Two years ago Michael Lewis gave an interview to Business Insider in which he suggested that professional sports teams should revolutionize the role of scouts. The job of the modern scout, he said, was to do more than figure out how fast a pitcher throws or how high a linebacker jumps; their job was part psychologist and part detective. They should find out how a player gets along with teammates, for example, and how he handles being away from home.
“What you should do is basically hire a bunch of young journalists to go figure out who these people are,” Lewis said.
Lawrence Frank, the president of basketball operations for the Los Angeles Clippers, read the interview. He took Lewis’s advice.
On Tuesday, Lee Jenkins, the prolific feature writer for Sports Illustrated, announced that he was taking a newly created job with the Clippers: executive director of research and identity.
Jenkins isn’t quite a young journalist. He is one of the most respected and connected reporters in basketball. His specialty is profiling the biggest names in the game — from Kawhi Leonard to LeBron James.
It’s that skill — the ability to probe, report and understand the biggest personalities around the league, as well as his first-rate connections — that led the Clippers to pursue Jenkins.
“I ask all the time when I’m working on a story: ‘Who is he? Who is he? Who is he?’ ” Jenkins told The Washington Post in an interview Tuesday. “We run around with that question in our head, and it’s a worthwhile question for sports teams to ask about players.”
Jenkins will not report on the Clippers, nor will he help craft presentations for free agents — the kinds of things a communications job might entail.
“He’s not writing for the website, he’s not in human resources, he’s not a marketer,” Frank told The Post. “This is about a guy who has relentless curiosity, and we are going to use those skills.”
“If I wanted someone for a free agency presentation, we would hire an ad agency,” he added.
Instead, Jenkins will be intimately involved with player evaluation — both free agents and draft prospects. The idea, Jenkins explained, is that in the modern NBA the decision-making process for personnel is both collaborative and diverse. The Clippers, for example, have former basketball players to judge talent and an astrophysicist to crunch numbers already involved.
“The reality is someone who’s been in basketball versus a journalist will attack a problem from different perspectives,” Frank said. “If you want different thoughts and want to avoid an echo chamber and avoid group-think, you have to have people come from different perspectives.”
Frank said Jenkins’s insights into the great players he has worked to understand for his magazine articles also will help inform how the team evaluates future players.
It makes for a fascinating experiment: Just how valuable will Jenkins’s reporting insight be for a team that projects to have plenty of money available for the highly touted 2019 free agent class?
Jenkins is not the first journalist to go from Sports Illustrated to a job in sports. Luke Winn covered college basketball and is now the director of prospect strategy for the Toronto Raptors. There are numerous examples of analytics reporters jumping from journalism to teams in multiple sports. Chris Snow, director of hockey analytics for the Calgary Flames, previously covered Major League Baseball and the NHL. John Hollinger, who works in basketball operations for the Memphis Grizzlies, worked for ESPN. Several Baseball Prospectus writers have joined MLB front offices.
Jenkins spent the last 11 years at Sports Illustrated. When LeBron James announced he was leaving Miami to return to Cleveland in 2014, he wrote a first person piece as told to Jenkins for Sports Illustrated.
The move to the Clippers comes as Meredith Corporation, which owns Sports Illustrated, is seeking a buyer for the magazine. Meredith bought Time Inc. last year and announced plans to sell titles like Time Magazine, Fortune and Sports Illustrated. This week, Salesforce founder Marc Benioff announced he was buying Time for $190 million.
Jenkins said the departure had nothing to do with the magazine’s future.
In a story posted on Sports Illustrated’s website, managing editor Chris Stone said he had already begun searching for Jenkins’s replacement. “We look forward to the day,” he said, “when we assign that replacement the definitive story of how Lee Jenkins helped shape the NBA champion L.A. Clippers.”
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