Chris Wallace has been with the Grizzlies for a long time and during that time he has been one of the most available and open General Managers in the NBA while leading the turnaround of a team mired in the lowest depths of the league to a playoff contender capable of beating any team in a seven game series.
3 Shades of Blue just wanted to remind people of that as we close out what could be our final interview with the man who has had a hand in not only turning around the Memphis Grizzlies but also the Boston Celtics before that. That doesn’t mean this will be the last interview with Wallace but his leadership role with the Grizzlies has diminished since the team was sold and likely will leave the team in the near future for a more influential front office position.
In the final segment of this interview Chris discusses what he looked for when acquiring players, discussed the scouting department downsizing and the future with the D-League and NBA teams.
3SOB: When acquiring a player, did you do any psychological testing of players like you mentioned earlier about the Brain Doctor in Boston? Do you look for certain types of personalities to blend in with this team?
CW: Let me tell you. You just go out and get the best players you can. You can outsmart yourself sometimes doing that. We give these guys psychological tests before the draft but we don’t give psychological tests when you are trading for them. We don’t do that in free agency.
You aren’t going to tell a guy like Tony Allen ‘hey we want to make a commitment to you but first you have to take a physical oh and by the way you have to take a psychological exam too in order for us to do the contract. (laughing) That’s not going to go very far. The player would be like ‘what the hell are you talking about.’ Tony Allen’s would be like ‘I have been in the league six years, he’d been on a world championship team, I was one of the leading guys off the bench that got deep into the playoffs, game 7 of the Finals against the Lakers and I’ve got to take a psychological test? Maybe you should take a psychological test for not getting me earlier!’
3SOB: I don’t remember how many years ago it was now but during the dark days the team cut its scouting staff.
CW: Well it wasn’t necessarily in the dark days. I can’t remember the exact year.
3SOB: It was pre the 40 win season.
CW: It was right in there. We’d already drafted so the bulk of that work for that year was already over with.
There was some cutting and some attrition. Ryan West had already moved on to the Lakers. He’s from Los Angeles and obviously there is some family ties to the Lakers. David Booth went into college coaching at DePaul where he’d been an outstanding player. Ray Jones stayed with us out in the east. Ed Manning had health issues. So he wasn’t really let go.
Then we did let go a guy in Serbia, but in our group we still had a guy working for us in Italy. Myself, Tony Barone, his son and Kenny Williamson all scouted anyway. As I tried to say at the time, NBA scouting is a different proposition than it is in baseball or football. There isn’t the volume of players to sift through, the mountains of players so to speak to get to who you are drafting.
We draft 60 players as a league every year. Probably if you took all the players on draft day there might be 70 guys you are seriously looking at. Maybe 75 on a good year. There aren’t 300 guys who could get drafted on that day. That group has whittled itself down for a variety of reasons. We’re dealing primarily with big name former high school players for the most part from American colleges.
When you look at our team, Mike Conley’s a McDonald’s All-American. Zach Randolph’s a McDonald’s All-American. Darrell Arthur’s a McDonald’s All-American. Tony Wroten’s a McDonald’s All-American. Ed Davis is a McDonald’s All-American. Prince was a McDonald’s All-American. Pondexter wasn’t but he was a college All-American in a tough conference, the Pac-10. He’s not playing Division III.
Tony Allen wasn’t a McDonald’s All-American but he wasn’t eligible until his final two years to play in high school. He had to go through the back channels of two junior colleges to play but he’s an anomaly. Look how he steps up against the rest of our team in his background but by the time he enters the NBA he’s a first round pick. An he’s only in his early 20s.
Gasol was a big name European player. So there is not the ‘sleepers.’ You hear that Damien Lillard was a sleeper. Well he went 6th in the draft! He didn’t go 56th. We just don’t have Tom Brady’s in our business. Guys who don’t start until their senior year in college and then go in the 6th round. As you know that would be our version of 56 or something.
Ginobili was a little like that but that was in 1999 or 2000 or something. There is so much more interest in international scouting now than there was then. Even Tony Parker, people said he wasn’t appreciated in the draft, still went in the first round at 29 or something.
You watch an NBA game, even in garbage time cause I don’t care when it is or who is playing, the vast majority will be drafted at some time who are on the floor. I’d say most of them ended up being first rounders. We tend to forget where these guys got picked. People will say ‘well he’s just an average NBA player’ or ‘he’s just a role player’ but that guy was picked 14th at one time or the 18th pick or the 9th pick.
So it’s not like baseball scouting where a guy’s got to be out at Houston High School for the Christian Brothers game out there with a radar gun checking the pitchers so he can compare them with some guys out in Texas or a Stanford 4 year player. They (the NBA) doesn’t even have high school anymore. Not that I thought that was overly complicated either. It may mean you have to run around and go see Al Jefferson in the state championship in Jackson or something but it’s not all that complicated.
Now the European thing is, once you’ve been doing it for a while, is not that mysterious either. We got under 20 guys every year that gets drafted out of Europe. The high number is 20 too. The average is probably something like 13 or 14. They’re all known commodities. There’s not someone from Outer Mongolia getting picked up.
3SOB: Contrary to our blog on April Fool’s Day.
CW: Well yeah. Like when I went to see a kid in Greece, Giannis Antetokounmpo who’s a Nigerian immigrant, he’ll go in the first round. He’s never played on a national team due to the fact that he didn’t have a passport for a couple of years. He was an illegal alien for a time. He didn’t play in the main league because he didn’t have a Greek nationality so the team would have to use a foreign spot. Teams wouldn’t sign him versus getting someone like a Joey Dorsey who’s a known commodity for instance.
So here this guy has only played junior ball, second division Greece where you have guys who are bartenders and taxi drivers and so on. It’s not a full-time profession. Yet when I go over to watch a game there’s two guys from the Spurs, two guys from Miami, a guy from Detroit, there’s a guy from Cleveland, there’s a guy from Atlanta and us.
I’ve been scouting overseas since 1990, I would say over 90% of the games I’ve been to somebody else from the NBA has been there. So we all know who the players are. You can pick up sites on the internet and find out who they are. Now it is getting them in the right order.
So I don’t think you need 15 guys hanging around anymore. The process is different than in other sports. There are no sleepers. Who do know that is a big time player in the NBA who came from Division III or Division II? You just don’t see it anymore. The traditional African-American colleges that pumped so many players out in the past like Earl Monroe, Willis Reed, Truck Robinson and guys like that have all dried up now. There’s almost no players in the league from those schools. They’ll go several years now without a significant draft choice.
So it’s Division I guys, its name guys generally and high level European players.
3SOB: So will the Grizzlies staff increased lately under the new ownership?
CW: Well I don’t know what the new ownership will do going forward. They got thing on the fly in November. So who knows what they may do on staffing? I would assume your long-term plans are maybe different from your short-term plans, after all they just came in at the start of the season, but our numbers are essentially the same even though some guys left. When you look at the number of people they have replaced it is still the same basic number of people left.
We’ve gotten hammered on that in the media but, as I tried to explain to some guys in the media, in my time in Boston we only had at the end of my time myself, Danny Ainge, a guy named Leo Papille, John the Brain Doctor and that was it. We didn’t have all these guys who were regional scouts who went to games.
3SOB: Since you and I started talking the D League has become a much more important tool for teams. How does a team properly use the D-League?
CW: Well, there’s three ways you can use the D-League. You can go out and outright buy the team. Now that means you have complete control over it. Not just basketball but you have to make the thing run as a business. That’s the model that Oklahoma City has with the Tulsa 66ers I believe. San Antonio has with the Austin Toros.
The second strategy is called hybrid. You go in as an NBA team and you run their basketball operations. There is a separate business. The owner has the team and brings the people in to handle the business end. You (the NBA team) handles all the basketball decisions and pays the salaries. You hire the coaching staff.
You pick the players and you do that yourself or you have your emissary down there to do it. The D-League has like an 8-10 round draft to stock the teams and then there is action throughout the year with players coming and going in the D-League and you have complete control.
Or, the third and final way to use the D-League is you share D-League franchises with other NBA teams. That is currently the way we handle it. The Grizzlies share in Reno with Utah and Sacramento. And there might even be a few more teams involved next year in that sharing arrangement because Philadelphia purchased a team, and maybe somebody else, but there is more teams now that are either hybrid or have outright purchased teams so there are fewer franchises that are that 3rd and final option to share so I think more teams are going to have to share among the fewer number of D-League affiliates this year.
Now I’m a believer in the D-League. A player has to play. We do a great job in the NBA on individual instruction because we’ve got tremendous coaches in the league and also we don’t have the rules that hamper you in college. You can work out these guys any day you want as long as you want in the NBA. You’ve got film. You’ve got state of the art weight rooms for lifting and all this stuff. They get to practice against NBA players and all that’s great.
But you can’t really grow as a player in the NBA until you play. If you aren’t playing here for the parent club, you got to play down there. You got to play somewhere. So the D-League is a tremendous tool for us to use to get the playing time. The quality of the league has gotten better and better too for a variety of reasons.
Number one, older players are viewing the D-League as a viable avenue to get back into the NBA. Players are saying even though I won’t make as much money as abroad, I’ll suck it up and hopefully get noticed. Secondly, the European teams, with a few exceptions, aren’t paying what they used to because of the economic crisis. So the disparity has changed a little bit in comparison of what you could make there as a young player compared to what you can make in the D-League.
So you look at the opportunity cost. It’s not so much money now that they just can’t afford to say goodbye to the D-League and go to Europe. Yes, it’s more money over there, but the opportunity is greater here to be scouted and teams are keeping those guys in the forefront of their options.
That wasn’t always the case during the history of the league. And then I think you’ve got more teams seriously working the D-League than ever before whether it is with their own affiliates, outright ownership, the hybrid deal. So I think it has gotten better and better and will continue to grow in the future. I don’t think we’ve seen the peak of what the D-League will be.
3SOB: Now High School players can go directly to the D-League and not have to go to college right?
CW: No. Well that’s true but I’m not sure the trick to get into the draft. It’s not like you can just roll out of bed after your junior year and declare for the draft. They have to be in the draft and I’m not sure of how they go about doing that.
For example, Glen Rice, Jr. He wasn’t a high school player but he was a college player who got dismissed from the Georgia Tech program. Rather than transfer to another school and sit out, he and his father and a representative said hey, let’s just go into the D-League.
So he got drafted by the Rio Grande Valley, the eventual D-League champs, who Houston has a hybrid relationship with, and I’m not sure how he got into that draft. He’d have to petition the NBA, show some sort of cause on why he can’t go back to college or does he just go directly into the draft. …I don’t know exactly how that works. Now that was a very interesting route that Rice took rather than petition to transfer to another college.
He’s clearly going to get drafted this year. He ended up being a starter on a championship team for the 2nd half of the season.
There was one other guy I recall that got drafted from the D-league to the NBA, Mike Taylor out of Iowa State I believe. Still that is an unusual route to take from college. There may have been a few others but you don’t hear a lot about it.
3SOB: What about that player went straight from high school?
CW: That was Jeremy Tyler who went from High School to Israel to Japan before reaching the NBA in the draft. He never went to the D-League before he was drafted.
Unfortunately at this moment Chris Wallace had to take a phone call and we had to end the interview.
3 Shades of Blue wants to thank Chris Wallace for the time taken for this interview and to thank him for all he’s done for our blog, the team and the city during his time here. He’s been a great ambassador for the team and if he doesn’t return he will be missed as much for who he is as for what he has done for the team.