Despite pandemic obstacles, Raptors ready to find another hidden draft gem

Patrick Engelbrecht, Director of Global Scouting and International Affairs for the Toronto Raptors, explains why the team is feeling confident with their first round pick in the 2020 NBA Draft.

The 2020 NBA draft is still more than two weeks away but already Patrick Engelbrecht sounds like the rare student who knows his material backwards, forwards and sideways; whose primary concern heading into the big exam is paralysis by over-analysis.

The Toronto Raptors director of global scouting isn’t worried his team won’t have enough to time to gather the necessary intelligence on prospects. Now he’s guarding against the possibility of having had too much time to dive in on players in the extra four months since the June draft was pushed back due to the pandemic-related hiatus and the league only crowning a champion on Oct. 11.

“In terms of being able to dig in on intel, we’ve had months and months and months,” Engelbrecht said on a conference call with local media on Monday.

Good scouting staffs always look deeper than what a player has shown on the floor. With the amount of time and money teams invest in developing talent, a player’s off-court comportment, passion for improvement and their ability to accept a role and work within a team are all elements that carry just as much weight for all but the most talented prospects.

But just because teams have had the luxury of time to gather opinions from a high school assistant coach or a college team’s equipment manager or an old AAU teammate doesn’t mean the information shouldn’t be taken with a grain of salt

“In some ways you’ve got to be careful,” said Engelbrecht, who is going into his eighth season as a Raptors scout. “You don’t want to be one of those ‘study long, study wrong’ (teams), where you get so much information, and it’s a 17-, 18-year-old kid, and you’re just putting too much into every little factoid you can find out about a guy.”

Given the way the basketball industry (and just about everything else) came to a crashing halt in mid-March, worrying about having too much information is a good problem to have.

It’s fair to assume that regardless of the circumstance the Raptors have a better chance than most to turn up a nugget from off the beaten path even if they are drafting 29th (out of 30 teams) in the first round and second-to-last in the second round thanks to finishing the regular season with the league’s second-best record.

Since 2015, the Raptors have added Delon Wright (20th overall in 2015), Norm Powell (46th), Pascal Siakam (27th in 2016), Jakob Poeltl (ninth in 2016) and OG Anunoby (23rd in 2017) — all of whom have produced far in excess of their draft slot. The addition of Fred VanVleet and Terence Davis as undrafted free agents is further evidence of Toronto’s ability to find talent far removed from the draft lottery.

The pandemic wasn’t as much as obstacle to scouting as you might think, according to Engelbrecht. He can rack up Air Miles with the best of them tracking talent all over the world, but even with travel being stopped cold for several months, he feels confident the was able to see who he needed to see in person and enough.

“Interestingly, as it pertains to myself, fortuitously, I spent the entire month of January and half of February out of the U.S.,” he said. “It seems like right when the basketball world or the world shut down, I just had a fresh look at all those targets, all those prospects. I wouldn’t say I feel like I'm missing anything.”

The chance to see a college player rise to the occasion in the crucible of the NCAA tournament – which can be misleading in itself – would have been nice, and seeing international prospects at the Nike Hoop Summit in Oregon (both events were cancelled) is always helpful, but more as icing on a largely ready-to-bake cake.

The industry gossip gained on the road via bumping into agents or those in a player’s inner circle can be helpful as can simply seeing how other teams are expending resources to track one player or another – where scouts are gathering can tip a hand.

“It’s tough to get a consensus. Guys in my business, we don’t really look at mock drafts,” he said. “But there is generally a pack of people you’re constantly around [and] you talk about prospects. It’s natural. And you can start to get a feeling of where guys are going to go just based on the crowd. Not having that has been different. You kind of know who the [top] 40 players are, but you really have no idea what the order is.”

The challenge there becomes what happens if the draft spurs the trade market. It’s considered a fairly flat talent pool — none of the top prospects considered a guaranteed franchise changer. As a result, the Minnesota Timberwolves have been reported to be open to shopping the No. 1 pick and the Golden State Warriors – very much in ‘win now’ mode – have been active in trying to create interest in the No. 2 pick. Teams like the Raptors could logically be open to moving up if there is a player they like that is unlikely to fall to the 29th pick. But executing whatever plan that gets cooked up behind the scenes comes with an added dose of uncertainty.

“I think that kind of dovetails into strategy. If there’s somebody that you really like, it’s very difficult to put in a strategy to go get him because you have no idea where he’s going [to get drafted],” said Engelbrecht.

But for the most part he’s confident that the Raptors scouting staff have got their homework done and then some. Most of the action between now and Nov. 18 will be contained to the west coast where most of the prominent player agents host their draft prospects for extended pre-draft training camps while showcasing them for teams in individual workouts.

It’s not ideal. Engelbrecht would much prefer to be able to host players in Toronto and put them through team-designed workouts and tests rather than watch them put up shots in an environment designed to accentuate their strengths.

“When we have a guy in our building obviously they are on our turf,” he said. “They put on our practice uniform. They go through our paces, our assistant coaches. Our minor-league development coaches work them out, Our head coach and assistant coaches are sitting courtside. There’s a different level of, let’s say, intensity in the gym when you are doing a workout in your own facility … But in terms of competitive nature, who is going to push through a drill, who is going to out-compete somebody else, yeah, those are things you are just not going to have a chance to see and you are going to have to rely more on your past scouting and in-game scouting you have done throughout the year.”

But given the times there are ‘nice-to-haves’ and ‘need-to-haves’ and Engelbrecht is confident heading into the big test that the Raptors have what they need.

“The good thing is we are pretty aggressive and we don’t regionalize our scouting,” he said. “…And every guy in our office has seen every guy. So when we get in a room and we start debating it’s never a situation where I’ve seen a guy 20 times and another guy has seen him none. It’s a situation where if we are going to have a spirited debate about a guy, you have seen him 10 times and I’ve seen him 15 and we can agree to disagree but we are comparing apples to apples.”

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