Sit Down with the Scout
After serving as the Lakers’ director of scouting from 2012 to 2015, Jesse Buss added the role of assistant general manager ahead of the 2015-16 season to the scouting duties that he continues to focus upon.
Buss sat down with us ahead of Thursday’s NBA Draft to discuss his expanded role in personnel decisions under Mitch Kupchak and Jim Buss, check in on the progress of the young players he helped L.A. draft over the past few seasons and discuss the areas of focus with picks No. 2 and 32 looming.
MT: How has your role evolved this season?
Buss: The responsibility has stayed relatively similar, where I’m most focused on the scouting department and making sure we’re spending the most time the Draft, considering how important draft choices are to the franchise going forward. I still report to Jim and Mitch and offer my suggestions for free agency. But at the end of the day, that goes through them.
MT: How does the scouting process evolve in a nutshell?
Buss: It’s a couple-year process. A lot of times kids who declare for the draft and drop out will be in eligible the year after; we watch them for multiple years. The freshmen, we’re familiar with from their high school days, and even though we’re not allowed to scout in high school, there are exceptions (various tournaments) where we can track them. There’s also a lot on Synergy that we watch on film extensively through draft day, and then of course we watch players in person throughout the season. We get our rankings together and tweak them heading into the draft, but the primary focus is going to watch players play in person both in college and abroad in professional leagues.
MT: You played a role in scouting and drafting the several young Lakers on the current roster. What have you made of the development of Julius Randle based on what you expected when you guys drafted him at No. 7?
Buss: Initially, I thought he’d be an immediate contributor. He seemed like one of the most NBA-ready prospects. Julius came in and put in a lot of work to really improve his skill set and he learned to slow down a bit last year. That helped him as the season progressed. He improved his jump shot from where it was in college, and he got used to playing a different role from what he did at Kentucky, where he was primarily a low-post big. Averaging a double-double as (essentially) an NBA rookie (after the year recovering from injury) suggests that he flourished in it, and you could tell he was at his best getting out in transition and attacking the rim. He was fantastic on the glass. He’ll keep improving his jumper and his overall skill level because I know he works very, very hard. I think he continues to have a lot of upside at just 21-years-old right now, with a lot of room to grow. With Luke Walton, who will have the players run a little more in his system, that should provide an opportunity for huge improvement as well.
MT: Everybody around the team says that Julius really and truly works his butt off … a lot of players work hard, but how do you really know that some guys work more than others?
Buss: In the case of Julius, he comes into the practice facility every day, and I can see him right (out of my office window). He literally doesn’t take off days. A lot of times he’ll come in here twice a day to work with our assistant coaches on the court and our trainers and strength coach off the court. He’s already made strides from last season. Watching him shoot this summer, the form looks more fluid, natural and crisp. He’s getting used to shooting with one motion. I’m excited to see all the work he’s put in translating to the court next year. The work he’s doing now is going to pay dividends. And I think it says something for a player to come in here in our gym, because they’re comfortable having eyes on them as they’re working on weaknesses and adding to strengths. It shows a level of dedication to the franchise, too.
MT: How about Jordan Clarkson? What have you seen from the No. 46 pick that made the All-Rookie First Team and then backed it up with a consistent second season?
Buss: He only had about half a season in his rookie year, and while he showed some things, it was good to see him have similar production in his second year. He was probably our most consistent young player last year, and he continued to show good things. He can score from anywhere on the floor. His perimeter shooting has improved from Missouri (28.1 percent from three as a junior) to his first season with us (31.4 percent) and his second (34.7 percent). He’s always going to be a guy that can attack the hoop by beating guys off the dribble. He also comes in and works every day. I’ve always been told that defense is an effort thing, and he acknowledged that he focused more on the offensive end. But he has defensive tools with an ability to stay in front of guys and great lateral quickness. Luke should help there too with a new energy and getting guys to commit to that end even more. The scheme should benefit our guys tremendously.
MT: The Lakers are about to pick second for the second straight season; what did you make of D’Angelo Russell’s rookie year?
Buss: He started off rough with the summer league as he adjusted to the pace of the game, and things went the same to start the season. At around the midway point, however, he got comfortable with the pace and the physicality, and really showed an ability to score at this level. He really began to understand passing angles and figured out the speed of the game as he grew comfortable with his role. He showed a lot of the things that were reasons why we took him at No. 2, and I’m very excited for his future. I definitely think he can be an All-Star. I don’t like to restrict him to one position, because he can play at the point and at the two, but I do believe his versatility offensively is unique. Not many guards can both score and run the show at a high level, and as he keeps developing, he can be a real force. He showed an ability to get into the paint, get to the rim and even post up as the season progressed, and he shot the three throughout the season (35.1 percent). He has tools to really have the complete package. What separates a lot of players is the ability to do it on both ends, and he’ll continue to develop defensively as well.
MT: What can Walton do for Russell?
Buss: Luke has worked with tremendous guards in Golden State, and I think his system is really going to benefit D’Angelo. Running a ton of pick and rolls, have him both handle the ball and also move him around off the ball for different looks should help a lot. Luke brings an offense that encourages ball movement, and with the way D’Angelo sees the floor, that should be a nice mix.
MT: And how about Larry Nance, Jr., whom you guys nabbed with the 27thpick when some folks weren’t very familiar with him, and he was slotted further down in most of the typical mock drafts.
Buss: When you come from a small school like Wyoming it’s hard to get national recognition. We’d had our eye on him for a couple years, and knew he had a good level of talent. When he tore his ACL, he fell off for a bit in terms of people talking about him, but he stayed on our radar. We didn’t think he was gaining as much attention as he deserved because of various things (an illness his senior year and recovery from surgery among them). When we started to extensively watch him on film, I felt like his athleticism, energy and intelligence within his role meant he was a player we should really consider with one of our two later picks. When he came and worked out here, it was a love fest. The athletic testing was amazing – he cleared the vertical jump completely. He went as high as the machine goes, which I’d never seen before. And as he played in the 2-on-2 and 3-on-3 workouts, he showed really good things. He’s an excellent screen/roll player, and he dominated the workout playing a two-man game with Terry Rozier (now with Boston). After that, everybody was on board, and we moved him up our board. When 27 came around, he was our highest player ranked on our board, and we took him. We were all very excited about him.
MT: Is it funny to you to look at the mock drafts and see how people gauge the success of picks based on how many slots ahead of the mocks players went or “fell”?
Buss: It’s funny, because I remember on my Facebook and Instagram, even some of my friends said, ‘The Lakers took Larry Nance, Jr. at 27? What? Why? Who?’ I was thinking, ‘You guys will see.’ We’d done the work, and had been watching him for a while, and were very confident. We didn’t want to risk the fact that some other team loved him too, because we figured he dominated workouts elsewhere.
MT: What did you make of his rookie year?
Buss: I think he had a pretty good season even dealing with his knee flaring up certain games. He showed a good amount of promise to really believe in him that he’s part of our core going forward, and to be excited for his future. He’s in the mix when we talk about our young players and why we’re excited about them. It’s not just about the athleticism – he’s a very smart player with a great motor that leaves it out on the floor. Plus, he’s an amazing kid. Very respectful, very nice, listens to teammates, gets along with everybody.
MT: Could you see him playing more with Randle as the league’s evolved and gotten smaller?
Buss: You need to have versatility in your lineups to be successful in the NBA today. The good teams have guys that can play multiple positions well. I think there are many situations where he and Julius can play together. That’s a huge factor, and Larry has that versatility.
MT: Moving to the present, what do you think you can get with the No. 2 pick to go with your young core?
Buss: We’re looking for a player that can fit with the young talent we have, but the understanding is we’re always going to take the best player available, especially when it’s such a high choice. We’re very confident that there is going to be someone that we love at the spot we’re selecting. We’re still tweaking the big board, and will continue to have meetings up until draft day with the whole scouting staff, but we’re still watching a ton of film.
MT: Finally, Jesse, what’s going on in your office and with the rest of Kupchak and Jim Buss’ staff right now?
Buss: We’ve had so many workouts with players from all over the draft board, because we have both 2 and 32, and that takes a good deal of focus. Meanwhile, we’re calling schools to get information on players, consulting with our training staff about prospects’ medical condition, and of course extensive film study. We feel good where we’re at right now and are confident that even if the draft were tomorrow, we’d know exactly what we want to do.