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Oracle of the Hardwood

The last great (and good) basketball scout.


Tom Konchalski at this year's Jordan Brand Classic, Madison Square Garden.   

Tom Konchalski was peering into the future. It was the Monday afternoon of a long weekend, and the meat market that is big-time high-school basketball was taking advantage of the holiday to display its wares in the birthplace of the game: Springfield, Massachusetts. The man-children who play for two of the nation’s top schoolboy teams—Findlay Prep from Henderson, Nevada, and Saint Patrick from Elizabeth, New Jersey—were facing off in Springfield College’s bandbox gym, where, from his courtside seat, Konchalski was keeping a close eye on Saint Patrick’s senior point guard Kyrie Irving. Irving had just suffered through a miserable first half, and now, as he emerged from the locker room and began hoisting up practice shots that disconcertingly clanged off the rim, Konchalski offered a surprising prediction. “Irving is going to have a big second half,” he said. “He’s a quiet kid, but inside he has a competitive core. He got outplayed in the first half. It’s a matter of pride.”

Konchalski is in the future-seeing business. As the editor and publisher of the scouting newsletter HSBI Report—its motto: “Others tell you where they’ve been. We tell you where they’re going!”—he watches thousands of high-school basketball players each year, assessing their games in order to project the kind of player each will be in college. A player who receives a five-star rating in HSBI is projected to be “a major contributor” by his sophomore season for “the average nationally ranked [Division I] team”; a player given one star will be the same for “middle-of-the-road Division III programs.” More often than not—much more often than not—Konchalski’s projections pan out. “If Tom says a kid’s going to be a star, you can mark it down,” says Howard Garfinkel, a co-founder of the famed Five-Star Basketball camps. “He’s a very keen judge of talent.”

Irving is a “5+” player—the highest rating HSBI gives. Konchalski has been watching him ever since he was a skinny freshman on a lower-octane New Jersey high-school team, well before he transferred to the Saint Patrick hoops factory. He initially knew to look for Irving because he’d scouted his father, Drederick, two decades earlier at the Bronx’s Adlai E. Stevenson High School, where Drederick filled the two-guard spot expertly enough to land a basketball scholarship to Boston University and then play professionally in Australia. But upon seeing Kyrie, Konchalski soon came to believe that the son would have even more game than the father. In assessing players, he considers three variables: physical characteristics, skill with the basketball, and intangibles like intelligence, toughness, and competitive spirit. “If you want to equate them with Freudian terms,” says Konchalski, “the physical part is the id, the skill level is the ego, and the intangibles are the superego.” He was suitably impressed with Irving’s physical talents and ball skills—“Kyrie shoots a three like other people shoot a free throw”—and especially taken with his heady play. Now, as Saint Patrick and Findlay Prep began the second half in Springfield, Irving’s superego was suddenly on display.

Irving imposed his will on the game with an array of daredevil layups and a silky three, working feverishly to bring Saint Patrick back from a twelve-point deficit. Konchalski, meanwhile, recorded his prediction coming to fruition on a yellow legal pad—tallying not just Irving’s points and assists, but more-granular statistics as well, such as penetrations into the lane and shots off the catch and off the dribble. With nine seconds left in the game, Konchalski had marked Irving down for 29 points—twelve of them in the fourth quarter alone—but Saint Patrick still trailed Findlay by two. After a Findlay miss, Irving pushed the ball up the court and drove to the basket, drawing a foul with one second left on the clock. Irving, who’d made his previous four free throws, calmly stepped to the foul line and buried the first shot for his 30th point of the game. But his second foul shot rolled off the rim, and Findlay held on to win, 71-70.

Irving slinked off the court, his shoulders sagging. But the kid’s choke didn’t dampen Konchalski’s enthusiasm for him. In fact, just the opposite. Konchalski’s one nagging doubt about Irving has been that, in crunch time, he often looks to pass rather than take the shot himself. “Even if his teammate is more open, at that point in the game Kyrie is the one who should be taking that shot,” Konchalski said. The fact that Irving had done so against Findlay, poor results notwithstanding, made Konchalski even more enamored of him, and he began, once again, to wax oracular. “Mike Krzyzewski has won three national championships at Duke with point guards from New Jersey Catholic high schools,” he noted. “Two with Bobby Hurley from Jersey City Saint Anthony and one with Jason Williams from Saint Joseph in Metuchen.” Irving, Konchalski added with something of a nod to destiny, will be matriculating at Duke this fall.


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