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Jensen: From Cheltenham to the NBA, Clibanoff scouts the hoop stars

Back in the early '90s, Jim Clibanoff didn't really have a blueprint to get into basketball. He wasn't angling to get into the sport. He'd graduated from Tufts, and Cheltenham High before that, and was starting law school at Temple that fall of '91.

Back in the early '90s, Jim Clibanoff didn't really have a blueprint to get into basketball. He wasn't angling to get into the sport. He'd graduated from Tufts, and Cheltenham High before that, and was starting law school at Temple that fall of '91.

Yet here he was Wednesday night at Temple, across the street from the law school at the Liacouras Center, more than 25 years later, trading familiar greetings with NBA scouts along press row.

"How was Europe?" another scout asked Clibanoff.

Maybe Clibanoff's path to being director of scouting for the Denver Nuggets - while still living in Lower Gwynedd, Montgomery County - began with a cold call to a minor-league basketball outfit that was going to play that summer of '91 at Holy Family University. The Philadelphia Spirit were looking for front office staff. Most people called about marketing jobs, that kind of thing. This kid from Tufts wanted to work in player personnel.

Since there were no other candidates, he got the job. Clibanoff, now 48, wasn't a ballplayer himself. But the great 1988 Temple team had gotten him enthused about the sport, and he began watching it closely.

The Spirit brought in a great group of locally based ballplayers, most already playing professionally in Europe, happy to pick up a summer check at home. Among others, there were Dallas Comegys and Michael Anderson and Tim Legler and Rodney Blake and Snoop Graham.

Clibanoff notes they drafted a Delaware State guard named Emanual Davis - "10th round," Clibanoff said - and Davis ultimately played six years in the NBA. A bunch of the other guys did NBA time, too. Bishop Eustace High School coach Bill Lange coached the team and was that season's USBL coach of the year.

For Clibanoff, it was getting in on the ground floor, and he doesn't claim any responsibility for any specific players. But it was like being in a group picking a real-life fantasy team.

The team didn't last, and Clibanoff did go to law school, but the hoop bug never left him. He helped out with a Sonny Hill League team, began working for an NBA draft scouting sheet, a respected one run by a local guy, Don Leventhal. Eventually, Clibanoff did his own sheet, Clib Hoops. That went for a couple of decades, many NBA teams subscribing. He also did regular draft analysis columns for the Inquirer.

His law degree came to use when he represented a number of overseas ballplayers. But the draft analysis was his bread and butter and ultimately got him full-time work. He's in his fourth season with the Nuggets.

Scouts are careful about giving away information, so Clibanoff doesn't want to say which players he's looking at or where he's been - not even in which country he just got a haircut from a woman who didn't speak English - but he talks about how the job has different points of emphasis from what he used to do with the scouting service.

In that role, Clibanoff prided himself on knowing everything about everyone, finding the diamonds in the rough who might get drafted in the second round or even contribute in a training camp. Now, his most important work is knowing everything he can about players who can make a difference for his team. Potential first-round choices naturally get the most attention, wherever they are in the world. And Clibanoff makes clear his information is just one piece of an evaluation puzzle the team uses.

"I remind myself, the game is evolving," Clibanoff said during the Temple-Memphis game. "You can't stick to what the game used to be like."

On the other hand, the fundamentals of what he needs to see don't completely change. Live visits are important to see how a prospect deals with "the physicality" of the game. Video work can supplement that. You need to project five years out to form an opinion but understand that it's dangerous to start rooting for your opinion to be right.

Advanced analytics can be helpful - Clibanoff was always a believer that numbers didn't lie - but he says they can be manipulated to prove points, positive or negative. If you like somebody, there's a number to prove it. Same if you don't.

"It's not like somebody invented a new turbine for a car," he says of all the advanced stats now in vogue.

He's married and the father of 13- and 11-year-old girls, on the road at least 15 to 17 nights a month, including stops in Denver. But his bosses, he said, always talk about making time for family. They mean it, he said.

And Philadelphia is a great place to be based, with East Coast stops so plentiful.

"There are probably 70 D-I schools within five hours," Clibanoff said. "In Denver, I think you have six."

He sees the game in his own way, often having no distinct idea what the score is (although his guesses are pretty good). The game at the Liacouras Center ended, and he was out to his car. He'll write up a report from every game he sees. If only he knows what he saw, the information has limited value.

He still likes his job? What do you think?

"I'm not like, 'I got to go to work today,' " Clibanoff said. "I'm going to a basketball game."