Meet Benas Matkevicius, the Celtics’ one-man European scouting department
LONDON — Benas Matkevicius could stroll unnoticed through the streets of Boston if he wished, but he is one of the most essential parts of the Celtics operation. His task is simple, yet also massive and almost inconceivable. He just has to identify, keep track of, and evaluate basketball prospects on an entire continent from his one-man traveling European office.
“It is not easy,” Matkevicius said, chuckling. “At first I was pretty flabbergasted by the whole situation. It took a while to organize myself and figure out the ins and outs of where to start.”
Over the past two years, the Celtics have been busy in Europe. In 2016, they drafted French forward Guerschon Yabusele and Croatian center Ante Zizic. Then last summer they signed German forward Daniel Theis and veteran point guard Shane Larkin, who spent last season playing in Spain.
With so much focus on college basketball, and for obvious logistical reasons, the Celtics’ small and diligent Boston-based scouting staff cannot have a constant presence overseas. So that is what Matkevicius is tasked with, and the Celtics’ lone full-time staffer and scout in Europe played a key role in all of the recent additions.
“Benas has an amazing work ethic,” Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge said. “He just seems tireless.”
A UNIQUE TRANSITION
Matkevicius was born in the part of the Soviet Union that is now Lithuania. His family moved to Germany when he was 5 because his father signed to play for a professional basketball team there.
Matkevicius became a good player, too. He came to the United States to finish high school in Shreveport, La., before earning a scholarship to Division 2 Arkansas-Monticello. His brief pro career in Cuxhaven, Germany, was cut short by injuries, and he became an assistant coach there before working as assistant for the Euroleague powerhouse CSKA Moscow.
In the summer of 2012, Matkevicius was sitting in the stands scouting an under-18 tournament in Poland when Celtics director of player personnel Austin Ainge walked over and introduced himself. The two traded scouting stories and stayed in touch afterward.
Ainge was impressed by Matkevicius’s knowledge and thoroughness, and when the Celtics had an opening for a European scout in 2014, the choice was obvious.
For Matkevicius, the idea of evaluating basketball players — even for the most decorated team in the world — was not daunting. He had an eye for skill, and had developed a deep network of connections. But there were unique challenges.
As a player and coach, days had been scripted for Matkevicius. He knew the exact schedule for the season, he was never in charge of booking a flight or hotel, meals were readily available, and he was never alone.
Now he would have to be a scout, schedule-maker, and travel agent, all while journeying to distant cities he would never visit if there weren’t an intriguing basketball player there.
“The hardest thing is when you’re working in a one-man office,” Austin Ainge said. “It gets lonely. Benas is so diligent and detail-oriented. He just works and works and works, and that can be hard to stay motivated by yourself on the road all the time.
“He’s amazing. He never tires, and he watches video constantly in all his travels. He’s a huge asset.”
Matkevicius is based in Berlin, but home is always temporary. Over the past two years, he has logged nearly 300,000 airline miles, not to mention all the trains, buses, and cars. It is common for him to forget his hotel room number, because the cities begin to blur.
Matkevicius rises early most mornings and makes the first of many espressos that day. If the Celtics played the previous night, he first watches the replay.
It’s partly because he’s intrigued to see players he helped bring to Boston, but mostly because he wants to become more familiar with the team’s style and system. He wants to have intimate knowledge of the kind of players Danny Ainge is seeking.
After watching the Celtics, Matkevicius scans box scores from games across Europe, a particularly lengthy task after a full weekend slate.
For a point of reference, he also watches replays of NCAA games that feature draft prospects. An 18-year-old forward in Spain, for example, could seem intriguing. But then when Matkevicius sees film of a player such as former Duke forward Jayson Tatum, who was drafted third overall by the Celtics last year, it might reset his evaluation of the Spaniard.
Despite his heavy workload and massive territory to cover, Matkevicius is not totally isolated. He texts or talks to Austin Ainge almost every day and sends e-mails to the entire staff three or four times a week. Ainge might give Matkevicius instructions about some prospects he would like him to see, or Matkevicius might share information about a player who is thriving.
Austin Ainge visits Europe about five times each year, but he and Matkevicius tend to split apart there so they can cover more ground. Director of scouting Dave Lewin also travels overseas to focus on some younger prospects, and Danny Ainge usually makes at least one trip to Europe a year. The Celtics also have Brazil-based scout Luiz Lemes, and the staff in Boston continuously combs through lists of players from all over the world.
The prevalence of video cuts down on some of the travel, and messaging apps and manageable international data plans have made correspondence much more convenient than it once was. But there is no substitute for seeing a player in person. And most often in Europe, that responsibility falls to Matkevicius.
“The building-relationships part is really the biggest challenge,” Matkevicius said, “because information flow is really important. And through the year, the better the relationships you build, the more trust you have, and the information flow becomes a two-way street.”
ON THE ROAD AGAIN
For Matkevicius, traveling through Europe can be wild, solitary, and invigorating all at once. He has seen at least one game in every European country, and some gyms are more convenient and calm than others.
Austin Ainge recalled a game in Athens when a bomb threat halted play, and a game in Varazze, Italy, when a frustrated fan threw a shoe at a referee, and the referee simply threw it back to him, and play continued. Then there was the Croatian playoff game two seasons ago, when a group of fans started a bonfire in the stands using the opposing team’s flag.
“And they didn’t stop the game,” Ainge said. “They just came over with some extinguishers and put it out. There was smoke in the arena, and they just kept playing.”
Matkevicius sees hundreds of prospects each year, but it is much more likely than not that none of them will ever become Celtics. Most often, his tasks are thankless.
“In scouting,” Austin Ainge said, “90 percent of the job is just crossing guys off the list.”
The European clubs are not focused on holding showcase events for NBA teams. So when an 18-year-old prospect is not yet one of the best players on his squad, a coach might not play him at all. Or sometimes Matkevicius might go to great lengths to see a player, and then the player sits out because he is in foul trouble.
Matkevicius is also an assistant coach for the Lithuanian national team, so that gives him a chance to see even more top players during offseason tournaments and events. And his unusual upbringing is another asset.
Lithuanian was the primary language in his household, and then he attended school in Germany and the United States, learning English by watching Disney movies. He is trying to learn Spanish now, too, so language barriers are not as daunting as they are for some others in the basketball world.
Much of the scouting process involves talent evaluation, but communication also is essential.
If the Celtics are intrigued by a player, they will speak to his coaches about him, and even when the language is familiar, it is possible for evaluations to get lost in translation.
“The things that coaches and people value in players is different across cultures,” Austin Ainge said. “So when I’m talking to an assistant coach about a player, the things they get excited about or frustrated with are very different than maybe the next country.”
That presented a challenge for Matkevicius, too, because initially he had just cursory knowledge of the NBA game. But now he is much more comfortable.
He prefers to keep a low profile when he is scouting. He usually dresses in a sports jacket rather than Celtics attire. He saw Theis play in Bamberg, Germany, many times over the last few seasons, and Theis knew he was an NBA scout, but he never knew what team he worked for.
For Matkevicius, some of the most rewarding moments come when he watches a Celtics game and sees players such as Theis and Yabusele in uniform, the clearest and most tangible reminder that his unusual line of work does yield results, even when most often it does not.
“Sometimes you sit on the plane and look through the window and realize what kind of job you have,” Matkevicius said. “We all live in some bubbles, but it feels like you’re living in a different universe. Life is passing you by through the window, but you love this basketball life that you’ve always wanted to live.”