Recruiting is an art, not a science. There’s no right way to do it, no formula to make sure you are evaluating correctly. Even with the advent of analytics, and some schools using statistical data to evaluate recruits, there are still plenty of misses. As college coaches we spend an incredible amount of time evaluating talent, and most would agree it is one of if not the most important parts of the job. Yet we still get it wrong plenty.
In some ways it makes sense. We are limited in the number of times we can watch kids play, and often we don’t get to see them at their best or against the best competition. We are taking a snapshot and trying to determine long-term productivity. Throw in how hard it is to measure what’s inside a player – his willingness to work, his desire to get better, his mental toughness – and evaluating talent is not an easy job. The nature of evaluating physical talent is such that there are going to be mistakes.
But some misses are hard to explain. Duncan Robinson was a good high school player in Massachusetts who went to prep school, and got hurt the spring and summer before his prep year. He was known as a good player but was a borderline scholarship player. A tall, lanky kid who could shoot it, he was a smart kid and an elite division 3 recruit. He committed to Williams early in the fall, after a summer where he wasn’t on the circuit due to injury. So he certainly fell under the radar due to injury, and in fairness when he was healthy during his prep year he did generate some lower level D1 interest. He honored his commitment to Williams, and if he hadn’t he likely would have gotten a lower D1 offer.
Right now Duncan Robinson is starting for an NBA playoff team that is 2 wins away from playing in the NBA finals. He had the highest catch-and-shoot 3-point field goal percentage in the history of the NBA this year, and he’s likely going to sign a pretty lucrative contract in the near future. He’ll play in the NBA for ten years at least.
I understand why we all make mistakes in recruiting, but it’s hard to explain how big of a mistake we can make on a guy like Duncan Robinson. Robinson was a great player as a freshmen at Williams, averaging 17 points per game on a team that lost at the buzzer in the national championship game. His coach, Mike Maker, left to take the Marist job, and Robinson transferred to Michigan where he had a solid career, but still went undrafted by the NBA.
So how do we miss that big? How does a guy who’s capable of (likely) playing in the NBA for 10 years go end up as a borderline division 1 player? Keep in mind, Williams and all of the elite D3 schools are as good as many bad lower level D1 teams, so going to Williams is no sign that he wasn’t good enough. But at the time, it wasn’t like people were saying, “man, that kid has a chance to play in the league.” He was a good get for Williams, and good gets for Williams were generally guys who could play D1, chose Williams for the education, maybe had a chance to play a few years in a lower level league in Europe, and then would go on to make a ton of money on Wall Street. As good as the NESCAC is, it’s not like there is an NBA player in the league every couple of years.
Our ability to evaluate, and the mistakes we make, especially when that ability is essentially the #1 key to success in our business, is really intriguing to me. Trust me, I’ve recruited plenty of guys who I was sure would be great, who ended up barely making an impact, and I’ve also had some great players who I literally tried to talk out of coming to play for me because I didn’t think they were good enough. It would seem that our ability to minimize the mistake-gap in recruiting is crucial to sustaining success.
I’ve always looked for natural ability first on the recruiting trail. I want to see how much a kid reacts naturally, and how much of what he does is forced. Can he switch to his off hand and make a play under pressure? How quickly does he change directions? Does he know where his second and third looks are on a set play, reading the defense and making the right play?Is he productive even when he doesn’t play well? I’ve always felt that kids who have natural ability have the chance to come in and play right away, and also have a high ceiling for improvement.
I’ve also worked hard to try and eliminate bias when I’m evaluating talent. If you read up on how the brain and the mind operate, you realize how much bias and stereotypes play a role in what you see. There’s no doubt there is a racial element to evaluating recruits, and probably played a role in Duncan Robinson being under-evaluated. We see potential in athletic black players, and we don’t necessarily see the same in white players. That no doubt affects the way we evaluate. We tend to see what we expect to see. If we think a white kid is too slow or not athletic enough, we are likely going to confirm that when we watch him play. Confirmation bias is real, and it’s something to be aware of. There is no doubt Duncan Robinson looked like a kid who belonged at Williams, and certainly didn’t look like an NBA starter.
Daryl Morey has a rule with his staff with the Rockets where if they are going to compare a player they have seen to another player, he won’t let them use a player of the same color for comparison. He forces his staff to compare him to a player who doesn’t look like him, to keep them from putting players in a specific box. We expect to see certain things out of players because of what they look like, and it affects our ability to evaluate properly.
It also makes sense to keep statistical data on players when you evaluate them. These days at the highest level, many of the best events keep reliable statistics. Sometimes you’ll be amazed at how productive a player is (or isn’t) if you keep his stats when you watch him play. Your mind can get tricked by the one big-time rebound or athletic play in transition that a kid makes. I’ve always felt like production is underrated in recruiting, as crazy as that sounds. We don’t focus enough on how consistently productive a player is – we look for potential, athletic ability and other things we think may translate into production down the road.
One year when I was recruiting at Maine I was watching Brewster Academy play, and I talked with Jason Smith of Brewster after the game. He had a 6-6 white kid who had played really well, could really shoot it and knocked in a bunch of 3s in a big-time game. He was pretty similar to Duncan Robinson when he was in prep school. I asked him who was recruiting the kid, and he said he was an elite student but he was only being recruited by the D3s. He didn’t have any D1 offers, or legitimate looks (unfortunately, it was made clear to me that he was too good of a student to consider Maine). Coach Smith said to me “we have all these big-time recruits, but that kid is my second leading scorer. He brings it every night. But everyone is recruiting all of my other players, and only the D3s are recruiting him.”
The kids name was Joe Sherburne, and he ended up getting a late scholarship to UMBC. He ended up as their 6th all-time leading scorer with over 1,500 3s, and he made over 250 3s. He’s the only player at UMBC to ever score 1,500 points, grab 600 rebounds and record 200 assists. He scored 14 points in UMBCs win over #1 Virginia in the NCAA Tournament – and I had to coach against him at the University of Maine. He was very productive on one of the best prep school teams in the country, and still barely got any D1 interest.
There is no easy answer, the truth is trying to evaluate the physical and mental abilities of 18-year-olds isn’t easy. I always look at NFL quarterbacks – the one position in the world we spend the most money trying to evaluate – and realize even the best in the business get it wrong. But there are certainly things we can do to eliminate mistakes. The fact that we can be so far off on guys like Duncan Robinson is pretty amazing.