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Interview with Mike Born

This week we are privileged to hear from Mike Born, Director of NBA Scouting for the Portland Trail Blazers.  We asked Mike questions about his position, his scouting trip to the recent D-League showcase in Boise, and the Blazer talent evaluation process in general.

Blazersedge:  Your official job title is "Director of NBA Scouting".  What responsibilities does that entail?

There are several levels.  85% of it is related to the NBA...being prepared for trades or free agents.  About 10% of it deals with the draft.  In March especially I get a chance to watch a ton of college games.  The other 5% entails knowing the minor leagues.  With 15 guaranteed contracts on the roster already there isn't quite as much emphasis devoted to the D-League as there would be if we had roster slots available, but we still want to be prepared.

Blazersedge:  What experience have you had with the D-League?

I worked in various leagues before joining the Blazers.  From 1997-2001 I coached in the International Basketball Association as a Player-Assistant, an Assistant Coach, and finally as the Head Coach of the Des Moines Dragons.  From 2001-2002 I was the Associate Coach of the Kansas City Knights along with then-Head Coach Kevin Pritchard.  After that I joined the NBA Developmental League as an Assistant Coach with the Huntsville Flight under Ralph Lewis, now with the Seattle Supersonics.  I got a chance to see and work with many guys you might recognize:  Ime Udoka, Mateen Cleaves, Eric Barkley.  I've also spent some time doing college scouting.

Blazersedge:  Do you usually watch a D-League game expecting to see a particular player or is it more skimming the pond to see what you catch in your net?

You do both.  Last year we called up Jeremy Richardson.  We knew we'd do something with him potentially, so we went to see him.  You watch him with the ball, away from the ball, on offense and defense.  You watch his body language, what he's like going to the bench or in timeouts.  

Each scout looks at it differently and each situation is different though.  It depends on what your team needs based on position and talent.  Most often initially you cast a wide net and work down.

Blazersedge:  Describe the process you go through when scouting an event like the D-League Showcase in Boise.

The work you've done beforehand gives you the background.  You've seen most of these guys before in college as you scouted for the draft.  Many of them you've seen in the D-League before.  I attended every NBA Summer League--Las Vegas, Orlando, Utah--and you see a lot of them there.  You go to the event to gauge their progress, to see if they've grown, to see if they've overcome injuries or developed new ones.  You want to see growth from year-to-year.  

The D-League also sends out rosters and top rankings for each position, which gives you an idea who they think are the best prospects.  With 85-90% of the guys you already have a pretty good idea whether they're good enough to make it or not.  But there's that 10% that you might have only seen once or twice.  Maybe they've been playing in Europe or they belong to another team.  You want to get more information on them.

Once you're at the venue you watch games.  I saw 11 games in 3 days last week.  Watching the D-League is different than scouting college games.  In college you probably go there to see one guy and you end up focusing on a couple from each team.  D-League teams are full of players who were the premier guys on their respective college teams.  Some have been released from other NBA teams.  There might be 8 or 9 guys on the floor that you really want to see.

While there I lay out a scouting book with pages for each significant player and then fill it in.  You record statistics.  You record observations about guys' moves, what shots they take, how confident they look, whether they're holding up physically.

Ultimately you end up writing a report on any player you feel needs to have one.  I remember at the beginning of my tenure, especially in the college game, that was just about every player I felt even had a whiff of NBA-level ability.  As you gain experience you're better able to sort it out.  The report could be 1-2 sentences long if you feel a guy doesn't have it, is getting too old, or just isn't the right fit.  It could be much longer too.  Those reports get filed into a database.  When Kevin Pritchard and the staff are considering someone for a 10-day contract or for an invitation to the Summer League or Veteran Camp they consult the database.  They use those reports plus reports from other experts to analyze a player's prospects.

At the event you talk to agents, NBA scouts, and other NBA personnel about what they're seeing.  You find out about other teams and hear their impressions not just of the players, but of your team.  We've been getting plenty of congratulations lately!

Blazersedge:  Fans often make a big deal about misinformation being passed between teams and scouts, especially surrounding the NBA draft.  Is the atmosphere fairly collegial?

Overall the information is pretty accurate.  If you have a good, close relationship with others it helps and that is taken into context.  You have guys you know and call.  You judge accuracy over a course of years.  It's reciprocal.  If somebody calls me and I know them I give them an honest assessment.  It's up to them to judge what to do with that information.

The Blazers' staff works hard and we leave no stones unturned.  People within the NBA see that.  They see me in different venues working different games on a constant basis.  They'll see me in Las Vegas in the late afternoon and in Orlando the next morning.  They observe that and figure out you're doing something good.  You make that assessment about other guys too.  If they're around as often as you are in the same places you are then you get to know them.

Blazersedge:  What kind of data do you analyze?  How much of scouting is numbers, how much is observation, how much is "feel"?

Kevin Pritchard brought in a saying, I assume it was from San Antonio: "Eyes, ears, and numbers".  

"Eyes" means what you see.  Does a player have a feel for the game?  What's his basketball IQ?  Does he play winning basketball?   What are his skills:  shooter, ball handler, athleticism, size, length?  You gather visual impressions of what you like and don't.

"Ears" has to do with culture, which is obviously a huge factor for our team.  How does a guy fit?  We do research on players so we know coming in whether they'll mesh easily or not.  This entails talking in person with coaches, calling assistants and strength coaches, building the book on your man.  Are they hard workers?  Are they dependable?  What are they like in the locker room?  Do their teammates like them?  Do they show leadership skills?  And that's just the on-court stuff.  We also want to know if they will be good in the community...what they do in their off time and that kind of thing.

Numbers are simply stats.  For college we look at things like scoring, field goals, rebounds per minute, assist-to-turnover ratio.  We also do quality of opponent analysis.  We want to know if a guy has been playing against the best competition and how he fared.  We try to look at back-to-back game and one-day-rest patterns to gauge how a guy will hold up physically.  For the NBA we have a simulation guy who uses his own stats analysis.  You weigh stats and strengths, digging deeper than the normal boxscore.  For instance, which is better:  a 90% free throw shooter who goes to the line 3 times a game or a 70% guy who goes 8 times?  The boxscore highlights the 90% guy, but is he really more valuable?  Our simulation guy doesn't watch many games.  He just goes by the numbers.  It gives us a different perspective.  It lets you watch players differently.

Blazersedge:  Back to the D-League for a second.  What qualities give a guy at the D-League level the best chance to make it?

Most people say they want to see an NBA skill:  shooting for 6'5" guys, rebounding for 6'10" guys, etc.  You want to see overall talent.  We want long, athletic bigs, for instance.  You may see guys that you focus in on because of that.  

As a coach I tried to stress being efficient at what you do.  That means something different for each player and position.  With a guy like Andre Barrett you can see how he would transfer from the minor league to the NBA because he plays exactly the same way both places.  He runs his team, pushes the ball, tries to be a leader, and makes open shots.  This versus a 6'2" guy who is taking 25 shots and averaging 25 points but you know there's no chance of him being able to translate that game into the NBA.  He'd never get that many shots, for one thing!

There won't be a ton of guys in the minors that come out as superstars but you can find role players:  the Ime Udoka, Chuck Hayes types.  You want a guy whose game is consistent and can fill a niche.

Blazersedge:  So your goals in a nutshell...?

For NBA players: getting a foundation for trades and free agency.

For the D-League:  tracking growth and finding guys who will fill a niche.

Thanks to Mike for sitting down with us.  We hope he'll be a friend to Blazersedge in the future!

--Dave (