Trading for Anthony Davis in the summer of 2019 led directly to an NBA title for the Lakers, while, of course, also costing them considerable assets.
Drafting well over the years helped put LAL in position to have enough tradeable assets – lottery picks Brandon Ingram and Lonzo Ball, and late-first-rounder Josh Hart – to make the move. Meanwhile, the future draft picks L.A. sent to New Orleans would require VP of Basketball Operations Rob Pelinka and his staff, led by assistant GM and Director of Scouting Jesse Buss, to find creative ways to still get young talent into the building and onto the court.
We sat down with Buss, the youngest of Dr. Jerry Buss’s six children, to discuss the usage of two-way contracts, draft strategy in the late first and second rounds, LAL’s 2022 draft pick, Max Christie, and more:
MT: With the trading of several of the team’s draft picks across the past few seasons, you’ve still managed to unearth first Alex Caruso, and then Austin Reaves as undrafted free agents. I know you typically have a board of 60 players in order on draft day; how has that evolved?
Jesse Buss: I think our board has expanded naturally over time due to the addition of two-way contracts. Once those were available for us to use, we had to go past the 60, because we want to look at so many more players, and have a bigger master list. Luckily, we had Austin on our board, and we were able to secure a deal with him on a two-way once he went undrafted, so we felt pretty good about that from the jump.
MT: How did you first become familiar with his game? I assume at Wichita State, before his transfer to Oklahoma?
Buss: We were familiar with him at Wichita State, and he had a very different role there. He was more of an off-ball shooter, and asked to be more of a glue guy for that program. Once he came to Oklahoma, his junior year, he started to show more capability with the ball in being more of a scoring option on offense. We were pretty familiar with him then, obviously being in the Big 12, he got a lot more exposure and was playing against a lot of good programs. He was on our radar as a guy we felt could translate to a good role player, though we weren’t sure what level after his junior year. But once he came back for his senior year, early on, I watched a game of his against TCU, and I think it was his best game of the season. He had a season high in points, 32, a season high in assists, nine, and he really just did everything. Not just from an offensive standpoint, because he was the No. 1 option for Oklahoma, but obviously, coming into our team, his role was going to be different. I felt it was the little things he did; he competed the entirety of the game. He wasn’t a guy taking plays off, especially defensively; he really got after it on defense. Even though he was the No. 1 option, he showed a big-time motor for hustle plays. He was diving for loose balls, trying to draw charges, getting his teammates involved. It really became apparent to me that he had the talent of a first round pick after that game; it was because he was a complete package. There are still areas he can grow, and really expand his offensive game. For us last season, he didn’t get to show a lot of what he can do with the ball, like he did at Oklahoma.
MT: How are you gauging value for a guy that isn’t on a lot of mock drafts, but you like clearly like a lot, especially when you don’t have picks?
Buss: Sometimes you just have to hold your breath, when you don’t have picks. There are going to be 60 players taken, many of whom you like. But when that finalizes, there is now a lot of competition for undrafted players and two-way contracts. In particular, Nick Mazzella and Joey Buss have shown that this is a great place to sign a two-way deal, because of our development program with South Bay. I think we have a track record of success of guys that are on two-ways translating to NBA rosters, and they’ve done a wonderful job. It’s a great selling point to players and their agents when we’re trying to recruit undrafted players.
MT: This past draft, the Lakers purchased the No. 35 pick in the second round from Orlando, leading to the selection of Max Christie. What’s the process like after you purchase a pick, when you weren’t sure you’d be selecting in that spot?
Buss: This year, we were very aggressive. Typically, when making calls to other GM’s and assistant GM’s, a lot of times teams are unwilling to part with their draft picks, especially in the second round, until they know who’s available with that selection. So you see a lot of those picks move on the clock. It’s typically a last minute thing where another team may not be comfortable using that pick because the players they were prioritizing were off the board. So it was kind of unique in the sense that we were able to acquire that pick before the draft. We did have some time to continue to study film, even though we pretty much had our board finalized. But really zeroing in on the four or five players that we thought would be available there.
MT: I remember texting some folks after the trade with Orlando that the Lakers were now in “Jesse Buss Range,” since you’ve had a strong track record in the late first, and early second rounds. Players like Kyle Kuzma (No. 27) and Larry Nance, Jr. (No. 27), or Josh Hart (No. 30) and Ivica Zubac (32). Even including later picks like Jordan Clarkson (No. 46) and Talen Horton-Tucker (No. 46), and about the only guy who isn’t still in the NBA is Anthony Brown (No. 34). Looking back, any connective tissues for you in finding players at those spots?
Buss: A lot of times when we’re discussing the board, it comes down to potential vs. production. In the particular cases of the guys we’ve had success on that were older in college, we felt their production and who we thought they’d be as NBA players were just too high to pass on. What I mean by that is, in comparison, there were players with upside that were available at those picks. But we felt that even if those guys hit their upside, the player we were getting with those selections was going to be a better player five years from now. That’s really what we focus on when we’re ranking these guys. We want whoever is going to be the best long-term player for the Lakers. My philosophy is that any time we draft a player for the Lakers, I want him to finish his career here. I want him to make the case that he’s a player here for the long run.
MT: To zoom in on this year’s pick, what was the thought process on draft day?
Buss: We were looking at two or three players, all who we had first round grades on. Max was highest on the board. But it was definitely close. There were a lot of talented guys left on the board. We felt comfortable with Max because getting him here with Coach Ham and his staff, Max is going to develop into a pretty good player, long term, for us.
MT: I got to see him in person several times in San Francisco and Las Vegas for summer league games, and was impressed with his defense specifically, both on and off the ball. Rewinding from there, what did you see from Christie when you scouted him?
Buss: Max has been a highly-touted player since his high school days. He participated in a lot of All-America camps, in addition to the McDonalds All-America game. I actually watched him play live for the first time over three years ago at the SC 30 camp, where a lot of the high school players participate. I felt he was one of the players that stood out most from that camp. You’re talking about all different ages, all different classes, including many lottery picks. He was one of the standouts.
Buss: From a talent perspective. There was a lot of room for growth with him. At a young age, he had a pretty good handle, a pretty good mid-range game. I think he can develop into a pretty good shooter at the NBA level. (Legendary scout and Lakers assistant coach/advisor) Bill Bertka always says, “He has true size for his position.” For a two guard with Christie’s height (6’6’’) and length, he really is true to his position. He’s not a guy that’s undersized. And we think he can guard multiple positions once he’s able to get stronger. He’s a good athlete – he tested as one of the best athletes at his position at the combine, vertically and agility wise, and we think he has pretty good length. He can be a disruptor on that end.
MT: That’s a great point from a GOAT, Bert, about positional size. I think about that every time I watch a playoff game, especially, when certain guys just can’t stay on the floor because they can’t hold up on defense. Christie does seem to have the tools to develop into that type of player that holds up.
Buss: That’s the thing, as we’re talking about prototypes of players, and the types of players we look for in the draft. We see where the game is trending, and you want to stay ahead of the curve. We felt like getting a guy like that at his size, his length, his athleticism, having shown flashes of a solid mid-range game … right now, a little bit of a streaky shooter, but we like his mechanics, we like a lot of things about his shot. We think he can continue to improve that and become a pretty good shooter in this league.
MT: When I wrote up the oral history of your dad, Dr. Jerry Buss, (https://www.nba.com/lakers/history/dr-jerry-buss-the-oral-history-of-the-greatest-owner-in-sports) you talked to me about becoming your dad’s eyes and ears for college players. Eventually, you evolved into your current role as Director of Scouting and assistant GM, but you’ve also started to watch more NBA players. How are you balancing all of that?
Buss: I think watching both levels help each other. When you’re looking to sign a player, you want to see how they’ve developed. Having people in the room who have watched these guys since they were teenagers when you’re signing a free agent (or making a trade) is important. They’re able to tell you what things they did differently to get to the point where they are now in the NBA. In a lot of cases, it’s guys that have improved so much throughout their career from when they were drafted that it’s a good sign of the type of player you get. So I think it’s invaluable to have our scouting staff be a part of those conversations. And in terms of waching NBA games and applying it to scouting the draft, I think it’s very important, because at the end of the day we’re scouting these players to play in this league, for these coaches, against this competition. We need to know what it takes to be an NBA player. It’s very helpful to go scout a couple college games, and then watch an NBA game, because you notice the speed, the size, the athleticism and the length. Those things really stand out; watching both makes you better at both jobs.
In terms of becoming more well-rounded, that’s just come with time. As Rob and my sister Jeanie have brought me in more, and made me more a part of conversations, it’s really helped my growth, and I continue to learn every day. It’s helpful for me to have these conversations with a lot of executives around the league, because I’m constantly trying to learn and be better at my job.
MT: You’ve been at this for a long time now, having officially started with the Lakers in 2006, certainly relative to your age (34). How do things compare from when you first started, and probably dealt with some skepticism, to where you’ve grown to now, with a lot of relationships in the league, and a track record of your work?
Buss: It was a long process for me. When I started, a lot of the conversations I would have analyzing talent or talking about basketball were just 1-on-1 with my father. Over time, that translated to a three-way conversation with myself, my dad and my brother Jim. Now, to be able to expand and have conversations like this with pretty much anyone in the league, whether they’re an executive with another team, at the league office or an agent, it’s been a long time coming. It’s been part of my growth, and I’m really happy with the place I’m at now. I don’t look at it as that ‘I’ve made it’ in terms of, I’m going to stop learning from other people. I take it as a situation where you try to absorb as much information as you possibly can, and use it to the betterment of the team.
MT: One of the things that helps me the most in covering the Lakers is to watch as many other NBA games as I can, which properly contextualizes everything happening with LAL. But that takes a lot of time … and I don’t have to watch college games. How much do you continually draw upon the various scouts and other employees you consult with to try and manage it all?
Buss: I can’t be at every single big tournament for college basketball while also trying to make as many Laker games as possible, so over the years, I’ve really tried to build the staff out with people I trust in their basketball expertise. I lean on those guys quite a bit for their knowledge, their insight and their ability to help the team make the best decision possible when it comes to evaluating talent. You really do have to maximize your time and be as efficient as possible, and part of my job is to make everybody’s scouting schedules, and I think everybody in the staff, we all try to see the top 60 prospects at least once live. But sometimes that gets difficult, especially with COVID, and sometimes it gets done later throughout the season. That’s when you have to lean on your staff, and trust in those guys to help you make the best decision possible.