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The Lakers scouting department deserves their flowers

With a handful of Baby Lakers ascending into legitimate NBA semi-stardom, it’s worth remembering where these young standouts started, and who helped the team assemble such an impressive hit rate in the draft.

Though the Lakers haven’t necessarily selected an undeniable stud with each and every one of their draft picks over the past decade, they’ve done better than most, and have gotten even better since the complete transition of power into the hands of the lord, our shepherd, Rob Pelinka.

According to this study comparing the career VORP of every NBA team’s draft selections from 2010 through 2018 to the players chosen before and after them, the Lakers extracted the 11th-most value from their prospects among all NBA teams. However, that analysis included five of the seven duds selected by the Mitch Kupchak-led Lakers in the second round from 2010-’13, and excluded the Lakers’ bounty of 2019’s second round. Only three of the five picks from before 2014 played more than 100 career NBA games, and none of them finished their NBA careers with a positive VORP, barring a Robert Sacre comeback tour.

Since 2014, the year of the first draft following Kobe’s mostly missed season due to an Achilles tear — a year that sparked the Lakers’ most recent rebuild — the team has made picks in every draft except the most recent one (they traded away their 2020 first-round selection to Minnesota via Oklahoma City in return for Dennis Schröder). Excluding players that they traded away on draft night, and including the ones which they immediately acquired, the team has made 15 selections over those six drafts. Of those picks, eight were first-round selections, with the other seven coming in the second round. As of today, an incredible 14 of those 15 players are still not only rostered, but in NBA rotations, averaging at least 12 minutes per game.

With apologies to Anthony Brown, the odd man out of the league from the Lakers’ recent selections, the rest of the Lakers’ picks can be grouped into three categories by opportunity cost compared to their progress to date, regardless of if their value to the team has come in a uniform other than the Forum Blue and Gold:

  • Singles: These players belong in the NBA, but may not have been the very best talent available based on where they were selected.
  • Doubles: Solid selections who’ve made good on their potential, or outperformed those in proximity to where they were picked.
  • Home Runs: Guys who have exceeded expectations and bested the production of the players in their same draft tier.

I’ve also included each player’s Value Over Replacement Player and Win Shares for a general sense of their cumulative performance to date. While any basketball catch-all stat is inherently imperfect due to the unquantifiable dynamism of the sport, it’s one decent way to get a rough estimate of a player’s total value. Finally, I’ve noted which Laker leadership group made the pick in order to measure their track records against each other.

Singles

Phoenix Suns v Los Angeles Lakers
Lonzo Ball and Moe Wagner didn’t live up to their potential with the Lakers, but have flashed it elsewhere.
Photo by Adam Pantozzi/NBAE via Getty Images

1. 2017 First Round Second Overall Pick

The player: Lonzo Ball (Rob Pelinka 4.0 VORP, 7.9 WS)

While Ball may not have been the best player available at this spot, as the Lakers left Jayson Tatum and De’Aaron Fox on the board, he’s also proven to be a more reliable NBA player than Markelle Fultz, taken first, or Josh Jackson, the fourth pick. From the same draft class, Donovan Mitchell and Bam Adebayo are surely more valuable players than Ball is at this point in his career, but would have been seen as significant reaches that high up on the board at the time.

Though he’s probably never going to be a top-25 player, if Ball can sustain his recently improved shooting stroke, he could continue to grow into an ideal floor-spacing, ball-moving, solid-defending third banana next to Zion Williamson and Brandon Ingram.

2. 2017 Second Round 42nd Overall Pick

The player: Thomas Bryant (Pelinka 4.2 VORP, 10.5 WS)

Acquired with Josh Hart for Tony Bradley from the Jazz, Bryant barely got any run in his single season with the Lakers, playing just 72 total minutes in his rookie year. Though the Lakers waived him after the season, the Wizards quickly snatched him up, and have given him regular minutes over each of the last three seasons.

Of the 18 players selected after Bryant, only three have played more minutes through their NBA careers to date. Also, Bryant currently has the best VORP and the most win shares of any player selected 2017’s second round.

3. 2018 First Round 25th Overall Pick

The player: Moritz Wagner (Pelinka 0.1 VORP, 0.087 WS)

Though he’s probably the worst player the Lakers have selected in the first round in recent memory, he’s still an NBA player three years after being drafted. His low-grade athleticism and lack of any discernibly elite skill (other than taking charges) limits his viability as a rotation player, but his general sense of where to be and what to do with the ball have kept him inside the Wizards’ rotation.

Los Angeles Lakers v Los Angeles Clippers
Real Lakers fans always believed in Bonga.
Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

4. 2018 Second Round 39th Overall Pick

The player: Isaac Bonga (Pelinka VORP -0.6, 1.8 WS)

On draft night, the Lakers dealt a second rounder for the following year along with cash to the Sixers for the rights to Bonga. At the time, his size and length intrigued, especially at his age; in his third NBA season, he’s still just 21 years old. Now, along with Bryant and Wagner, the Wizards have built the back-end of their rotation from the Lakers’ discard pile, the result of a cap space clearing trade between the two teams during the 2019 offseason as the Lakers looked to acquire Anthony Davis.

5. 2018 Second Round 47th Overall Pick

The player: Svi Mykhailiuk (Pelinka, -0.3 VORP, 1.7 WS)

While the trade that sent Svi away from LA was probably a net loss for the Lakers, considering he had to be packaged with a second round pick for the underwhelming Reggie Bullock, his original selection is an undeniable feather in Rob Pelinka’s drafting cap. His shooting ability and underrated athleticism should keep him on a roster for the foreseeable future, and he’s played more minutes so far than anyone selected after him in his draft year.

Doubles

Minnesota Timberwolves v Los Angeles Lakers
Larry Nance Jr., D’Angelo Russell and Julius Randle had their moments as Lakers, and have become integral elsewhere.
Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

1. 2014 First Round, Seventh Pick

The player: Julius Randle (Mitch Kupchak, 6.2 VORP, 24.9 WS)

Whether or not you think he’s a deserving All-Star, at this point in his career, Julius Randle is undeniably good. When compared to the three players selected after him to round out the 2014 draft’s top-ten (Nik Stauskas, Noah Vonleh, and Elfrid Payton), he looks even better. The only player selected after Randle, but still in the lottery, with a case for a better career to date is fellow first time All-Star Zach LaVine. Clint Capela and Jerami Grant have since blossomed into high-level starters, but neither has been definitively better than Randle, and were much lower on most pre-draft boards. The best player from that draft, Nikola Jokic, was drafted after Randle, but not until the Nuggets stumbled into chubby greatness with the 41st overall pick.

As a former top-three recruit coming out of high school, Randle had far and away the highest pedigree of any remaining prospect by the time of his selection. While his one-handed game around the rim, slow decision making, and inconsistent jumper hampered his early career production, he’s found ways to improve upon those deficiencies or work around them since then.

With the Knicks constructed to win immediately under coach Tom Thibodeau, Randle seems to be in the perfect situation. He’s been given permission to survey the floor at his own pace, willingly distributing to open teammates while enabling his interior scoring with the best outside shooting of his career (41.2% on 4.6 attempts per game!). He currently has the 30th highest usage percentage of any play in the NBA while leading the .500 Knicks in points, rebounds, and assists.

With every Knick orbiting around Julius Randle, they might be permanently precluded from real contention despite maximizing his value as the hub of everything they do on offense. However, for the seventh pick in a pretty weak draft, it’s hard to argue Mitch Kupchak’s front office should have realistically gone in a different direction even with the benefit of hindsight.

2. 2015 First Round Second Overall Pick

The player: D’Angelo Russell (Kupchak, 5.8 VORP, 8.9 WS)

Despite the supremely awkward circumstances of his departure following his exposure of then teammate Nick Young’s infidelities, D’Angelo Russell’s selection with the second pick in the 2015 draft was a contextually solid one. While he may not have lived up to the extreme hype he garnered by the time of his arrival in LA, or have been nearly as good as the only player selected before him (eventual Wolves teammate Karl Anthony-Towns), Russell has to be at least the third-best player selected in that year’s top ten (depending upon your opinion of Kristaps Porzingis).

Yes, D’Lo is only a semi-efficient volume scorer with little to no ability to get to the line and a turnstile on defense, but he’s made an All-Star Game and flashed enough offensive upside for the Timberwolves to make a long-term bet on him in their backcourt. It’s hard to argue that the Lakers could have done a whole lot better with this pick. They were able to use him to turn Timofey Mozgov’s awful contract into Brook Lopez and another first round pick that became Kyle Kuzma. When Philly had their fill of the Jahlil Okafor experience, they had to include another bust (Nik Stauskas) and a second round pick just to match salaries with Trevor Booker. The Magic simply let Mario Hezonja, the last pick in 2015’s top-five, walk after the expiration of his rookie deal.

3. 2015 First Round 27th Overall Pick

The player: Larry Nance Jr. (Kupchak 6.6 VORP, 21.6 WS)

As a relatively unheralded prospect from the University of Wyoming, Larry Nance Jr. was excluded entirely from number of draft boards, or projected to go at the end of the second round. When the Lakers selected him at the end of the first round, the pick was seen as a massive reach for a tweener with almost no offensive upside. Too small to be a great rim protector and not a good enough lateral athlete or shooter to play as a traditional wing, Nance looked like a man without a home in the NBA game.

Since then, Nance has been a star in his role in a way similar to another formerly slept on prospect that was stuck between NBA archetypes: Draymond Green. By setting bone-crushing screens, consistently moving the ball to the open man, and using his extraordinary on-the-move leaping ability and IQ to provide help defense around the rim and disrupt passing lanes, Larry Nance has been a massively successful NBA player compared to where he was drafted. To date, he’s logged the tenth-most minutes, fourth-highest BPM and fourth-best VORP of anyone in the 2015 draft. Though he’s currently out with a fractured finger, he was playing the best basketball of his career before the injury.

4. 2016 First Round Second Overall Pick

The player: Brandon Ingram (Kupchak, 2.5 VORP, 12.9 WS)

At the time of the 2016 draft, Brandon Ingram was regarded as prospect 1B to Ben Simmons’ 1A. While it’s debatable who exactly is the best player (or who will be the best player) to come out of this class, Brandon Ingram is certainly in the conversation along with Simmons, Jaylen Brown, Pascal Siakam, or even Domantas Sabonis.

At the time of the draft, selecting Ingram seemed obvious, but screwing up a top-pick can derail a franchise, and at least the Lakers didn’t do that. Imagine if the Lakers had taken Dragan Bender, the real life fourth pick in 2016. An Anthony Davis trade becomes a virtual impossibility, likely costing the Lakers their most recent championship. While questions about BI’s defense have arisen since his arrival in New Orleans, he’s become a certified bucket-getter at just 23, and still possesses upside as massive as his wiry frame.

Brandon Ingram and Ivica Zubac Introductory Press Conference
Brandon Ingram and Ivica Zubac have both grown a ton in the four-ish years since they were drafted.
Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

6. 2016 Second Round 32nd Overall Pick

The player: Ivica Zubac (Kupchak, 2.5 VORP, 15.2 WS)

Even though the Maginka-led Lakers shipped him out of town for “shooting” in the form of a wholly inferior Mike Muscala, Zubac’s selection itself was an extremely savvy choice. Into his fifth year in the league, Zu has scored the 15th-most points of anyone in his class despite spending the majority of his first two seasons on the South Bay Lakers, née D-Fenders.

Now the starting center for the lesser of the two Los Angeles teams, Zubac has proven to be a quality NBA center, and a steal for a second round pick.

7. 2017 First Round 30th Overall Pick

The player: Josh Hart (Pelinka, 1.9 VORP, 10.6 WS)

While the Lakers didn’t technically select Hart in the 2017 Draft, they clearly favored him at the back end of the first round. They flipped their 28th overall pick (Tony Bradley) for Hart and the second rounder used on Thomas Bryant.

Not only has Hart played in more than three times as many NBA games as Bradley, he’s developed into a quality 3-and-D wing who’d fit nicely in any modern rotation. The Pelicans are so high on Hart that Zach Lowe stated on a recent episode of his podcast that it’d take a Godfather offer to pry the former NCAA champion away from NOLA in advance of his upcoming restricted free agency.

Home Runs

New York Knicks v Los Angeles Lakers
Jordan Clarkson’s breakout season and Kyle Kuzma’s adaptability are reminders that even older rookies take time to grow to their full potential and find their best role.
Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

1. 2014 Second Round, 46th Overall Pick

The player: Jordan Clarkson (Kupchak, 5.0 VORP, 16.7 WS)

When Clarkson became the Lakers’ primary scoring option after Julius Randle broke his leg in the first game of his career, and Kobe missed the majority of that season, irate Wizards fans took extraordinary measures to rationalize their management’s draft day sale of a young, cost-controlled asset.

Though Clarkson’s wild style of play eventually saw him bounce around the NBA, he’s toned it down with Utah as an integral part of the best (regular season) team in the NBA’s second unit and the presumptive favorite for Sixth Man of the Year. Already into his seventh season in the NBA, Clarkson has been an incredible find for such a late pick.

2. 2017 First Round, 27th Overall Pick

The player: Kyle Kuzma (Pelinka, 1.1 VORP, 10.6 WS)

Although he’s not thriving through the same off-ball activity that made him pop as a rookie, Kyle Kuzma’s ingratiated himself with the Lakers’ rotation and culture, becoming an inextricable part of their championship core for the foreseeable future. He’s not a great shooter or creator, especially in isolation, but with some serious dedication, he’s become a stellar wing defender and rebounder.

Like Dennis Rodman-lite, Kuzma’s provided the Lakers a stabilizing X-factor of hustle, defense, and some off-ball scoring all in one uniquely styled package. At 25 and just entering his prime, Kuzma can continue to grow around the Lakers’ two stars with the peace of mind his three-year, $40 million deal affords.

3. 2019 Second Round, 46th Overall Pick

Golden State Warriors v Los Angeles Lakers
THT may be the scouts’ last (or at least best) chance to help the team on the court for a while.
Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

The player: Talen Horton-Tucker (Pelinka, 0.1 VORP, 0.9 WS)

After Cubs pitcher Charlie Root served Babe Ruth strike two during Game Three of the 1932 World Series, Ruth pointed, perhaps at centerfield, Root, or the Cubs bench. He then crushed the following pitch way beyond the deepest part of the outfield fences at Wrigley Field. Rob Pelinka’s swap with the Orlando Magic of a future second rounder and cash for Talen Horton-Tucker on the night of the 2019 Draft might as well be his version of Ruth’s Called Shot.

The Lakers front office correctly identified Horton-Tucker’s unusual physique, at 6’4” with a 7’0” wingspan, and high IQ as a foundation for rapid improvement. Despite being the youngest player in his draft and spending almost his entire first season in the G League, he’s already played the sixth most minutes of any 2019 second rounder, and more minutes than anyone selected after him. This season, he’s shown flashes of All-Star potential with his shot creation, playmaking, and defensive instincts.

He’s a long way from a polished product, but at just 20, he’s an absolute steal for a mid-to-late second round pick. Without a second round pick until 2023, and even odds at best that the Lakers refrain from flipping their 2022 first rounder on draft night for an immediate contributor (a la the Dennis Schroder deal), THT could be the Lakers’ last chance at a home-grown star during for the foreseeable future.

Lakers Draft Tally

GM Singles Doubles Home Runs Total Picks
GM Singles Doubles Home Runs Total Picks
Mitch Kupchak 1 5 1 Four 1sts, Three 2nds
Rob Pelinka 5 1 2 Four 1sts, Four 2nds

Between the Lakers’ two most recent front offices, they’ve found an NBA player in 14 of 15 picks, and done so without a single disastrous selection. While Kupchak’s regime brought consistently high value in comparison to their slot, this portion of their draft history excludes a pretty sparse stretch between Andrew Bynum in 2005 and Julius Randle in 2014. Pelinka’s yet to pick a player incapable of hanging on in the league, and made the most of eight selections, only one of which landed in the lottery.

While the short-lived Maginka disaster went down in flames (on national television) Magic’s stated vision of acquiring “playmakers” isn’t entirely out of line with the Pelinka-led Lakers’ most successful picks. Generously interpreting Magic’s ideal to mean long-armed, high-IQ basketball players regardless of position does a decent job of characterizing most of Pelinka’s greatest hits. Kyle Kuzma, Talen Horton-Tucker, and to a lesser extent, Lonzo Ball, don’t fit into traditionally numbered positional archetypes, but have found homes in the league by applying their albatross wingspans and acute basketball minds to the rhythms of the NBA game. The very same process-oriented approach which favors youth, size, and athleticism drafted Isaac Bonga, who ran so that Talen Horton-Tucker could fly.

Los Angeles Lakers v Chicago Bulls
Given the chance, former fringe prospects Alex Caruso and David Nwaba have flourished in the NBA after being plucked from obscurity by the Lakers.
Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

While we didn’t include these acquisitions in the exercise above, the draft isn’t the only place in which the scouting department has identified undervalued talent. In the same way that the Lakers have derived a ton of value from the back-end of the draft, they’ve also done so by finding contributors to winning basketball in the NBA’s developmental league. In 2016, the Lakers dealt for David Nwaba’s Developmental League rights, and assigned him to play with the D-Fenders. The following season, Nwaba was granted a 10-day contract with the Lakers, and impressed with his activity on either end of the floor, earning a multi-year NBA contract with the team. Even after an Achilles tear ended his ‘19-20 campaign and his time with the Brooklyn Nets, Nwaba returned to play for the Houston Rockets this season, even garnering the occasional start. Nwaba deserves all the credit in the world for going from an un-recruited 23-year-old Cal Poly graduate who went undrafted in the D-League Draft, to walking onto the Kings’ D-League affiliate, to an NBA starter, but so do the Lakers for giving Nwaba’s competitive fire a place to burn on the team he grew up rooting for.

In 2017, the Lakers added a four-year player from Texas A&M by the name of Alex Caruso after he’d been waived by the Sixers and Thunder. Though he’s yet to be properly recognized as the undisputed greatest player the game’s ever seen, he’s already started in the closeout game of an NBA Finals and become an essential lubricant to the Lakers’ elite defensive and playmaking machine — another massive win for their player development system and scouting department.

With these 16 successes, the Lakers have identified and grown enough talented basketball players to fill out not just their own roster, but also those of the Pelicans and Wizards, who each have three Baby Lakers among their ranks. Even when they haven’t retained the player in the long term, the Lakers been able to extract a benefit from the drafted/signed players perceived value. For example, the Lakers were still rebuilding when they shipped out Russell, but were able to turn his potential into the cap space they used to sign LeBron James. As fun as it was to watch Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, and Josh Hart grow into quality NBA players, the devastating, title-winning pairing of Anthony Davis with LeBron James outweighs any possibility of eventual upside.

2018 NBA Summer League - Las Vegas - Los Angeles Lakers v New York Knicks
Jesse Buss has helped the team his family owns become one of the best evaluators of talent in the NBA.
Photo by Sam Wasson/Getty Images

The Lakers’ scouting department, much like the other upper echelons of the organization, is run like a family business. Directly beneath Rob Pelinka, who of course was connected to the organization for the past several decades as Kobe’s agent, are the late Dr. Jerry Buss’s two youngest sons, Joey and Jesse. While Jesse is currently the Lakers’ Assistant General Manager and served as Director of Scouting for the better part of the past decade, Joey has been the team’s Vice President of Research and Analytics for each of the last three seasons while running the South Bay Lakers and serving as the team’s alternate governor if his older sister, Lakers governor Jeanie Buss, is unable to represent the team somewhere.

NBA Finals Game 5: Los Angeles Lakers v Orlando Magic
Joey Buss (center) has aided the Lakers in raising several banners now with his efforts.
Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images

The team’s head scout, Irving Thomas, has been with the Lakers since 2001, and was promoted to top dog in 2018. 93-year-old basketball consultant Bill Bertka unearthed the then-unheralded Kyle Kuzma and convinced the team to draft him. Antonio Macieras has been recognized as one of the best international scouts in the world for years, and Can Pelister grinded to join him by just 20 years old, becoming the youngest full-time scout in the NBA. Scouts Luca Desta, Elan Vinokurov and Sean Buss ought to be mentioned as well. We don’t know everything each person does, but they should all be lauded for how much talent the team has brought in. Across two management regimes, their reliability has been the constant.

This boundary-bending blend of work and family has been at the center of the Lakers organization since the team drafted Magic Johnson in 1979 and Dr. Buss took him in as a son. While there is a long-running stigma that ownership being involved in basketball operations is always bad — and it certainly can be: see Buss, Jim — it has also been an advantage for the Lakers. People as accomplished as Joey and Jesse Buss would be among the most sought after executive candidates in the league if they had a different last name, always a threat to be plucked away for more money or a bigger role. Instead, they continue to put in time to edify the legacy of the team they co-own.

The Lakers cannot always keep all of the players they find in the draft or on the fringes. No team really does. But even if some of these talents will have ultimately made All-Star games or won year-end awards elsewhere, it’s clear the scouting department has knocked it out of the park.

Cooper is a lifelong Laker fan who also covers the Yankees at SB Nation’s Pinstripe Alley. No, he’s not also a Cowboys fan. You can follow him on Twitter at @cooperhalpern.

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