It’s Big Monday in the Big East and No. 1-ranked Louisville is in town to play the University of Connecticut. The underdog Huskies are energized from the opening tip. The crowd is rocking with the possibility of a major upset while Rick Pitino stomps away furiously on the sidelines. This is the college atmosphere at its best and as UConn takes a lead into halftime, the building is charged.
Down on the baseline a group of men watch silently, seemingly unmoved by the spectacle. They are NBA scouts and their expressions reveal little. It’s their eyes that are constantly at work. They are watching everything.
How did the big rotate over from the weakside? Does the shooter have good mechanics? Does the guard turn his back against pressure? The scouts’ eyes aren’t limited to what’s happening on the court. When a player commits a careless foul and gets yanked, they immediately scan the bench area to see how he reacts. Can he handle coaching in heated moments?
One player makes a move to get into the paint. Just as he’s about to meet the opposing center, he lowers his shoulder and initiates contact, leaving the larger defender reeling back on his heels. To the untrained eye it’s a sweet move. But to these observers it’s something different. It’s an NBA move.
Despite the lack of lottery talent on the floor, there are more than a half-dozen scouts and executives assembled in front of the student section. One of them is Ryan McDonough, the 33-year-old assistant general manager for the Boston Celtics.
Just saying the word "scout" conjures up images of old bird dogs in trench coats and fedoras, sneaking into remote gyms across the country looking for the next big thing. Those days are long gone. With the swipe of a finger, McDonough can call up reports on his ever-present iPad of players he’s seen live and broken down on video. As he sifts through his information, he’s cautious against being too high or too low on a player. Scouting isn’t linear. His evaluations are a constant process.
"Whether it’s your visual observations, statistical analysis, information you gather on background and personality, if you’re not using all that information you’re at a disadvantage," McDonough says. "The trick is how do you weigh all of that? More importantly where is that information coming from? Over time you figure out individually what’s most important to you as an evaluator and everybody does that differently."
McDonough isn’t a "basketball guy." He didn’t play beyond high school and he’s never coached. Instead, he was raised in the video room where he pored over hours of tape back when it was actually tape. He understands advanced metrics and he’s been on the road for close to a decade scouting players from Ruston, La., to Belgrade, Serbia, and everywhere in-between.
He’s part of a new breed of talent evaluators who have been making inroads into the highest level of the NBA in recent years. His peers include men like Sam Presti in Oklahoma City, Masai Ujiri in Denver and Rob Hennigan in Orlando -- men who have already made the jump to running their own franchises. McDonough may get that chance one day as well. "He’s very good at what he does," Celtics coach Doc Rivers says. "He’ll be a GM. There’s no doubt about that."
McDonough has worked for the Celtics for a decade and is the son of legendary Boston Globe columnist Will McDonough. His brother Sean is the highly-respected ESPN play-by-play announcer and his other brother Terry is director of player personnel for the Jacksonville Jaguars. Yet Ryan remains largely anonymous, perhaps owing to his low-key personality. "I don’t know where that comes from in the McDonough gene pool," Sean says laughing. "He’s the rare quiet, reserved McDonough."
Ryan is well known inside the tight circle of NBA decision makers. As Hennigan explains, "He’s well rounded in the skills that he brings to the front office. He’s got a bright future and he’s really well respected."
His tenure with the Celtics predates Danny Ainge’s arrival as head of basketball operations by a few months. They’ve been together ever since. McDonough rose steadily through the ranks emerging from the video room to scouting local colleges. He then became director of amateur scouting and added international duties as well. Now as an assistant GM he’s involved in every facet of basketball operations from prospects to the pros. "Ryan has earned the right to do things his way, just because he’s a hard worker," says Ainge. "He doesn’t take shortcuts. At the end of the day, his evaluations have been really good and I trust him. We all look at players differently and we all do it differently. Ryan’s been amazing. He’s been huge for the success of our franchise."
Growing up in the Boston suburb of Hingham, McDonough played basketball and was a good enough baseball player to consider playing the sport in college. At the University of North Carolina, he worked with several teams in the sports information office and spent a summer calling games for the Double-A Carolina Mudcats. But his real education came much earlier, watching games with his father and brothers.
"We grew up in a household where we didn’t just sit there and watch the game," Sean McDonough says. "We talked about every aspect of the game you watched. Dad had such an unbelievable mind for sports. He understood the games and the way they should be played and the strategies involved and the people involved. I think all three of us really benefited from that."
The McDonough boys learned their lessons well. They have each won championships rings in their respective sports: Sean as a broadcaster with the Red Sox, Terry as a scout with the Ravens and Ryan with the Celtics.
After college, Ryan interned with the Red Sox and was contemplating his next move when the Celtics were sold to a group headed by Wyc Grousbeck and Steve Pagliuca. The remarkable thing is that the sale was kept so secret even Will McDonough was caught unaware. Almost nothing happened in Boston without Will knowing about it.
Ryan sent over his résumé and waited. As it happened, Sean and Will were hosting a radio show at the Harp on Causeway Street across from the Garden. When the show was over, Will noticed Grousbeck sitting by himself, having lunch. Introductions were made and Grousbeck said they were still figuring out what they were going to do, but they’d like to have him do something.
"It was like a dream come true," Ryan says. "There was no negotiation over a contract or a job. It was just, tell me what you want me to do."
His first stop was the video room.
When McDonough arrived in the winter of 2003, he found a scattered department. Even calling it a department may be a bit of a stretch. "It wasn’t so much a room as just a collection of loose VHS tapes," he says. "My job was, one, to get more tapes because there weren’t that many. Also organize and edit what we had in a more efficient manner."
The front office was small, just GM Chris Wallace and his assistant, a legendary Boston hoops figure named Leo Papile. McDonough made an impression on Wallace immediately.
"I thought he was a basketball junkie," says Wallace. "He loved this stuff. Totally immersed in it, which I think is one of the prerequisites for working in the NBA. Second, he had been around big-time sports at so many levels and association because of his father and his brothers. Third, he was very diligent, hard, hard worker who would do whatever it takes to get the job done and succeed."
McDonough had a partner in the video room and he was somewhat more difficult to impress. If you were to cast a sitcom about two guys in a video room, you couldn’t do much better than the urbane McDonough and the streetwise character from gritty Revere named Mike Procopio, known universally as "Sweetchuck." "My nephew played for Leo in (AAU), so I knew of Sweetchuck," says McDonough, "But I hadn’t had the full Sweetchuck experience."
Procopio, who is now Director of Hoop Consultants and has worked with scores of players including Kobe Bryant, was originally brought into the organization to be a confidant for Vin Baker.
"He didn’t know me and I didn’t know him," says Procopio. "He was more from academia. I was more from basketball. Our thing was we both wanted to be scouts."
There was no Synergy back then -- a video database that catalogues every play from every nba game and categorizes them -- so they’d record games off TV and use a service in New Jersey for tapes. They’d get their shipment and make copies to breakdown cuts later. It was hard, thankless work, but McDonough was enthralled.
"It was kind of like Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours to become an expert theory," he says.
They broke down tape using a two-deck recorder and a remote. The recording process presented a bit of a technological problem, familiar to anyone who’s ever worked a VCR: the rollback. One of their first assignments was preparing a point guard tape for the new owners to watch with Wallace. They worked all weekend right up to the presentation when they realized they hadn’t actually watched the tape yet.
"You’d have a guy make a nice move, the shot would be going up toward the rim and it would cut to the next play and we’re like, ‘Oh shit,’" McDonough remembers. "I was thinking I might get fired before this tape’s over."
The two denizens of the video room soon developed a rapport, bonding over the game and the work. "They’re both Boston guys through and though," Wallace says. "They have a total unabashed love of the game of basketball."
They also learned from one another. Procopio appreciated McDonough’s analytical approach.
"All scouts are up and down on players. It’s just the structure of the job," says Procopio. "Ryan, where he comes from is analyzing the player, putting that information against past players and why they succeeded or failed."
McDonough respected the grassroots knowledge and networks that Wallace, Papile and Procopio had from their years around the college game and the AAU circuit. He quickly grasped that if he was going to get ahead in this world he was going to have to find an edge.
"My thing was I tried to know all the players," he says. "I wanted to know everything about them, all their tendencies, all their strengths and weakness, all the background, biographical information. The stats weren’t as advanced as they are now, but I’d study the raw stats. This isn’t a trivia contest. You’re studying the information."
It was in the video room where McDonough began to hone his eye. Within a few months his life was about to change thanks to the arrival of Danny Ainge.
When Ainge was coaching the Phoenix Suns, he had a number of people he could talk to about players, from former players and coaches to veteran scouts. Yet more often than not he’d find that the best information was coming from the video room where 24-year-old Dave Griffin was toiling away.
"Dave didn’t have a basketball background," says Ainge. "But he worked really hard and he studied. Dave gave me some stuff in the draft when I was coaching that turned out to be really true. Some things that our scouts hadn’t identified."
Griffin is now Vice President of Basketball Operations with the Cavaliers and is another young executive on the rise. When Ainge took over in Boston late in the 2003 season, he made it a habit to drop by the Celtics video room to visit with McDonough and Procopio and ask for their opinions about players. In his own way, Ainge was scouting his scouts.
"It’s my job to take in all this information and then make a decision at the end of the day," says Ainge. "It’s knowing more about the people that are doing the evaluating and their history, their process and how their mind works."
"Let’s be honest," says Procopio, "out of 30 GMs in the league, probably 22 of them aren’t going to go to guys who are a step up from interns. That’s what we were -- low-level guys -- and ask them what they think about players. That’s OK. That’s how you run your ship. You’ve got your scouts, you’ve got your assistant general managers. You don’t need a million opinions in the room. Danny was different."
Ainge is different. Described as a maverick even by those who work for him, Ainge has little use for titles or hierarchy. What he’s after is information and he doesn’t care where it comes from.
"The best thing that happened to my career is working with Danny because he’s so open," says McDonough. "He’ll go to interns and say, ‘So what do you think?’"
Those conversations with Ainge helped McDonough develop his chops and in 2004 he asked to go on the road and scout local college games. Ainge agreed and sent him out with a bit of advice.
"I told Ryan at that time there’s no substitute for work," says Ainge. "All the genius in the world, I don’t care who you are. If it’s a Red Auerbach, a Jerry West, it doesn’t matter. You can’t replace work."
In late January, McDonough flew to Kentucky to begin a scouting trip that would take him to four games in four cities in four days. The travel pace is relentless, but with Synergy he can breakdown players in his spare time on the plane and in the hotel. That night the Celtics played the Hawks, losing in double overtime. On Saturday morning, McDonough went through box scores, HoopsHype and Twitter looking for nuggets of information. He caught the early game on TV before heading to Lexington for Kentucky’s game with LSU. On Sunday morning he drove to Bloomington for the Michigan State-Indiana game.
That’s when all hell breaks loose with point guard Rajon Rondo, who had torn his ACL. Information was flying around during the Celtics game with the Heat that afternoon and McDonough was keeping up with all of it while continuing to scout the game. Not one for idle gossip, he fended off a barrage of reporters’ text messages while keeping an eye on the Hoosiers and Spartans. Before coming home, he had one more stop to watch Pittsburgh and Louisville on Monday and on Tuesday he saw North Carolina play Boston College.
On Wednesday, McDonough was back in the office as the team was plotting its next move without their point guard as well as forward Jared Sullinger, who was having season-ending back surgery. This year’s draft evaluation could wait, because the Celtics needed players now.
McDonough has a list ranking the top 100 players at each position. By his estimation he’s tracking 750-1,000 players around the world including NBA players. It’s a never-ending process that includes talking to agents, workout gurus and coaches.
The Celtics are constantly evaluating names for their summer league team and an annual minicamp they hold in May when international and D-League seasons are over. One of the players in their camp was former lottery pick Terrence Williams, who was playing in China. The Celtics signed him in late February.
"If a guy is talented enough to be in the NBA, you have to constantly monitor him until he retires," says McDonough. "I’ve heard people say, ‘I don’t want that guy, or he’s not my kind of guy.’ Well, it’s difficult to dismiss somebody with NBA-caliber ability."
The Celtics front office is still small, but it’s been very effective. Over the years they’ve hit on players in the draft, such as Al Jefferson, Kendrick Perkins, Delonte West, Tony Allen, Glen Davis and, of course, Rajon Rondo, Avery Bradley and Jared Sullinger. None of them were lottery picks, but they have all been productive.
There have been misses as well -- no one in this business is immune from mistakes -- but they’ve generally found value even in the lower parts of the first and second rounds, which are not exactly prime drafting positions.
The Celtics study everything including mock drafts looking for the slightest edge. They are not only evaluating this year’s prospects, but also analyzing their own process to see where they can improve. "Everything we do is viewed toward gaining some kind of competitive advantage," says McDonough.
In addition to McDonough, there’s Ainge’s son Austin who is director of player personnel and statistical analyst Mike Zarren who is also an assistant GM. Dave Lewin joined the staff this season as scouting coordinator. Each of the evaluators keeps their own rankings throughout the season and Danny Ainge has been known to ask for them at any time.
"Danny’s not a guy who likes to have a big board that everybody can see and there’s a consensus, which I think is smart," says McDonough. "There often isn’t a consensus. It’s trying to discourage groupthink."
McDonough’s board is fluid. He doesn’t get locked into an evaluation and he lets the season develop before coming to conclusions. His ideal scenario is to watch a prospect play his best, worst and average games. At his best, McDonough can get an idea of a player’s ceiling. At his worst, he can see if he tries to do other things to help his team. Somewhere around his average is the final projection.
"It’s funny when people say in November or December, ‘Is he a lottery pick?’" says McDonough. "I don’t know, unless it’s Kevin Durant or somebody like that where the talent’s so apparent. But it depends on the other players in the draft. It depends on how they do. Guys change. Lenny Cooke was rated higher than LeBron James at one point."
All of that, McDonough says, is motivation to watch film and gather more information.
McDonough first scouted Avery Bradley as a high school player at the Nike Hoop Summit in Portland. He came away impressed, believing Bradley and John Wall were the two best players on the floor. Bradley went on to the University of Texas where he enjoyed success as a freshman starter on a team that went 17-0 to start the season and was ranked No. 1 in the country. In early January he scored 29 points in a win over Colorado and 24 in a road win at Iowa State.
"OK, I loved him. Danny loved him, but there’s no way we’re going to get this kid," says McDonough. "He’s on the number one team in the country. They’re undefeated. He’s now showing who we thought he could be. This kid’s a top five pick."
Then something remarkable happened. The Longhorns imploded and the Celtics began to think maybe they could trade up in the draft to get him. Then another remarkable thing happened. Bradley hurt his ankle in a pre-draft workout in Oklahoma City and suddenly he was available with the 19th pick.
"Those are the things you get excited about," McDonough says. "You walk out of the draft room with a big grin on your face saying, ‘How did that happen?’"
Few people were smiling during Bradley’s rookie season, however. His ankle injury cost him the summer and most of training camp. He didn’t play much and when he was pressed into service as an emergency point guard, he seemed tentative and overwhelmed. The Celtics sent Bradley to their D-League affiliate in Maine where Austin Ainge was coaching. McDonough went with him after consulting with Doc Rivers and the coaching staff.
"(McDonough) knows the game and what he does, I think more than a lot of guys, he actually listens," says Rivers. "He checked with us. I gave him specific things. He went to our coaches. A lot of guys won’t do that. They have their own game plan for guys. I think that helped Avery in a big way."
After games, McDonough and Austin Ainge would sit down with Bradley and watch video of all his plays.
McDonough monitored his ankle treatment and his workouts.
"He’s a pretty bright kid," McDonough says. "Very observant. He’s very receptive, a quick learner. It’s rewarding when you work with somebody and see him come so quickly so fast, to now where in my estimation he’s the best perimeter defender in the league, a year after he was down in the D-League."
Now ensconced as an NBA starter, Bradley smiles at the memory.
"He was the one who was always there," Bradley says. "He would literally make notes of things that I need to work on. He helped me out so much. He took it seriously and I appreciate him for that. He’s been watching me play since I was 17 years old, which is cool."
The first time McDonough saw Rajon Rondo was at a high school All-Star game. He was intrigued, just like everyone else who has come in contact with the mercurial guard. "A lot of times scout say, ‘Who’s like him?’ I really can’t think of anybody like Rajon and I mean that as a compliment," McDonough says. "He’s such a unique player." Before Rondo’s sophomore year at Kentucky, McDonough watched him play at the Global Games, which gave him an opportunity to see Rondo in an environment beyond the rigid confines of Kentucky’s system. It was already evident that friction existed between the player and his coach, Tubby Smith.
"You try to put yourself in the player’s shoes," says McDonough. "Here’s his strengths, here’s his weaknesses. If that was me, how would I feel about it? I understood where Rajon was coming from and I could understand why he would be frustrated given what Kentucky was doing at that time since I didn’t think it played to his strengths. Then again, Tubby Smith’s a great coach. He’s doing what he needs to do to win so I understand that side of it, too."
McDonough wasn’t alone in his admiration. Wallace was a fan, as was Ainge, but McDonough remained solidly in Rondo’s corner even as he struggled through a disappointing sophomore season, rating him the second-best prospect in the draft.
"While the rest of the world sort of dropped on Rondo, Ryan continued to evaluate him even higher," says Ainge. "Ryan was pushing very, very hard for Rajon. Ryan was very big in us having that strong of a desire for Rajon."
The Celtics used their lottery pick to acquire Sebastian Telfair, but as the draft continued to unfold, McDonough made a renewed pitch. The price was fairly steep to buy back into the first round and included cash, a future first-round pick and assuming Brian Grant’s contract.
"Ownership deserves a lot of credit for that," McDonough says. "Wyc and Steve said, ‘Alright you guys think he’s going to be that good,’ and it was unanimous that we did. We thought he could be a special player and luckily he was because we asked them to pay a lot of money to go get that pick."
McDonough is circumspect about the selection. There are no real surprises in scouting anymore and it’s not like Rondo was a discovery. There’s a certain amount of luck involved all of this, as well, but then again, you make your own luck.
"If he had shown this at Kentucky there’s no way he would have been the 21st pick. He might not have been the third pick," McDonough says. "That’s what gets guys like me excited. Spending all that time watching video and the stats looking for outliers that might help you get an edge."