If productivity was the only factor considered by NBA scouts, Creighton star Doug McDermott would have long since put any doubts concerning his future to rest.
He returned to school for his senior year and led the nation in scoring this season, passing legends such as Larry Bird, Elvin Hayes and Oscar Robertson on college basketball’s all-time scoring list when he eclipsed 3,000 points for his career. He will likely be the national player of the year in Creighton’s first year in the Big East, proving he didn’t simply feast on his school’s old mid-major home, the Missouri Valley Conference.
But for all his individual success, the 6-foot-8 McDermott is considered a tweener by some NBA executives — too small to play power forward and too slow to guard small forwards. And McDermott can’t help but wonder if a run through the postseason might force them to reconsider. He couldn’t get Creighton out of the first weekend of the NCAA tournament the past two years.
“I think the grind of the regular season speaks for itself,” McDermott said earlier this month, before the Bluejays earned an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament. “I don’t think you can evaluate a player on two or three good games. I think you’ve got to look over the course of the season. On the other hand, people play their best basketball in March. The lights are brighter and everybody’s watching you.”
Now that the NCAA tournament has arrived, scouts will have to strike the same balance as they watch prospects who could enter this year’s NBA draft. Most have spent months and years evaluating a given player, going to countless games throughout the season in order to get a handle on strengths and weaknesses.
But it’s undeniable that a strong run through March Madness can alter opinions. Most of the time, it’s the final chance for a scout to see a prospect play in an actual game.
As former Washington Bullets general manager Bob Ferry put it: “There’s first impressions and then there are last impressions. The more people that see you play, the more people you can impress or unimpress.”
“What’s important is when you’re playing against great teams and a big environment, to watch intensely how that person performs,” added Ryan Blake, the senior director of scouting for the NBA. “It’s closely scrutinized, but it’s not the tell-all. It’s another piece of the pie.”
Not all NCAA tournament phenomenons work out.
For every Kemba Walker (Connecticut), Gordon Hayward (Butler) and Kenneth Faried (Morehead State), who elevated their stock in the NCAA tournament and went on to success in the NBA, there are also cautionary tales like Adam Morrison (Gonzaga), Joe Alexander (West Virginia) and Patrick O’Bryant (Bradley), players who became first-round draft picks after leading their teams on NCAA tournament runs only to never make an impact in the league.
“Does that help? I’m sure it does. But Kevin Durant got knocked out in the [second] round,” ESPN analyst Jay Bilas said of the NCAA tournament in 2007, when Durant was the consensus player of the year in his only college season but Texas was upset by Southern California in the round of 32. “If you are on a big stage like that and everybody’s watching and you hit it out of the park, or lay an egg, that’s gonna be the last data point. Of course it’s going to affect you. You may be able to overcome it, but yeah, I think it matters.
“I do think it says something about how you perform in a championship situation, but you can point out just as many great players that have had unbelievable careers that didn’t perform as well in a tournament setting in a given year as you can to the guys who lit it up and didn’t do anything” in the NBA.
But for players from smaller programs, and this year’s highly acclaimed freshman class, the importance of the NCAA tournament is ratcheted up.
Blake said scouts often look for how a mid-major prospect performs against better competition in a pressure situation — “Can he defend a quicker player? Can he get his shot off?” — because usually they haven’t faced many NBA prospects as part of conference play.
“You can watch every tape but you’re not going to see him against an NBA guy more than once or twice during the regular season, and then you get him in the tournament, and maybe he faces another couple of NBA players head to head and that can make a big difference,” said former Phoenix Suns general manager Steve Kerr, who has called NCAA tournament games as a television analyst for Turner Sports since 2011.
Freshmen like Kansas forward Andrew Wiggins and Duke’s Jabari Parker will be first-round draft picks whenever they decide to enter the NBA. But even their stock could be positively impacted by a surge through NCAA tournament “because there’s still a smaller sample size for freshmen,” Kerr said.
Scouts, though, actually don’t enjoy the NCAA tournament. It’s harder to get good seats and Ferry, a scout for the Brooklyn Nets, said some don’t even bother attending the games because it can be redundant after evaluating players all season. Blake noted that some teams gather all of their scouts in the same place for the NCAA tournament to watch together on television and bounce opinions off one another.
A player like McDermott has been scrutinized by these talent evaluators for four years, and even though Creighton hasn’t had much postseason success, he has averaged 21 points and 9.8 rebounds in four career NCAA tournament games. That, though, won’t be the only factor deciding his professional fate.
“You would lose your job if you only evaluated them on the NCAA tournament,” Blake said.