Wes Unseld is a Professional Scout for the Washington Wizards.
Brian Sereno is in charge of the website www.WashingtonWizards.com
I'm on the road about 25 or 26 days a month, including the time I'm on the road with our team. I see about 20 to 22 games a month in the early part of the season. That number lightens up once we've played a team once or twice, because then we'll have our own tape to go off, but before we play a team for the first time I'll make sure that I've seen them play at least twice. For the Western Conference teams, I definitely want to see them twice before we play them. Since we play them less often, obviously we're less familiar with them.
Even before I go to the game, I watch tape of the opponent. I never want to go into the game cold. I want to know what I'm looking at. You have to train yourself not to watch the ball. As a fan, you always watch the ball. As a scout, I need to see everything. I need to see the whole picture because I need to see the cuts and the secondary action that is critical to the play. You can't just see one cut and wonder what happened on the weak side. It's easy on tape because you can rewind a thousand times if you need to. When it's live, you need to pay attention, and that's where the pre-game work comes in. It doesn't look like everybody out there is just running around. You have a feel for what they are doing, or at least what they are trying to do. From the tip to the buzzer, we know every single thing they did, and it all goes into a database.
I don't ever want to be in a situation where they do something that I am unfamiliar with. I don't want to put the coaches in that situation. That said, there are some great x's and o's coaches in the league, and late in the game sometimes they'll run a play that they've never run and may never run again. Hopefully we can sniff something out and make an adjustment. That's where scouting individuals come in to play. If we know individual strengths, and stop that initial move, sometimes that's all you can do. You can't take everything away.
We have a format that we use to relay the information that I pull from the game to the coaching staff. It's a template. On that document we break down individual players' strengths and weaknesses both offensively and defensively. Then we'll get into team tendencies. We're looking for information that will help us exploit any weaknesses, and obviously we're looking at the plays to figure out how to best defend them. All of that goes into a report, and then we'll use more software to actually draw up the plays. That is the most tedious part. I'll draw up every play a team runs throughout the course of the game and make note of the frequency of which it is run. I'll include a description of the action of the play, and with the individual and team reports, all of that information will be either emailed of faxed to our staff.
A lot of this stuff is done not necessarily at the game, but at the hotel afterwards. I'll draw up everything that I saw and put together the frequency chart details the play, play type and verbiage. I send about 25 pages a night back to the staff. It makes for a lot of late nights, because I really don't get going until after the game ends. So I see my share of all-nighters and nights that don't end until 4 or 5 o'clock in the morning. Then it's off to the next city. There is very little turnover time.
Basketball scouting is a different beast. It's not stealing. We know that their scouts are at our games, and they know that I'm at their games. That's how it's done. It's not like stealing signs in baseball. They know what I'm doing there. There are certain things that you can just get off the tape, but the benefit of going live is that you hear the call. You can see the action on tape, but being there will tell you what they call it. You can't get that on TV.
When I am with the team, and I'm sitting behind the bench, I'm always listening. I'll hear the other point guard call a play, or I'll be watching their coach call out a play, and I'll have a list of all of their plays in front of me. More often that not, I already know what the play is. That's where I can have a small impact on the game. I'll yell out 'high pick-and-roll' or 'weak-side pin-down' or 'cross-screen' - anything that will give our guys an extra second or two to figure out how to adjust. Hopefully we went over it in shoot-around even if we didn't go over that specific play. I can yell out 'cross-screen to post five' and our center knows that the play is going to his guy. Maybe at that point he can make an adjustment that will deter the entry pass. If it helps us defend one play late in the game, that could be the difference between a win and a loss. Sometimes a coach may change what they call a play, but honestly, most coaches don't care if you know. When it comes down to it, you still have to execute. There are no secrets. Maybe you'll change a couple of small things to trick the defense a little bit, but sometimes you end up tricking your own guys. It's not worth it. You have to go out and execute regardless. Basketball is basketball. We're not going to reinvent the wheel.
When I watch a game, I'm not just listening for calls and diagramming plays, but I am looking for what they do in terms of patterns in special situations. I may notice that they have certain things they like to do after time-outs or in end-of-the-game situations or with time running out on the shot clock. Coaches sometimes will run the same play in a certain situation because those are their 'need' plays. They run that play when they need a basket. If I can help in those situations, it's as valuable as me calling out the play on a regular basis. Down the stretch of the game, Coach may come to me and ask what I think they're going to do. I may be guessing, but it's an educated guess based off how many times I've seen that team play. Sometimes I'll see that they like to go to Player A down the stretch, or they always run a certain action for Player B. Coaches get into routines. If we can figure that out, it gives us a slight edge.
When we sniff out something big, it's a big lift to me and scouting in general. Being out there day after day after day, it becomes somewhat monotonous. When I'm not with the team, I feel somewhat displaced. So when I'm able to be there, and my input changes the course of the play, that's huge not only personally, but for the whole profession. It's a win for scouting, and it gives me confidence in what I'm doing and it gives the coaches confidence in what I'm doing.
I concentrate more on watching what a team does on offense, because that's what helps us on defense. But when we are on offense there are certain things I can help with. I know who isn't a good defender in the post, and who doesn't defend pick-androlls well. I know who is slow to rotate. I may be able to recommend a play that can exploit those weaknesses. You scout defense the same way. Most teams have defensive schemes for situational defense. They defend pick-and-rolls the same way, or post-ups the same way. It's stuff that they have practiced since training camp. That's the stuff we're looking for. We want to know how they are going to try to stop us. We're also looking for their calls - like what they call their zone or what they call their trap coming off a free throw - if we know their calls mean than we can give our guys a heads up. It may only be a split second, but you can get an advantage in that time. But you still have to execute. That is always the biggest key.
As for scouting individuals, we break down everything on everybody ... how he shoots from the field, how he shoots threes, how comfortable he is with his left hand, which way he likes to turn. Everything. In this league, if you can defend a guy for two dribbles, he'll want to pass it off. Only a few guys can make something happen after a couple of dribbles. If we can find a way to stall what a player is doing by learning his tendencies and making him uncomfortable, he has to get rid of the ball and that is a plus for us. That's the information we give our players pre-game. All of that information is printed out and given to players so they can read exactly what the opponent likes to do. They'll see that Player X shoots fifty percent of his shots from three-point range, so they know not to leave him out there. Maybe we'll see that a guy is a catch-and-shoot guy. That's the guy that we want to jam and make him put it on the floor where he's less comfortable.
One thing you have to keep in mind is that no matter how much preparation you do to stop a guy, some of the guys in this league are still going to beat you. There is so much talent at every position, but I think the two-guard is the toughest position to defend. That obviously differs, but on the whole, the two-guard is a tough position to guard in this league. On a lot of teams, the two-guard is the number one option. They can do so much. Not only do you have to contain them with the ball, but you have to contain them without the ball. They are constantly moving. With those players you know are going to score. You just have to make them work to score. If you make them work, maybe they'll miss a big shot in the fourth quarter that they were making earlier in the game. As a defender, sometimes all you can do is learn the opposition's strengths and prepare yourself for what's ahead.
Some players have reputations for being preparation junkies. They'll watch a lot of tape to prepare because the tape doesn't lie. It's also critical for a guy to watch his own game on tape. Sometimes you see something on the tape that you didn't think you did.
No player in this league wants to say that they are not a good shooter. But not everybody is a good shooter. Nobody will say that they don't box out. But not everybody boxes out. Tape doesn't lie.
We usually play about four times a week, so we're not only asking our guys to prepare themselves for the game offensively and defensively with what we are trying to do, but to also concentrate on what the other team is trying to do.
We may see three or four different styles from a team in a given week, so it's hard to prepare.
That's why it's important to focus on the keys. A player can't over-analyze. That's our job. It's too much to ask a player to do all of that and prepare himself mentally and physically for the game.
I haven't watched a game as a fan in about eight years. I watch a lot of basketball even when I'm not supposed to be working, but I find myself analyzing it anyway.
It's second nature. You can't ask a weatherman to walk outside and not see what's going on in the sky. That's how I am with basketball. It's second nature when I'm watching a game to analyze the coach and the players. In doing so, I have learned so much more about the game.
Hopefully that translates into my own career in the future as a coach. I can pick things that I've seen work, and not work, from everybody around this league.
Scouting is the best way to learn this league, and that knowledge can come into play in other areas. I have built a good database on everybody.