A journey in talent evaluation

NORTH AUGUSTA, S.C. -- Nearly 20 minutes into what should have been a 25-minute drive from one basketball tournament to the next, Kevin Keatts realized something was off.

With the push of a button, he summoned the disembodied voice from the navigation service. He asked the voice if he was still headed in the right direction, to USC Aiken, where the head UNC Wilmington coach was supposed to evaluate two more potential recruiting targets.

The voice replied with the only address listed, which prompted a confused response from both Keatts and assistant coach Takayo Siddle.

"Atkins, Georgia?"

The mistake cost them the entire first half of the game of the first player they wanted to see. It also served as a metaphor in the art of talent evaluation -- despite all the help and information designed to make it easier, mistakes happen. And Keatts can't afford many.

The 2015 recruiting class -- the first Keatts will sign with the benefit of July evaluation period -- will be the foundation for rebuilding the Seahawks into an NCAA tournament team. One miss could mean Keatts loses traction and has to fill the same area of need in future classes.

"It's very important that we get the right fit," Keatts said. "I'm a little picky in terms of the guys that we take because I think it's important that we get the right fit, and what I mean by the right fit, you know, style-wise, school-wise and the ability to come in and change the program around."

It's why the conversation about potential players was seemingly nonstop. Siddle drove Keatts between venues with a pencil behind his right ear. Siddle made it a common practice to scribble a few notes in the columns of team rosters while waiting for a stoplight to change.

They try to be as meticulous as possible, even though it's a different process for Keatts.

As an assistant coach under Louisville's Rick Pitino the past three seasons, he was used to tracking up to 15 players during the evaluation period. Programs such as Louisville can afford to be a little more selective, even in the players they targeted.

This past month, Keatts tracked between 25 and 30 players, all for just three scholarships he will eventually offer. One principle Keatts took from Pitino is talent evaluation.

"It's the single most important part of the game," Pitino said. "You make a mistake, and it's -- more often than not -- a four-year mistake."

Pitino says he needed to watch a player five times for a complete evaluation. With Keatts seeing so many players, his goal is to see them at least three times. Even then, he knows there is still a risk.

"Hopefully, you get a guy who is going to come in and play," Keatts said. "But you never know until they get there [to campus] because freshmen are freshmen."

UNC Wilmington went 9-23 and finished last in the Colonial Athletic Association this past season, so Keatts is looking for help at just about every position.

"I'm looking for the same talent [as I did as an assistant at Louisville], but they might be a step slower than a [Peyton] Siva or Russ [Smith], [and] the post players might be a bit shorter than a Montrezl [Harrell]," Keatts said.

The Peach Jam, which is the championship tournament of Nike's Elite Youth Basketball League, is a one-stop shop for some of the nation's most talented players. Forwards Ivan Rabb and Ben Simmons and center Stephen Zimmerman -- three of the top six players in RecruitingNation's ESPN Top 100 -- were there.

Keatts had previously seen the pair of guards he watched in the first game. They made an early impression as freshmen and sophomores and were on the recruiting radar while he was still at Louisville.

"You could go to a game where a bad player has a good game or a good player has a bad game," Keatts said. "I like to see them at least twice and [for] my assistants to see him, too."

It's not just one thing that can get a player noticed early in the talent evaluation process; beyond the obvious shooting and dribbling skills, it could be as subtle as having a body frame that typically allows for more growth.

For instance, these two guards in particular didn't quite improve as juniors in the ways that would have kept them as high-major targets. But Keatts saw the skills that made them exactly the kind of player he wanted to sign.

The point guard exuded a comfort level playing fast, and finding players in transition with crisp passes. His perimeter shooting is what will likely keep the player from being wooed by bigger programs. Keatts believes he can improve his shot but viewed his instincts with the ball as invaluable.

During one defensive possession, the shooting guard was beaten in the press, but he recovered and tipped the ball from behind as it was advanced.

"That's how we would play," Keatts said.

That deflection spoke more to Keatts than a dunk would have. He wants to build an athletic roster and play a frenetic, pressing style.

While scouting the two guards, Keatts got a text from Louisville assistant coach Wyking Jones, who was watching a different game on another court in the facility. Jones said there was "a kid on ct 1 that u might like," and just like that, Keatts sent Siddle off to evaluate.

Even in this information and technology age, in which recruiting services track kids in middle school, word of mouth is still a major path to talent.

Tips can come from anywhere, including high school or AAU coaches trying to help a player get recognition. Keatts spent 2003 to 2011 as the head coach at Hargrave Military Academy in Chatham, Virginia, and the network of high school and prep school coaches he knows is vast, not to mention the recruiting site contacts he made during that time.

But all a tip can do is get a player a look. And no one knows what Keatts is looking for better than Keatts himself. That's something every coach has to keep in mind.

"You get a lot of recommendations, but unfortunately most of them are not as good a player as everybody wants you to take," Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said.

Keatts doesn't overly rely on recruiting services. He doesn't write anything while he's courtside watching games, but he makes a mental note of players' skills and how those would fit into his vision for his team. And, of course, he's going to ask others on his staff.

Keatts doesn't want his assistants in an echo chamber. He expects there to be disagreement and dialogue on why a player would or would not work in the UNC Wilmington system.

It's why most recruiting nights end with a conference call. They'll discuss what they liked and what they didn't before preparing for the next day of evaluation. It also guards against Keatts hastily reacting on a player.

"One of the things that's hard now is you almost over-evaluate," Izzo said. "You see them so much over the summer, you see their warts, too -- and everybody's got them. One of the things that you've got to stay focused on if you like him for what he is, and you look at those things -- is he going to get better, is he a good kid? Does he like to win? -- stick with that, and don't stick to the ups and downs of fatigue of the summer."

It's not an exact science, that's for sure.

Florida coach Billy Donovan wanted athletes when in his 2004 class. He got the length and athleticism he wanted in Corey Brewer, a pair of bigs who could defend and run the floor in Joakim Noah and Al Horford, and a floor general in Taurean Green. (Cornelius Ingram rounded out the class but only played one season before focusing on football.) That class formed the foundation for the Gators' back-to-back national championships in 2006 and 2007.

"If I knew our recruiting class was going to be that special [in 2004], I would recruit a class like that every year," Donovan said. "You don't know, you don't know ... I always say, you bring in a recruiting class, and you never really find out about your recruiting class until you coach them."

Teams in the Colonial don't generally land players rated in the Top 100. That's why Keatts finds himself in a precarious position. As he watched his first game of the day, he hoped the two guards he viewed didn't play well enough to get noticed by others. There's nothing worse than finding a steal that ends up getting stolen.

"The crazy thing in this venue with all the coaches, you want a kid to play well, to show you enough, but you don't want him to play too well," Keatts said.

Tyler Ulis is an example of a kid who played too well. The 5-foot-9 Matteson, Illinois, native is undersized compared to the point guards Kentucky coach John Calipari has signed. Yet he consistently played his way up college basketball's hierarchy and into the Wildcats' 2014 class with a strong skill set that nullified concerns over his size.

"He's an exceptional basketball player," Kentucky associate head coach Kenny Payne said. "If we're going to take a guy who is that size or out of the norm for us, he has to be that kind of special."

Keatts doesn't need that kind of special straight out of high school. But he needs players to show the potential to reach that level. That's why his evaluation is as much a vision of what could be as it is an assessment of what is.

Keatts clutched an eight-page printout with the game times and teams of each player he wanted to see. Each person on his staff had assignments of whom to watch. He doesn't have as big a budget for recruiting, so tournaments such as the Peach Jam and Peach State being held simultaneously in proximity with one another helps. The Peach State used different courts throughout the area, but the longest drive Keatts had to make between games was 16 miles.

When the first game wrapped, Keatts met with Siddle and headed out of the gym to their car.

"How did you like the kid?" Keatts asked.

"He's good enough to offer," Siddle said.

The endorsement carries weight, but Keatts, like many head coaches, is reluctant to ever offer a scholarship before seeing the player himself.

"You've got to have a good eye for what you're looking for," Keatts said. "I've got to be the guy who comes in and says if I like him or if I don't."

Keatts and Siddle duck into the car, off to the next venue. When they finally make it, they hustle to catch the last bit of the game in which a wing they've targeted is playing. What they found was a tough game on which to evaluate any player.

Maybe the level of competition was better in the first half, but now the game has descended into a lunchtime pickup game. One injured player seated on the last chair on the bench, away from his team huddle, broke out his cell phone to make a call with the game still in progress. He could have gotten his cue from the smattering of college coaches along one baseline looking down at their phones -- who only glanced up when they sensed a collision.

Keatts left the game as the final seconds tick off to go to another court. He left his master list in the car, so he called Siddle for his instructions.

"Which court am I on? Who am I looking at?" Keatts asked.

The next target is another wing player, this one identified first by name then by his puffed-out hairdo. Keatts joked the kid would have to cut his hair before he could play at UNCW -- or at least until he showed a deep shooting range. The player made three consecutive 3-pointers, each one seemingly from farther than the one before.

The player he's watching has his best stretch of the game with a steal and dunk, then another dunk off a steal and a pass from a teammate punctuated by another 3-pointer.

"No way," Keatts said in a delightful disbelief, having observed the player's impressive stretch, despite being on the phone with his wife trying to solve a satellite dish issue back home.

It prompted California assistant coach Tracy Webster to crack on Keatts' multitasking skills.

"Keatts doesn't miss anything," Webster said. "He'll be on his phone and still comment on a player, and I'm like, 'How'd you see that?'"

Keatts was off to his third venue of the day to see a post player and a guard who play on the same team. The games were set up in a convention center with four courts.

Keatts admitted it's hard to gauge post players' offensive skills during most summer games.

"You may watch a whole game and only see two post moves," Keatts said. "You don't [evaluate] bigs on how much they score. You judge how hard they play, their rebounding, hands and how they run the floor."

Although the post player had an impressive game, showing some passing skills and good presence on the defensive end, Keatts left unimpressed by his athleticism. For the way he wants to play, that's a non-negotiable.

"They're may be guys who are really good, but they just don't fit your style of play," Keatts said.

Ultimately, talent evaluation comes down to finding that fit.

"Is he a guy who is self-reflective, in terms of areas he needs to get better, or is he a guy who finger-points and wants to put the blame elsewhere?" Donovan said. "There's so many things that go into it. I think for all of us as coaches we're always trying to find out those things. Those things ultimately become what we're trying to evaluate, and they're very hard to get."

It's why Izzo started looking at two areas more than he used to when evaluating players.

"So many kids are getting burned out by so much of this," Izzo said. "Are they excited to be moving on, or do they think they've already arrived? That's a hard thing to evaluate, but right now I'm looking at gym rats who want to get better because so many kids are peaking and think they've already arrived."

That's why Keatts believes that, while evaluating talent, sometimes it's better to navigate by gut feeling than trust a new GPS.