Scouting the Draft with Jesse Buss

The Lakers have found a sweet spot drafting in the late first and early second round of late, nabbing Larry Nance, Jr. in 2015 (No. 27), Ivica Zubac in 2016 (No. 32) and Jordan Clarkson in 2014 (No. 46).

To take a closer look at the process behind making such selections, we sat down with Lakers Director of Scouting/Assistant GM Jesse Buss and went through how Nance, Jr. ended up becoming a Laker. We went on to discuss how things have been different in the basketball operations office since Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka came into the building, and looked ahead to next week’s draft.

Below is a transcription of that conversation:

Mike Trudell: How did Larry Nance, Jr. first get on your radar?
Jesse Buss:
We’d been following him since he started college at Wyoming. Obviously, his dad (Larry Nance, Sr.) was an NBA player. We didn’t know what kind of prospect he’d be back then, but we kept track of him over the years as he developed. He had a few (unfortunate) things happen to him during his college career like tearing his ACL his junior year and getting mononucleosis his senior year. We’d been watching him more closely – either in person, on TV or on Synergy – during that senior year and he was having a great season. He had a rough period there (with mono) where they lost a couple games and he wasn’t playing too well or he was out. But he came back on strong, and they ended up making the NCAA Tournament. His body of work overall as a senior was pretty impressive, and when we began watching him more on Synergy, that’s when we turned our focus to him more closely as a potential guy we could draft late in the first round. He then participated in the Chicago pre-draft combine and did pretty well, and we got him here in June for a workout that really sealed the deal for us. We just knew we had to have him on draft night, and we were hoping he was there at No. 27.

MT: How does somebody go from just being one of many players that you’re watching closely to being a potential Lakers draft pick like Nance, Jr. was?
We watch so many games during the year that it usually takes a scout or someone in the front office to watch somebody and bring him up to the group. With Larry, I thought, ‘Maybe we should look into this guy a little more.’ Given the fact that he had a great four-year career and the NCAA Tournament experience, I definitely thought he was a guy of interest even though not many people were talking about him at the time. Larry helped himself in the draft process, too. He played well at the combine, and I’d heard he worked out well for other teams. I know what we saw here in our building, where he was phenomenal in his workout. That’s how these things happen. Someone may like a player early in the process, and then it’s their job to share it with the rest of the staff. You get everybody on board … and it was easy to do that for Larry once he had a great workout.

MT: What stood out from his workout?
The most notable thing was his athleticism. He tested off the charts with his vertical leaping, and everything else: speed, quickness, agility. That alone was very impressive. Then he showed an advanced pick-and-roll game in a two-man game with (current Celtic) Terry Rozier. He was just diving to the rim and dunking on everybody, and showed that he had great hands, that he could pass and could handle the ball a little bit. And even at times step out and shoot the ball a little bit.

MT: So you had four years of tape on Nance, Jr. from Wyoming. … How much does one workout in your gym tell you?
For example, they don’t do as much pick and roll in college as in the NBA. We get to see more of that in a workout setting than in going to watch a typical college game. But at the end of the day, you have to take the entire body of work, and go with your gut decision. It can’t just be one game. It has to be multiple games, tape work, workouts and interviews to understand what type of kid he is.

MT: How much does a player’s personality matter in that workout setting?
It matters on the court. You could see that Larry was very enthusiastic and a good teammate. He always had a smile on his face. He was very respectful to our coaches. Some of the staff knew his dad, and knew that he came from a good family, so we were pretty confident that not only were we getting a talented player, but we were getting a good person.

MT: When you drafted Nance, Jr., it was a surprise to many since he wasn’t that high on the mock drafts. And thus, the Lakers heard some original criticism. Scouting players correctly is one of the biggest jobs an organization has, so it must feel good when you get a win once it becomes clear that player has outkicked his original projection.
Any time you vouch for a player that you may know better than other scouts, you want to be right. You want that player to show out and do well because you want to trust what you saw that turned you onto him in the first place. That goes for any scout on our staff. Since we’re all spread out across the country (and Europe), certain scouts are going to know certain players better than others. There are certain players you stick your neck out for, and I was pretty comfortable with Larry.

MT: So was that a quick meeting with the rest of the staff after his workout went so well?
Right after his workout, everyone was sold and he shot up our board. It was a group decision on that point. Everybody was excited to try and get him with that No. 27 pick.

MT: How did things develop on the night of the Draft?
Since we were so sold on Larry, where we had him ranked was several spots ahead of anybody else still available at No. 27. The fact that there wasn’t as much buzz surrounding him, we were holding out hope that he’d be there for us. We felt like if we got him at 27, we were very happy with that.

MT: I understand you use a tier system as a part of your big board, which people who play fantasy sports intensely might understand. How do you utilize it and when did you put it into practice for the staff?
We have our board with guys ranked one through 60. We separate them in groups like a tier system, which is something I developed about three years ago with our staff. We group guys based on their talent level. And then, we have a discussion if we have a couple guys in the same tier. The 2015 Draft was the first time we used the tier system.

MT: What made you want to put that in?
Because in the prior draft year, I noticed it would have been even more helpful for us to have had it. I thought it was too basic to say that a player who is ranked 25th on our board is better than the player who is ranked 26th. The tier system separates guys by talent and allows for debate. Saying a player is ranked 25th doesn’t specify how talented he is, but grouping him amongst his talent level does.

MT: Right, so if you have only one guy left in the first tier and three in the second, you take that first tier guy. But if it’s only the three guys in the second tier, you talk it out…
Yes. Like, ‘Which guy is the best fit? Which one will fit our system the best? Which guy do we think has the best chance to succeed on our team’ … and at that point Larry was in a higher tier than anybody else on the board. That made the decision easier, because you never take a guy that’s in a lower tier. The 34th pick (which became Anthony Brown) was a little tougher, because we had a couple of guys we liked there.

MT: You have the No. 2 pick for the third straight year, and I’m sure you’re working on finalizing your tiers…
We usually get that figured out at least one day in advance. Obviously we don’t know who we’re going to select until Boston takes who they want. But we’ll have our order of priority and tier system set up. Now, since our picks are spread out at No. 2 and No. 28, you have a good couple of hours between picks. You’re watching how the draft develops. A lot of times trades come into play, or you’re able to buy another pick. The strategy becomes different in that case, but we rely pretty heavily on our tier system. It works best up through the early second round, when it becomes best player available. You just hope guys at that point can make your roster and potentially be a rotation player. Fit comes more into question in the first round.

MT: What more than anything do you think has helped you get guys that have outperformed their draft position?
A lot of it is that we’ve been fortunate enough to have Nance, Jr., Clarkson and Zubac way higher on our board than where we selected them. Any time you have a guy several spots higher than where you’re selecting, we usually feel pretty confident he’s going to be a good player. In Clarkson’s case, we had him as a clear first round talent, but he dropped well below our own projection to No. 46.

MT: And if we re-drafted the 2014 class, Clarkson goes much higher than he went…
Yeah, probably in the late lottery.

MT: Where did you have Zubac ranked?
We saw him as a potential lottery pick.

MT: So how close is your board getting to being completed now that you’ve had many players come in for workouts?
We don’t really start finalizing our tier list until later this week and early next week. We’re still having workouts left, so there’s always room for guys to move up or down. We’ll watch tape together and break everything down together, and really hash it out.

MT: You’ve worked your way up from the bottom of the basketball operations department, which is how your dad, Dr. Jerry Buss, wanted you to really learn the business. Now you’re right there in the room with Magic and Pelinka. Who aside from your dad has been a key influence?
I had a lot of great influences, my dad being one. Bill Bertka* was really the guy who took me under his wing when I was 18. He explained everything about scouting, and told me to go out there and write what I saw. Go with my gut about how I felt about a player, don’t be afraid to share an opinion, and always believe in yourself. Bertka was definitely a big help to me. My brother, Sean (Buss, a Lakers scout), has been a big influence to me as well. He was the one who got me into college basketball in the first place and took me to my first games when I was a kid.

MT: There’s been considerable change in your office in the past few months. What has stood out to you with Rob Pelinka and Magic coming into the fold?
They’ve been great. Very collaborative. I love working with them, and they love everything we’re doing (on the scouting side). They’ve entrusted me to run the scouting department like it’s been run. Just carry on from what we’ve been doing, because I think they’ve noticed we’ve had some success with the young talent we’ve been able to assemble on our roster. Obviously, they’re more involved now, too.

MT: Let me ask you specifically about Pelinka, with whom I know you’ve spent a lot of time lately on scouting trips to New York and elsewhere. What have you learned about him that you didn’t know when he took the job?
He’s really been great. I didn’t know that he was as big of a basketball junkie as somebody like me was in terms of scouting players. I thought there would be somewhat of a process there, but no … he already knew all the players in this draft. He’d been scouting them for his own purposes earlier this season. There was really no catching up for him. He was ready from day one, and he’s been readily involved in this entire process. It just amazes me how much he does know about each player, and how thorough he is. Rob is a guy who will text me late at night, “Hey I just watched this guy, what do you think about him?” We’re constantly throwing ideas off each other, evaluating players and talking through that. It’s been amazing working with him. I definitely think we’re going to have a lot of success with him at the helm.

MT: As for Magic … he’s been very close with your family for your entire lifetime. You know how your dad felt about him. How has that transition been from someone you must have loved and admired growing up to someone you work with daily on trying to bring the Lakers back to prominence?
Who doesn’t love Magic? He’s an amazing person. He’s been such a pioneer for the game of basketball. Everything that the Lakers are today, a lot of credit goes to him. He was really able to help transform this franchise into an iconic one, one that’s beloved throughout the world, and not just Los Angeles. He’s made himself into a global icon, and rightfully so. But Magic just lays out a vision for this team that we’re all behind him with. We think we can achieve that. It’s our job to go out and implement that vision, and we do it in different areas. With me and my department, our area is the draft. He’s been heavily involved even in the workout process. He’s been getting on the court, working out with the guys and telling them what he wants to see. It’s been great. I’m sure the (draft prospects) love it as well because they’re getting passes thrown to them by Magic Johnson. Or Magic Johnson telling them how he wants them to do a drill. He’s just been a great leader of this franchise so far. His leadership ability is he’s able to bring everyone together and make it a collaborative process. He’s definitely not just a guy to do it only his way.

MT: This may be hard to answer since it’s so new, but what happens if there’s a disagreement in the room? Does Magic have the final say? Rob? Magic and Rob? A collaboration?
It falls into the collaboration. From day one that Magic and Rob have been here, it’s been all about team, unity and ‘us,’ not ‘me’ or ‘I’. I’m confident we’ll all come to a decision together on whoever we want to select in the draft.

MT: As for the upcoming draft, you were very close – 53.1 percent close, in fact – of losing the pick to Philly. Instead, you moved up a spot. Now that you’ve seen most of the players in that range, how big of a deal can this be for the Lakers?
I’m genuinely shocked that over the last three years, we’ve been able to keep the pick (through the protections). That’s some luck right there. And this one adds another phenomenal young player to our young core, and rounds it out a little bit. Now, we’re really starting to build a team. It’s not just one, two or three guys. Half our team is guys we really think we can grow and develop together for the next several years. I think we’re really building something the right way.

MT: I know you can’t mention specific prospects, but have you learned anything over the course of the past few weeks that may have changed your mind about who you think the Lakers will take?
Once you remove yourself from the season and actually scouting players, and let your thoughts get together … you start watching tape and meet these kids for the first time … talk to their advisors and agents … their college coaches and maybe their parents … you start to really learn about the kids. It definitely has impacted my opinion, and collectively our opinion, about who we like especially at No. 2. We’ve been locked in on that. We never know who we’re selecting in May, though. It would have been someone different than who we ended up selecting. Once you really start diving into this process is when you figure out who you want to select.

MT: Are you starting to see any consensus building amongst the staff?
We still have some workouts … I think that’s going to paint a more clear picture for us, where we can compare each guy to his counterparts.