versatility you need to know that. You need to have different options against teams that scout you well. Can the guard play around offball screens, is his cutting game good, can he do something else other than just play a high pick'n roll ? Defensively, it's the same thing, we switch a lot, even between bigs and guards. It's interesting to know if a small player can resist one, two, three second to a roll, can battle on an entry pass. That sort of stuff It's not going to be the key skill we look at when we recruit, but it's definitely something we monitor. And here we are going back to the mental toughness : when a player is outside of his comfort zone, how does he react ? It's important because it is the rare moment when you can SEE intangibles on film.
Nicola Alberani : Versatility is obviously very important. I like to have players who can play two or three positions. In the same team, I like to have two point guards who can play together, two power forwards who can play together, etc. That is very important to me, especially for the small forwards. In Italy (where he worked prior), we are playing much smaller than in France, but we don't have that tradition of the pocket-sized point guard. I prefer it this way because when the game is on the line, I love to have a team that can switch it one through five. So I try to build a team with an identity, but this identity can present itself with different faces. We already had a starting five with no player taller than 1m95 (6'4").
What about stats? When you recruit, which stats are you looking at the most. It can often be a way to make a first selection...
Julien Monclar : I'll start with an old saying, my dad use to say this (**), so I still look at it for every player, it's the W/L column. It may seem odd but it's important for us, it's not an advanced stat, it's easy to find. It gives you a hint about the context, behind wins or losses you can have a guy playing in a favorable context, maybe over performing, or the opposite. Beyond this, I think we will all agree on that. We look at the 3P% for the 4-position AND for the 1-position, because it's not our starting PG main strength, and spacing is a key in today's game. Obviously you can't just look at the %, you need the volume, which is equally important. I prefer a player taking 4 three points a game and shooting 33% than player B who is shooting 36% on 1,6 attempts. Of course, we look at FT% as well, it is a huge disadvantage when your team does not shoot very well from there.
Guillaume Vizade : Same thing, we like to have players, especially on the key positions, who tend toward the 180 club (or 50-40-90). For the point guards, I am looking at the typ of shots he takes, if it's off the dribble or spot up. I like to create around the pick'n roll, so you need spacing and shooters, at every position. The other statistics I watch closely is rebounding %. I am more and more receptive to this stat, regardless of the position. With a point guard who can play the offensive rebound, it's easier to press full court. If a member of your backcourt is a strong defensive rebounder, it's easier to run in transition. A guard who is not taking enough rebounds may slide down our recruitment rankings. If you can contribute with these kinds of actions, even on off nights, it can be a big plus for us. In Division 2, there are down times once or twice a half, and during these times, the better team is usually making steals, taking charges, and taking rebounds.
Nicola Alberani : I'm more of a team stats guy. If your point guard is not really good at raining threes, you need to compensate. We need 40% of the roster to be able to shoot it very well. Otherwise, I look at free throws for my centers, you need to have one of your two centers who is good at FT, if not it's a problem to finish games. And one statistic I particularly like, it's the +/-, to me it's very effective especially for teams in the middle of the rankings. You can see one player's impact on a team.
You have a wild card to finish this podcast
Nicola Alberani : I like that we were asked about evaluating talent and that we haven't talked about talent. It proves a myriad of other things are important to us.
Julien Monclar : We talked about our respective scouting systems, but we have a lot of talent in France and our responsibility is not just to evaluate them but also to develop them. We have to propose a path. We have to believe in our homegrown players. I do believe in them.
Guillaume Vizade : The idea of recruiting, maybe, is starting from an ideal and backtracking towards a realistic situation. The DNA is important, we need, as clubs and coaches, to have storytelling and to make people part of this story on a long-term basis. We need to put our trust in men, maybe more than in basketball players, to build something with them outside of the 40 minutes on the court.
* Blois was refused the right to climb up to the first division because its training academy wasn't approved by the French Sports Department.
** Jacques Monclar, Julien's father, is a french basketball legend, he played a long and successful career in the late 70's and 80's, he played 201 games for the French National Team and is now a star television commentator