When you look around the National Basketball Association, most of the teams near the top of the standings have one thing in common: They draft well. The Warriors’ core of Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Harrison Barnes and Draymond Green are all Dubs’ draft picks. San Antonio selected Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, who helped bring five Larry O’Brien trophies to the city in the last two decades. While players and coaches get most of the praise for their teams’ successes, it’s unfair to ignore the hardest-working men in the NBA… the scouts.
Pete Philo, director of international scouting for the Indiana Pacers, has been in the scouting game since 2003. He got his first break with former Mavericks coach Don Nelson and quickly ascended the basketball recon ranks. Philo signed on with Reebok shortly after his stint with Nelson to organize and run the Reebok Eurocamp, which he described as “the European combine.” In his nine years running that program, more than 80 players were drafted from the camp, including the likes of Serge Ibaka, Danilo Gallinari and Andrea Bargnani.
As a veteran of the scouting industry, Philo says a team’s scouting staff is absolutely crucial to a successful front office. “To me, it’s the most important part, and every general manager would say that,” he argued. “Coaches will tell you that, GMs will tell you that. The better scouting staff you have, the better information you have.”
The yawning gap between good and bad information makes a world of difference. “We say inside the NBA, good information wins,” Philo said. “If you can’t get all your information accurate before making a decision on a guy, you’re playing a guessing game.”
Most fans’ knowledge of exactly how difficult a scout’s job can be is just as mysterious. Pretty much everyone knows that the job includes studying video and ranking players, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. As an international scout for more than a decade, Philo defines the ridiculous travel schedule a scout must endure.
“I’ve been to at least 75 countries,” he said. “Donnie Nelson told me, ‘While you’re navigating, do your absolute best to understand each culture before you go in it. Each country thinks just a little bit differently.’”
Philo’s travel schedule isn’t nearly what it used to be. Prior to this season, Indiana hired a full-time international scout stationed in Serbia. Philo now scouts both international and American players.
In a traditional U.S. college setting, Philo said, scouts will attend practices throughout the year to see how certain players respond to coaching. The scouts also go to games multiple times. And they may not always find what they expect or hope for.
“I went to see one or two specific guys in a game, and a different guy caught my eye. I say, `Whoa, this guy’s a freshman or he wasn’t at any All-American games, so somebody somewhere along the line missed.’ He’s got to be on our list or on our radar,” Philo explained.
When that happens, the scout will do research on that particular player, talk to other scouts in the region and watch the player in games at least twice over the remainder of the season. “You can never watch a guy one time and make a decision, it’s a curse in scouting,” Philo said.
During the summer, the same scouts attend events where multiple national teams are playing at once. While there may be one or two prospects that everyone wants to see, again you might just find a hidden gem you weren’t looking for. “You always have to go in with an open mind,” Philo said. “Not everyone stays the same. Some guys get worse because they don’t put the work in. Others get better.”
Then come NBA Draft time, don’t think for one second that talent is the only thing scouts are looking for.
“There’s so much more to scouting—medical, background, analytics. The interview process. The talent piece,” Philo said. “What kind of person is he? You have to make sure his medical history is good. You have to make sure you can coach him. Oh, and you’re about to pay him some good money. Can he handle it?”
Philo went on to say that the Pacers have ranked players entered in the 2015 NBA draft based on talent, but they’re still in the process of making calls to figure out the rest of each player’s puzzle. Indiana has the No. 11 pick in next month’s draft.
Between all the travel, film study, phone calls, and attending games throughout the year, there’s not much downtime in the life of an NBA scout.
“It’s generally 24/7, 365 days a year,” Philo said with a laugh.
He said there’s about a two-week stretch in late September and early October that acts as his “vacation.” Still, Philo admitted he couldn’t see himself doing anything else. “It’s demanding, challenging and rewarding. It’s one of the best jobs in the world, and when you work for great people, it makes it even better.”
Now, Philo is giving back to the next generation of NBA scouts. His newest venture is organizing the Pro Scout School in Las Vegas that provides wannabe scouts an interactive experience with insight into talent evaluation at the highest level with successful basketball executives, scouts, agents and general managers. This year’s conference will be held July 13-14 at the Westgate Las Vegas Resort & Casino.
Matt Gibson, 24, attended last year’s Pro Scout School and said it was an invaluable experience. “It was a great networking event,” he said. “But more importantly, it’s a workshop for professionals on all levels of the basketball circuit trying to perfect their craft.”
Gibson used what he learned in those few days to land a gig in the NBA.
“I made a lot of relationships from scout school, and ultimately landed my position with the 76ers this past season from someone I met at the event who was willing to help me,” he said.
Gibson worked with Philadelphia as an intern, doing everything from rebounding for the players to cutting practice film.
Just how intensive is the Pro Scout School?
“It’s almost like you’re in a war room on draft day,” Gibson said with a smile.