Taking place in November instead of June, and during a pandemic that has limited the ability to scout players in person, the Toronto Raptors are preparing for a very different NBA draft experience.
The Raptors have the 29th and 59th picks in the draft, which will take place on Nov. 18, a little more than a month after the NBA Finals concluded inside the bubble in Orlando. The process of evaluating prospects live at games, combines and individual workouts has mostly shifted to studying those players on film and interviewing them by video calls.
The Raptors scouting department works year-round and has scouts around the world. Their staff had already learned a great deal about prospects before the pandemic shut down the sports world, including March Madness, in the spring.
“I think that we’re a front office that spends a lot of time digging in on guys throughout the entire season, not just during the predraft," said Dan Tolzman, Raptors assistant general manager and vice-president of player personnel. "So a lot of the work we’ve done, it happened earlier in the year while the games were still going on.
"We feel pretty comfortable where things were when everything got changed. I think it’s going to come down to trusting in our gut feeling on some of these players.”
Typically, NBA teams bring potential picks to their cities for individual workouts close to the draft, but the league restricted most player travel because of the pandemic. Some players did local workouts and teams connected by video to watch or talk to them.
“We value the visits ... and we get to know [the prospects] in person," Tolzman said during a video call with reporters, adding that it was also a good way to sell the potential players on the city. “A lot of these guys have never been out of the country or especially to Toronto. It’s unfortunate for that side of things to kind of miss out on that opportunity. We’re still getting some one-on-one time. We’re doing a lot of Zoom interviews. It doesn’t recreate the interperson discussions, but we’re doing our best to at least get to know them.”
The Raptors are still doing homework on the prospects, including speaking with people who know them. Tolzman added that it can be tough to evaluate virtually how a player is doing with goals he may have stated months ago, such as changing his diet, adding or losing weight or improving a particular skill.
“It seems like forever since we’ve seen these players. They might be completely different from the last time we saw them playing in March,” Tolzman said. “We’re basing a lot of these decisions on extensive film work, discussions as a staff and a lot of background digging on players to get as much info as we can to make an educated decision come draft night.”
All teams missed the scouting opportunities that would have come with U.S. college conference tournaments and the NCAA tournament.
“Those are two events that are so important for the performances under pressure, the different sort of environments that are really good for critiquing players and getting to see them in different settings,” Tolzman said. “It’s almost like the final exam of a scouting season where you can go to a conference tournament and you can see 12 different draft prospects in one day.”
Tolzman said he believes the market for undrafted talent could be huge this year, because some potential gems never got the chance to shine in front of scouts.
He added that international prospects might be more NBA ready than in in the past, because they spent four or five months before this draft training in the United States, rather than previous years when they would typically be playing back home.
“Because of this situation most of them are now State-side and they’re already doing the NBA-type training methods,” Tolzman said. “They might hit the ground running a little bit quicker than normal.”
The NBA has not released any details about how the draft will operate or what it will look on TV. The Raptors will still feel at home where key members of their staff usually work on draft nights, inside their Toronto training facility – OVO Athletic Centre – fitted with sophisticated analytics technology.
“We’re waiting to hear officially from the league on what to expect,” Tolzman said. “I think all the technologies and all the setups that we usually have at OVO for these sorts of thing, we’re going to have the same things right in front of us. It’ll just be a matter of it looking and feeling a little bit different. But we’re going to make sure it’s all set up and ready to go at least a week in advance to get comfortable and ready.”