Scouting the 2018 Draft with Jesse Buss
It’s become routine for the Lakers to hit on their draft picks, to the point where expectations for the 2018 class are high despite the selections coming at the 25th, 39th and 47th spots, not typically fruitful in larger NBA Draft history.
Of course, we’ll need some time to see how Moe Wagner, Issac Bonga and Svi Mykhailiuk live up to the last few draft classes in Los Angeles, all of which featured high lottery picks.
But over the last three summers, we’ve sat down with Director of Scouting/Asst. GM Jesse Buss to detail L.A.’s thought process behind selecting Larry Nance, Jr. (27th in 2015) and Ivica Zubac (32nd in 2016), stealing Kyle Kuzma (No. 28 in 2017) and snatching Josh Hart (No. 30 in 2017).
Jesse joined us once again to go through the 2018 Draft process to offer some insight into the three newest Lakers. Below is a transcription of the conversation:
MT: What can you tell me about how the Moe Wagner pick came about?
Jesse Buss: We’d been tracking him for a couple years now at the University of Michigan, and some of the tournaments he’s played in overseas with his (German) national team commitments. He’s a player that has good size and a very high skill level. His has the ability to shoot, pass and handle the ball at that size (6’9’’), which is solid. He’s a high basketball IQ player with a great motor that really runs the floor well. That’s one thing that was definitely attractive. He had this personality when he came in and worked out for us where he showed a lot of toughness and charisma. That’s something that we definitely value as an organization as a whole. Obviously, (GM) Rob (Pelinka) has a connection with the University of Michigan, and he got as much information as possible about Moe before we made that selection. At summer league, I thought he rebounded better than I expected. I thought he showed a knack for getting down there and banging and rebounding better than he did at Michigan.
MT: You didn’t know what free agents the Lakers were going to sign on Draft Day, of course, but if you have an idea about who’s coming, can that influence the picks in any way?
Buss: The way the scouts and I rank our board is based on talent and talent alone. Any other factors that may come into play – injury, character issues, fit with the team, who we’re projecting in free agency – is really Rob and (President of Basketball Ops) Magic (Johnson) and what they do.
MT: Now that LeBron James is a Laker, does Wagner’s skill set stand out a bit more, especially if he’s able to knock down threes as he was at Michigan?
Buss: Yea, because he’s our only guy that can play the five position that can stretch the floor the way he did in college. He didn’t shoot as well in Summer League, but that was a small sample size, of course. I think that’s a natural fit right there. Obviously, LeBron has had a tremendous amount of success having shooters around him in his career. It just gives us a lot of different options, with a lot of bigs who can do different things.
MT: How do you go from seeing Bonga in person with Rob Pelinka in the spring to acquiring a pick and then drafting him?
Buss: First of all, Rob is always searching for deals, and calling GM’s across the league especially as it gets closer to the Draft when things heat up, and he felt we had an opportunity to acquire that pick (No. 39). We just wanted to draft as many players as possible that could grow with the team because we thought it was a very deep draft, and there was a lot of talent still available when we were ranking these guys and looking at our board. So we felt comfortable trading a future pick to acquire that pick, because we thought we’d get someone good.
MT: How long have you tracked Bonga, and what did you see most recently in Germany?
Buss: Aside from the time Rob and I saw him recently in Germany, we had heard about him and watched tape on him. We got most of our intel from our two international scouts, Antonio Maceiras and Can Pelister. In person, I saw a guy that had tremendous size for his position, being a point guard, and thought he really moved well for a guy that big. He showed a lot of attributes I think can translate to the next level, like court vision and passing ability. Obviously, he’s a guy that’s going to need time to develop, and he’s got things to work on. We feel confident in his potential that he can be a player for us in the future.
MT: Bonga was the youngest player in Vegas at 18, and didn’t play many minutes. What did you take away?
Buss: I thought he made some nice passes. There was one in particular where he drove baseline and threw a left-handed pass out to the perimeter. That was something very few guys in the NBA can do, especially a guy that size. He has natural things that will develop. The question is, can he develop the rest of his game? That comes with the time that he’s going to spend in South Bay, and all that.
MT: Bonga is the first “project” that you’ve drafted in a while, if it’s fair to use that word. You’ve had a lot of success drafting players that are experienced in college and able to contribute right away, in addition to the high-caliber, one-and-done players like Brandon Ingram and Lonzo Ball. How is all that applied into ranking talent?
Buss: It’s very difficult to have three picks, and draft players that you expect to contribute right away. Sometimes you have to diversify a little, and knowing that we drafted Moe and really liked Svi, we couldn’t bring multiple players in that needed minutes right away. We wanted to take a player that we felt has a good long-term upside for the team. You have to look at the rest of your roster, and see if you have a spot where you can develop someone over the next few years. The job that coach Walton and his staff have done with our young players gives me a lot of confidence that they can really help Bonga develop into a player.
MT: Since I don’t watch much college basketball and thus hadn’t seen Svi Mykhailiuk play much, I kept asking myself how he didn’t get drafted higher as I watched summer league.
Buss: He’s always been a favorite of my department for the past several years. He really came on our radar when he participated in the Hoops Summit four years ago. Then he went to Kansas, a big-time program, and we watched his growth. He didn’t play a big role his first two seasons at Kansas, but in his junior year, he started and was a big part of that team. He tested the Draft waters – we interviewed him – and we told him he could probably get drafted as a shooter, but he hadn’t had a chance to expand and show all the nuances of his game. I felt like when he came back for his senior year he exploded onto the scene. He was a more confident player. He put on about 10 or 15 pounds of muscle, which was completely noticeable between the interviews at the Combine. He’s a guy that’s always been one of the best shooters in college basketball and one of the top shooters in this Draft. We definitely think he had more to his game than just being a sharpshooter, and he showed that at Kansas last year. He’s underrated as an athlete. He has great size for his position. He’s underrated as a defender. One thing people don’t talk about is his assist numbers were the biggest jump for him from his junior to senior year. His playmaking ability really improved. We felt there’s a player with more room to grow given his age*, and it’s not very often you come across a prospect like that.
*Mykhailiuk turned 21 on June 10. He was only 17 for his freshman year at Kansas.
MT: How worried were you that he wouldn’t be there at No. 47?
Buss: Terrified. We felt like he was basically a first round talent. We were surprised he was there at 39, and much more surprised he was there at 47.
MT: As high as you were on Svi, were you expecting All Vegas 2nd Team? That doesn’t happen often to the No. 47 pick.
Buss: No. You never expect a guy who’s drafted in the second round to have immediate success that way, even if he is a four-year guy, because he’s going against lottery picks, highly touted guys. I know it’s just summer league, but for him to have an accomplishment that early is very impressive. He should be proud of that.
MT: You mentioned earlier all the other things he did besides shoot the ball well as a senior at Kansas, and he showed it. Whether through passing – he told me he played some point guard growing up – or defending or rebounding. On multiple occasions, he missed a shot and then stole the ball from the opponent who got the rebound, as if determined to atone for the rare miss.
Buss: His play was fantastic. I was surprised at some of the things he did, some of the stuff off the dribble, and that he was comfortable enough to showcase that right away. He had some upside in those areas, being able to create his own shot and create shots for others. But to show it right off the bat? I thought that was something the coaching staff was going to have to work with him on. For him to show it immediately made us feel good. Obviously, we knew he was a dead-eye shooter. So it was encouraging to say the least, but there’s a long road ahead of him, and he knows he has to continue to grow and develop. Obviously we’re in different circumstances now with our team. The last few years, you always want to win, but there was a lot of development that went into getting the young guys playing time.
MT: And that shifts to just winning thanks to LeBron. OK, different question: a few of the players you’ve drafted over the past few years like D’Angelo Russell, Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance, Jr. were used in trades for various reasons that seem to have benefitted the Lakers thus far. Is it difficult on scouts to see that depending on how things work out, or just part of the deal?
Buss: First and foremost I wish those guys the best and I appreciate everything they brought to our team during a period where there wasn’t much to celebrate. We always have to do the best thing for the franchise, period, and set us up for the best long-term future. When we made the trade with Brooklyn, we felt it was an opportunity to free up more cap space to really make things happen in free agency like they did this past summer. Difficult choices have to be made sometimes but when Magic came to the team he had a big picture vision of getting us back to a winning way as quickly as possible. We were very limited in what we could do with little to no flexibility and with the way the CBA is set up by the time certain contracts would expire we would be paying a lot of our team salary to young players up for extensions. I definitely applaud Rob and Magic for rerouting the course and taking advantage of situations as they came up. I still take pride in drafting those guys, because for another team to want them, and to give up draft picks for them, it means that they’re good players. To be able to move a contract with three years left on it at that amount means that they wanted a good young player from us, and without him the trade doesn’t go through. If we had drafted a player at that position that had no trade value then things wouldn’t have happened the way they did for us this summer because we wouldn’t have had the flexibility to do so. Also, to get a first round pick and draft Josh Hart? That was tremendous in terms of getting a good young player back and flexibility in the same trade.
In terms of the trade with Cleveland, the players that were with our organization played well and performed ahead of their respective draft positions. I feel very good about drafting them. But we felt like we needed to free up even more space to really make moves this summer (and next summer), and we were able to acquire a first round pick out of it. That really means, to me, they valued those two players enough to give up a draft pick. Because draft picks are such a valuable commodity in today’s NBA. You’re adding a young player that’s on a set rookie scale contract for four seasons, so as I’ve said before, first rounds picks are extremely valuable.
MT: You’ve had your scouting process that’s been consistent for several years now. What’s it been like integrating with Magic and Rob since they took over basketball operations?
Buss: The day Magic got here, I’ve talked about it before, he had a vision for this team and how he thought he could help contribute to get it back to the way it was when my dad was alive. That was extremely important to us because we’re all about winning and that’s the only thing we care about. It’s been amazing working with a person like him. He’s so charismatic and has a presence about him that really makes you feel good about the direction the team is headed in.
Rob has done a great job at being our earpiece to the rest of the league, in terms of communicating with other teams, agents and really seeing what’s out there. He’s been a good representative of the Lakers in his position.