- Scouting identical twins remains one of the biggest challenges for NBA executives. With the emergence of Nevada's Caleb and Cody Martin in the NCAA tournament, The Front Office provides five guidelines for scouting them.
The Nevada Wolf Pack were just one day removed from a blistering 14-point comeback over Texas, and another 24 hours from closing a 22-point deficit to topple Cincinnati and sealing a berth in the Sweet 16. So the whole identical twins-playing-basketball thing was still novel when Caleb and Cody Martin returned in matching hoodies to address the media in Nashville. Someone wanted to know if the brothers had ever considered switching jerseys mid-game, for strategic purposes.
Any casino on the Vegas strip would have given you chalk that this was not the first time the twins had heard the question. But you’d probably get lucrative odds on whether Caleb, the Mountain West’s Player of the Year, was actually telling the truth. “Fool an official?” He paused to think. “I’m sure there's been a couple times.”
The scheme goes something like this: if the twin with more fouls at halftime was having a better game, then switching jerseys could create a theoretical advantage. In essence, a basketball Parent Trap. “Say if I'm playing well and he's not, and I got like four fouls and he's got like two, I'm sure we've been tempted a couple times,” Caleb continued. “But I don't want him playing my minutes and he don't want me playing his minutes. I’m definitely not going to let him take mine.”
Cody, the MWC’s Defensive Player of the Year, sat to Caleb’s right—according to their placards, at least. He listened before chiming in. “I feel like sometimes [the referees] do a pretty good job at that, messing [us] up themselves. I don't blame them.”
“They’re totally different players,” insists Nevada head coach Eric Musselman. “They look alike, obviously.” And needless to say, the versatile 6’7” juniors have been instrumental in Nevada’s wild tournament ride, which continues Thursday in Atlanta against upstart Loyola-Chicago, with an Elite 8 berth on the line. While there are things the Martin twins can determine together, like hairstyles or beards, they can’t control the fact that their careers may soon be diverging. They each have a year of eligibility left, but it’s increasingly clear that March Madness might be the platform they need to leap to the pros.
In the first-round win over Texas, Caleb had 19 points, 10 rebounds and five assists and three clutch overtime threes to close the game. Meanwhile, Cody tallied 15 points, six assists, four rebounds and four blocks. Against Cincy, Cody stepped into the spotlight with 25 points, seven assists and six rebounds. Their play has been nothing short of stellar, and front offices are talking. But before the Martins can help their own stock, teams have to solve an age-old scouting conundrum: determining which twin is which.
“The thing with those guys, you go in and it’s like OK, there’s the good one [Caleb] and the not-as-good one [Cody]. Then when the not-as-good one does something good, you get all messed up,” explains an Eastern Conference scout. “Against Cincy, Cody was killing. You have the profile of Caleb in your mind—he’s the shooter, he’s going to be creating. You think Cody‘s gonna play good defense and move the ball. But then he does something that reminds you of Caleb, and you’re like, whoa! What’s going on?”
Even with modern technological advances, evaluating identical twins on the court remains quite a challenge. And for scouts both amateur and professional, guidelines are helpful.
Do your homework
In separating the Martins, there are a few key tells. Caleb wears number 10, and Cody number 11. Cody generally wears a shooting sleeve on his left arm. The twins’ matching cornrows pull back into small buns at the backs of their scalps, but are slightly different: Caleb’s braids part to the side, and his brother’s run straight back. Cody plays on the ball more, stepping in as Nevada’s de facto point guard after a season-ending injury to teammate Lindsey Drew.
Still, it’s harder than it sounds. Oftentimes the Martins aren’t the only players scouts are tasked with writing up during a given game. It takes repetition to feel out any prospect, much less two who look alike, and feeling out identical twins takes some time and discipline.
“With twins, the shock value comes the first time you see them, when you're trying to put the initial paint on the canvas for your opinion of who a player is,” a Western Conference executive says. “When there's a guy next to him who looks so much alike, you're inevitably going to flip flop traits and projections until you see them for the second or third time.”
“To be honest with you, telling them apart hasn’t been a problem for me at all,” says one Western Conference scout. “You gotta do your work before you go see 'em, so you know the difference. The Martin twins, their shots are totally different. And so it hasn't been an issue for me. When I know I'm gonna see twins—I'm there so early in warmups, by the time the game starts I know who's who. And then you know, obviously if you get turned around you can glance down at the jersey numbers. Once I get that stuff racing, I'm fine.”
Know your history
The task of scouting identical twins has been a rosy thorn in the sides of scouts for generations.The first set of twins to play in the NBA—and arguably the most successful—were Dick and Tom Van Arsdale, 6’5” guards drafted in ’65 with consecutive second-round selections by the Knicks and Pistons. They made the All-Rookie team together and six All-Star games between them, and finished their careers as teammates on the Suns.
“A lot of times with twins you end up saying, ‘If we could only combine the two of them we'd have a top five pick,’ or something like that,” says one Western Conference exec. While Horace Grant became a four-time NBA champion and valued role player in the post back in the 1990s, his brother Harvey was a combo forward whose teams never won a playoff series. Stanford center Jarron Collins was regarded as a better prospect, but twin brother Jason lasted an additional three seasons as a defensive-minded backup. Lest you forget, career progression isn’t always linear.
“Sometimes one is better earlier in life,” one longtime Eastern Conference executive says, “but there’s such thing as the other guy catching up.”
Generally twins grow up playing as teammates, which means there’s only one ball to share. This leads to specialization, despite the fact their bodies and skill sets are similar. “The problem these kids tend to run up against is they always play the same position,” says the Eastern Conference exec. “You always gotta kick the sorrier twin to a different spot.”
Take for example Andrew and Aaron Harrison, 6’6” guards and elite prep stars who spent two seasons at Kentucky. Andrew, always regarded as the bigger talent, now plays for the Memphis Grizzlies. Aaron, who hit clutch buzzer-beaters against Michigan and Wisconsin in the 2014 tournament, is working his way up through the G-League. Until turning pro, they shared a backcourt every step of the way: Andrew was groomed as a point guard as Aaron moved off the ball to become a scorer. Even after all that, there’s still some confusion.
“They’re very similar. I still don’t even know which is which,” admits the Eastern Conference scout. “The kid who hit the game-winning shots was the lesser of them. You have in your mind, one’s the good one and one’s the bad one. But then the bad one comes in and hits the game winners and you’re like, oh, s--t!”
“If you have a chance to watch guys multiple times, the first thing you really wanna do is figure out the distinguishing characteristics of their game,” says the Western Conference exec. “It's not even by design—just to differentiate them. If they're similar in size, and position, you'll say this guy is a better offensive player or a better shooter, like the Morris twins.”
Consider the famously inseparable Marcus and Markieff, who have matching tattoos, share a bank account, and are both natural power forwards. The Morris twins starred together at Kansas, went 13th and 14th in the 2011 draft and briefly teamed together in Phoenix. Now, they play different roles in separate frontcourts, with the Pistons and Wizards.“Of the twins I've seen, the two easiest were Marcus and Markieff, because they really had pretty different games,” explains Eric Bossi, National Recrutiing Analyst for Rivals.com.
“Marcus wasn't quite as big, and especially in high school, they played him like a point four-man,” Bossi says. “He always had the ball in his hands and was a playmaker. Markieff was kind of a jump-shooting center with a little bit of low post game. They had two drastically different approaches, and there was a size difference with Markieff being a good inch bigger. It made scouting them a lot easier, because they were different.”
That said, if you ask who’s better, don’t expect a straight answer. “In 2011, we regarded Markieff as the better player,” explains the Eastern Conference executive. “Talking to both of them before the draft, one of the funniest things was that each said the other was the better player….and they each thought the other should go higher…and that the other was much better than anyone else in the draft. They stick together.”
As a rule of thumb, to assess which brother is more talented, just look to the stands. “The funniest thing about scouting twins generally is usually to watch the mom,” says the Eastern Conference exec. “Mothers always tend to cheer much more for the lesser player. It’s funny, you see it time and again, it’s like if you cheer harder, they’ll play better.”
They’re both invaluable to the Wolf Pack, but Caleb has always been the higher-rated prospect. On Rivals, Bossi ranked him 60th in the Class of 2014, and Caleb 21 spots lower at 81 overall. They left Oak Hill (where as seniors their team went 41–4) for NC State as four-star recruits. “It was always pretty clear to me [Caleb] was a little better, because he had a little bit more of a well-rounded game, was maybe a bit more athletic, just a little bit better at everything,” Bossi says.
Caleb is universally viewed as the better scorer, and typically as the bigger talent after averaging 18.8 points per game and drilling 40% of his threes this season. Cody gets credit for his versatility, averaging 13.9 points, 6.3 rebounds, 4.7 assists, plus more than a block and a steal per game. In 2016, when Musselman and Nevada began wooing the twins to transfer, the former head coach of the NBA’s Warriors and Kings knew exactly which buttons to push.
“On their recruiting visit, we really recruited Cody hard,” Musselman explained. “We knew that all the other programs that were recruiting both Cody and Caleb, that they were going to go after Caleb harder because of his stats at NC State. So when I got with our staff, we decided to go a different route and really go after Cody, because I knew that Caleb already had all the love from everybody. We recruited Cody harder than we recruited Caleb, and I think [their] mom really appreciated that.”
Is separate better?
The Martins left small-town North Carolina for Oak Hill together, committed to NC State and later transferred to Nevada in tandem. “We wanted to keep playing our basketball careers together and just stay together as long as possible,” Cody told SI.com in February. “After this, there’s no telling what’s going to happen.”It’s nice to imagine teams offering both their two-way spots to snag both twins, but history says things rarely happen in such fashion.
The trickiest challenge for scouts isn’t actually telling who’s who, but simply assessing a twin’s value without his brother on the floor. “What you really have to account for is what happens if you separate them,” says the Eastern Conference executive. “Are they gonna fall apart after being so close? Caleb is the much better player, and the other one follows a pattern where he's the secondary option to his brother. [Cody] gets a lot of really cheap buckets and a lot of good things happen to him because sometimes in transition defense teams f--- up and run to the wrong guy.”
Opinions on their value are mixed, but Caleb and Cody are generally viewed as second-round candidates. Given their history, it’s fair to expect them to make their decision together. At 22 they’re already old by prospect standards, and Cody’s strong play has forced the issue. Where some scouts see potential role players, others envision Sioux Falls and Fort Wayne.
“Caleb’s better, but it wouldn't surprise me if Cody ended up having as good a career if they even make it,” says the Western Conference exec. “They've shown tremendous development. They were disappointing when I saw them at NC State, and you couldn't tell the difference. Some of it is probably that opponents are completely stumped. Maybe even their teammates get stumped. It's just gotta be somewhat mystifying when guys have their hair exactly the same, and they're built the same.”
“I think it's harder actually playing against the guys versus scouting them,” the Eastern Conference exec says. “We just have to go down with a sharpie and f---ing put a dot on their number or something. You already know which guy is the one you're favoring.”
Nothing’s locked in, but the further Nevada goes in the tournament, the more time the Martins have to make their individual cases. And before long, a keen observer might make one for them.