THOUGH basketball fans' attention now is focused squarely on the National Basketball Association playoffs, NBA teams have another high-priority interest: next season's teams. On June 28, the lid comes off the cookie jar of college talent in the pro-basketball draft, and every team wants to come away with choice talent.
For every one of the 324 players on an NBA roster, there are a thousand other players who can't make a living on the court. What's the difference between an NBA player and all the rest?
That's the bottom-line question for a cohort of former players and coaches who work as scouts in the NBA. Scouts have been around for at least as long as there have been professional athletes, and the 48-year-old NBA is no exception. But in today's game, the stakes are much higher.
''This year, with two new expansion franchises, we'll have 29 teams in the hunt on draft day,'' notes Pat Williams, general manager of the NBA's Orlando Magic. ''That means every team must make its first-round pick count.''
Finding players who can have an impact is a fine art, filled with intangibles. John Gabriel, vice president for basketball operations for the Magic, first worked as a scout. ''If there's a formula for a successful player,'' he says, ''I think it's something like 'character over talent, times heart.' That's why a scout must do more than evaluate talent. He also has to project an individual's capacity to develop.''
Golden State Warriors guard Tim Hardaway is a good example, says Tom Jorgensen, one of the Magic's two scouts. When Hardaway was at the University of Texas at El Paso, ''he played in a slow, deliberate, half-court offense,'' Jorgensen says. ''But Hardaway is at his best in a wide-open game where he can run the court. That's why he's blossomed in the NBA.''
Jorgensen attends an average of 100 games yearly around the nation. An ''advance scout'' who looks over other NBA teams may spend even more time on the road. Last season, one of the advance scouts reportedly saw 186 NBA games. ''It's a great life if you love the game,'' Jorgensen says.
Jorgensen was former head coach at Northern Illinois University in Dekalb, and an assistant at Michigan State University in East Lansing. He works out of his home in Denver, a centrally located city with good flight connections. His schedule begins with pre-season college tournaments in the fall and heats up during holiday tournaments. Last year he saw 32 games in December. By packing his schedule early in the year, Jorgensen can decide which players deserve attention in the last months of the season.
''You almost always go to a game to see one player,'' he says, ''but then you'll notice a freshman and you start to keep an eye on him. You see these players repeatedly, and you evaluate them in many different situations, not just what a guy does with the ball, but what he does without the ball. You watch his relationships with his teammates. What does he do in the huddle? Is he listening to his coach? That's why you have to be at the games, to see the whole picture.''
Williams has worked in the NBA since before the electronic age -- he was general manager of the Chicago Bulls in the late 1960s -- and he says the media have made a difference. ''Back then, there were good players you never got to see, so you'd send away to colleges for game films.... Today, with all the TV coverage, by the end of the season there are no sleepers.''
In addition to attending college games and analyzing videotapes, Jorgensen and the other NBA scouts concentrate on three major basketball camps each year. The first camp, in Portsmouth, Va., is in early April. It's for players who need more exposure, for projected second-round picks.
''That's where the scouts found [Phoenix Suns guard] Dan Majerle,'' Jorgensen recalls. ''He was from an out-of-the-way college program at central Michigan where he played center at 6 ft., 6 in. When he got to Portsmouth, he started beating up on everybody around the basket. But he also showed he could hit three pointers.''
Late in April, 40 of the top prospects are invited to the Desert Classic in Phoenix. These are the possible first-round picks. Given today's bonuses and salaries, though, some top players skip the camps. If you're a projected top performer and you play poorly in Phoenix, ''you can cost yourself a lot of money,'' Jorgensen notes.
The final camp is held at Chicago in June. By this time, all but two pro teams have been eliminated from the playoffs, so many NBA coaches attend. In addition to top college players, former prospects who've been playing in the minor-league Continental Basketball Association or in Europe are invited.
The crunch begins in mid-June as teams prepare for the draft. ''It's not enough to understand your own team's needs,'' Jorgensen says. ''You need to be prepared for last-minute trades that can change your team's position.''
Teams may also invite a few top prospects for a day or two of individual analysis. Last year the Magic brought in eight candidates for the final spot on their roster. They settled on Brooks Thompson, a guard from Oklahoma State University in Stillwater -- largely based on Jorgensen's strong recommendation.
''Tom is like that,'' Williams says. ''He'll say, 'Here's what I see. Here's what I recommend.' Tom doesn't mince words. That's the most important quality in a scout. You have to have someone who has an opinion and is not afraid to express it.''