This NBA draft expert always one step - or one year - ahead of everyone else | Mike Jensen

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Elan Vinokurov sits in his office at home and works on evaluating NBA draft prospects.

Elan Vinokurov's career goal, and what led him to it, isn't unusual. A year of college and a summer working around construction sites told Vinokurov he "wanted to work in sports." The 2005 Lower Moreland High graduate sold his parents on the idea that studying sports management at Drexel would be worth it because its co-op program could get him experience leading to a job.

He just didn't know how or where or in what sport, but a family friend had a suggestion. He knew this guy, Jim Clibanoff, who had an NBA draft scouting service. Call Clibanoff.

"I don't need anybody," Clibanoff told him.

Message received. And ignored.

"I pretty much kept sending him emails of scouting reports on players, unsolicited," Vinokurov said. "At that point, I was a sophomore . . . at Drexel."

Eventually, Clibanoff saw enough to bring Vinokurov in as an intern. Clibanoff became his co-op, and Vinokurov eventually became Clibanoff's right-hand man. After Clibanoff became director of scouting for the Denver Nuggets, Vinokurov effectively took over, creating his own EV Hoops scouting service.

Clibanoff said he quickly saw the whole thing was "much more than a job" to Vinokurov. One morning last week, Vinokurov had a tape of Slovenian teenager Luka Doncic in his apartment living room in Conshohocken. Vinokurov has his 2017 draft guide finished and shipped to clients, including seven NBA teams. He has begun prep work for the 2018 draft, when Doncic, playing for European power Real Madrid, is expected to be a prime prospect.

"He's a little cutesy with his passes, when he's got the ability to make every pass in the book," Vinokurov said of the 6-foot-7 guard. "If he curtails it, he could be an elite passer."

As Vinokurov kept an eye on Doncic, he talked about his own business and also how he judged the top prospects for this 2017 draft, including how he believes they fit for the 76ers. This draft is such a fascinating one because he sees top prospects who don't quite fit the Sixers perfectly in his mind, (De'Aaron Fox) and then better fits who aren't top three talents (Malik Monk, Dennis Smith Jr.). To him, Jayson Tatum has skills, but those mid-range skills don't perfectly fit today's NBA. His own draft board, which isn't public, includes five players they have top three grades on. ("One of the guys I can't tell you on the record because nobody else has him that high.") The other four: Markelle Fultz, Lonzo Ball, Josh Jackson and Jonathan Isaac.

Of deciding between best available and best fit, "I think they'll figure it out," Vinokurov said of the Sixers. "It's not an unsolvable puzzle. You have to balance. It's not like it's one or the other."

His 2017 draft work is done early, Vinokurov said, because he likes to get ahead of the pre-draft noise.

"This has become something of a philosophy of mine. I don't really spend a lot of time listening to what's going on after the college season ends. We've seen these kids enough to have an opinion, and if you're letting what they do in a workout or what they do in a combine completely change what you think about a player, I think you're giving yourself to the possibility of falling for something."

Feel for talent

Vinokurov, 30, has several people working for him full-time and then has a network of part-time scouts and interns. He's tried to set up almost his own shadow front office, debating all issues about prospects.

"Not everybody is salary," Vinokurov said. "A lot of guys do it for experience. I try to develop our team so that wherever they go they're really qualified."

One of his former guys now works in a basketball operations job for the Clippers, another got an editing job at ESPN. His two full-time right-hand men, Greg "KiKi" Javardian and Dan Fox, both went to Lower Moreland High with him.

On the screen, Doncic drove to the hoop for Real Madrid. No explosive dunk, but he drove tight into the defender before finding space for a layup.

"He's skilled and he gets it," Vinokurov said. "But he's not going to be an all-world athlete. That's what I'm trying to figure out with him."

Clibanoff said he respected the feel for talent that Vinokurov developed - "great eye" - how he has remained committed, as Clibanoff had been, to exploring prospects at all levels. "He learned very quickly that there are no shortcuts," Clifbanoff said.

His work on a draft doesn't begin the year before. For instance, center Mo Bamba, headed for Texas from Westtown School: "I saw Bamba when he was like 15," Vinokurov said. "I remember thinking this kid is going to be insane."

In this current draft, EV Hoops has Markelle Fultz on top, a consensus belief.

"He's been the No. 1 pick for our staff unanimously since before the season," Vinokurov said, even as Fultz's Washington team struggled. "Talent's talent."

The nuances of that talent are the job.

"We pride ourselves on the second round," Vinokurov said. "I think an NBA team is going to look at the first round, and they're going to use a lot of their resources to make sure they don't botch their first-round pick. Our job is the alternative. . . . We're experts in the draft, but when it comes to the second round, there's nobody in the country that knows what we know."

He includes the undrafted guys in that roster. Clients include overseas teams. In some ways it sounds simple determining whether somebody is an NBA talent.

"It's a thin line," Vinokurov said. "I have debates all the time with my guys. . . . There's a difference between they can play in the NBA and they need to play in the NBA. They can have a cup of coffee. They can not look like they're exposed . . . Are they going to play on a 10-day contract and other teams are going to say, 'This guy is going to play in the NBA for eight years. If they let him go we're giving him a contract.' That's really what a lot of our discussions boil down to when we look at the second round."

That goes for free agents, too. He said their track record of predicting which ones can make a roster is strong.

He never looks at Draft Express or ESPN or other sites for their mock drafts or analysis, he said. When their own analysis is complete he does ask an intern to look at the others and sees the differences, not to change anything but to highlight what they see as different from others.

Camera icon  MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer
Vinokurov uses his computer to track player stats and puts on his wall post-it notes bearing the names of draft prospects.

Hits and misses

Like all draft experts, Vinokurov can point to memorable hits and misses. He remembers touting Draymond Green as a first-round talent before the Warriors star went in the second round in 2012, 35th overall. ("I never thought he'd be this good.") Last year, Vinokurov said, EV Hoops had it right to tout Marquese Criss and Dejounte Murray as better prospects than their first-round draft order indicated.

Biggest whiff?

"Oh I've got so many. Those I can rattle off," Vinokurov said. "I thought Shabazz Napier and Tyler Ennis would be really good. They taught me a lesson, that you can't get overly excited about small diminutive point guards."

His group all thought Devin Booker would be a shooter (more Monk than Bradley Beal), but he has turned into an all-round talent. He had expected Michael Carter-Williams to have a better career so far.

"I think that is a testament to another thing we kind of believe in. If you can't shoot at the point-guard position, it's extremely concerning."

Isaac, the sure lottery choice from Florida State, a 6-11 freshman forward, offers an interesting window to their scouting process.

"Love Jonathan Isaac," Vinokurov said. "Outside of Fultz I think he has the highest upside of anyone in the draft."

So there it is, take Isaac? Not so fast.

"This is why he is scary," Vinokurov said. "He has the least percentage chance of reaching his upside of anyone. . . . That's what you get past the No. 1 overall pick in any draft. If these guys didn't have variables, they'd be the No. 1 or in the discussion."

What he loves about Isaac, Vinokurov said, is that he has the fluidity of a guard, not a freak athlete "but he's got a tremendous feel for the game. People always tie basketball IQ to passing. They're not always the same thing. His feel is, what does this team need right now, what should I be doing, where should I be spaced on the court? That sense is really advanced for his age. Defensively, he could cover guys' mistakes. He was never in the wrong place."

So what are the problems that could hold him back? Vinokurov knows Sixers fans won't want to hear the first one.

"The kid had foot problems in high school," Vinokurov said. "He has asthma. He had a hip flexor at Florida State. There's things that people don't want to deal with, and it's scary. But if you're just talking about upside and fit, he can defend multiple positions. . . . And he can shoot. He's not like an elite shooter, but he can square up and shoot."

For the Sixers, "in my opinion he's a better fit than Tatum or Josh Jackson. But he's scary."

Time will tell

On his draft board, Vinokurov said, they have 10 players worthy of a top 10 pick, and virtually all those could go as high as in the top six. After that, he sees a drop-off and added, "I don't think [this year] there are 30 guys with first-round grades. We have 28."

Time, of course, will tell. How much time?

"That's one of the trickiest parts of this job, and something I wrestle with every day," Vinokurov said. "I want to so badly evaluate what we did right and wrong as quickly as possible, to self-correct, to learn from history. But when is the right time to do that? You want to give a guy, like, three years, but sometimes three years isn't enough. If you had evaluated Chauncey Billups three years in it would be different than 10 years, but you can't wait 10 years."

Vinokurov interrupted that thought. Doncic was on his screen again. Another nice layup move, controlling the ball with each hand as the Slovenian teenager got past a defender. Vinokurov is convinced you'll know this guy's name - next year.

mjensen@phillynews.com

@jensenoffcampus