How The Rise of Luka Doncic Shines a Light on Multiple Hiring Biases

Adam Rosenfield Hiring Bias, Selection, Talent Acquisition

“The one that got away”

A phrase that means you missed out, didn’t do your due diligence, or put up some sort of bias blocker that you thought at the time was smart, but cost you in the long run. 

We hear it constantly- whether  we’re deep in a Sex and City binge watch, or executives lamenting a hire they missed years ago that turned out to be their biggest competitor. 

Today though, the example of “the one that got away” is one that’s near and dear to my heart- Dallas Mavericks wunderkind Luka Doncic. 

Luka was still drafted third in the 2018 NBA Draft, but the fact is that multiple teams had a shot to draft him. They didn’t, and it changed the trajectory of the Mavs organization (much to my happiness) for possibly the next 15 years.  

More importantly, the biases surrounding the evaluation of  Luka before the 2018 draft bring up some good points for HR and talent acquisition professionals. Namely, how much do different types of biases play a role in preventing an organization from bringing on top talent?

When researched further, you’ll find the organization you work for may not be that much different when it comes to talent acquisition than an NBA team. 

The Competition Bias Factor

One of the biggest criticisms levied at Doncic pre-draft was the age-old NBA adage of “well, the Euroleague is a second-division league.” It’s a bias that has continually played out throughout the NBA’s existence and proven wrong, especially when it comes to players on the Dallas Mavericks (see: Dirk Nowitzki). 

The two players drafted before Luka, DeAndre Ayton (number 1 to the Phoenix Suns) and Marvin Bagley (#2 to the Sacramento Kings) both were from what we would call ‘basketball factories”, the University of Arizona and Duke University, respectively. While they performed well during their one year at each school, they previously were playing in high school. 

Doncic, on the other hand, had been playing against grown men since the age of 15, and in major contributing roles to boot. Not only that, but he won a championship, something the other two did not do during their time on center stage. 

While Cameron Indoor (Duke’s home court) might be a crazy place to play, it’s nothing compared to playing in Europe, where some of the most ardent supporters are shooting flares in the arena by the second quarter.

This is a huge issue in Big Tech- you’ll find many who only prefer certain hires from the FAANG (Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix, Google) and other big tech companies over other hires, leaving out a whole slew of candidates who built startups, or who are thriving in mid-market companies. Sure, the name companies are great, but are these employees just cogs in a wheel, or true game changers? 

Hiring managers in all industries exhibit forms of  competition bias. We see many companies focus more on hiring employees that only attended certain schools, or fit certain archaic criteria, leading to a more homogeneous workforce.

The Checkbox Bias

When you think about the greatest basketball players of all time, you think about guys like Michael Jordan, Lebron James, Kobe Bryant, or for those in the older crowd reading this, maybe Wilt Chamberlain or Julius Erving. Those guys could jump, slash, and were the definition of “alpha basketball player”. 

Doncic didn’t necessarily fit the look of an “ideal basketball player,” he had some baby fat, and was also a step slower than others.

What the scouts of other teams didn’t take into account was athleticism is great, but it wears down. Doncic excelled when it came to basketball smarts- while he wasn’t going to blow by you in a feat of strength, he knew how to use every inch of his body and had the basketball wherewithal to put the ball in the hoop, or find someone that could.

Other players were similarly doubted before him- Hall of Famer Larry Bird certainly didn’t fit the mold of the ideal athlete, and Steph Curry was an undersized guard who struggled to dunk coming out of college. 

I often see this issue percolate with hiring managers. They think everyone who is in a particular role must look, act, and almost think the exact same as a predecessor or those already in the role, leaving little room for someone who might be a bit different, or brings different skills to the table. In sports, they’re coded as someone who isn’t “athletic,” in other organizations, it may be a person who does not think a certain way, or has the exact technical specifications of a particular role. 

Familial  Bias

How many people do you know that have received jobs based on the character or past relationships of their parents or siblings? Probably plenty. 

The answer might even be similar when you ask how many people have been denied opportunities based on their parents’ or siblings’ past dealings and relationships. 

The basketball community is close, and the European basketball community is even closer. The story going around from many reporters as to the reason why Doncic wasn’t drafted by the Sacramento Kings was that Vlade Divac, then the General Manager of the Kings, had a strong dislike of Luka’s father, Sasa Doncic from their past interactions in the Euroleagues, and thought Luka was cut from the same cloth.

I’ve actually seen this happen in real life. Hiring managers see a similar last name, know a parent or sibling from a relationship or activity outside of work, and refuse to even interview the candidate in consideration, completely disregarding their skills. This is where due diligence and interviewing are so important- just because the father or mother is one way, doesn’t mean the son or daughter is. Holding a relationship against someone who had no part in that particular relationship only serves to heighten the discontentment, something which may affect your future candidate pipeline. 

If they meet the qualifications, what is the harm in giving them the interview? 

You Have to Have the Right Team in Place to Get the Right Talent

Hiring and drafting the right talent involves a lot of preparation, shrewd decision making, and some luck. Where the Mavs had the edge when it came to Luka was the employment of Director of Player Personnel Tony Ronzone, who is known as a specialist when it comes to scouting European players. There was a track record there in the organization of finding and developing major European talent. Not only that, but there was a deferential superstar on the Mavericks in Dirk Nowitzki who was more than willing to cede the spotlight to the next Dallas superstar. Could that have happened in Phoenix or Sacramento? One can only hypothesize.

If you aren’t fully aware of the talent available on the market, and don’t have experience recruiting/hiring/drafting a wide array of talent, chances are the bias will be high in your decision-making process. Sometimes, it won’t cost you that much. Other times, you let a once-in-a-generation talent slip through the cracks. 

While a major key to ensure this doesn’t happen is to be prepared, and up-to-date with your talent strategy, you also need to understand the biases each one of your decision makers possesses when it comes to the hiring process. Sometimes, a person’s bias is so strong that they are unable to play an effective part in the talent acquisition process.

When you think about your hiring biases, use the LUKA method:

Listen to your talent scouts, recruiters, vendors or customers (maybe they’ve worked with them in the past) regarding the reputation of talent in the market.

Understand the biases and the blocks you may be putting up that could affect your decision making.

Know your needs. Do you need someone with specific qualities, or can you hire talent for the sake of them being talented?

Always get a consensus. If there is only one person truly in charge of hires, your team may only be a representation of that one person. If everyone has an equitable stake in the hiring process, you may find more options when it comes to talent.

Go Mavs!