Scouting the Draft with Jesse Buss: 30th Pick Josh Hart

After Kyle Kuzma lit up the 2017 summer league, we sat down with Lakers assistant GM and Director of Scouting Jesse Buss to figure out what L.A. saw in Kuzma that so many other teams hadn’t before drafting him at No. 27 overall.

At the time, 30th pick Josh Hart had played very sparingly in Vegas due to an ankle injury, and a similar conversation with Buss didn’t seem timely.

But after what was an increasingly impressive rookie campaign for Hart, who in 23 starts averaged 13.3 points on 49.6 percent shooting (42.2 percent from three) plus 6.0 rebounds, 2.0 assists, 1.0 steals and 1.0 turnovers, we sat down with Buss to see what he and his staff saw in the four-year Villanova product.

Below is a transcription of our conversation, which also details a turning point in Hart’s season, why he’s more than a three and D guy and how beneficial it is to have him locked into his salary cap number:

MT: When did Josh Hart first catch your scouting eye?
Jesse: We’ve scouted Villanova over the last couple of years since they’ve had a lot of prospects coming into the Draft, and Josh was always a big part of what they did, including when they won the national title against North Carolina two years ago*. He put his name into the Draft that year and played at the combine, but didn’t like where it appeared he was going to get selected, and decided to go back for his senior year. We felt like he took his game to another level, in terms of being more than just a three and D guy. He did it all for them. He was their engine his senior year. Their best defender, their main option on offense, one of their best shooters and playmakers. Watching him in the Big East Tournament really solidified him as a first rounder for me. I felt like he had that talent level and that he was a guy that could help us immediately, but also help change the culture here. He’s a high basketball IQ player, is unselfish and just plays the right way. I felt like we needed more guys like that on our team at that particular time.
*Hart had 12 points on 4 of 9 FG’s with a team-high 8 rebounds, plus an assist, block and steal in a game-high 38 minutes to help lead Villanova to the National Title.

Josh Hart

MT: Did you know about a potential pick trade with Utah earlier that day or did they just call after you took Kuzma?
Buss: We were called immediately after we made the 27th pick, by Utah, and offered No. 30 and No. 42 for No. 28. We had considered a number of guys at that position, and felt there was still some first round talent on the board, and we felt we could potentially get two guys we had ranked in the first round by adding No. 42 since we still had six or seven guys up there. It just so happened that Josh, the guy who was highest on our board, and who we were going to select at 28, was also there at 30. That was a definite plus, and made the trade that much better for us, when we were able to acquire Thomas Bryant at No. 42, who we felt had first round talent.

MT: If I recall, San Antonio picked 29th, so were you sweating a bit not knowing if Utah or the Spurs were going to swoop in and steal Hart from you…
Buss: We really wanted Hart, and it’s funny because Hart seems like a Spurs guy. What you’d imagine with some of the players they’ve had. He would have fit there, but they went a different direction (Derrick White), and we felt ecstatic that Hart was there and could come and do a lot of good things for us right away.

MT: Early in the season, the narrative was all about Kyle Kuzma exploding onto the scene, folks wondering what you guys saw in him that so many teams missed on, in addition to the back-to-back No. 2 picks in Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram. Hart wasn’t playing a ton early, and then had the brief stint with the South Bay Lakers before he started to get rolling. Soon enough, the narrative changed into, “The Lakers found another one.”
Buss: Early in the season, he wasn’t shooting the ball as well*. He always shot well in college, but adjusting to the NBA 3-point line can be difficult for rookies especially. But once he had that stint with South Bay, it seemed like he came back a different player. More confident. More aggressive. Even though his jump shot wasn’t falling at the beginning of the season, he was doing a lot of different things like defending, rebounding and playmaking, getting to the basket and finishing with either hand. Things that your normal three and D guys don’t do, which is where people had boxed him in. But somewhere along the way, he really started to shoot the ball well. We weren’t sure if he was going to come back after the hand injury, but when he did, he shot the ball great, including the seven threes in the season finale, which elevated him to the top spot on our team in terms of percentage (39.6 percent). And shooting anywhere near 40 percent for a rookie is impressive. You don’t see that happen that often, and is just a testament to how much work he put in, which he and the rest of our young guys did as well. Coach Walton and his staff really had them prepared to come in right away and make a contribution.
*Hart shot 18.2 percent in November in a very limited sample size (2 for 11), before bumping way up to 41.9 percent in December (18 for 43).

Josh Hart

MT: In addition to Kuzma and Hart in the 2017 Draft, you’ve also grabbed Larry Nance, Jr. late in the first round (No. 27 in 2015), as well as Ivica Zubac (No. 30, 2016) and Jordan Clarkson (No. 46, 2014). Is there something you’ve utilized more than other teams to have success in that range?
Buss: A lot of times, I believe fans of basketball get infatuated with younger players, typically freshman that are 18 or 19. ‘Upside’ is the big word. How much better can this guy get? And it’s a fair argument, because a lot of times, you’re not looking at a guy who’s really perfected his craft or has really developed. In terms of juniors like Kuzma and seniors like Josh, they’re a little more polished and you know what you’re getting usually, but at the same time, there has been a lot of growth over the year with teams who have drafted juniors and seniors that have gotten better. I think Golden State proved that*. These guys weren’t just finished (developing) once they were drafted and that’s as good as they were going to get. Clearly, a lot of those guys got a lot better. You’ve seen it with a lot of teams who have drafted guys that are upperclassmen and had success with them. And for Josh and Kyle to come in right away and show what they did, it’s a sign of encouragement. People might say they were supposed to do that because they’re older than freshman, but playing in the NBA is completely different from college, and really any sign of success you show shouldn’t be just taken with a grain of salt. Those guys really did a great job for us this season.
*Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson each played three years in college, while Draymond Green played four. A few other All-Stars from 2017-18: Damian Lillard (four years); Jimmy Butler (three); Al Horford (three); Victor Oladipo (three); and Kemba Walker (three). Meanwhile, James Harden, Paul George, Russell Westbrook and Kyle Lowry each played two years of college.

MT: With all that said, having shown they can both play, Hart and Kuzma have locked-in salaries that will be on the lower end due to their draft position, which can be big for managing the cap, right?
Buss: Any time you can get a rotation player at the end of the first round that’s taking a very small percentage of the salary cap, that’s a huge plus for team building. To be able to keep all your flexibility and still fill out the roster with rotation players you have for the next several years is a huge addition. Not only that, you don’t need cap space to bring in players of their quality. If you develop them, you can resign them, having their Bird Rights and the rookie extension. So you’re able to have more flexibility to bring talented players to surround them with. It really helps us with our cap situation going forward. Even if we do bring in some bigtime guys or spend all our money, we still have a nice young core of guys who can contribute to winning basketball.