The second round of the NBA draft is almost an afterthought to most fans. But to some of the game's best judges of talent it has become a bargain basement, a place where, if you're lucky, players with unrecognized talent and potential can be acquired on the cheap.
Some of the game's fastest-rising stars were overlooked until the second round, including Washington Wizards guard Gilbert Arenas, who was selected by the Golden State Warriors with the 31st pick, Manu Ginobili (San Antonio Spurs), Mehmet Okur (Detroit Pistons) and Michael Redd (Milwaukee Bucks).
But finding those players is anything but easy. The job of evaluating players has become more challenging as the talent pool has expanded. More high school seniors are in the draft, forcing teams to project what a teenage athlete might become. NBA scouts also must now criss-cross the world in search of athletes. This year a record 39 international players, from places such as Greece, Brazil, South Korea and Puerto Rico, applied for the draft.
In the NBA's early days teams were allowed to pick an unlimited number of players. That changed in 1973, when the number of rounds was set at 20. The NBA steadily eliminated rounds and settled on two in 1989. As the number of draft choices dwindled, so too did the margin of error for NBA executives. This raised the appreciation for those with an eye for talent.
"That's ultimately what everything comes down to in this business," said Pat Williams, the former general manager of the Orlando Magic. "Guys who can spot talent are worth their weight in gold. I don't care if he's a junior high coach, you can't pay them enough."
Indeed, for NBA general managers, their livelihood depends on it.
This season the Magic fired general manager John Gabriel after he used the team's No. 1 picks on Reece Gaines (2003), Curtis Borchardt (2002), Steven Hunter (2001) and Keyon Dooling (2000). In 1999, Orlando traded its first-round pick but in 1998 the team had three and selected Michael Doleac, Keon Clark and Matt Harping.
None of the players has emerged as a star and only Gaines and Hunter are still with Orlando. Both are reserves who average less than five points per game.
Just a decade ago, NBA teams had four years to size up the skill of college players, the NBA's traditional talent pool. Scouts get far fewer opportunities to see foreign players or high school seniors compete, especially against top-notch talent.
"Sometimes you get just a few videotapes on an overseas player," said one scout. "How are you going to make a multimillion-dollar decision on that?"
Scouts and coaches use a variety of methods to determine a player's worth. Some rely heavily on a player's body. For instance, they would ask whether a certain athlete is brawny enough to play power forward or whether a center has long enough arms. Some like to pour over statistics and others stress a player's athletic ability, how high he jumps and how fast he runs.
"I think you need all of that," said Miami Heat Coach Stan Van Gundy. "There are certain body types that have certainly been more effective than others. I don't think you can ignore measurements. I don't think you can ignore a guy's college numbers. I don't think you ignore what you can see with your eyes. How much weight you give to each one is going to vary from organization to organization."
Danny Ferry, a former member of the Spurs who is now the team's director of operations, said he believes his 13 seasons in the NBA give him an advantage when sizing up players.
"I may ask myself what would it be like to guard that guy," said Ferry, a former DeMatha High School star. "I figure whether I would need a double team to cover him or whether he would need one for me. I'd also study the quality of his shot selection. It can be very intuitive."
Asked to name the best judge of NBA talent, many of the scouts and coaches interviewed said it's the Memphis Grizzlies' Jerry West.
"If you're asking who I would choose if my job depended on scouting one player, then there's nobody I'd rather have do it than Jerry West," said Williams.
At the league's predraft camp in Chicago two weeks ago, where more than 60 players vying for NBA jobs participated in scrimmages and drills, West rarely took his eyes off the action. While many of his peers chatted and caught up with one another, the man who built the Los Angeles Lakers' championship teams of the 1980's and helped guide the Grizzlies into their first playoff appearance last season, seldom even took notes.
Whatever his methods are, they work. Some of the sleepers West has uncovered include A.C. Green, Vlade Divac, Elden Campbell, Derek Fisher and Nick Van Exel.
But nobody has found a fool-proof system.
"The best people in here have made bad picks," said Van Gundy, the Heat's first-year coach. "Everybody has got these systems to help you avoid making a mistake but it's not a science as much as you'd like to make it one."
The biggest unknown when evaluating players is whether they will continue to work on improving their games if they are picked in the first round and receive a big contract.
"Ask people what they would do if they won the lottery and most of them say they would keep working," said Mark Warkentien, director of player personnel for the Portland Trail Blazers. "Studies of people who have won the lotteries show that within a few months almost all of them quit their jobs."