Although those times seem very far today, it was not a too long time ago when the Los Angeles Lakers were going through one of the worst periods of their history. After winning the second championship of a back-to-back in 2010 and losing Kobe Bryant to a torn Achilles injury in 2013, they became one of the worst teams in the NBA for quite a few years, and the process to rise again was quite long and painful.
Finding themselves unusually rejected as a free agent destination, the front office had to resort to rebuilding mainly through the draft process, which they did with good results, proving the great competence of its scouting department.
The Lakers’ staff selected wisely with their lottery picks and was able to find diamonds in the rough late in the drafts and through undrafted prospects. Players like Jordan Clarkson, Larry Nance Jr. and Julius Randle were the result of a highly competent and savvy scouting work that allowed them to find valuable talent which blossomed into legitimate NBA players, each of whom is now experiencing success at some level around the NBA.
The hiring of Magic Johnson as president of basketball operations sparked the return to success for LA. His presence and renewed culture that he put in place allowed LA to pry LeBron James to Los Angeles, and through well-engineered trades managed to put the Lakers back on track for success.
One of the events that helped ignite the new winning culture of Magic’s tenure was the victory of the Las Vegas Summer League tournament thanks to a collection of young players drafted by the team and other undrafted players signed to be evaluated for a roster spot.
The Chicago Bulls are riding on the heels of the Lakers scouting work.
The current Chicago Bulls team, which has taken the league by storm, sitting at the top of the Eastern Conference ahead of the favorites Brooklyn Nets and Milwaukee Bucks, features on its roster three guards that were a big part of that first founding success for the Lakers.
With their first selection as executives, Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka, who had landed the second overall pick in the draft, selected the much-discussed Lonzo Ball, who, although did not quite live up to the expectations built by his father, has turned into a highly impactful NBA player, allowing him to land a four-year, $80 million contract.
In 2017, Ball led the Lakers Summer League team to the championship with averages of 16.3 points, 7.7 rebounds, 9.3 assists, and 2.5 steals, winning the tournament MVP award despite missing the final game due to an injury.
On that roster, an unknown undrafted point guard out of Texas A&M, who might look a bit redundant given the Lakers had just drafted Ball, was signed. His name was Alex Caruso. Caruso put together average numbers playing as a backup to the second overall peak, but in the decisive championship game, with Lonzo out, he stepped up as a starter, putting together 15 points, 7 rebounds and 9 assists per game and showing his dedication and attitude to leadership on the floor.
It helped him land a two-way contract with the Lakers, which, as we know, put him on the trajectory to become what he is today, one of the best role players in the league and eventually allowed him to get his fair share of money.
Alex’s relentless work and accountability helped LA win the 2020 NBA championship, but they sadly said goodbye when he joined the Chicago Bulls for a more lucrative and well-deserved contract.
Another undrafted talent was part of the team, shooting guard Matt Thomas from Iowa State, a sharpshooter who, after a slow start, literally exploded for the Lakers in the final stages of the tournament, helping them secure the championship. Thomas left Las Vegas averaging 9.6 points on an unreal 60.7 percent from three.
After the strong showing, the Illinois native seemed a lock to sign a training camp deal with the Lakers and fight for a spot on the final roster as a cheap commodity for a young team in need of shooting, but he surprisingly opted to go overseas to pursuit better financial security.
After two seasons in the Spanish Liga ACB, Thomas finally made his way to the league joining the NBA champions Toronto Raptors, shooting 47.5 percent from three in 41 games and also netting a very good playoff game in the elimination match of the first round of the playoffs against the Brooklyn Nets, with 12 points shooting 5-for-6 from the field. After spending the following season between Toronto and Utah he appeared already on his way out of the league, but in the Summer the Bulls signed him to a one-year deal, rejoining his also newcoming former Summer League teammates.
Matt did not see much playing time in the beginning of the season, but his presence became crucial during the COVID outbreak that put many of his teammates in Health and Safety Protocols. He contributed to allowing the team to keep its winning streak alive despite the absences. In the stretch that Thomas received playing time replacing his injured and ill teammates, Chicago went for a perfect 5-0 record.
As much as unlikely it could seem, these three players that crossed their ways with a Lakers uniform and then their careers went in different directions, have reunited on the Chicago Bulls and are an integral part of the team’s resurgence after more than five years of irrelevance.
Their individual and collective success is a testament to the Lakers front office and scouting department, always able to evaluate and obtain overlooked talent and Mr. nobodies with untapped potential, as a player like Austin Reaves this year proves once more.