Richard Smith squinted across an unfamiliar gym for the next great potential Jazzman on a recent trip overseas.
He didn’t see him in the starting lineup. He didn’t see him on the bench. Unfortunately, he soon found out that player was one of the onlookers, wearing street clothes.
The morning Smith, the Jazz’s executive director of basketball operations and global scouting, had flown into that European country, the player he came to see had tweaked his ankle during a game-day shootaround. He would be sitting out until the playoffs, which would begin well after Smith had flown off.
“That’s pretty common, actually,” Smith recently told The Tribune. “Sometimes it’s a hit-or-miss proposition.”
JAZZ AT NUGGETS
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International basketball scouting is laced with all kinds of inconveniences. Players get hurt. Game times get moved. Venues change. Language barriers and flight delays lead to confusion. Jazz general manager Dennis Lindsey estimates that scouts will complete about 75 to 80 percent of their goals — and that’s a high success rate on an average trip overseas.
But the Jazz value patience as one of their chief virtues, and it has paid off in a major way. With scouting processes that take years, the franchise has been able to leverage its observations and relationships made overseas into valuable pieces — Joe Ingles, Ekpe Udoh and Royce O’Neale.
These aren’t Cinderella stories. The Jazz labored for a long time to get their man in each case. Utah may be on the leading edge of the curve in an era where the NBA is starting to understand the value of players who develop in overseas leagues.
“It’s been my experience that there’s no scout that can see a guy and see a guy in a singular fashion and say, ‘He’s our guy, let’s go procure him,’” Lindsey said. “The best scouting jobs in the league are process-oriented.”
That process usually starts a lot earlier than you might think.
Take Royce O’Neale. He caught Lindsey’s attention at Baylor, his alma mater, and the Jazz liked him in a pre-draft workout in 2015. The timing, as Lindsey puts it, wasn’t right to sign him. But when he went overseas, O’Neale continually was scouted by the Jazz for the next two years, first in Germany then in Spain.
He was offered a training camp deal after the first year. O’Neale said he thought he had a better offer to play for Gran Canaria last season. But when he returned to the United States for NBA summer league, the Jazz managed to bring him into one of their training camp sessions and liked him even more. It led to the deal they eventually offered in July.
Nothing about that process was sudden. O’Neale had an ongoing conversation with the Jazz about coming back home throughout the two years he played internationally.
“Just seeing their scouts in the stands and whatnot,” he said, “I knew they were watching.”
Smith (better known in the organization as “Smitty”) oversees things overseas. The Jazz have a staff of internal scouts who occasionally fly to see players, but they also employ scouting consultants across the globe who help them track players they already know they like or find new ones who might be a fit in Utah.
Smith’s role includes flying often (Lindsey calls him “a happy traveler”) but also a healthy amount of film study in his Salt Lake City offices. While his trips to watch players live are important, he has to keep a pulse on players everywhere, every day. Otherwise it’s easy to miss things like injuries, trades or hot streaks.
“We’re constantly talking about different players, assessing needs and players, who is putting numbers, where are they putting them up,” he said. “It’s all part of a big boiling pot. We’re stirring that pot consistently and from there we try to see who makes sense for us to go see.”
Beyond scouting, diplomacy is a good chunk of Smith’s job. When he goes to a mainstream event like the Euroleague Final Four, where the Jazz scouted Udoh last spring, he’ll have a lot of his basic homework done, but he’ll try to nurture existing relationships, create new ones and learn intangibles about the players the Jazz are interested in.
The Jazz also try to maintain certain international relationships by inviting coaching staffs across the globe to visit them in Utah. Lindsey volunteered that a Chinese national team coach was visiting this past week.
“Give a little bit, you’ll get a lot back,” Lindsey said. “In some cases, that’s personnel tips.”
It helps also that Jazz coach Quin Snyder has coached overseas and still tracks Euroleague games. When Ingles was cut by the Clippers in 2014, Snyder (at that time just starting in Utah) told the Jazz front office that he was interested in working with him.
Lindsey, who had scouted Ingles as a raw 22-year-old undrafted prospect out of Australia, shared some interest, having watched his gradual improvement.
STRIKING IT RICH OVERSEAS
Utah’s scouting department has hit on some good prospects who spent years playing internationally. Here are a few.
Joe Ingles • Started every game this season, averaging 10.2 ppg, 4.2 apg, 4.2 rpg
Ekpe Udoh • Played in 31 games with two starts, averaging 2.8 rpg, 1.4 bpg
Royce O’Neale • Played in 22 games, averaging 3.1 ppg, 2.0 rpg, 38.7 3FG percentage
“We kept that file active and alive,” he said. “We were looking for wings. Quin had experience with him in the Euroleague. Joe improved his body, his shot, his defense. And now we have a core piece because we had multiple bites of the apple — multiple looks at scouting him over the years.”
Lindsey said he took a lot of his approach to international scouting from his time with the San Antonio Spurs and Houston Rockets, and former Jazz GM Kevin O’Connor wanted to see the Jazz push in that direction when Lindsey first arrived in Utah. The Jazz have poured more resources into their overall scouting over the years, but it’s notable that they’ve managed to pick up players like Ingles, Udoh and O’Neale on bargain initial deals.
Because the Jazz play a style that many observers have described as one of the most European influenced in the NBA, they bring something to the table when negotiating to bring in international free agents. The Jazz illustrated in their video presentation to Udoh this summer that they passed the ball the second-most in the NBA last season. It was a big factor when he made his decision to sign with the Jazz.
“It was the style of play, the opportunity that was there,” he said when asked what made him choose Utah. “It was like the Spurs family tree, the way we played last year [at Fenerbahce].”
The rest of the NBA is catching on to the trend of finding overseas veterans who aren’t necessarily stars but still can be valuable contributors: Brandon Paul with the Spurs; Darius Miller with the Pelicans; Mike James with the Suns; Shane Larkin and Daniel Theis with the Celtics. O’Neale and Udoh both said they gained a certain maturity from playing internationally that they didn’t possess coming out of college.
And if you wonder where the next international success story with the Jazz is now, the answer may be Serbia. During his most recent trip to Europe, Smith stopped in the country for a steak dinner with Nigel Williams-Goss, a second-round Jazz draft pick and point guard with KK Partizan.
Have you seen his stat line lately in the Adriatic League? Lindsey has. He’s averaging 17.8 points and 6.8 assists while shooting 51.9 percent from 3-point range in eight Eurocup games, according to Basketball Reference. While bringing him back to the States would involve a contract buyout, the Jazz still retain his NBA rights if they ever feel he’s ready to contribute. Lindsey said he views Williams-Goss “as still one of our guys.”
But as always in international scouting, patience is a virtue. As fun as it is to find success with one of these players, it always takes time.
“It’s incumbent upon us to be a program that believes in players,” Lindsey said. “We love a story of a guy fighting for a career in pro basketball.”