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Frank Zaccanelli is the former general manager, president and co-owner of the Dallas Mavericks. He is now the CEO and managing partner of Fiamma Partners, an investment and development company.
It’s been 21 years since I witnessed one of the most unprofessional acts from an NBA prospect. About a month before the 1996 NBA Draft, I was the general manager and team president for the Dallas Mavericks and invited five lottery picks to come down for individual workouts.
We planned a standard schedule for each of them – an hour worth of basketball drills and then a series of meetings with our front office, head coach and select assistants. We had the ninth overall selection in the draft that year, so for many prospects, this was one of the biggest job interviews of their lives.
Unfortunately, one player – who shall remain nameless – didn’t have that sense of urgency and showed up an hour and 20 minutes late. Can you believe it? No advance warning, nothing. If this was a regular business and a candidate was that late for an interview, I’d tell him not to bother. Needless to say, we removed that prospect from our draft board.
While that was an easy decision, evaluating the next cornerstone of your NBA franchise is challenging. For the most part, everyone on your draft board can jump high, run fast, score the ball and is the most talented player on their college team.
But how do you distinguish the next Dirk Nowitzki from the next Darko Milicic – two European-born players with drastically different careers?
What Don Nelson taught me, as we scouted NBA draft prospects, was that we shouldn’t just analyze their physical talent. We needed to evaluate their work ethic, maturity, mental toughness and coachability. We wanted players who were committed to developing their games, not players who were complacent with their talent.
I first adopted that managerial approach back in my early days as a young businessman. I remember sitting in meetings and discussing employee management, when a fellow worker had an interaction that is seared into my memory bank to this day.
“What kind of people should we go out and hire?” the fellow worker asked, with his hand raised.
“Hire people that have had a history of winning their whole lives,” the senior executive responded.
About 30 seconds later, my teammate raised his hand again and asked, “What if we run out of people that have a history of winning?”
“Then find people that absolutely hate to lose,” the senior executive responded, sharply. By the way, that senior executive was the great businessman Ross Perot.
That management philosophy has influenced every hire I’ve made in business, politics and sports, especially when it came to Dirk. Before we traded for him at the 1998 NBA Draft, the league had its concerns. After all, he was a youngster from Germany that would seemingly struggle to assimilate to American culture, let alone the NBA’s style of play.
But man, the kid seduced us with his work ethic. His pre-draft workouts sold us and it eventually paid off. Despite a rough first two years with the Mavericks, Dirk devoted himself to expanding his game and adjusting to the physicality of the NBA. Nearly 20 years and 30,000 career points later, he has established himself as one of the greatest players in NBA history.
Of course, there are always exceptions to the draft equation – take Lonzo Ball. For all his positives, I’d be hesitant to draft him because of the sideshow that his father, LaVar, brings to the table. I respect LaVar’s love for Lonzo as a father would and I do not question his loyalty to his son, but his flamboyant comments could be detrimental to an organization and affect team chemistry.
In the grand scheme of things, though, there are far worse offenses. Each year, you interview a few prospects with checkered pasts – who were either arrested in college or had legitimate off-the-field issues – that require extra vetting. If a prospect had a history of underachieving and making mistakes, we usually removed him from the draft board.
Other times, we spent time with a player’s family members, friends, college coaches, high school coaches and even opposing coaches to gauge his maturity, family values and ability to avoid distractions. Sometimes, a prospect could be a very good kid that made one wrong decision at the wrong time. When it’s warranted, I’m a firm believer in second chances because we must remember all young men make mistakes.
At the end of the day, even with the best scouting in the country, there are variables that you just can’t control. Throughout my Mavericks career, we drafted superstars like Dirk, serviceable contributors like Samaki Walker, and even recruited the first Chinese-born NBA player Wang Zhizhi, who ultimately couldn’t play in the NBA.
The unpredictable nature of the draft makes the process so exciting and first-timers like Magic Johnson are in for a treat. But Magic is more prepared to be President of Basketball Operations for the Lakers than anyone I can think of in NBA history.
As for prospects like Josh Jackson, Markelle Fultz and De’Aaron Fox? My best piece of advice is to enjoy the ride, train hard, and don’t be late to your workouts!