VCU head coach Shaka Smart uses a unique scorecard when he or one of his assistants evaluates a prospect. In addition to the usual blanks for points, rebounds, and assists, Smartís staff checks off whether a player exhibits a series of more nebulous qualities, from competitiveness and motor to unselfishness and toughness. While this card is the only one of its kind Iíve encountered, Smartís valuation of intangible relative to tangible skills is, if not necessarily a majority opinion, widely accepted in the coaching and scouting community.
But letís be honest. No matter how competitive my middle school basketball team was, our band of 5-4 Catholics would have gotten smoked by Zach Randolph and DeMarcus Cousins by themselves. My team doesnít start with a lead if Iím a great leader, nor would that team see any inherent difference in score if Iím great in the classroom. Nobody really thinks that this opinion is wrong. So where's the value of intangibles?
Before we get into how these qualities affect the scoreboard, thereís something that clearly deserves mention. Coaches have to deal with their players every day. If players are obnoxious and lazy and donít listen, then one of two things will happen. Either they're quality players anyway--though coaching them is more difficult and less rewarding--or they donít fulfill their potential, essentially making them essentially a waste of a scholarship. At least if a high-character kid doesnít work out, he can still be a great practice player and a shining example of how basketball should be played. And itís quite a bit easier to project the future character of a 17-year-old than it is to predict his future basketball ability.
Then again if this were the only reason character was valued, chasing high-character players could actually be read as a selfish choice by the coach. He gets a better coaching experience even though the team isnít intrinsically any more successful. Maybe his plays are run more crisply, maybe less time has to be spent on discipline. But given a kid whoís at least willing to work hard on defense, itís tough to argue that adding out-of-practice work ethic and quality academics will end with any concrete team improvement.
So hereís what loving to play and being a competitor does bring to the table: A personality type that has a much greater likelihood of eventual success. The closer a player is to perfect intangibles, the greater chance he has of reaching his ceiling. If a player has a strong work ethic inside and outside the classroom, heíll probably put in the work necessary to become a top-notch player. If heís unselfish and coachable, the team will come firstĖ-and that means heíll learn from the coaches and work with his teammates even at the expense of his ego. If heís tough, heís less likely to let injuries or other problems keep him from fulfilling his potential.
VCU assistant Will Wade agrees with me. He says that their coaching staff believes that if they can find kids willing to work and willing to learn, they can mold those players into the pieces needed to win. Smart describes it like this: If you ask a kid to rate the kind of season he wants to have from 1-10, obviously everyone says he wants a 10. But if you ask how much effort they put in over the summer from 1-10, it usually isnít a 10. High character players are the ones most likely to be putting in ď10Ē effort, and therefore the most likely ones to end up getting ď10Ē results.
Thatís how you should treat strong intangibles: If a talented, low-character player has a rough freshman season, donít count on him exploding as a sophomore since he may not be putting in ď10Ē effort to figure out what went wrong. If heís a character guy, though, keep your expectations high because heíll be putting in the work to improve.
Drew Cannon is a college student who for the past five summers has worked for the Dave Telep Scouting Service.
Drew Cannon is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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