That the Los Angeles Lakers are hoping to add significant talent in this year's upcoming draft has been a key topic of discussion since the team's struggles became evident, but the vast majority of discussion has centered around their top-three protected 2016 first round pick. Mind you, this is for good reason, as Ben Simmons, Brandon Ingram, and your next favorite prospect of choice could be tremendous, if not franchise-changing, additions to the team's burgeoning core of young players.
However, for a front office that has made notable hay lately with late first and second round picks, the Lakers' certain retention of their second rounder currently slated at #32 is another topic worthy of discussion. Indeed, such spots are often held to be exceptionally valuable, offering veritable first round prospect talent without the restrictions of the rookie scale salary guarantees. The pick that the Lakers make at this spot will very likely not be franchise-affirming, but it could have a significant impact on the team's rotation moving forward.
With this in mind, I have enlisted the services of Jerry Khachoyan, who comments frequently on Lakers-related material on Twitter and occasionally writes for Lakers Outsiders, to go over the Lakers' options in the second round at #32. In addition to the Lakers, Jerry and I frequently discuss college-level prospects largely in a Lakers-centric context. To wit, Jerry was kind enough to invite me to the Lakers' practice facility in El Segundo to watch the draft last season (I might have stolen the team's 2003-04 conference championship trophy after seeing it sitting forlorn in a forgotten corner) after he won an online contest offering tickets and access, so we've been invested in this type of draft talk for quite a while now.
In the following discussion, we'll explore not only the likely options available to the team in the second round, but the team's past history in this area of the draft, approaches and strategies to invoke at this stage of the Lakers' rebuilding process, and how certain draft options could fit into the context of the Lakers' existing core. A good deal of our discussion uses the resources at Draft Express, namely their big board and mock draft, as a means to establish context for our talking points, both of which are fluid and subject to change as time goes on. This noted, a snapshot of our impressions at this point of the season right before tournament play opens is valuable and the overarching points of our discussion will very likely find purchase moving forward. Without further ado:
Ben: Hey Jerry, thanks again for participating and let's kick this off.
With the trade deadline in the rear view mirror, we now know that the Lakers' draft pick situation will remain static at least until the summer rolls around and the lottery and any pre-draft trades are conducted. And on that note, although the fate of the Lakers' first rounder is still in the air, the fact that the team will be picking very early in the second round remains a practical certainty. Amid all of the complaints directed toward the front office, one area they have been particularly strong in as of late is the draft, particularly in the late first and second round. Jordan Clarkson is the principal example but Larry Nance, Jr. has had a solid rookie season despite a great deal of skepticism from the Lakers blogosphere on draft night, you and I in particular.
As a result, a discussion on the options available to the Lakers in the early second is quite warranted and it's been an ongoing topic between you and I for a while now. We've noted that parsing the options available here is hard not only since we're not aware who might or might not keep their names in the draft, but also since this group is especially senior-heavy -- even more so than is usual -- and higher upside options a rebuilding squad like the Lakers would prefer to draft are not well-represented. In this light, I've tended to be more conservative, favoring some of the higher floor options, whereas you've seemed to gravitate toward the higher upside but more volatile ones.
Do you think this characterization is an accurate read on the prospects available or have you changed your tune as of late? And so we can start throwing some names into the discussion, if we assume the board available in the most recent Draft Express 2016 mock, who would you pick today at #32?
Jerry: As you said, while the Lakers first round pick's status is still up in the air, #32 is still a worthwhile spot to have a draft pick, even in a weaker draft like this one. While the options are not anything to write home about, there are some interesting players potentially available there, even if many of them come with a significant wart.
Before we delve into the options, one of the things I'd like to clear up is the mentality that the Lakers might approach their 2nd round draft pick with. We've seen LA go with the more "conservative" route in the past with their non-lottery picks, having gone with Jordan Clarkson (a redshirt junior), Larry Nance Jr. (a senior), and Anthony Brown (redshirt senior). This makes a lot of sense. While LA hasn't been afraid to take the rawer, but potentially more talented player with their lottery picks (as evidenced by Randle and Russell), they've used the latter parts of the draft to fill out their roster.
And that's paid off. All of those guys look like keepers. But as we head into the 2016 NBA draft, we probably have at least 8 spots on the roster already filled out. This puts not as much of an onus on the Lakers to "find guys that can play right away".
Having said that, going back to our 2nd round pick discussion, it's looking like it's the wrong year to try and "swing for the fences". Looking at the options available at #32, one would be pressed to find a lot of candidates that could qualify for a "swing for the fences" move. And while I generally still like taking chances, it doesn't seem like this draft will give the Lakers the opportunity to do so.
The way I'd attack this pick, is to look to take someone that you cannot easily replicate in free-agency, while also trying to fill a need. Right now, the Lakers need someone who can play the 3 or the 5. We want a rim-protecting center that's offensively competent, or we want to try and nail a "3&D wing." A backup PG is nice, but those guys are a dime-a-dozen, and if need-be, you can play Clarkson there more. There are a decent number of prospects at center and small-forward, but the four available prospects (according to the current Draft Express board) that interest me the most are as follows: center A.J. Hammons (Purdue), center Chinanu Onuaku (Louisville), small forward Dorian Finney-Smith (Florida), and guard Caris LeVert (Michigan). A legitimate argument can be made for all four.
Hammons has all the things you would want from a traditional center, but he'll also be 24 by opening night, so the upside really isn't there. Dorian Finney-Smith is also not young (will be 23 by the draft), but for his position, he has the stuff you'd want from a 3&D wing: shooting and potential on defense. Onuaku is one of the rarer "upside" plays that would be available in the 2nd round, as he won't be 20 until November. He's not as big as one would like for the center position, but with the league going smaller and smaller, it might not matter. We have bigger things to worry about right now than matching up with DeMarcus Cousins. And lastly as for LeVert, he's a combo guard who can shoot, but what makes him interesting is that he has the versatility to switch between the 1-3. But he's been dealing with injuries for the past 2 years now and is a senior.
From those four, I think I'd go with Chinanu Onuaku. He's improved his play in-season, averaging a solid 10 PPG, 9 RPG, and 2 BPG (with a 10% block rate). He has his issues (primarily fouls and turnovers), but which prospect at #32 is flawless? You'd be hoping to draft him and mold him into a competent starting center, something maybe in the mold of Festus Ezeli. These days, defense and rebounding are more important for a center than scoring, so as long as he can protect the rim, rebound the ball, and make basic, competent plays on the offensive end, that might be someone very valuable moving forward.
Ben: I definitely think that that's a fair characterization of the Lakers' draft strategy in the second round the past few years, although it's hard to suss out whether this was simply how their board ended up or was part of a concerted strategy to favor floor and thus upperclassmen in their selections. Not since the team drafted Darius Morris has the front office taken an underclassman outside of the lottery, and while one could argue that the team was looking for upside in their selections (Clarkson, Nance) nevertheless, you could just as easily note that the front office has targeted specific skills and higher floors (Sacre, Kelly, Brown).
Now, reading the tea leaves on a front office's draft tendencies is hard in the best of circumstances, especially with a team that apparently values individual workouts in their prospect evaluations as much as the Lakers do, something that has the potential to significantly increase the variance on where guys fall on the front office's board. This notwithstanding, I generally agree that the team tends to be rather conservative even with their supposed upside picks; as you said, Clarkson and Nance were a redshirt junior and a senior respectively, not exactly the more conventional "upside" choice in this area of the draft of say a former McDonald's All-American that flamed out their freshman year and decided to put their name in the draft regardless like Mississippi State's Malik Newman might do this year.
That brings us to the crop of prospects you've brought up and I think it's a fair accounting of several of the more prominent names to consider. I'm not sure I'm quite on board with limiting the board to those specific player archetypes as a strategy though, as the demands of best player available ("BPA") and how the board shakes out may force you into a different direction.
To wit, two of the options I'm rather fond of are Iowa State's Monte Morris and Oregon State's Gary Payton II, both point guards that would be excluded under your analysis. That being said, I'll concede that a point guard selection would have a certain ceiling insofar as how much they could contribute to the team because of Russell's and Clarkson's presence, especially so in the case of Morris, who hits every box you'd want for a backup point guard but is limited by his physical tools from progressing very far past that level.
For Payton, however, I'll throw in a defense since his strengths as an off ball defensive terror and an exceptionally good rebounder who can start the break due to his size and physical ability fits what should be the team's ethos going forward: a versatile, uptempo squad that has a lot of guys who can start the break, switch on defense, and pressure the hell out of the ball. As opposed to Morris, who is more of a jack-of-all-trades but not exceptional in any respect (save for AST/TO ratio, although that tends to support his backup point guard credentials even more), Payton's more pronounced strengths could give him more utility beyond simply a backup point guard role, even considering his age and pretty bleh outside shot.
As such, I'd tend to lean here toward prospects with more discernible NBA skills that can be brought to the forefront even if they're more flawed elsewhere since bringing the lacking areas up to par is easier than granting above average ability at any one aspect. That brings us to someone like Finney-Smith, who's seemingly very "solid" in several respects without an overweening skill or two that defines him. He's good defensively but not exceptionally so and a decent shooter but not a very good one. In many ways, he resembles Anthony Brown, who was similarly ho-hum at different things but Brown had one demonstrably above average skill in his shooting (that hopefully will manifest itself for the Lakers at some point). Thus, rather than Finney-Smith, I'd look at Virginia's Malcolm Brogdon, who has very good size for the two that he's leveraged into being arguably the best perimeter defender in college basketball, and he possesses a significantly better outside shot too.
This is a rather straightforward case, so to make things a little more contentious, I'd also take Hammons instead of Onuaku. Despite the huge age difference, Hammons has plus size at the five that Onuaku probably won't ever have, and going with that, a pretty damn good post game that he's been astoundingly efficient with despite Purdue forcing him to score over a defender that way basically every time down the floor. In today's ever smaller league, Hammons is a unique weapon that can challenge smallball lineups since he can crush undersized defenders in the post and still has the mobility (and a BLK% equivalent to Onuaku) to defend effectively. Combine that with Hammons' much broader offensive skill set (his mobility and huge hands make him especially interesting in the pick-and-roll in the pros and Purdue rarely indulges this) as well as Onuaku's highly tepid offensive production and I think he's a more interesting option for the team at #32.
Thoughts on this approach? As Real GM's Jonathan Tjarks argues in that piece you linked on Hammons, I think a lot of Hammons' strengths are unique enough to survive muster in the pros and this alleviates the age issue enough for me. Also, before I give my own pick of who I'd take for LA at #32 right now, I think we'd be remiss to not discuss the crop of international prospects available in the Lakers' range, particularly due to DX's board having the Lakers take Paul Zipser. This is a bit of a tough area for you and I to traverse given that we don't watch these prospects all that much (if ever), but your thoughts on the likes of Zipser, Isaia Cordinier, and Ivica Zubac that might be available in LA's range? More specifically, what is your read on the possibility that LA, facing the prospect of juggling the playing time of quite a few young prospects going forward, may elect for a draft-and-stash option at #32 with one of these names?
Jerry: I do think that you are on to something when talking about focusing more on finding someone with a certain NBA strength rather than looking for someone with more of an all-around game. Looking at the most successful second round picks over the last decade, outside of the super rare exceptions (like Marc Gasol and Draymond Green), a lot of guys seemed to have a certain skill they were really good at when they declared, but for whatever reason, fell out of the first.
By sticking with that theme, Hammons and Payton certainly qualify as such players, while Finney-Smith and Onuaku really don't. While I don't think that should disqualify the latter two from consideration, I do think it could give the "higher floor" guys like Hammons more weight. Payton and Hammons might never be starters in the league, but they might have a role on a bench unit as the backup point and center, respectively.
As for Malcolm Brogdon, he's been tearing it up over the past few weeks and as such, he's recently joined the conversation for an early 2nd round pick. He has the instincts to be a good defender and his shot has really come along. As for Monte Morris, he seems to not fit either of our preferred methods of picking a draftee. He doesn't have a distinctive skill he can hang his hat on, and he doesn't fill an important position of need. And while he isn't old at 21, he isn't some 19 year old former McDonald's All-American to justify taking a shot on him. He won't be a bad pick, but he wouldn't necessarily be a pick to jump out of your seat about as well (especially when the league seems flushed with these backup-type PGs).
While I still like Onuaku because I still prefer swinging for the fences, I do see the viability of going with a "safer" or "higher floor" guy, like Hammons or Payton, especially since they'll be locked into a likely 3 year deal giving the Lakers the ability to still spend money on free-agents while fulfilling a role on the bench pretty quickly on the cheap.
As for international prospects, as you mentioned, this isn't an area of strength for either of us. However, I do have some thoughts about the Lakers going down this road. The prospects overall seem fine. Isaia Cordinier seems like an electric-type guard, who is still only 19. Petr Cornelie, although being a power forward, might keep developing and eventually be strong enough to play a stretch-5 type role in the NBA. Ivica Zubac seems adept at all the basic things you would want from your traditional center. And as for Paul Zipser, he seems like he has potential to become a poor man's "wing-4" type of player (like Chandler Parsons, Jae Crowder, Harrison Barnes), which is very valuable in today's NBA.
While none of those guys really stand out to me, they all seem like fine risks at 32. The issue I have with the draft-and-stash option is that the Lakers might not take advantage of the player. I worry they might be fine with letting him develop overseas and instead use that roster spot to sign an older veteran instead. There's nothing wrong with letting the player develop overseas, I just worry about the Lakers not taking advantage of the cheap labor and adding a promising piece to this current core now.
Lastly, one thing to keep an eye out for with overseas prospects is the fact that they do not fall under the rookie scale if they come over after 3 years (they'd have to right to negotiate their contract with the team that held their rights). The likelihood of this happening is low, given that most guys don't earn NBA-type dollars overseas, but it is something that has the possibility of happening (see: Nikola Mirotic).
So overall, I'd prefer if the Lakers went with a local option, since I think that would force their hand to sign the guy and develop him under their umbrella. But I can understand them going with a draft-and-stash option as well since we already do have a decent number of young players (and this might depend on if Lakers keep their 1st round pick).
Having said all that, I turn the table on you. What do you think about a potential draft-and-stash option? Do you think it is essential for LA to take advantage of cheap labor? Or do you believe that it really isn't a big deal given the gaggle of cap space we still have? And finally, having reviewed all our options, who would be the guy you'd want at 32?
Ben: I agree with you that by and large, the draft-and-stash possibility isn't overly enticing since the time to develop these prospects is now. The current rebuild is and will be driven by how the current core of young players on the roster develops, so it behooves the team to still give the young guys preeminence in the allotment of playing time and so forth no matter how this summer works out. With that in mind, you really want any new prospects that join the existing core to do so immediately so you can make a better determination of how certain players fit with one another and so forth.
Managing those fit issues in real time is always going to be easier than imagining how certain skill sets might fit together as the foreign player develops in Europe or elsewhere. All this said, you should still pay heed to BPA, especially since several of the international options are significantly younger than the domestic crop; Cordinier and Cornelie are 19 and 20 respectively, for instance, a far cry from the 23-year-olds we've been trotting around as primary options at #32.
So as with most things surrounding the draft, I'd give a great deal of deference to Mitch Kupchak, Jim Buss, Ryan West, and co. insofar as their scouting on this matter goes. After all, they employ one of the best international scouts in the business. Now, Zipser might require a different calculation than Cordinier and Cornelie, both of whom are young enough they might not be ready for NBA play, as Zipser's 22 and competing in Europe's top league at the moment. I'll fully admit that I don't know a whole lot about him past what Draft Express -- an invaluable resource to pick up knowledge on foreign prospects -- tells us, but as you noted, his profile is rather enticing. Even if he'll have trouble creating for himself, a role player type who's very athletic, defends, and hits shots is always in demand in the league. If anything, he feels like a better version of Anthony Brown, except that he'll probably be more combo forward than Brown's swingman status.
As for the moment of truth, I definitely still haven't made up my mind about who I would like at #32, but given what we know now, I'd take Hammons. He fits the "need" aspect better than any prospect in this range as a fit next to Randle. He's a huge, mobile center who can defend the rim, clear space for him on the roll, and hit a few threes in spots. His age is certainly concerning but you give bigs a lot more latitude here than smalls, especially those with superlative size and tools for the position like Hammons has.
The bottom line is that of the guys available at #32, Hammons seems to be like the guy who has the best shot of becoming a major part of the team's future core and ultimately offering the most impact. The point guard (Payton), wing (Brogdon), and other big options (Onuaku) available certainly are fine prospects in their own right -- and I wouldn't mind if that's where the front office settles on during draft night -- but I'd feel most comfortable with Hammons at the moment.
Altogether, this is a pretty complex choice to break down because the lines between fit and BPA are rather blurred here. It's one thing to deal with someone like Ben Simmons who unquestionably has the raw talent to displace Randle and quite another to look at options in the second round for whom their fit on the roster is a much more relevant concern. Adhering to pure BPA choices here could give you someone who might be the best talent at the spot but simply won't play or develop since there are better prospects ahead of him on the roster (read: the team won't pick a power forward).
The team has reached a stage in their rebuild in which outside of the top prospects, BPA can't be the single guiding light for your draft strategy. As a result, how the team takes this calculus into account and decides to add to their core at #32 on draft night will be one of the front office's more interesting decisions in recent years.