We sat down with Lakers GM Rob Pelinka for a more thorough look at the four players L.A. selected with picks 2, 27, 30 and 42 from last week’s NBA Draft.
Pelinka also touched on the team’s plan for free agency both for the coming weekend and for next summer, in addition to discussing the makeup of the roster and how he and President of Basketball Operations Magic Johnson are attempting to shape it.
Below is a transcription of the conversation:
MT: You spent a lot of time watching Lonzo Ball this past year. What have your initial takeaways been from having him in this building?
Pelinka: What jumps out when Lonzo for the first time came in the building is just how he’s going to formulate his own leadership style. He has a calm, quiet sense about the way he plays. I think there were comments in the media about how it’s hard to get him to talk or say a whole lot, but that’s just who he is. He has a quiet stillness, a confidence. It translates to how he plays. He stays in the moment. He never really gets frazzled on the court, and I think he’s able to make incredible plays and decisions on the fly just because he stays in the moment. You can see that in how he’s choosing to be a leader and practicing with the other guys.
MT: You were consistent leading up to the Draft in saying how important it was to keep an open mind, to evaluate each prospect and basically do full due diligence. But had you in actuality been zeroed in on Ball?
Pelinka: All of us knew he had a transcendent gift in terms of court vision and passing. I think with our scouting department, led by Jesse Buss and Joey Buss helping too with some of the analytics, we worked really hard as a team to get to the ultimate decision point. I think when Earvin and I went out to Chino Hills, that was probably the turning point for us. We knew he was an incredibly talented basketball player, and a transformative basketball player. But we needed to get to know his character, and how he was built as a person, and seeing him in the environment of his home – how he trained, how he treated his brothers, how he interacted with his mom and dad – that’s when his character really shined through and that’s when we really started to get comfortable.
MT: What separated Kyle Kuzma from the group of players you could have taken at No. 27?
Pelinka: We got to see him at multiple points along the way. Of course we scouted his games in Utah, and we saw him at his agent pro day in Chicago. We had an interview with him at the Combine in Chicago, and we also had him for a Lakers visit. The thing we walked away with is he just has an energy about him, and that also translates to the court. He’s incredibly light on his feet, makes great decisions. Versatility has been a big guide for us. I think I can see Lonzo pushing it up like he does, hitting Kuzma at halfcourt, and then Kyle can just make decisions in the open court. There have been comparisons in the media to Ben Simmons, with that look and feel, and I think he is going to be a wing player that can make decisions in the open court. He’s long, he’s athletic, and I think he’s going to continue to work on his his defense and his shooting. We know he’s a harder worker … I talked to his college coach, Larry Krystkowiak, and he said this guy is a gym rat. I think all those things are going to come together and I think he’s going to be a great player for us.
MT: You mentioned the importance of versatility … you could say that Julius Randle, Larry Nance, Jr., and Luol Deng are best suited for the four spot. But, all three can play at least one more position. Kuzma may be slotted at the four as well, but could he get by at the three in a big, long, athletic line up? Can he knock down enough shots (32.1 percent threes as a junior at Utah) to keep a defense honest from that spot?
Pelinka: Earvin and I have a vision for a positionless roster with interchangeable parts, and I think our league now is full of guys that play at the three that are 6’9, 6’10’’. You look at the great guys at that position – KD and LeBron and you could go down the list – and I think guys like Kuzma with that length and height, when they really commit to world-class fitness and getting their body in shape. Their speed and their endurance and all the things that Gunnar Peterson is going to work on with them, I think he definitely could be a guy that could play some three, some four and be a very versatile perimeter player.
MT: What was it about Josh Hart that made him a target?
Pelinka: We had him targeted for months going into the draft because of what he stands for. He’s a champion. When he came in and did his workout here, he was always in the right positions, especially defensively. He’s a leader in how he plays and how he takes care of his body and how he eats. I think (Villanova coach) Jay Wright does an amazing job at ‘Nova just in terms of teaching the guys how to be prepared and to be pros. At (Hart’s) combine interview in Chicago he talked a lot about film work, and how when they won the National Championship he was making adjustments on how he guarded guys. Listen, he may not be the craziest athlete in the Draft, or have the unbelievable foot speed, but he just has such a high basketball knowledge and such a drive for excellence that he compensates that. He has the mentality that we want here, and he’ll be a great young leader for the other young guys that we drafted, because he’s won championships. And he also loves the big moment and the big play, and he has the ability to make shots. He finds a way to get it done.
MT: What kind of player can Thomas Bryant grow into?
Pelinka: Magic and I had a goal and an objective going into draft night to have a second round pick, and we were looking at potentially purchasing one. So when we had a chance to flip a late first round pick to get Hart, the player we wanted, and also to acquire a second asset, that was a win-win for us. We had identified a couple guys in the second round that we really hoped to get, and Thomas was one of them. I talked a lot with Tom Crean at Indiana about his development. Young player, extraordinary wingspan, 7’6’’. When he came in to do his draft workout here, he ran rim to rim without getting tired, and we just noticed he had a really high motor. I think we’re going to bring him in and continue to work on his flexibility, his foot speed and his mobility. Those are the areas he’s going to have to improve on. But a guy that can protect the rim with the long wingspan, but then also, like some of the bigs over the years like Channing Frye that can be out on the 3-point line, he has a very beautiful shot. Magic and I right away, Luke too, noticed that he had great arch and spin on his ball. A really pretty release. It’s just rare to get guys that are 6’11’’ that can shoot like he can, and we think he’s going to be a really valuable NBA player.
MT: The NBA has been a bit crazy with all of the moves going on and all of the rumors flying around. How has it been for you the last couple of weeks?
Pelinka: Things have been great. We’re 100 percent locked into our plan. I think it’s easy to get caught up in a frenzy, or to say, ‘Because Team A is doing this’ and ‘Team B is doing this’ that you feel some compunction to change course. But that’s really not my nature, it’s not Magic’s nature. We wanted to create an environment to have a very healthy cap going into July, 2018. We accomplished that. We also wanted to make sure that we had a roster from top to bottom that had a certain mentality. Just walking on the court the last few days you can already sense we accomplished that as well. We’re just incredibly excited. I think it’s going to be a really fun season for our fans to watch this young team develop and grow, and we’ll go into 2018 hoping to take it to the next level and get a free agent or two.
MT: You can look at the past and find many cases where the Lakers said, simply, ‘OK, we need to get stars in here.’ But maybe the difference now from the past few years is a stable of young talent that can serve as the base? How important is establishing and improving that core to attracting free agents, as opposed to just using the Lakers brand and the city?
Pelinka: I think it’s a couple of things … you make a good point. We have a great young core, and we know we have to grow it. If you look at the championship teams like Golden State, of course they grew their young core before they got into the championship conversation. They grew Steph (Curry), Draymond (Green), Klay (Thompson). That’s the embryonic stage of growth we’re in. But the other thing that’s so important that Magic and I and Luke and Jeanie (Buss) are working on daily is establishing Laker excellence. You can’t go into free agency in 2018 and sell a story that doesn’t reflect who you are. So every day, we’re internally focused on excellence and our plan of nutritionist, strength trainers, analytics and everything across the board. That way when you sit down in front of a free agent and you have a story and an identity to sell, it’s genuine, it’s real. You can feel it. I’m getting a lot of feedback from other teams, fans, agents that people can see the shift in energy and focus here, and it’s real. When you get that feedback, it makes the hard work seem like it’s worth it.
MT: As you’re building the roster, and looking for versatility while keeping cap space for 2018, what’s the challenging part of operating with certain restrictions like not signing longer-term deals?
Pelinka: It’s not tricky when you’re adhering to a core principle. We made it clear: We are not going to bring players into our building that don’t stand for what the Lakers stand for. We’re not going to get caught up in just trying to sign talent for talent’s sake. We’re focused on a certain type of player that has that mentality towards excellence, towards high work ethic, high basketball knowledge, team-first, pursuing greatness and not fame. And just a relentless desire to be great. The Kobes and Magics define that. Our team isn’t going to be filled with 15 Magic Johnsons or Kobes, but it’s going to be filled with guys that share that mentality.
MT: You mentioned sticking to your beliefs and being locked into your plan and not changing course based on what another team does…
Pelinka: No, in fact, we had multiple scenarios flashed at us on draft night. Magic and I made very strong decisions to stick to the plan. You don’t want to get caught up in the moment and all of a sudden have worked so hard to create an identity around your roster. Then you make a momentary decision and lose all the positive momentum you gain. We’re going to stay disciplined, and we believe what we’re building here. We believe in Lakers excellence. We just have to let that all unfold and stick to that plan.
MT: Last thing. You’ve mentioned the focus on 2018 free agency, as opposed to this weekend’s free agency. But what do you need to fill out this roster? Shooting? Wing players?
Pelinka: Luke and Magic and I have met. The biggest two areas that we’re focused on are shooting and defense. As we shore up the roster heading into next season … by exercising David Nwaba, we have two roster spots left. With those two roster spots, we’re going to be looking at shooting and defense.