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So You Want to Advance Scout

This is our third in a continuing series looking at some of the unrecognized and often under-appreciated jobs that surround the Blazers and the NBA in general.

Today we are privileged to hear from Pat Zipfel, an Advance Scout for the Portland Trailblazers.  "What's an Advance Scout" you ask?  Let Pat tell you...

Blazersedge:  For those who might be interested in becoming an NBA scout, what were the steps along the way for you?  Can you give us a sense of how you came to this position?  Would you say yours was a fairly typical journey/progression?

In the NBA, there are various types of scouts. There are College Personnel scouts- who watch prospective talent to decide if they are NBA level talent- there are NBA personnel scouts- who watch the NBA to help find current players who could become available in the league, and there are Advance Scouts.

My job title is Advance NBA scout and this is my third year with the Portland Trail Blazers and my sixth overall in the NBA. The Advance scout is directly responsible for advance scouting upcoming opponents and knowing their offenses, their defenses, their tendencies and their personnel. The position is focused on how to beat upcoming opponents. Essentially my job is to know the enemy.

The position works directly with the coaching staff to help prepare them for who our next opponents are. It is a basketball specialization position with the majority of the focus on the X and O's of the game of basketball.

It is the responsibility of the Advance scout to know what their top offensive sets/plays are and what they are called, what their defenses are called, even knowing what their Side out of bounds and Baseline out of bounds plays and calls are. The coaching staff will then take that information and incorporate it into a game plan. How do we defend certain plays, etc.

Rarely, am I in practice with our team and in fact, many of our players don't really know me that well, since I am traveling watching our next opponent play. But on game night, I return to the team and am often sitting behind the bench and the coaching staff during the game.  (If someone wants to be around the players, being an advance scout is not the role).

My role at our games is to watch the opponent and know their plays/calls during the game and relay it to the coaches.

Personally, I became an Advance scout because of my LOVE of X and O's. I played for an outstanding small college coach who fostered my love for X and O's and saw the value it offers to coaching. Some coaches are workout types, some work with the big men, the Advance scout specializes in knowing opponents and the knowledge of the game.

Professionally, there is no clear cut way of becoming a scout of any type in the NBA. If you asked 10 different scouts, you would get 10 different answers but they would all have a few things in common.

  1. Love of basketball.
  2. Understanding of the game
  3. Strong work ethic.  
  4. Luck

Blazersedge:  What kind of qualities/skills does one need to do your job?

The Advance scout position skill set is unique. Aside from basketball knowledge, you need to be extremely computer literate, willing to travel, and have the ability to work well with others. I work directly with the 4 assistant coaches and Nate McMillan and our video coordinator- Kaleb Canales.

The modern advance scout needs the technical skill/ability to use software, laptop, winfax and of course, email.

When Advance scouting started (by the Godfather of Advance Scouting Bill Bertka of the Los Angeles Lakers), he would use pen and paper and would telephone and tell the head coach about the opponent. In today's modern era, the information is input into a laptop, plays drawn with special software (called Coaches Tool) and emailed or faxed to the coaches.

Each night Advance scouting works with the video director Kaleb Canales (the hardest working guy in all of Portland) to know everything we can know about the enemy. Coupled with video, we are able to make a concise, complete history of each team.

The skill set necessary for the job is technical but with a basketball focus.

Blazersedge:  The first thing everyone thinks of when they hear the word "scout" is hectic travel.  I imagine long flights and arena food go with the territory.  What else though?  Can you give us an example of your workday schedule?

To make things easy, I have attached a calendar for your review for my personal upcoming month of March to give you an idea of what the position entails.

The demands of the Advance scout is that following every game, he must input all the information into the laptop to give the coaches information and prepare them.

While a game may end at 10 pm at night- the real work begins after the game when the information is inputted to the computer and the report is written. Most times it is sent to the coaches for the following morning meeting.  So, writing a report can routinely take until 4:30 am the next morning. Fortunately, you learn to sleep on a plane.

There is no average NBA Advance scouting report size but the largest is 73 pages this season of an Eastern Conference team, and the smallest is 46 pages of information.

I tend to see the last 2 games of our opponent in person, and watch the previous 2 games on DVD to get an understanding of what the "Enemy" is doing right now. It changes throughout the season- with coaches adding and subtracting plays and changing personnel.

The video coordinator of the Blazers helps coordinate the information to the coaches and is truly the unsung hero of the behind the scenes work of basketball operations. Our video coordinator is one of the youngest and widely considered as the hardest working and his efforts help make the process run smoothly.

Indeed Pat sent his whole month's calendar and it's crazy!  I don't have room to reproduce it all but here's a sampling:

Sun. Feb. 25th
Fly San Antonio to Seattle
Attend Practice/Coaches' Meeting

Mon. Feb, 26th
Coaches' Meeting at 10 a.m. Shootaround
Game in Seattle

Tues. Feb 27th
In Portland

Wed. Feb. 28th
Fly Portland to Sacramento
Scout Charlotte @ Sacramento (both teams)

Thu. Mar. 1st
Coaches' Meeting 9 a.m.
Game in Portland

Fri. Mar. 2nd
Scout Sacramento @ L.A. Lakers

Sat. Mar. 3rd
Coaches' Meeting 9 a.m.
Game in Portland
Travel Portland to Washington D.C.

Sun. Mar 4th
Scout Golden State @ Washington

It goes on like that...

Blazersedge:  In addition to scouting teams you also get a firsthand view of the progress of individual players.  Obviously what you look for in each player will depend on his position and skill set, but are there some qualities that stand out across the board for everyone?  In other words, what are some of the things a player HAS to have to make an impact in this league?

Kevin Pritchard incorporated a cutting edge web based scouting database that allows for each one of the personnel scouts and the advance scout to log information about each player they see during the season.

His system (that started upon his arrival here in Portland) has helped the personnel staff dramatically and has shown dividends with the success he and his staff have had with picking talent. Brandon Roy, LeMarcus Aldridge, Sergio Rodriquez.

This system (with a few clicks of a mouse), allows all the information on each player be available easy and convenient to help the personnel guys.

The advance scout has nothing to do with the process of selecting talent but rather is to know our upcoming enemy.  I wish I was smart enough to have picked those three guys during the last draft but that is a credit to Kevin Pritchard and his staff. They let me concentrate on plays and diagrams.

Blazersedge:  What are some of the things you look for when watching a game that fans might recognize also?

Watching a game, I see the game like a chess match more than a basketball game. I enjoy watching the subtle coaching moves that can change the outcome of a game. What happens at a certain time if the coach plays zone? Or puts full court pressure? Or how will he play the pick and roll defensively? All of these facets are most times not noticed by fans, but can affect winning or losing games.

Blazersedge:  What's one thing you look for that you're sure an ordinary fan wouldn't have a clue to look for (or maybe even what you're talking about)?

Believe it or not, the NBA has a language all to itself. The players and coaches all know certain words and what they mean and are universally known throughout the 30 teams.

Example?  Do you know what Chin action is? How about Zipper? Or if a team will defensively "blue" the side pick and roll?

I never realized how well coached the NBA game was and am not sure most fans truly know how each possession is valued.

Blazersedge:  What's something that fans usually overrate the importance of while watching the game?  (Another way to look at this is, if a fan sat down beside you and scouted a game their report would probably be full of remarks about ____, which might not turn out to be as important as they think.)

Tough question, as every person looks at the game differently. We can watch a video clip during a meeting and every guy is capable of noticing something different. It is a learned skill to be able to see all 10 players on the floor and know their movements. Most people get caught watching the ball and rarely see off the ball action. Try time you watch a game, make a conscious effort to not watch the ball and watch away from the ball.

Blazersedge:  On the other hand, what do fans usually underrate in importance?

Before an NBA game actually begins, I never realized the amount of work that takes place BEFORE a game actually occurs by so MANY people. The ticket sales department, marketing people, equipment director, public relations people.  All of these people devote their time (and most times their lives) to getting to the 48 minutes that the players play in. The amount of devoted and dedicated people who help make one NBA game occur is staggering. The Blazer family has some truly outstanding people who all make the behind the scenes work look effortless.

Blazersedge:  I imagine after a while a person in your position becomes a little jaded with all the games you've seen but have you ever caught yourself just sitting and admiring a guy's play out there, forgetting for a second that you're there working as a scout?  (In other words, slipping for a second into a "fan moment", if that's not an insulting way to put it?)

Last season I found myself sitting in the front row of a pretty uneventful Sunday game in Los Angeles between the Toronto Raptors and the Lakers. As the game began, it was like many games that I get to see during course of a typical NBA season. But as the game progressed, I finally had to put down my pen late in the 3rd quarter and just watch Kobe Bryant as he scored 81 points.  It was a feat that I am not sure will be surpassed in my lifetime and it is game that I will long remember.

Blazersedge:  Can you give us your impressions of Nate McMillan?  

Truly, Nate McMillan is an outstanding basketball coach. He is an exceptional communicator, and leader and I believe he is one of the best GAME coaches in the NBA. He has a very good feel for the game and over the past two seasons, I have watched him make sideline/time-out adjustments that have helped win games.

The Players respond to him and he is an extremely hard working coach who is fully committed to the Blazer organization and winning.

Blazersedge:  The fans' favorite question always comes last:  Have you got any interesting/funny/shocking/unusual stories of the road/teams/players?

Over the past 3 seasons in Portland, a few members of the basketball operations staff have become aware of "Suit in a bag".

Since I am always traveling and catching up with the team and literally living out of a suitcase, I found it difficult to pack a suit for the game when I am behind the bench for our Blazer games. I never check my bags at the airport and will travel only with carry on to save time.

So, three years ago, with the help of Geoff Clark, our Assistant Trainer and Equipment Manager, we started the season and packed one suit, a pair of dress shoes, a shirt and a few ties in a travel bag.

SO, No matter where the team goes, this bag travels with them and no matter what city I happen to get to, there is a suit there for me. Geoff is so organized that I can show up at an arena and have the "suit in a bag" ready and waiting for me. BUT since it spends so much time in the travel bag, the suit is often wrinkled beyond words and it is difficult to find a place to have it ironed a few hours before a game at the arena.

In our recent game in Orlando, the suit was so wrinkled when removed from the travel bag that Dan Dickau had to loan me his sport coat to avoid the embarrassment of wearing it.

"Suit in a bag" has become a joke among a few members of our staff who know about it!  How thankful I was that we have a player who I can actually fit in his clothes!

Overall, I feel fortunate to have a position in the NBA after having only played at the NCAA Division III level and  try to treat each day as a priviledge to have this position. I feel very fortunate to be a part of the resurgence of the Portland Trail Blazers and working with a young Nate McMillan and his staff.

Thanks to Pat Zipfel and the Blazers for giving us a little peek into the hectic life and times of an NBA Scout.  Sometimes it's good to get a reminder that just because we talk as if we know something that doesn't mean we actually do.

And Ken, you are ABSOLUTELY FORBIDDEN to talk about any "chin action" by the "Zipper".

--Dave (