Jordan Clarkson, Larry Nance Jr., Ivica Zubac, Alex Caruso, Kyle Kuzma, Thomas Bryant, Josh Hart, Moritz Wagner, Svi Mykhailiuk, Isaac Bonga, Talen Horton-Tucker, and now Austin Reaves. That is the list of players that the Los Angeles Lakers acquired on draft night that were either drafted in the late first, second round, or as undrafted free agents that are still playing in the NBA today.
That is a testament to how good the Lakers’ scouting department is at spotting NBA level talent late in the draft when other teams could not.
When Reaves signed with the Lakers as undrafted free agent, hardly anyone thought he would get playing time on this guard loaded roster. Not only has he gotten minutes, he has carved out a solid role on this team through his gritty style of play on defense and the ability to the right play on offense.
It seemed like he was destined to play for the Lakers since he admitted before the season that his nickname in college at Oklahoma was “Hillbilly Kobe.” He carried the skills that earned him that nickname in college into the NBA this year and has made the most of every opportunity along the way.
Part of what earned Reaves his two-way contract was his impressive showing for the Lakers in NBA Summer League where he hit a game-winning tip-in shot against the Suns. This play perfectly showed Reaves’ ability to be in the right place at the right time when he dove to the basket to rebound and tip in a missed 3-point attempt, and it was a bit of foreshadowing of things to come.
Fast forward to today and Reaves just hit another game-winner, but this time it wasn’t summer league surrounded by rookies, it was to win a game on the road against the Dallas Mavericks this Wednesday and he looked calm cool and collected knocking down the biggest shot of his life. This play also showed Reaves’ high basketball IQ because he slid to his left and found the open hole in the defense where Russell Westbrook was able to find him for an open 3-pointer.
Not only did he hit the game-winning shot, but he also had the best game of his career before that moment as well. He had career highs in points, rebounds, and minutes, with 15 points and 7 boards in 32 minutes and finished +10 for the night, only behind AD who was +21.
This was no fluke performance either, before he had a hamstring injury in November Reaves had already carved out a niche for himself on this team. His ability to step in and compete has earned him praise from Rajon Rondo, Russell Westbrook, and even LeBron James because they already know what Reaves is about and the rest of us are just figuring it out.
James had great things to say about his game at the start of the season when asked about Reaves saying,
"“His size. His shot-making ability. His pick-and-roll play, his passing. High I.Q. kid. And he’s got a lot of dog in him too. … That translates to our game.”"
On the same day Reaves hit his big shot, The Ringer published an amazing feature about him, and it mentioned how Westbrook helped guide him after he had a disappointing shooting night in a preseason game against Sacramento, after the game Westbrook went over to Reaves and said,
"““Way to shoot it.” Reaves then replied. “What are you talking about? I went 1-for-8.” He remembers Westbrook saying: “No, no, no. I’m just glad you shot it.”"
This exchange perhaps demonstrates why Westbrook had the confidence to pass it to Reaves with the game on the line, and it probably instilled some of the courage that Reaves needed to make that shot.
With all his early success as an undrafted player that is a tenacious defender and happens to be Caucasian, one can’t help but think of another player of a similar make up that many Lakers fans were mad they lost this offseason, Alex Caruso. He certainly has not had as much of an impact on the team yet, but he looks like he can lessen the blow of losing Caruso to the Bulls and has shown he can make winning plays that made Caruso so popular in Laker land.
For the longest time the Lakers have been known to build their great teams throughout big free agent signings and trading for superstars. So where are these undrafted and late draft pick steals coming from and who gets the credit for finding guys like Caruso and Reaves?
Well, it is obviously the front office and coaching staff of the Lakers that makes the decision on draft night, but more specifically the scouting department has to get the most credit for seeing these diamonds in the rough.
The group behind Austin Reaves and these hidden gems on the Lakers:
For the most part, this group of the Lakers front office is anonymous, but the leaders of it, Jesse and Joey Buss, should have a recognizable last name to any Lakers fan because they are co- owners the franchise as sons of Jerry Buss, and they have been groomed for their roles since birth.
Jesse has been working in scouting with the Lakers since 2006 when he was just 19 and has since worked his way up from a basketball operations assistant to the head of scouting and assistant general manager. His older brother Joey is now Vice President, Research & Development, has helped build the South Bay Lakers since their inception, and he was also a coaching associate when Phil Jackson was still around. Sean Buss, the stepson of Jerry Buss should also get credit as part of the scouting department.
In 2017 the Lakers shook up their scouting department by organizing into four tiers: college, international, NBA and the G-League instead of one scouting unit. Since then, their success in the draft has been evident no matter what spot they are picking from, and they have had one of the better G-League development teams as well as two-way players.
The Lakers have done a terrific job of building a diverse scouting department to get different perspectives to achieve this success.
They have perhaps the oldest consultant in basketball in 94-year-old Bill Bertka who has been involved in the NBA for more than 50 years and has been a part of 10 NBA titles as an assistant coach and executive with the Lakers and steered the Lakers toward drafting Kuzma in 2017. On the complete opposite side of the spectrum, they hired the youngest scout in the NBA, Can Pelister, who focuses on international scouting.
Other members of the scouting department include head scout Irving Thomas Jr. who started as a regional scout in 2001 and became head scout in 2018, making him apart of the last five championships. Another major part of the scouting department in Europe is Antonio Macieras who was wisely hired in 2011 to help their overseas scouting.
Newer members of the scouting team include Elan Vinokurov who has been a scout since for the past two years and before that owned his own scouting firm called EV Hoops. Also, Jon Pastorek who has been with the team since 2017 and worked his way from the video intern to a player development coach and advanced scout. JT Trager has also been with the Lakers scouting department for the past four and half years.
General manager Rob Pelinka should also get a good amount of credit because he has been the final sign off on every basketball decision since he was hired in 2017. Since then, the Lakers have hit on most of their draft picks and undrafted free agents and Pelinka had to do his own amount of scouting as an agent before his role as general manager.
The Lakers have done a good job of mixing the Buss family co-owners as a big part of the scouting department and adding in experts who focus on college, international, or G-League players. Each member of the department deserves some credit for not only for finding players like Austin Reaves, but helping build a championship winner in 2020 and a contender for the foreseeable future.