LOS ANGELES — For the fifth straight year, the Los Angeles Lakers finished their season in mid-April. The franchise hasn't contended since Kobe Bryant tore his Achilles tendon in 2013, but the 2017-18 campaign was a major step forward with its young core of players, including Kyle Kuzma, Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, Julius Randle and Josh Hart, each emerging as an important contributor.
Beyond the 35 wins, a nine-game improvement from a year ago, the Lakers have shown they are adept at finding talent in the draft.
That success predates to the Jim Buss and Mitch Kupchak era before the 2017 promotion of Earvin "Magic" Johnson to team president and the hiring of general manager Rob Pelinka. The common thread is assistant general manager Jesse Buss, the youngest of the six Buss siblings (the primary owners of the Lakers franchise).
"The NBA draft is really my specialty," Buss said to Bleacher Report. "The first year where I really basically took control of the department was the 2013 draft."
The Lakers didn't have a first-rounder that June, taking forward Ryan Kelly in the second round with the 48th pick. The following year, Buss found success with the drafting of Julius Randle via the seventh overall pick while convincing his brother Jim Buss to purchase the 46th pick from the Washington Wizards for $1.8 million to draft Jordan Clarkson.
"Jim came to me personally," Buss said. "'If you put your balls on the line for him, we'll buy the pick,' he said, and that was Jordan."
Clarkson went on to earn a spot on the 2014-15 All-Rookie First Team, a rarity for a mid-second-round selection.
"It felt good to be able to really make an impact on the team, for me personally," Buss said. "I felt like the NBA draft was a way that our department could contribute to building the team without using up [significant] cap space."
Buss has since helped the Lakers find valuable pieces with late picks like Larry Nance Jr. (27th in 2015), Kuzma (27th in 2017) and Hart (30th in 2017).
Before he took a more active role in charge of the Lakers' scouting department, Buss watched the team trade away first-rounder after first-rounder for six straight years (dating back to Javaris Crittenton in 2007).
One went to the Phoenix Suns for Steve Nash. Two were sent to the Memphis Grizzlies (along with Crittenton) for Pau Gasol, leading directly to two NBA championships. Another pair went in separate trades to dump the salaries of Sasha Vujacic and now-head coach Luke Walton, reducing the team's luxury-tax bills in 2011 and 2012.
The one that bothered Buss the most was a 2009 draft-day trade in which the Lakers sold the rights to the 29th pick (Toney Douglas) to the New York Knicks.
Buss grew up idolizing his father, Dr. Jerry Buss, the Lakers' late patriarch who led the franchise to 10 championships dating back to the Showtime era of the 1980s and the Bryant, Shaquille O'Neal, Phil Jackson runs at the start of the millennium.
Working as a scout with a team since he turned 19, Buss wanted to understand why the Lakers weren't prioritizing the draft.
"When we sold the pick in 2009, my dad and I had a conversation. I was scouting at the time but wasn't heavily involved," Buss said. "He told me we were really focused on winning right now. We don't really have time to develop young kids. It's better to use that money elsewhere like in free agency."
It was hard to argue, given the Lakers won titles in 2009 and 2010, but Buss didn't entirely agree and set out to show his father an alternative.
"I had seen other franchises such as the San Antonio Spurs. They were bringing in guys at the end of the first round, and they were still competing and contending. Maybe they didn't play in their first or second year but eventually developing into solid role players."
"I would like to make those draft picks because I think I can make a difference in that department," Buss told his father.
At first, Buss wasn't even allowed in the war room during the draft, instead sitting with the media. Along the way, he would mock out each class 1 through 60 and present it to Dr. Buss.
His father was impressed and promoted his son to director of scouting in 2012. After Buss proved himself with Clarkson in 2014 and Nance Jr. in 2015, Jim Buss and Kupchak bumped his rank to assistant general manager.
Day-to-day, Buss manages a collaborative team of scouts that pore through college, NBA and international games for talent.
"With the addition of Antawn Jamison, we have five college scouts, two of which [Ryan West and Jamison] see pro personnel [current NBA players] as well...and two international scouts [Antonio Maceiras and Can Pelister]," Buss said. "My job essentially is to give a recommendation to Rob and Magic. If I really feel personally that this person is going to make a difference, I know how hard to push."
Buss learned how to manage people from his father.
"He taught me so much, really how to be a leader," Buss said. "Treat people well, and they are always going to fight for you if you show loyalty, kindness and respect. Those are the three main qualities that he really brought me. That's what I try to live by."
So far, Buss is encouraged by the new management team.
"Magic, in particular, he obviously was the leader of the franchise for a very long time [as a player]," Buss said. "He has his form of leadership, holding people accountable, [asking us] to bring your 'A-Game,' do your job. This is what you're here for, and I'll pass you the ball. He's very collaborative. As long as you can finish the bucket on the fast break, you're going to get the ball."
"Rob's leadership style reminds me of how Kobe was as a player," he continued. "I'm trying to perfect my craft, and I bring 100 percent every single day, and I want you to bring the same. ... I'm going to put my trust in you, and as long as I know that I'm able to ride with you along the way and I trust your ability, we're going to work great together. Very Kobesque."
Buss recently traveled to Europe with Pelinka to check out several international prospects, noting they need to see the players with their own eyes, especially when considering a first-round pick.
The Lakers will soon bring in a long list of prospects for draft workouts, and that number could reach 100. They'll attend the NBA Draft Combine in Chicago in May and agent workouts as they get ready to pick at Nos. 25 (from the Cleveland Cavaliers) and 47 (Denver Nuggets).
Buss will have his big board ready for the unexpected.
"Last year, we were looking at the 2017 draft and we might not even have one first-round pick," Buss said. "Then on draft day, we end up with three first-round picks and a second. They really put their faith in us to be able to execute."
In a move that helped dump the contract of Timofey Mozgov, along with D'Angelo Russell—the team's No. 2 pick in 2015—the Lakers were able to add the 27th pick (Kuzma) from the Nets. Soon after, Los Angeles traded its 28th selection for Nos. 30 and 42 (Hart and Thomas Bryant).
The results were outstanding. Kuzma is one of the league's top rookies, Hart proved to be a valuable role player and Bryant earned All-Rookie First Team honors in the G League.
"We really liked Josh in the draft. We were looking at a couple of other players at that position as well, but Josh was our guy," Buss said. "We felt moving down a spot, we were pretty confident he was still going to be there."
Buss had tracked Kuzma at the University of Utah since his freshman season. After Kuzma's impressive performance at the draft combine, Buss and Pelinka saw him again in Chicago at a Priority Sports workout. He continued to wow the team when it gave him a look at its gym in El Segundo.
"On draft day, we didn't know he was going to fall to us, but he was always kind of that favorite that everybody had. [Everyone in the office was saying]: 'I really hope we get him. It's going to be a great day if we get him at 27,'" Buss recalled. "You never expect a guy in year one to have an impact like Kuzma did or Josh Hart did."
Upper management has a bigger role in drafting the top picks, including the team's three consecutive No. 2 selections of Ball, Ingram and Russell.
Buss plays a smaller part in trades and free agency, acknowledging it's been a challenge to see the Lakers deal several of his prized selections such as Russell, Clarkson and Nance. That Russell helped lead to Kuzma and Hart, along with cap flexibility, made it a little easier to swallow. He was especially close to Clarkson, his first real victory in the scouting department, but wishes both him and Nance well in Cleveland.
Buss also acknowledged "drafting is half the battle" and that Walton and the Lakers coaching staff deserve a lot of credit for how quickly the players have been developing.
Meanwhile, the Lakers have more flexibility this summer than any other team, enough to sign up to two maximum-salaried players.
"There are so many ways we can use that space. We can absorb an expiring contract and get a draft pick out of it," Buss said. "We can acquire a player [through trade] who will help us immediately next season. We can sign big-time guys and be right there and have the future in the palm of our hands."
"It's really exciting," he continued. "Thirty-five wins was an improvement from last season...but we want to be back in the playoffs. We want to build towards being a championship team again."
Even if the Lakers don't land stars in July, Buss is confident the team can continue to add talent the way it has in recent years.
"I'm not going to be discouraged if something doesn't happen for us this summer," he said. "We have a lot of good young players, and I think that's a foundation. I'm not going to say, 'The Process 2.0' or 'The Process West,' but you see what building through the draft can really do for a franchise."
"We haven't had as many picks as other teams, but when we have had picks, we've made them count," Buss said.
Now heading into his 11th draft with the Lakers, Buss has grown from a teenager to the parent of a two-year-old son named Jaden. He hopes to pass on his love of basketball, as his father did before him.
"Having the responsibility of a child really changes you as a person," Buss said. "I think before [Jaden], everything in this business and my job, I did for my dad because I wanted to make him proud. When he passed away, I was finding myself a little bit. Now that Jaden came into the world, now it's him I want to make proud."