Editor’s note: This is the second in a series of stories about men’s college basketball coaches finding success on the margins in recruiting.
Previously: Why birthdays matter
The goal of this project was to determine which college basketball programs do the best job developing prospects into NBA players. You can see the results below on a spreadsheet.
But is it that simple? Does the school a player attend increase or decrease his odds of making the NBA?
“I can’t put it as simply as that,” says Kirk Lacob, the assistant general manager of the Golden State Warriors. “I don’t think just because you played somewhere in college, you have a better chance. I think guys who go to a certain college might be more prepared for the NBA, and so it might be a quicker ascent, but part of this is that some of these colleges are self selecting, right? So while it seems like they’re doing a great job, it’s also because they’re recruiting the right type of people who have the right traits in the first place.”
Evaluation. It might be the most important part of a college coach’s job. Everyone at the high-major level has resources in place to help the players. Some systems may get them better prepared. We know talent wins. But not every program can land five-star players who are likely going to become pros. The best teams in college basketball in the modern era, except for a handful of years when Duke and Kentucky had generational talents, are those who have identified future NBA players outside of the top of the rankings. Those with the best eye for what a player could become have succeeded most.
That’s why this list, of the non-five-star prospects who’ve made the NBA, includes a Who’s Who of the best programs of the last 15 years.
(A reminder: Only players who played at least 82 games in the NBA qualified as “making it,” with the exception of players drafted in the last few years who are on pace and those drafted in the 2022 draft.)
I asked the four coaches at the top of this list what they look for when they evaluated recruits. These are their answers.
Bill Self, Kansas coach: I look for explosiveness. Can they shoot? If he can really shoot, you can teach him how to score. If you’re really explosive, you can teach them how to defend. You can teach them how to get their shoulders past someone. There’s a lot of things, if you have those two things, that apply to becoming a good player that would translate on any level.
John Beilein, former Michigan coach: I like high skill level. If they have a high skill level and they can really shoot it, you don’t get those two without being self-starters, without working at it on your own. You’re not gonna be a good ballhandler if you haven’t really worked at your ballhandling. You’re not going to be a good shooter if you’re not willing to put in the time in the gym.
Mark Few, Gonzaga coach: We’re real big on feel for the game and maybe not necessarily just taking just a phenomenal athlete. They’ve got to know how to play.
Tony Bennett, Virginia coach: We always said, let’s try to find hidden gems or they’re special at something. Klay Thompson is one example. We had a kid decommit in the middle of the summer, so all of a sudden a scholarship freed up. My assistant Ben Johnson saw Klay in the last part of our recruiting period in July. I was in Australia. Ben called me and said, “I’m telling you, this guy, he’s got it. He’s special.”
You trust your staff. They have a great eye for seeing something that others don’t always see. Klay was one of those. In Klay, you just saw size, and you could kind of project that. He had a beautiful-looking stroke. Obviously he had the genes, but what I loved is no one offered him a scholarship in the Pac-10. He’s from the West Coast. He’s from there. He had the mindset, “Let’s show some of these schools who decided to pass on you, let’s show them what they’re gonna miss out on.”
Beilein: Here’s the thing that I think is way underrated: passing. Foot speed is obviously huge and quickness, but guys who can really pass can really defend too, because there’s an anticipatory component there. It’s the same thing on defence. Lou Brock couldn’t steal 20 bases when he was 21, yet he stole 118 when he was 35. He anticipated better what was going on. Guys who see the game on offense also see it on defense and can make up for any lack of quickness they might have.
Few: I watch to see if they know when to pass, when to shoot, understanding the game and just making the right basketball play, instead of just maybe overpowering people.
Beilein: Do they feel the game? Do they know how to play? It’s tough in the summertime because in AAU the coaches don’t have the time to teach how to take charges and help defense and things like that. So guys in the summer may get away with just putting their head down and (going) to the basket. And that’s why we were always reserved in offering scholarships. We wanted to see them in their high school games where there was a scouting report and could really tell you whether they had that feel. You can learn some of it, but it’s a lot easier when they have that feel coming in.
Self: The next important thing to me is if they’re tough. And I think the last one is the hardest one to identify positively. But usually with that toughness comes a lot of intangibles. You become a sponge. You have a work ethic. Self starter.
Beilein: I would watch whether they get it, or are they compelled? There’s a difference between being just compliant and playing or being compelled. A kid that is in his huddle every time. He’s talking with teammates, his eyes are on the coach when his team’s down by 20. He’s engaged with his teammates when he’s on the bench. When they’re up by 20, he’s up cheering for his guys. That was like really big to us, and we watched the huddles. How are they? Can they get coached hard? You know, do they sulk a lot? Body language.
Self: Can you tell from their body language what the score is? Can you tell from their body language how they’re playing?
Beilein: We prefer to get the guys who really sort of understand it’s a team game. I’m having fun out here because I love it.
Bennett: Gotta be competitors.
Self: I’ve always said this: I wanted to see kids play three different times — one when they were absolutely great and see what the ceiling is; one when they were average and kind of see who they are; and then one when they were awful to kind of see what they would do to make sure their teams still succeed. That’s how I would probably identify the toughness aspect, watching him play when he wasn’t very good.
Bennett: Sometimes even watch their family in the crowd. You also learn a lot by talking to the people they’re around. If you ask enough questions, and dig enough, and, as we say, circle the wagons, you’re gonna find out a lot. But there’s no better truth serum than watching young men go through struggle or a bad game or difficulty and then really observe them closely and how they respond in action and even after. I think that’s an invaluable measuring stick.
Beilein: One of the biggest things we’d ask their coach is, “How many times did you have to explain things to him? Does he pick up things quickly?” We’re always a read-and-react-offense. There were a lot of plays, but plays could change two or three times in the middle of the play, because of read-and-react. So we wanted guys who could see the game from more than just, “Hey, I gotta go get mine.” They see their teammates. They see everything.
Bennett: I always like to lay out with kids and their families: Here’s the best-case scenario, OK. Can you handle that? Can you handle that pressure? Here’s a middle-case scenario. Here’s a worst-case scenario. Are you willing to battle through it? You throw out those scenarios and see how they respond.
Few: We’re very protective of our team culture and how you handle your business around school and in the community.
Beilein: I wanted guys who didn’t play basketball because they were good at it; they played it because they loved it. Tim Hardaway’s a great example. He didn’t play basketball because his daddy played. He didn’t play basketball because he had the DNA for it. He played basketball because he loves it. And that’s allowed him to be so successful.
Bennett: My dad’s quote is he had to recruit players he could lose with first before he won, and hire staff he could lose with first. Because if you have those kinds of people, you can kind of go through adversity, losing, whatever, and they’ll stay with you. Eventually, you’re gonna grow from all those times and be special.
Beilein: You could tell in phone conversations. You could see if they could really engage with others in real conversation, whether it’s things in life, baseball — like their favorite baseball team — what subjects they liked. There literally are some young men that I found out there you have to ask their parents to get anything from them — directions to the house, their SAT score, their grades. Those are the ones that they’re probably not as empowered maybe as the ones whose parents have prepared them for the path, more than preparing the path for them.
Self: We really don’t care what others think when it comes to this. I mean we know better what fits for us. There’s a lot that goes into projecting and evaluating, but I really haven’t cared much about what other people think. Now naturally, we’d like to recruit the top five players in the country each and every year. But the reality of it is how we’ve been successful is taking guys who can be as good as those top five players, but it may take them two or three years.
The best way to recruit is go in with an open eye. Thirty years ago, you’d walk in and go up to the event person and you’d say, “Hey, tell me the five best guys in here.” You make sure you watch those guys. Now it’s so different recruiting because you know all the best players are at the same events. You’ve got to know who you’re watching because obviously you’ve got to show him interest and love and all that stuff, but sometimes you should go into it where you’re totally objective. Don’t tell me who anybody is. Just let me watch them to see who I like.
You can see a guy on a really good day, and he’s not quite that consistent or vice versa, but I love watching a kid and saying, “You know what? He fits us perfect.” Well, he didn’t do this, and he doesn’t do that. And I say yes, but he does for us. He fits us perfect. We’ve had great success like that. Ochai Agbaji was a no-brainer, even though he was rated (in the) 300s when we started to recruit him.
Bennett: I think my Washington State days helped me, and even my playing in the NBA. I played with Muggsy Bogues, and I’m looking at him and no one thought I could make it to the NBA either. I was 6-foot. My wife says 5-11. I say 6 feet.
Then at Washington State, we got the job, and it was in a rough place, so we had to take some chances on maybe a guy who no one else saw it in him or who was thin or whatever. You have to have a willingness to see something and trust your gut. If you’ve played or if you’ve seen a lot of basketball, just trust your instincts.
(Top photo of Kansas’ Ochai Agbaji and Bill Self: Denny Medley/USA Today)