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The Lakers need to utilize their scouting department better

While the Lakers themselves aren’t in the playoffs, the postseason is littered with former Baby Lakers spread out across the league. While it’s not much in the way of a consolation prize, it does offer obvious rooting interests for fans searching for reasons to still watch games.

Brandon Ingram is introducing himself to a national audience while punking the Suns in the process, truly fighting for the hearts of Laker fans. D’Angelo Russell has developed into a steadying presence for the Timberwolves that still has ice in his veins, and Alex Caruso — when not taking shots to the face — has been exactly what Lakers fans remember him to be with the Bulls.

It’s been going on nearly a decade now that the Lakers scouting department has hardly ever missed. In 2014, they drafted Julius Randle, who landed a massive deal with the Knicks after a breakout season last year. This past offseason, they landed Austin Reaves as an undrafted free agent. Between the two? Hit after hit after hit that would rival The Weeknd.

This is not an exaggeration. Here’s a list of every draft pick they’ve made since Randle.

  • D’Angelo Russell (No. 2 overall)
  • Larry Nance (No. 27)
  • Anthony Brown (No. 34)
  • Brandon Ingram (No. 2)
  • Ivica Zubac (No. 32)
  • Lonzo Ball (No. 2)
  • Kyle Kuzma (No. 27)
  • Josh Hart (No. 30)
  • Mo Wagner (No. 25)
  • Isaac Bonga (No. 39)
  • Svi Mykhailiuk (No. 47)
  • Talen Horton-Tucker (No. 46)

The only misses amongst that list of players are prospects taken in the second round, and even that really only includes Anthony Brown and Isaac Bonga. And it doesn’t count finds like Caruso or Reaves, neither of whom was drafted by the Lakers (or any NBA team).

The problem with that list is that, since 2018, Horton-Tucker is the only draft pick. That’s effectively entirely due to the fact the Lakers traded a ton of picks for Anthony Davis — a trade you do 100 times out of a 100 — in a win-now move that paid off in a championship and isn’t really worth debating.

But despite having as good a scouting department as any franchise in the league, the Lakers don’t seem interested in leaning into one of their strengths. It doesn’t help the limited assets they’ve had in recent years have been squandered away time and time again.

No example of that is more glaring, especially when it comes to draft picks, than the sequence in which the Lakers traded a first-round pick and Danny Green for Dennis Schröder on an expiring deal, then didn’t re-sign Schröder or get any asset back for him as he departed, before trading ANOTHER first round pick to acquire his successor in Russell Westbrook. To add a hilarious cherry on top of the sad sundae, they then tried to trade for Schröder AGAIN at this year’s trade deadline, offering multiple second-round picks for him.

The result of all this has been the Lakers not drafting anyone at all in the 2020 or 2021 drafts, first or second round combined, and left little faith that they’ll roster many (drafted) rookies moving forward. Drafting Horton-Tucker at such a young age and finding Reaves as an undrafted free agent eased some of pain of two years of few picks, but it highlights one of the problems with the Lakers front office.

Despite having a strong scouting department, the Lakers treat draft picks as little more than trade throw-ins or sweeteners. In a vacuum, many of the trades they made make sense, but sequence them all together and you wonder about the mindset of the front office.

This isn’t a call for the Lakers to go back to the Baby Lakers days, or to say that the AD trade wasn’t worth it. But it’s hard to not urge the front office to find some middle ground, one that doesn’t seem them make one first round pick since 2018 and one total draft pick since 2019.

An encouraging sign on that front, though, came from Jovan Buah of The Athletic. In a recent mailbag piece, Buha stated that the Lakers are “going to do everything they can” to not trade the team’s 2027 and 2029 first round picks, particularly in a trade to offload Westbrook. It doesn’t necessarily mean they won’t trade them further down the line, but it does indicate some level of recognition of the value they could have internally, even if they’re a half-decade away from them being used.

Teams focused on winning now don’t typically have time to develop rookies, but there are examples of teams integrating young players while still being competitive. The Warriors have developed Jordan Poole into the third Splash Bro. Miami did similar things with Tyler Herro and Duncan Robinson, as did Philly with Matisse Thybulle and Tyrese Maxey, and Denver with Bones Hyland and Monte Morris, to varying degrees.

But selecting players with draft picks instead of throwing them into every trade you make has many obvious positives, ranging from the cheap contracts and longer-term team control young players come into the league, with to the fact they can help extend title runs and windows due to their upside. Laker fans saw firsthand with the Laker teams of the early-to-mid-2010s how damaging it can be to a franchise long-term to simply ignore the draft in favor of win-now moves. At some point, those gambles no longer pan out, and what’s left is just scraps to pick up.

When it comes to the current Lakers as well, relying on the scouting department to find productive role players seems to be a far safer bet than asking the front office to do so, given the track record of both parties. Players like Hart and Kuzma, two veteran college players, are two examples of players that stepped in and contributed at high levels from day one and could do so on a contending team.

Barring a trade in the coming weeks, the Lakers are, once again, not going to have a draft pick this year. There’s a pretty easy argument to make about buying a second-rounder and not asking the scouting department to again unearth a rotation player from undrafted free agents, but that would require the Lakers to spend money, and that doesn’t seem to be a priority for this ownership and front office brain trust.

Too often in recent years, the Lakers have treated their scouting department as more of an afterthought, but treating it as the strength it is could help the Lakers get back into contention and help the team in both the short- and long-term.

For more Lakers talk, subscribe to the Silver Screen and Roll podcast feed on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or Google Podcasts. You can follow Jacob on Twitter at @JacobRude.

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