Jerry West was talking about the draft as he drove from Los Angeles to California’s Coachella Valley some 125 miles to the east, and he could have driven coast-to-coast and back again and still not had enough hands-free time to get through the encyclopedia. It’s The Logo and war rooms in June.
West and his drafts as personnel boss of the Lakers from 1982 to 2000 is endless conversation enough. It doesn’t even get into the three seasons involved as the L.A. coach, the five as head of basketball operations for the Grizzlies or the current role, since 2011, as a member of the Warriors’ executive board and adviser to GM Bob Myers. West has participated in the selection process for parts of five decades, usually as the final word.
It is his time with the Lakers that stands out, though, largely because of the ability to find talent late in the first round and beyond while L.A. routinely finished with one of the best records. He once went 10 years in a row without picking earlier than 23rd and still unearthed players who not only had careers, accomplishment enough, but became starters on good clubs and even All-Stars.
The unique West perspective: “If I were going to a game and watch, I always wanted to see a player when he played his worst. His worst. Not his best. I think when somebody plays their best you always got excited about it, but that’s not really who a player is unless he’s extraordinary. Every year there’s a few extraordinary ones. For those kind of players, when you watch them play their worst, do they still play basketball? Are they still searching out shots, trying to make a shot and trying to impress? When they sit down, are they interacting with their teammates? How are they acting on the bench? How do they act with their coaches? Would they be good teammates? You can get a lot of information from people that are around programs to tell you what kind of a person a player is. But most of the time I think you can see it when they play. I really do.”
NBA.com: I want to get into some of the specifics from the Lakers days, but I’ve always been curious about something. You arrived in Memphis after the 2003 pick had already been traded (to Detroit), the draft that ended up No. 2. The Pistons took Darko Milicic. LeBron James was off the board. Darko, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade were on the board. If you had the No. 2 pick, if it had not been traded away, what would you have done?
Jerry West: I really don’t want to get into that, OK, because I was so furious at the people for trading a pick with a (bad) team. Our pick would have probably become one of those four. We really had a need for a backcourt player, so obviously Dwyane Wade would have been right there. It was also Bosh and Carmelo?
NBA.com: Right. Bosh, Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade and Darko Milicic were the main names there.
JW: We would not have taken Darko Milicic under any circumstances. I went to see him play in Europe and he wouldn’t play the game because
he knew I was there. I wouldn’t have drafted him. He was very
skilled. If you just brought him in for a workout, with his size, he would have been a very impressive workout. But at the end of the day, we would not have drafted him, I can assure you.
NBA.com: The Lakers. You got A.C. Green at 23, Vlade Divac at 26, Elden Campbell at 27, Nick Van Exel at 37, Derek Fisher at 24. Any pick you are especially proud of, that stands out all these years later?
JW: I would tell you one of my favorite players of all time was Nick Van Exel. He’s a player that I could identify with for a lot of reasons. He had a really tough life. A really tough life growing up. And he was so competitive and he was not afraid. The thing that made him great was this chip he had on his shoulder. But the thing that also hurt him was the chip on his shoulder.
I loved him as a player and one of the saddest days during my days in Los Angeles was when we traded him. Didn’t want to do it, but you almost felt you were forced to because of some of the behavioral things. One of the days I felt horrible when I left the office, that’s for sure, because I loved him as a player. He just competed and wasn’t afraid. Oh, my gosh. You didn’t have to worry about him competing. He had that edge that was an edge you wish all players had. He was one of my favorite players that we traded. To this day, I don’t know. I just wish it would have worked.
NBA.com: Was there any part of you that enjoyed the challenge of picking late in the first and trying to beat the other teams? Vlade Divac at 26, Elden Campbell at 27 – that was back-to-back years. Did you take special pride in picks like that as opposed to getting a good player in the lottery?
JW: The lottery is really designed for teams that have poor records and not enough talent. You’re probably looking more on the future and potential and also someone who could potentially be a star. Particularly in Los Angeles, star power is very important and it was for the Lakers. During that period of time we had a lot of star power and we had some of the very best players in the league. All we were doing down there was trying to find players that would help these great players be more effective, take some of the burden off of them. In many ways they were almost like specialists. Some of them would rebound, some could defend, some of them really knew how to play the game….
I’m a harsh judge of players. I’m a harsh judge in terms of greatness. But if you can play both ends of the court I’m damn sure probably going to like you. That would be what we were looking for later in the draft. More importantly, those players who could go out there and play hard every night. I remember getting scouting reports. I read every scouting report. I had two people working for us at that time. Just two. Both of them former NBA players, Gene Tormohlen and Ronnie Lester.
The thing that was really important to me: How hard is this guy going to play? If he can’t play hard in college – then it was about a 28-, 30-game schedule, now it’s about a 36-game schedule – how in the world are they going to play hard in an 82-game schedule? That limits them immediately from a coaching perspective because a coach does not need to motivate someone to play hard. If you have to motivate someone to play hard, that’s not a fun thing to do.
NBA.com: What was the draft night you walked out the room, got in the car to drive home and said, “We may have picked late, but we really nailed it with this guy?” Who was the one you were most certain you had gotten a great steal?
JW: I felt very confident with Vlade and also A.C. Green. I felt both of them could really be exceptional players. They did turn out to be really, really good pros. Both great people. Vlade, he wasn’t the greatest athlete in the world, but he had a mind to play the game like you couldn’t believe. He also maybe had the greatest pair of hands that I’ve ever seen. His knowledge of the game was just enormous. A.C., I sort of felt really good because I knew what we got. You’re never going to have to motivate him. He was going to get better because he was going to outwork everyone. You knew he was never going to miss a game. You knew he was going to fit in in the locker room. He wasn’t going to be taking the spotlight away from our major stars. He was going to be a terrific player and a great teammate, as was Vlade.
There is a very funny story about Vlade and when we took him. There was a guy by the name of Gary Leonard from the University of Missouri. Great athlete. Our two scouts, Ronnie and Gene, that’s who they wanted to take. I had watched the Yugoslavian team play against the (Celtics) and I was just fascinated by how Vlade was not intimidated at all. He played the way he always played – smart, clever. So we get down to it and I said, “Guys, I don’t know. We can’t draft that guy.” (Leonard.) When it comes to the time to draft and we have to turn in the name, I said, “We’re going to draft Vlade Divac.”
I think those two scouts didn’t speak to me for about a week. It was funny, actually. But someone has to make the choice, OK. Someone has to make the choice. I never wanted any credit for anything that went good anywhere I’ve been. Anywhere. Any credit. The credit should go to the people who work just as hard as you, the people who are out there scouring and trying to find things about players they really like. I don’t know. Instinctively. I’ve kind of always followed my heart. Instinctively it worked out for us.
NBA.com: How often do you think it happened that you went with your gut against the advice of the people working for you? Where the scouts and the assistants working for you may have lobbied one way and you said, “No, I’m going to go with my choice.”
JW: It’s never that easy or that arrogant, to be honest with you. Everyone is more thorough than people give them credit. A lot of people may feel, “Well, they just threw a dart against the board.” There’s a reason you draft players. I think we always had a reason for drafting players. But if it was really close, if it was really critical and there was mixed emotions, I would probably say, “Hey, look. This is my responsibility and I think this is the player we should draft. I’m not trying to offend anyone. I’m not trying to look down on all the hard work you’ve done. But I just think this is a better fit for us. This is a better player.”
If it worked, it worked. And if it didn’t, it didn’t. I always believed everyone should have a voice, but someone has to make the choice. We got pretty lucky. We got a lot of players that were productive for us that worked well for us. That’s what you feel good about, when you get somebody and you go to training camp and know he belongs. That’s what really feels good.
NBA.com: So what is the secret to drafting late in the first round and into the second round? What is the key to finding a player there?
JW: It’s probably a player that athletically is not off the charts. It’s probably a player that has to be drafted to play a different position – is he capable of changing positions? There’s really no secret. I think it’s a practice eye for people.
Look at San Antonio. They do a great job down there with drafting players late. They’re very thorough in their approach with how they do it and they get players. The biggest difference with them and any franchise I’ve seen – any franchise – is they do a better job of developing their players who have ability. And they have kept the same system in place. They deserve a lot of kudos for having people down there that work with their young prospects who have holes in their game. Their system is great for what they’re trying to accomplish. They do a great job.
But at the end of the day, there’s usually one skill that follows kids around. If you rebound at the collegiate you’re probably going to rebound in the NBA. That’s one skill that usually transforms into something you can usually count on. The rest of it is “I really like this guy. I like his passion. Can he shoot? Can we make him shoot the ball better?” Well, if you’ve got a system in place to make him shoot the ball better, that can make him a great player, and a perfect example is Kawhi Leonard. I love him.
He plays under the radar. He’s one of the best players in the league, by far, because he’s a two-way player. He was kind of a one-way player in college. But you look at him offensively now, he’s so skilled and he shoots the ball so darned well. I think he shoots like 90 percent from the line. Everyone knew he was a terrific athlete and everyone knew he played the game hard, but a lot of people passed on him because they didn’t think he could shoot the ball. And now we have an All-Pro player that was drafted, what, 14 or 18 or something like that (15th) and traded? Tremendous player. They saw something in him. A few teams see something when they get players that are a little bit flawed because some of their skills are not what they should be, but they have athletic ability and work ethic. That’s what I’m talking about with hard work. His hard work has made him.
NBA.com: A GM once told me a funny story. Their team picked somewhere higher in the first round. You were with the Lakers and picking late in the first round. This other team makes their choice. They’re all sitting around when the Lakers make their pick and its announced on television. The GM turns to somebody and says, “Geez, I knew we should have taken that guy.”
JW: I think sometimes you get more credit than you deserve in anything you do in this league.
"Look at San Antonio. They do a great job down there with drafting players late. They’re very thorough in their approach with how they do it and they get players. The biggest difference with them and any franchise I’ve seen – any franchise – is they do a better job of developing their players who have ability."
NBA.com: But did you like that you sort of struck fear into other front offices, that everyone respected your choices that much that even somebody that got taken 10 or 15 picks later, people start second-guessing themselves just because it was the Lakers that made the choice?
JW: First of all, I would never even think something like that. Everyone goes into the draft with different objectives. I think after the draft was over, the one thing I always thought was important was to go back over the draft and try to rate the draft before the players had played. It was really a checks-and-balances system for us. We would go back and evaluate the draft after a year or two of a player and say, “Oh, my gosh. How did we miss this?” Or players that we did not like in terms of our situation, did they turn out for another team? I think it’s a really good thing to do, to be honest with you, to never think that you’re smarter than someone else. It was always about learning to me. Where did we make our mistakes? Why did we make our mistakes? That was the thing that was most important to me.
NBA.com: You would go back two years after the draft and review the selections?
NBA.com: And what would you learn?
JW: There were some things you would learn. But also you could look where your opinions about a player were right. Everyone keeps records and stuff. During the draft time, I tried to talk to every team in the league, regardless of where they were drafting. It wouldn’t affect us. I would say, “Give me your top 20 guys because we’re not even involved close to that. I don’t care what order they’re in.” I would say, “Give me your top 20 guys.”
At that time, people were pretty good about doing it. I didn’t ask them who they were going to draft. I wasn’t interested in who they were going to draft. We weren’t, probably, going to be able to draft those players anyway.
I do like to go back, after like three years, even today, the players that were taken in the lottery. And I will tell you, people think being in the lottery is a fantastic thing? How many lottery picks have really not been good? A bunch. Not a little bit. A bunch…. It tells you about these so-called experts. I don’t think anyone’s an expert. But I do think some people have a better educated guess.”
NBA.com: What’s the most common mistake you see teams making in the draft?
JW: Drafting athletes because they have superior athletic ability and not seeing the skill level and, maybe, the desire. But I’ll say this. Everyone says the players are getting worse. I think the players are getting easier to deal with today. I really do, because some of them are so dedicated. These young kids are so dedicated.
It’s refreshing. They understand after a while it’s what they do on the court that’s going to allow them to have a career. I don’t call a career three years or four years. I call a career a 10-year career. I think we’re really getting some great kids. We’re getting kids that are really impressive in interviews. Really impressive. To me, it’s a tribute to some of the college coaches, some of the influences they’ve had on their lives. It’s very refreshing, let’s put it that way. Very refreshing.
NBA.com: The big finish is, how often when you said, “I can’t believe this guy was still on the board” did you actually mean it?
JW: I wouldn’t say it if I didn’t believe it.
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