How much does a strong showing in the NCAA tournament help an NBA prospect? The question has never been more relevant, as more than a dozen potential first-round picks had led their teams into the Sweet 16 convening Thursday night.
Here's the answer: Not as much as you might think.
"When I was a scout," a current GM said, "this was the time of year when I'd go to Europe. I'd always scout Europe during the NCAA tournament."
He wouldn't ignore the NCAA results. But he also didn't want his judgment to be led astray by the madness.
"I felt like I'd already done so much work on the college players before the tournament," he said. "No matter what any of us say or do, at the end of the day we're in this business because we love basketball. And when you go watch Jimmer Fredette get 50 points or whatever, you can't help but get excited. It doesn't mean you're bad at your job; it just means you're human. So you walk out of the tournament and everybody's going nuts about this one guy and he becomes the flavor of the month.
"I definitely subscribe to the idea that you've got to be careful when it comes to the tournament. You can refer back to Sean May [who was taken with No. 13 pick after leading North Carolina to the 2005 championship] or to Juan Dixon [No. 17 after leading Maryland to the '02 championship] or to other examples of guys who were drafted too high. You're battling human nature more than anything else."
It's true that a large number of high-ranking NBA executives are scouting in Europe this week. It's also true that many scouts see value in studying the tournament, especially in this draft, frontloaded as it is with underclassmen and other characters who are difficult to judge.
"The tournament is absolutely valuable because you get to see how a kid does when he's out of his element," an Eastern Conference scouting director said. "You take a kid like Jimmer Fredette from a mid-major program [BYU] -- he's not going to play against the level of players he'd see on a nightly basis in the Big East or the Big 10 or SEC or ACC."
Fredette wound up shooting 3-of-15 outside the arc (and 8-of-14 inside it) for 32 points in No. 3 BYU's 83-74 loss to No. 2 Florida on Thursday in the Sweet 16.
"So now you get to see how he does against better competition in the tournament," the scouting director said on the eve of that loss. "It would be foolish to stop evaluating him."
This scouting director went on to say that Duke freshman point guard Kyrie Irving earned extra points just by returning from a season-long toe injury and risking his draft standing in the tournament.
"It would have been easier for him to not come back and just wait to work out with the top two or three teams in the draft," he said before Irving scored 28 points Thursday in No. 1 Duke's 93-77 loss to No. 5 Arizona, led by likely lottery pick Derrick Williams (32 points, 13 rebounds). "It shows me he didn't curl up and take the easy way out. His decision shows a lot of competitiveness."
Another GM noted that some players have revealed their stardom in March.
"I think about how Carmelo [Anthony] was up and down during his year at Syracuse, but then he came into the tournament and showed who he was," the GM said. "And Dwyane Wade was the same way [with Marquette]."
So how is a scout to discern the difference between the NCAA star who will excel in the NBA, as opposed to the NCAA star whose tournament run creates a false impression for his NBA future?
"You have to follow guys all year," the GM went on. "You study the person and his work ethic, you do the psychological tests. Wade and 'Melo were killers, and when you study them, you should know they are special."
Irving appears to have that special quality. Meanwhile, North Carolina freshman Harrison Barnes continues to develop confidence after a rough start this season.
"He's obviously a quiet individual, he takes things internally and doesn't speak out," the Eastern scout said. "He wanted to blend in. He had a little success early in the year, and then he started to struggle -- and that started the questions of whether he's not as good as we thought. All of our scouts were saying his shooting is erratic, he doesn't have great confidence."
Now that Barnes has been playing at a high level over the last month, NBA teams have a better understanding for his personality.
"It shows he didn't crack under the pressure," the scout said. "He didn't scream out. Here's a kid who was the No. 1 player in high school, and if we'd had the draft in December, he would have been drafted in the late 20s based on how he was playing at that time."
Now Barnes is once again viewed as a potential top-five pick (though the scouting director was of the belief that Barnes will return to Carolina next season). His growth shows that the evaluations never stop. They'll continue through the remainder of the tournament and into the private NBA workouts of May and June.
Chris Paul, the saddest scene of this season was of you kneeling over West as he cried out in pain Thursday at Utah. The play itself defined West's value to your team: He tied the game in the final seconds of regulation with a fierce left-handed drive and dunk that was contested -- fairly and without malice -- by Paul Millsap, knocking West off-balance to land him awkwardly on his left leg as his knee gave out. Not only is he the Hornets' leading scorer with 18.9 points, but he also complements your leadership of the team by accepting your challenges while challenging you emotionally in return.
Last season he played without you as you dealt with knee surgery, and now it looks as if you'll have to enter the playoffs without him. Carl Landry is a strong backup and will help replace West's production, but no one can replace the confidence he creates.
Tim Duncan suffered a badly sprained ankle, but he is expected to rejoin the Spurs in time for the playoffs, and the time off his feet might do him good. Kevin Love may miss the remainder of the season with a groin injury, but he has already proved his value this season, and his absence should cement Minnesota's No. 2 spot in the upcoming lottery. But there is no hiding behind West's injury: He is an upcoming free agent, and his franchise already faces enough difficult questions between the future of its ownership, the possibility of a move elsewhere and the persistent speculation about your eventual destination. Your Hornets were probably going to lose in the opening round anyway, but now it won't be a fair fight.
Carmelo Anthony, the Knicks are 7-10 since they traded four players for you, and they've lost seven of eight over the last two weeks. When LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh joined together in Miami, they were hammered for every little mistake. The same consequences were always going to follow you to New York. You wanted to move to the biggest market, and now you're going to have to fulfill the enlarged expectations, whether you think they're fair or not.
This could be the best thing to ever happen to you. James, Wade and Bosh are all growing as players and teammates because of the pressures they created for themselves and the need to fit their games to each other.
The player you should emulate most of all is Boston's Paul Pierce. He would not have won a championship if he hadn't changed his style of play several years earlier at the demand of his new coach, Doc Rivers, who taught Pierce to give up the ball with faith that it would come back his way. Pierce had been known as a one-dimensional scorer -- which is your league-wide reputation, too, even though you're convinced you possess other skills that have gone unnoticed. At 26, you're of the same age as other perimeter stars who learned to adapt their games -- Pierce, Kobe Bryant, Michael Jordan, and now LeBron -- in pursuit of championships. At different times in the last few years, Pierce has been celebrated for his playmaking and defense in addition to his scoring -- all things you could learn to do, because you possess the same skill set as Pierce. Circulate the ball and have faith ... for you there is no other option.
Danny Ainge, as Celtics president you have dealt with these issues year after year with Rivers, who lives away from his wife and children in Orlando and travels whenever possible to see his children play in high school or college.
Isn't this how it should work for every team? Never mind the long-term contracts: How constructive would it be, after every season, if the coach and front office of every NBA franchise held frank discussions about whether they should continue working together?
In this case there are valid reasons for Rivers to wait. What are going to be the rules of the next collective bargaining agreement? Will a hard cap force the Celtics to surrender one or more stars, or to tear down the roster and rebuild from the bottom of the standings? Will the salary-cap exceptions be abolished -- and then how will the Celtics continue to acquire complementary talent? Will there even be a season in 2011-12?
As the only NBA coach with championship experience who isn't close to retirement age, Rivers will be the most-valued coach in the league. Job security isn't going to be a concern, and so he will want to know what the future holds before he commits to that future. Who wouldn't?
"Well, the two practices a day will be tough," said Gasol, the 26-year-old Spaniard who is now concluding his third season with the Grizzlies. "Here [in the NBA], we're only doing two practices a day in the preseason, but over there it's a regular thing."
Will an NBA star be able to persuade a European club to not practice in the morning and again at night throughout the season?
"There are a lot of meetings, a lot of different routines that you go through over there because there are not as many games," said Gasol, who played high school basketball in Memphis before playing four seasons professionally in Spain. "So the week is a lot longer. Practices are a lot longer -- two-a-days, a lot of meetings, a different type of traveling -- so the players from here who go over there, they've got to be very open-minded and ready to do whatever."
What about the traveling?
"The traveling is a lot different," he said. "If you're with a big team, you're going to fly charter on a private plane but [here he laughed] it's going to be different. It's a little tiny plane, not like the big airbus that we fly here."
I can vouch for that. I've flown on NBA charters, which are set up with first-class seating throughout the plane. Three years ago I flew on a chartered flight with CSKA Moscow, one of the richest clubs in Europe, and the entire plane was outfitted in coach-sized seats.
"Then at the hotel you have roommates," Gasol said.
Bryant or James would probably be able to negotiate a single room as part of their contracts.
"And when you get to a city, you always eat with your team," he went on. "You eat breakfast, lunch and dinner with your team."
Not only would Americans discover they have less individual freedom in Europe, but the style of coaching also could create tension. In European basketball, players and coaches are hired and fired routinely during the season. Rosters are turned over frequently, and coaches tend to exert authority over personnel because the coaches know they may be fired because of an extended losing streak. The biggest NBA stars are used to working with coaches who seek to form a partnership. But would that partnership be feasible in Europe? And would an NBA star have respect for a European coach who knows nothing of the NBA ways?
Money is the other deadly issue. The big clubs aren't spending as they used to.
"There's a good 10 to 12 teams that have a lot of money and can satisfy many of the demands of the players," Gasol said. "One thing we'll see -- are the teams in Europe going to be willing to take a player that they don't know how long they're going to be there for?"
That's a big question. Would an ambitious club like Olympiakos of Athens be willing to invest millions in an NBA star with the understanding that he may return to the NBA in early December -- if that's when the lockout ends -- which would leave its championship hopes in ruin?
"We'll see," Gasol said. "There are options, though. Right now it can be a possibility for a lot of people, and who knows?"
I know one thing. If an American star in the prime of his NBA career attempts to play overseas next season, the cultural differences between him and his team are going to be more entertaining than the games themselves.
Here are the other current NBA head coaches, based on their most recent college coaching experience. It is safe to say that no one on this list is considered a college coach any longer.