‘Brain Doctor’ On Call For NBA
© Associated Press
June 23rd, 2004
Correction made after article was written: In a June 23 column about talent evaluator Jon Niednagel, The Associated Press erroneously reported that Niednagel wrote a review on Tracy McGrady for the Orlando Magic prior to the 1997 NBA draft.
Niednagel said he prepared the evaluation while working exclusively for a different NBA team, though the Magic eventually found out about it.
The column also implied that Niednagel influenced the Boston Celtics to trade for Ricky Davis last year. Niednagel evaluated Davis before the 1998 draft, but said he was not involved in the trade decision.
“I’ve found the information to be absolutely fascinating, almost scary, because it is so correct.” — San Francisco 49ers general manager Terry Donahue.
“If Jon is able to connect all this with empirical evidence, I’m convinced he’ll win the Nobel Prize” — tennis instructor and author Vic Braden.
“You can take Red Auerbach, Jerry West, Phil Jackson. I’d take Jon Niednagel.” Boston Celtics boss Danny Ainge.
You’ve read the endorsements.
Now meet the man.
“I’m not a psychic and I’m not clairvoyant,” Jon Niednagel said over the phone Tuesday night. “But what I provide is much more accurate than what’s out there.”
There is no way to describe what Niednagel provides without making it sound like something straight off the cover of a matchbook. It’s called “brain-typing,” and with the NBA draft set for Thursday, there is no time of the year when smart people more willingly fork over bags of money to get their hands on his information.
And here’s the best part: Though he says empirical evidence is on the way to back him up, right now it’s impossible to be sure whether the information Niednagel (pronounced “Need-noggle”) is peddling is the wave of the future or repackaged snake oil.
Either way, Niednagel has as much work as he can handle as a freelance talent evaluator for pro teams and athletes in just about every sport. In those corridors of power he is often referred to, simply, as “The Brain Doctor.”
He’s spent more than half of his 56 years developing a coherent theory of how humans are wired — Niednagel claims to have identified 16 distinct “brain types,” as opposed to personality types — and why some are better suited to be point guards, quarterbacks, pitchers or CEOs than others.
Making no small plans, he believes that someday, sooner rather than later, his research will have universal applications. For the moment, though, helping a few deep-pocketed devotees dope out the draft helps keep the wolves from his door.
“It’s a way of understanding things before they happen,” Niednagel said. “I don’t know of anyone who evaluates more players every year than I do. I don’t know of anybody who puts their neck on the line more than I do.”
His stock as an evaluator rose dramatically after Niednagel gave the Orlando Magic a can’t-miss review on Tracy McGrady prior to the 1997 NBA draft (the Magic used that assessment to pursue McGrady and sign him as a free-agent three years later). It climbed even higher after he warned the San Diego Chargers not to waste their No. 1 pick in the 1998 NFL draft (and the second overall) on quarterback Ryan Leaf.
Outside of those two names, however, Niednagel declines to discuss specific evaluations or clients. In the NBA, he’s known to have worked for Ainge, as well as for Ainge’s good buddy, Minnesota Timberwolves president Kevin McHale (his testimonial reads: “I wish I had this information when I was playing.”) and Denver Nuggets GM Kiki Vandeweghe.
Niednagel won’t say which teams or how many have consulted with him prior to the NBA draft, except that “it’s more than one.” He is even less forthcoming about his bobbles, though one of them, oft-traveled knucklehead and current Celtics forward Ricky Davis, provides as good an illustration as any why even Niednagel’s system is flawed.
Young men, sudden fame and fortune, and a livelihood that rewards daring, even sometimes-reckless behavior made for a volatile mix long before there were part-time consultants like Niednagel and full-time draft experts like Mel Kiper Jr. And detailed report cards on every prospect handed out to every organization afterward. Yet, for all the advances, the draft remains a maddeningly inexact science.
Niednagel comes down heavily on the side of nature in the nature vs. nurture debate. He contends that something like 65 percent of all behavior is determined by genetics and the brain type you’re born with.
And while not talking about Davis or any particular athlete, he concedes, “where I can be 100 percent right is telling a team about the 65 percent,” he said. “But the way we’re raised is very significant. Where I don’t pretend to be an expert is with the remaining 35 percent.”
That’s why Niednagel cautions that someone with the same brain type “could turn out to be Michael Jordan or Elmer Fudd,” and why he’s prepared to argue that Abraham Lincoln and the Unabomber were one and the same type. It’s the same reason he only consults with organizations where “at least one person is willing to work in-depth.”
“Player evaluation is still in the Dark Ages,” Niednagel added, “but I don’t know anybody who hasn’t looked into brain-typing who hasn’t become a believer.”