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Each summer, the NBA holds its official draft, evaluating and drafting eligible players to join the league. For the Orlando Magic, who have the fifth and eighth picks this July, this season’s picks represent an incredibly important moment and decision in the Magic’s team-building phase.
“Draft picks are not only selections, but currency to make teams better,” explains David Bencs, Director of Basketball Analytics for the Orlando Magic. We sat down with Bencs to discuss the basics of what goes into making draft picks for the team, such as players’ health history and performance, plus new technology developments and how COVID-19 has impacted the draft process in 2021.
- How much of a player's health history is made available to NBA teams, if any, before the draft?
Bencs: There are a couple of components in having players’ health information. The first is that almost all draft prospects participate in the NBA Combine, a one-week event held in Chicago each year. All players are evaluated for measurements like height, weight, standing region and body fat. It includes a full physical, which is a very thorough analysis of the players’ health. All teams get this information.
The second part is collecting injury history. A lot of information is publicly available because most of the prospects played college basketball or on youth teams. There is some reporting on prior injuries, too. All of this information is incorporated into the final draft decisions.
- Are there any prior injuries or health concerns that are viewed as red flags?
Bencs: From what I understand, in the past, there have been red flags due to certain medical conditions, like heart conditions for example. Some people weren’t allowed to play due to health risks that surfaced in their NBA physical.
The other piece is injury history. I think it comes down to how you evaluate the risk and what kind of past or current injuries you are willing to live with — and if other parts of the player’s evaluation outweigh any risk.
- How would you go about evaluating someone who had a decent sophomore year, a great junior year and then missed their senior year with an injury?
Bencs: Generally speaking, we consider two things regarding how we value players with injuries and seasons’ worth of data:
- One is if a player displayed growth from one season to the next. They need to retain their prospect status based on growth from year to year.
- Two is missing a season or part of a season due to injury. It’s hard to say much more without a specific injury example. We ask ourselves what the return rates on that specific injury are, and so on.
- How are statistics across various leagues or conferences weighted when scouting players from different teams?
Bencs: That’s probably something most teams struggle with. There are so many different levels of basketball being played across the globe. Putting someone on the exact same playing field with all those variations is a challenge.
- Which statistics do you think will become more relevant in the coming decade?
Bencs: One thing that is prevalent in the NBA is the invention of tracking data, which started about eight seasons ago in the 2013-2014 season. What it allows us to do is translate the coaching language into measurables in the NBA.
With moving dots that are generated from the tracking data, they can track and call, say, “pick and roll,” and “isolation,” much more quickly and accurately, whereas coaches used to chart all of these details manually. This has advanced analysis and the growth of analytics in basketball over the last eight years.
The Magic have worked almost exclusively with Autostats, which creates the exact same tracking data from broadcasting. They use artificial intelligence to assess the skills and abilities of college basketball players. Statistics derived from this type of data better help coaches understand skill levels and talent of players that we are assessing for a draft as opposed to traditional statistics.
- Are you able to use the tracking data of the current team to find areas that you're looking for in the draft picks?
Bencs: Yes. What we are trying to do is predict how good these prospects are going to be in the NBA. We need to know who a good player in the NBA is already and then try to predict who will fit the Magic’s definition of good.
- Which statistics do you think will fall by the wayside over time?
Bencs: I don’t necessarily think of statistics as becoming less important; traditional statistics still measure a lot of important information. We’re just adding more nuance to those traditional statistics and putting them in better context.
For example, points scored is still very important. Now, we are understanding how those points are scored. We have more information to go by if there was a contested rebound, and so on. What we are doing with tracking data is understanding the game at a significantly deeper level than we were able to before.
- Is there a formula or a rule of thumb that the Magic uses to make draft picks?
Bencs: There are a lot of formulas and algorithms that help with certain players’ projections. Some of how we do it is science, and some is a combination of art and science. There is a human element in how we weigh decisions. Without giving away too much, we do bring a lot of formulas and scientific methods to the overall assessments of the draft process.
With so much information available to us, the key is to figure out which data matters most, and then we make the best decisions based on what we have available.
- How has COVID-19 factored into the 2021 draft?
Bencs: We have a little bit less information than in other years because there was very limited in-person scouting due to COVID-19 and travel restrictions. We’ve been fortunate, as some of our executives were able to attend early-season college tournament games and see some of the key prospects ahead of time. But overall, there was much less in-person scouting than in a normal year.
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