By Evan Rosser in Barcelona, Paris and Cholet, France | Illustrations by Rafa Alvarez
By Evan Rosser in Barcelona, Paris and Cholet, France | Illustrations by Rafa Alvarez
Two countries, three cities, four games — one weekend. Inside the exhausting and exhilarating hunt for international talent with Toronto Raptors scout Patrick Engelbrecht.

It’s just before 2 a.m. when dinner is brought out at Villa Maasai, a pan-African restaurant on the southern edge of Paris’s 9th arrondissement. Patrick Engelbrecht, the Toronto Raptors’ director of global scouting and international affairs, is sitting near the end of a line of tables that’ve been pushed together to accommodate the party of 20 or so. All around him are friends and former co-workers — mostly from his time working for NBA Africa, most of them now in the head office of the Basketball Africa League. It’s dark and the music is loud for anywhere that’s less than 50-per cent dance floor, but none of that interferes with the conversation at the table, which is full of laughter and the satisfying sounds of people who genuinely enjoy each other’s company catching up after a long time apart. There’s no one else in the restaurant except for staff, and the fact that Villa Maasai is open at all at this hour, let alone still serving food, feels like it must be the result of a favour to a dear friend, a lot of money changing hands, or both.

The majority of those assembled have been in town for only a few days, here for the NBA Paris Game 2020, which wrapped up a few hours ago with the Bucks beating the Hornets behind 30 and 16 from Giannis Antetokounmpo. They’re due to fly home toward the end of the weekend — to New York, to Dakar, to Johannesburg and elsewhere — and this is a last carefree night out. Engelbrecht is one of the exceptions. With all the domestic leagues and Euroleague in full swing, the stretch from roughly New Year’s to March Madness is the busiest on an international NBA scout’s calendar, providing some of the last opportunities to see prospects in high-level competition before the draft. Engelbrecht, who calls L.A. home most of the year, has been based in and around Paris since December, and during this “sprint,” as he calls it, it hasn’t been uncommon for him to see games in three or four different countries in a single week. Even now, as he takes his first bites of thieboudienne, the national dish of Senegal, he’s due to leave for Paris-Orly Airport before 7 a.m. to catch a flight to Barcelona. I’ll see him for the last time tonight, still awake and still having apparently productive conversations, in the lobby of Hotel du Collectionneur just after 3:30 in the morning.

“They’re gruelling,” Raptors assistant GM Dan Tolzman says of European scouting trips, when reached by phone in early March. “Your amount of tiredness just kind of snowballs and snowballs, but you always have another game, so you have to, kind of, be sharp. There’s a lot of naps and there’s a lot of, you know, just trying to push through the fatigue and then still figure out your way in a different country and a different currency, in a different language — all that sort of stuff…. It’s a life that you can only do it in spurts.”

It’s a life Engelbrecht has been living continuously since he was hired by the Raptors in 2013, and one he lived off and on for another six years before that. And though he’s quick to offer a reminder that things tend to mellow around April, judging by the plan nailed down a couple weeks ago, this weekend alone will age everyone involved as inexorably as arriving home with newborn twins: Bucks-Hornets and late-night Senegalese food today in Paris, his pick of a trio of Spanish league games in Barcelona tomorrow, and then on Sunday, either off to Israel for the Tel Aviv Derby or back to France to see a projected lottery pick take on a projected second-rounder. Why a person would choose to do this to themselves is obvious — it’s the same reason you bring home the twins — the huge potential for joy, wonder, excitement and new kinds of connection. What’s a lot less clear is the how.

There’s no real secret to at least one of Engelbrecht’s motives for flying to Barcelona today on something like two hours’ sleep. The four or five scouts from opposing teams who were on his flight this morning made the trip for the same reason, as did representatives from damn near all 30 NBA teams: The chance that Leandro Bolmaro gets in-game minutes.

Bolmaro is, as of this Saturday in late January, a 19-year-old Argentine projected to go in the second half of the first round of the 2020 draft. A six-foot-seven wing with flashes of lead-guard potential, he’s a strong defender and creative with the ball, and though he’s not an explosive athlete by NBA standards, he’s apparently got the same high-revving competitive motor put to excellent use by countrymen like Manu Ginobili and Luis Scola. He’s split his time this season between Barcelona’s first and second teams, which play in the Liga ACB and LEB Silver, respectively Spain’s top and third divisions. As a result, there are two ways the hoped-for minutes can materialize: either Bolmaro gets a lot of run in the second team’s game against Hestia Menorca at 6 p.m., or somewhat less run with the first team when it hosts Real Betis at 8:30. With both teams playing at home tonight, those two options aren’t mutually exclusive — Bolmaro could rip across the city between games — but neither is guaranteed, either, meaning there’s a chance he doesn’t play at all. Further complicating matters is a competing ACB game between Badalona and Zaragoza that also tips off around 8:30 and features two more 19-year-old point guard prospects, Latvia’s Arturs Zagars and the Czech Republic’s Vit Krejci. Add in all the club and coaching tendencies, travel times, the differing priorities of the scouts in town and a couple dozen other variables, and pretty soon equations are dancing and flickering around your head like thrown matches.

“There’s always wrinkles that come up, and the key is to not panic on that and you just figure it out”

In the back seat of a taxi headed in from the airport, Engelbrecht isn’t wasting his time stressing about how any of this will play out. He knows he’ll get to the hotel, check in, get a nap and some food, and head to the Barcelona B game. The rest is out of his control and will have to be sorted on the fly. “There’s always wrinkles that come up, and the key is to not panic on that and you just figure it out,” Tolzman says. “And Pat, he’s a pro at doing that stuff.”

It’s easy to mistakenly think that a scout’s job is to unearth talent, pulling up to a run-down farmhouse in the middle of nowhere as a kid drains 36-footers on a rim stuck to the side of a nearby barn. Nowadays, though, with very, very few exceptions, there are no unknown draft-age prospects. The NBA is simply looking too hard for these guys. The real job, then, is to develop the deepest possible understanding of the talent everyone’s already aware of, to learn enough about a prospect and his game to predict the future of both. “Some positions [on the court], you need to be extremely skilled,” Engelbrecht says as highway traffic and the outskirts of the city blur past the window beside him. “If a guy is extremely skilled, the first thing you want to find out is how. Why is this guy so good? What’s the story? What’s the background? How did he find himself in the position to spend this many hours to get this good? Or, if he didn’t spend this many hours and he’s a natural, then you want to know why. Why is this guy this talented?”

Engelbrecht was born in Johannesburg in 1980, and first introduced to basketball by Catholic missionaries when he was about 10 years old. Pausing to get oriented in the city as they planned the dissemination of the Word and the construction of wells and schools in the surrounding rural areas, these foreigners would outfit the net ball court near Engelbrecht’s family home with makeshift wooden backboards and play against the local kids — occasionally also showing them an NBA game on grainy VHS.

Engelbrecht’s parents, Harriet and Johannes, were both involved in the African National Congress’s (ANC) movement against the violently racist Apartheid regime. His father was “jailed many times and harmed” for his political beliefs, he remembers. When Engelbrecht was 11 or 12, his mother, a nurse, applied for work visas in a handful of western countries. The first offer came from Italy, but she turned it down. “She spoke Dutch and Afrikaans. She spoke Sotho, Tswana, Xhosa, Zulu and English. And it was almost like for her, ‘I’m not going to learn another language,’” Engelbrecht says, laughing. “‘I’ll go to the U.K. and I’ll go to the United States.’”

Harriet and her son eventually put down roots in Los Angeles, after stops of about a year each in London and New York City. Johannes was unable to leave South Africa legally, so he stayed behind. He died before he could see his wife and son again, a tragedy Engelbrecht still prefers not to discuss in detail. “He was someone who would always step back and look at things and ask really, really interesting questions,” Engelbrecht says of his father. “He was someone who always thought before he made a move.”

In London, soccer had given Engelbrecht a way to integrate and make friends. In New York, basketball supplanted it. “Everybody played at parks,” he says. “People would play in their boots, they’d play in their school clothes — everybody just hooped.”

On the playgrounds, he was introduced to an aggressive, physical version of the game. (Shockingly, the missionaries hadn’t been willing to “knock the shit out of him” on the net ball court.) He also got his first taste of something that resembled scouting, watching the older, better players assemble teams out of the available pool of talent that they hoped would allow them to win and get another game. He still finds uses for the fundamental metric they applied: “Would I rather play with this guy than against him?”

Games were harder to come by in L.A., but that only pushed Engelbrecht to commit more formally to the sport. He tried out for and made his high school team; he started playing AAU; and as he neared graduation, he was approached by Basketball South Africa and began travelling back in the summers to play with the national team. “I started to really see my identity,” he says. “In America, I’m a very average player. I’m a six-foot-one point guard. There are a trillion of that guy. But in South Africa, I was sort of unique. I was like, ‘Wow, I might be able to take this opportunity and do something.’”

Engelbrecht calls the shots while on the move during a 2006 Commonwealth Games matchup between South Africa and India

When his commitments to the national team — playing in a World University Games, say, or an African Championship — wrapped each year, Engelbrecht could catch a free flight back to Johannesburg and stay with family for a while before heading home. Beginning in 2003, when Masai Ujiri and Amadou Gallo Fall launched their Africa Top 100 Camp in his hometown, those few weeks began to offer opportunities in the game unavailable anywhere else on earth. A skills camp for the best youth players in Africa, the Top 100 started as a grassroots effort, but it was a grassroots effort organized by the two most important figures in the development of basketball on the continent this century. Even early on, Larry and Herb Brown might show up to work with the kids, or Dell Demps and R.C. Buford, or Dirk Nowitzki and Holger Geschwindner, and as the camp evolved into Basketball Without Borders Africa, and Ujiri and Fall continued to proselytize for it in the States, more and more NBA players and staff signed on.

As a young volunteer, Engelbrecht saw firsthand how each of these heavy hitters taught the game, what they focused on and emphasized, what they valued in their players. His knowledge of the larger trends in African basketball and how they manifested in individual prospects deepened, too, as did his understanding of the preconceptions and prejudices applied to those players and the dangers of that close-mindedness. “One of his, what I would call high-level quality character traits is humility,” says Troy Justice, vice president and head of international development for the NBA, who first met Engelbrecht at BWB Africa in 2011. “I think someone who is humble has the ability to look at things through a lens that is not self-serving. It’s just an authentic, true lens that sees people for who they are and [sees] potential in someone. So he’s the kind of scout that would see strengths in everyone and not write someone off because they didn’t make a certain list or they’re not in a particular mould right now.”

The structure of the camp had players run through scrimmages and drills on Day 1 before being drafted into teams that night for a short competitive tournament. As Ujiri and Fall were constantly reminding everyone, the chief goal was for the kids to have fun and get better, but “the camps would get pretty competitive because it’s a bunch of NBA coaches and front-office personnel,” Engelbrecht says.

As one of the few people in attendance who went to U-16 and U-18 African Championships and had a bit of a book on the players, Engelbrecht was a crucial source for coaches who wanted to win and had only seen the campers run through a few hours of drills. They started to ask him for intel, then opinions. As Fall says of his own beginnings as an NBA scout, which started in casual conversations about players with Dallas Mavericks GM and president Donnie Nelson, “Sometimes you are engaged in an activity without even realizing what it is.”

In 2006, Engelbrecht was assigned to a team with Demps, then San Antonio’s VP of basketball ops. Shortly after camp wrapped, the Spurs offered him a job. “You could tell they were doing it because it was merited,” says Ujiri, now president of the Toronto Raptors. “He was just an unbelievable hard worker with a knowledge of the continent.”

It was a scouting consultant position, as Engelbrecht remembers it, and since he was then splitting the majority of his year between Africa and Serbia — where he had enrolled in a coaching academy in which “they studied basketball like a PhD,” and future Phoenix Suns coach Igor Kokoskov had written a “dissertation on pick-and-roll defence”— that was his territory: Africa and Eastern Europe. In his first year, 2006–07, San Antonio won an NBA championship.

Engelbrecht left the Spurs in 2010 for a job working for Fall at the newly created NBA Africa. He would spend a little more than half the year building infrastructure and running development programs all over the continent; the other four or five months, he lived wherever pro basketball took his wife, Catherine, a former All-American at George Washington University who played in the WNBA for two seasons and put together an impressive international career in France and Spain. “This work, a lot of times it’s kind of lonely,” he says. “But I always had her in this part of the world. And vice versa, too.”

When Ujiri was hired as executive vice-president and general manager of the Raptors in 2013, he offered Engelbrecht a job. “He’s got a great eye for talent,” Ujiri says. “And he knows how to go get it, you know, like he’s not afraid to go into areas; he’s not afraid to go into gyms; he’s not afraid to travel. And that’s just been his M.O. for many years.”

Knowing Catherine’s playing career was nearing its end, the chance to move back to North America and settle down a bit was attractive. And the possibility of teaming up with Ujiri offered added incentive. “To work in a club where the general manager is a Nigerian who has a vision of doing development on the continent, that’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Engelbrecht says.

He took the job, and has been with the Raptors ever since.

Judged solely on the amount of Leandro Bolmaro it contains, the B team’s game is a complete bust. It’s held in a relatively small gym at the Ciutat Esportiva Joan Gamper, the FC Barcelona training facility named for the founder of the soccer club, and the Argentine’s absence registers moments after entering. Engelbrecht salvages the trip by settling in to watch Ibou Dianko Badji, a 17-year-old centre already a couple inches north of seven feet tall. Engelbrecht first met Badji at a development camp in his native Senegal run by Giants of Africa, an organization Ujiri founded in 2003 that uses basketball to empower youth on the continent. As he does with pretty much every GOA camper who goes on to play abroad, Engelbrecht has kept an eye on Badji, monitoring the development of his game since he came to Spain. “Once he commits to a person, he’s invested in them, and he’s invested in their success,” Justice says of Engelbrecht. “He’s not just going to be off to the next thing. He’s going to continue to support players through their individual journeys…. He cares. He’s passionate about what he does, and he cares.”

Badji checks in with 5:41 left in the first and gets off to a shaky start: He slides late to help on a Menorcan drive and gets called for goaltending when he slaps the resulting runner off the backboard; three minutes later, having barely touched the ball in the interim, he throws away an attempted entry pass. With a minute to go in the quarter, though, he grabs an offensive rebound and draws a foul going back up. He converts one-of-two at the line, and his shooting form looks solid, especially given the sheer expanse of arm, leg and torso his brain is being asked to marshal and deploy. His one real flash of brilliance comes at 5:19 in the third. Isolated on the right wing, he wrongfoots his defender off the dribble, closes on the basket and shakes free of his man before finishing with a right-handed baby hook. When he’s pulled near the end of the quarter, Engelbrecht calls it and heads out to the Avinguda del Sol to look for a cab.

“When you see somebody with the group, you can see if the group likes him. You can see if the group wants him to succeed or not.”

Out on the street, there are no options in sight, but Benas Matkevicius, a Lithuanian the Boston Globe once called “the Celtics’ one-man European scouting department” offers to share the cab he’s called. On the 15-minute ride to Camp Nou, where Barcelona’s first team plays in a 7,500-seat arena opposite the 99,000-seat soccer stadium, Matkevicius puts the percentage chance of Bolmaro playing at 80. Engelbrecht conservatively ventures a 75. The main reason for that optimism, beyond the two scouts just being glass-half-full kind of guys, is that a few of the veterans ahead of Bolmaro on the Barcelona depth chart are injured. There are reports that one of them may return to action tonight — fan favourite French guard Thomas Heurtel — but the apparent lack of options has to at least bump up the odds Bolmaro sees the floor. Right? Right?

Scouts throw their weight into it when they’re stressing the importance of watching players in person. It’s a safe bet that every significant minute of basketball Bolmaro has ever played has been filmed, and that an NBA scout would have very little trouble laying hands on the footage. But while film provides a good sense of skill and overall playing ability, there’s only so much it can offer. “I hate watching games on tape, watching prospects on tape,” Ujiri says. “It’s hard to get a feel.”

Watching a game live, what you see isn’t determined by a cameraperson and fenced in by a frame. You can follow the flow of momentum and emotion in a way that just isn’t possible through a screen, and that freedom to observe is immensely valuable. “It’s the interactions,” Engelbrecht says. “When you see somebody with the group, you can see if the group likes him. You can see if the group wants him to succeed or not. You can see the state of his relationships throughout the team. Those things are very telling when you’re seeing a guy who’s going to go to the NBA…. Are his teammates happy about his success? And if they’re not and they’re a little bit salty, are they haters or is there something up with this guy?”

Though Engelbrecht has lived and worked in Europe and North America, he has returned to Africa year after year to volunteer, coach and scout

If the body language of his teammates on the court at the Palau Blaugrana can be trusted, there’s nothing up with Bolmaro. They like the kid. And with so many NBA scouts in the building, a big game or even just big minutes could be life-changing for the young guard. “This is climb-the-draft-board day,” Engelbrecht says as he watches Barcelona run through warmup, and everyone on the floor knows it. Teammates joke and shoot the shit with Bolmaro as he gets shots up, maybe trying to distract him from the pressure of the moment. At one point in a layup line, a teammate gives him the quick “you got this” shoulder massage a cornerman gives a boxer before a fight.

When the game tips off, Engelbrecht is watching from a seat about a dozen rows up from the floor. Barcelona’s legendary head coach, Svetislav Pesic, opts to start Adam Hanga at the point, and Engelbrecht explains that the Hungarian, who was drafted 59th overall by the Spurs in 2011, moved there from the three earlier this season and played well enough to stay. Barcelona gets out to an early-but-far-from-commanding lead, then looks immediately sharper and more aggressive when Heurtel checks in with 2:33 left in the frame. They finish the first quarter up 21–15. “Our only hope is if this is a blowout and they throw [Bolmaro] a bone and give him five minutes,” Engelbrecht says.

They don’t. As time slips away, teammates on the bench quietly console the young point guard. Bolmaro just looks numb. Heurtel ends the fourth quarter with a nice layup through traffic, putting the exclamation point on a 77–59 Barcelona win.

Like many of the scouts in attendance, Engelbrecht has seen Bolmaro before, so he’s not going to rival the kid for disappointment tonight. That said, part of the way he gets to a place where he’s comfortable making a final call on a prospect is by seeing that player in as many contexts as possible. A youth championship might show you what he looks like leading a team and playing under pressure against other top prospects, even if they’re all his age. A low-level pro game might show you how he handles himself amongst cagey vets, even if they’re past their athletic primes. A top-flight domestic league might show you whether he can hang in there against full-grown men with elite talent, even if he only gets a few minutes. Layering all those moments, taking pieces from each and assembling them into a more complete picture, is what gives you a shot at seeing the future. A scout missing one of them has “a little bit of a blind spot,” he says.

At dinner — catching the early bird special at 11:30 p.m. — the only sign Engelbrecht’s been fazed by the day is his decision to take a pass on Israel tomorrow. A source he trusts who recently saw Maccabi Tel Aviv in a Euroleague game told him that Deni Avdija, the team’s top prospect and a projected lottery pick, played just four minutes. The idea of flying seven-plus hours each way only to get burned again is a bit too much to consider at the moment, so he finally stops considering it: In the morning, he’ll catch a flight back to Paris. From there, he’ll head for Cholet and the minutes he knows are coming to Abdoulaye N’Doye and Theo Maledon.

In the parking lot of La Meilleraie, Cholet Basket’s hangar-like 5,000-seat arena, Engelbrecht steps out of the back of a hired van and stretches the three-hour drive from his legs. He’s dressed, as he has been for much of the weekend, in clothes that simultaneously look presentable enough to wear to a Michelin-starred restaurant and comfortable enough to sleep in. He opens the trunk and grabs a small military brush from his bag, running it quickly over his hair. That done, he stows his things and walks toward the gym.

Cholet is a city of about 50,000 in western France. It’s a hub of linen manufacturing and livestock sales, and walking into La Meilleraie, taking in its exposed rafters and corrugated metal roof, its polished concrete floor and single-tiered bleachers, you half expect to find an auction ring at the arena’s centre instead of the hardwood court. The club, Cholet Basket, was founded in 1975 and fought its way into Pro A, France’s top men’s league, by 1987. It’s an organization that prides itself on developing quality players in-house, and it boasts an impressive history on that score: Nando de Colo and Rodrigue Beaubois came through Cholet’s youth academy, as did Kevin Seraphin and Rudy Gobert. Today, it’s hard to miss a 20-foot-high likeness of the Utah Jazz all-star and two-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year hanging on one of the arena’s interior walls.

In France, U-21 academy teams travel along with their club’s senior teams and play ahead of the Pro A matchups. As Engelbrecht finds his seat, the youth game between Cholet and the visiting ASVEL Basket, a Lyon-based club owned by Tony Parker, is just getting underway. The priority at the moment is the 2020 draft, of course, and none of these players are likely to declare for it, but Engelbrecht sees real value in watching youth games and tournaments. There’s some solid talent on the floor between Cholet and ASVEL, and if any of these teenagers grows into a legit NBA prospect, Engelbrecht will have an advantage over any scout who didn’t see them today or who paid only partial attention while waiting for the men. He’ll have one less blind spot. “He’s still probably our point person in terms of knowing the next generation of young players and who’s coming up,” Tolzman says. “If ever a new name pops on a radar, Pat’s usually the first guy that we check with overseas just to say, ‘Tell us a little bit about this guy.’”

Engelbrecht — seen here with Kgosi Leruo Molotlegi, king of the Royal Bafokeng Nation — won the NBA Championship in his first year with the Spurs in 2007, and then again with the Raptors in 2019

For the scouts in attendance — and again there are plenty — professional responsibility might prevent a full embrace of the vibe La Meilleraie musters as the senior teams prepare to tip off on a Sunday afternoon. It’s got to be said, though, that the experience of a Cholet home game is a truly charming one. The grandstands seem almost exclusively occupied by multi-generational family units, grandparents and small children alike decked out in the team’s red-and-white. Fans call out to friends a few rows above or below over the steady stream of songs and chants from the supporters’ section. At the concession stand, grey-haired staff pour beer and wine into tiny plastic cups, and just past the ticket takers, homemade gummy candies and baked goods are arranged in small plastic bags on a grey folding table like a high-school bake sale. The only element that’s impossible to get behind is the human face visible in the mouth of Cholet’s mascot, the cartoonish and evidently man-eating bull Charalito. Otherwise, it’s all easy camaraderie and community feeling.

ASVEL enters as the favourite on paper, 17–2 in Pro A this season, but the outcome today won’t matter much to Engelbrecht. He’s here to see two players. Cholet’s Abdoulaye N’Doye is a 21-year-old combo guard listed at six-foot-five, -six or -seven depending on the source, and reportedly boasting a seven-foot-three-inch wingspan. He has a solid history with the French national team program and is projected toward the back half of the second round. On the other side, ASVEL’s Théo Maledon played his first Pro A game at 16 and became the youngest LNB all-star ever the following season. Though his stock will slip a bit over the coming months, as of this afternoon, the 18-year-old point guard is one of two French players with projected lottery potential, alongside Killian Hayes. Thankfully, both N’Doye and Maledon start.

From the opening minutes of the game, N’Doye puts his length to good use on defence, troubling passing lanes enough to come away with a handful of deflections and a pair of steals. ASVEL plays him tight the whole way, implying he’s a threat from outside, but in his 40 minutes of run I don’t see him put up a jump shot. Around the basket, he leans pretty heavily on a deliberate and fairly effective Eurostep, but when he can’t get into it smoothly, he has a tendency to drive into the paint and pick up his dribble with no clear plan, which gets him into trouble a few times. He shoots poorly on the day, going 4-for-11 from the field, but still finds a way to contribute on the offensive end with his passing, notching a game-high eight assists.

“Sometimes you can almost project what a kid’s struggles are going to be, what the issues are. And a lot of times they are solvable, you know?”

Maledon also has an off-night from the field, shooting 3-for-9, though he makes up for it somewhat at the line, putting some very clean mechanics to use there to go 5-for-5. He’s aggressive in attacking the basket and getting into defenders’ bodies, but doesn’t record a single assist in 24 minutes, while splitting time at the point with three other ASVEL guards. Still, he is incredibly skilled and has no trouble keeping up with the game at this level. His reads are quick and accurate, and he never looks flustered. He plays solid defence, too.

What Engelbrecht takes away from both performances he keeps to himself. Instead, walking back to the van, he reminisces about his wife’s time playing for a team with a very similar vibe to Cholet Basket’s — the unique obligations a player faces in such an organization, and the unbelievable warmth and acceptance the community provides, at least when you win as much as Catherine did. In Bourges, one of her two stops in France’s top women’s division, the way Engelbrecht knew the fans had truly adopted them was when a local approached after a game and gifted him a small bag of fresh truffles. “These little idiosyncrasies about each country, they bleed into the game as well, and into the coach’s mentality,” he says, and understanding them — or better, experiencing them yourself — can offer a scout a competitive advantage: extra context and deeper empathy.

“It helps in many ways to almost put yourself in [a prospect’s] shoes,” Ujiri says. “Sometimes you can almost project what a kid’s struggles are going to be, what the issues are. And a lot of times they are solvable, you know?

“You put them in certain organizations or certain environments, they just — they would do better.”

It’s astounding just how much more time an international scout spends getting to and from games than watching them. After the final buzzer sounds in Cholet, sealing a 91–80 ASVEL win, it’s immediately back in the van for the three-hour return to Paris. Engelbrecht sleeps for much of the trip, getting rest where he can. Catherine has been in France with him for much of the last month, along with their two young sons, Noah and Jonah. When he gets back tonight, he’s meeting her and some friends in Versailles for dinner.

The bigger-picture plan from there is clear: another week in France; home for a bit; Chicago for the All-Star Game; and then scouting NCAA through to the end of the national championship in early April. Ujiri believes in allowing as many different members of his staff to see as many different prospects as possible, so the line between college and international scouts in Toronto is thin bordering on non-existent. “It’s been a huge advantage for us,” says Engelbrecht. “I’ve never been in a room and had to force an international guy on any of our staff, ever, because they’ve been in a gym, with me or on their own, watching that guy.”

Adds Ujiri: “I hate that concept of, ‘I haven’t seen him because I only scout in the West Coast,’ or ‘I only scout international.’ I like everybody to have a feel for everybody, you know? And that’s just been the style. And I think Patrick has fit so well with that. Whether he’s looking at the pros in the NBA or he’s looking at college or he’s looking at players overseas or he’s looking at guys in the G League, he’s just that dynamic.”

Of course, as Tolzman noted, “there’s always wrinkles that come up,” and the next several months will dish out a whole bunch that even Engelbrecht has never encountered: an unprecedented global health crisis, a suspension of the NBA’s regular season, a virtual draft combine — you know the drill. But as prospects from across the United States descend on L.A., the city will prove to be a pretty good place to scout basketball in a pandemic. Zoom calls will end up working just fine for player interviews, and Engelbrecht will slip on a mask and keep his distance for the rest. The Raptors will enter a 2020 draft pushed back from late June to Nov. 18 holding the 29th and 59th picks, and however it ultimately works out, they’ll have had good reasons for taking the players they do. Tolzman again: “The key is to not panic on that and you just figure it out, you know?”

As the van pulls off the highway and into Versailles, Engelbrecht consults his phone and then leans over the passenger seat to offer some direction. “This is good,” he says after a few minutes. “On the corner here.”

He gets out and grabs his bag, takes in his surroundings for a second and then thanks the driver. The goodbye he offers is a quick one. He’s got to get moving. It’s almost 10 p.m. and he’s due for dinner.

Photo Credits

Illustrations by Rafa Alvarez. Ryan Pierse/Getty Images; Kevin Couliau/Courtesy Patrick Engelbrecht; Courtesy Patrick Engelbrecht.