Talking With: Ronnie Lester, Assistant GM, Part I
From the moment the Lakers' season came to an end, Lakers Blog has been abuzz with folks debating which kid in an oversize, flashy, custom-tailored suit the team should draft on June 28. Aside from the fact that it's fun to debate the merits of Guillermo Diaz vs. Shannon Brown vs. Thabo Sefolosha (who has half of our readers convinced he's "the one," despite having never seen the cat play a minute's worth of ball), whoever the Lakers select two Wednesdays from now represents another brick in the wall of a house being rebuilt.
Thus, we thought it would be a good idea to talk on Monday with Ronnie Lester, assistant GM of the Los Angeles Lakers. Aside from being Mitch Kupchak's right hand man, Lester is the big Kahuna when it comes to Lakers scouting. If there's a young 'un worth checking out, better believe Lester or a member of his staff has checked him out. Like every team in the league, the Lakers aren't big on tipping their hat pre-draft, so there weren't any specific potential draftees confirmed or denied as possibilities. But we got a good idea about the ins and outs of the process, as well some insights about the upcoming free agency period, trade possibilities, what the team is looking for come summer-league time, and other items. Here's what he had to say.
Brian Kamenetzky: I think one of the things Laker fans may not know is what your specific job is, what areas you cover around the league.
Ronnie Lester: I do a little bit of a lot of things, to be honest with you. I originally worked for the Lakers as a scout from '87 to 2001 before I came here to be Mitch's assistant. And it was basically college scouting. (Now) I have an office job. I'm in the office everyday. Still scouting. I like to scout. I like to get out there and see the kids. I think that's one of the things I do best. Being in the office, I put the last four or five summer league teams together, the kids that play for us in our summer league program. Being in the office, you talk to a lot of agents. You develop a lot of relationships with agents. Scouting has changed so much now. When I started, it was basically watching college kids play and evaluating them. Mostly upperclassmen. Then the younger kids started coming out, the freshmen and sophomores. Then high school kids started coming out. Then we started going to Europe five or six years ago, with the European players coming over here. So scouting has changed so much since I started in the late '80s to where it is today.
BK: Does that make it harder or does the larger pool make it easier by offering more choices?
RL: I think it gives you more choices but it's a lot more work. Going to Europe two or three times a year. Watching high school players prior to this year, when they outlawed players coming out of high school. You just have a lot more players to evaluate. You have a bigger player pool, so you have a lot more players to evaluate.
Andrew Kamenetzky: Were you in favor of the age limit?
RL: I was, overall. I think they probably should have stretched it to 20 instead of 19. I think it would have helped as far as the kids coming out's maturity level. Developing physically. Give them a couple more years before competing at this level against men who've been playing at this level for years.
AK: From basketball analysts to the media to fans, there are always those who say the high school kids coming out was diluting the talent level in the league.
RL: A lot of them weren't physically ready to play at this level. Their bodies hadn't developed. Most 18-year-olds aren't mature enough to deal with playing in the NBA. The travel, the things that encompasses that. I think back when I was 18. I could never comprehend that. But I think if you're talented enough, no matter what your age, teams are going to take a look at you. They have to. And like I said, a lot of kids aren't ready, but a lot of kids have upside that you kind of look at and evaluate and say in two years, once this kid's developed, he has the skill level to play against these guys, he's gonna be a pretty good player.
BK: "Upside" is one of those things I wanted to ask you about. When you're looking at a player in Europe who's playing on a junior team at 17, 18, 19 years old or an underclassman like Marvin Williams who didn't even start his one year at Carolina, when you're scouting these players, how do you determine the talent that's there but untapped against just wishful thinking?
RL: I think that after you've done it for a while and you've seen so many players, it's not always easy in specific instances, but overall, it's reasonably easy to see if a player has upside or not. First of all, you look at the skill level and the talent level that a player possesses and that's what you evaluate a guy on. But a lot of guys you watch, they have the ability to get much better than they are already. You know (with) a young player, bodies are going to develop and fill out in most cases. Some guys won't. You look at a body and say, "He has narrow shoulders. It doesn't look like he'll be able to carry a lot of weight." Other kids, they have the frame to put on weight. They have the skill level. And in those instances, you say, "Wow. He's got a pretty good upside."
BK: Now is that relative to basketball skills or is it athleticism, like a Tyrus Thomas, who can jump out of the gym, but fundamentally he doesn't shoot very well and struggles with other things? Do you look at it and decide some of those specific skills can be taught but you can't teach that kind of athleticism? Is that part of what goes into the equation?
RL: I think part of that. Guys like him. Rodney Carney, I think is another guy that's in this draft that's really athletic. And those guys can compete against anybody, whether it's the best college players or the best NBA players. So you look at it from that standpoint, they're gonna be able to compete athletically. Do they have the skill level to compete, because it not only takes being athletic, but you have to have skills to play at this level too. Guys get better. Their skills get better. In Thomas' case, I look at him as being more of an athlete than a player right now. He's gonna compete. You put him out there, he's gonna compete just off his athletic ability. Will he get better in his skills? He probably should. With NBA coaching he probably should get better, become a better shooter, become a better range shooter. Being able to create things off the dribble. He should become a better player down the line.
AK: At times, it feels like guys in college, the more polished they become and the more they develop their game, they get penalized for having "reached their ceiling." As opposed to guys who are really raw and get viewed as having a lot of "upside," but part of the reason that "upside" is there is because you really don't know for sure what they can do. How do you go about differentiating between upside and the guy who's polished but still could improve even further?
RL: Yeah, I mean, some players and I can give you an instance, the kid Brandon Roy, who I think most people say he's ready to play right now. You could put him in an NBA game today and he's ready to play. He can compete physically against those guys. His game is what it is. He's gonna do things and be a good player because if he's not reached his potential, he's almost there. The other kid, Tyrus Thomas, I think is another instance where athletically he can play, but he has a bigger upside than the kid from Washington, Brandon Roy. I think a lot depends on what you're looking for in the draft. Are you looking for a guy to come in and help you right away versus drafting a kid and watching him develop? Some kids, you don't know how good they can be. Their upside could be so big that they could be the next superstar in the league. With a Brandon Roy, I think he's gonna be a good player, but I don't know if he's gonna be that superstar-type player.
BK: So it becomes a matter of deciding whether you're satisfied with hitting a double or looking to hit a home run?
RL: Yeah. And if you have a pretty good team, could Brandon Roy get you to a championship level with what he does versus waiting for a kid two or three years down the line who maybe could get you there, maybe not. So you have to weigh those things.
BK: And at No. 26, do you have to look at things differently, since it's maybe not so clear?
RL: I think so. First of all, you don't know who's gonna be there at No. 26. You just wait and wait and wait. Probably two and a half hours after the draft starts, it's your turn to pick a player. And you have to watch a lot of good players that you like, that you'd like to have, you see them go before you. So you have to figure out, or know, I think, who you like of those remaining players in what order. How they can help you. How long it would take for them to help you. So you have to know those things. And that comes from scouting those players over the years. Not only over the year, but over their careers. Three or four years, a lot of them.
AK: So how do you guys go about approaching this decision as a team, since you're sort of in between? You're obviously competitive. You may have come a rebound away from the second round. But you could also make an argument that the team is not necessarily one piece away from a championship.
RL: I think, when it gets down there, our philosophy has been to take the best player. You can never go wrong taking the best player, I think, because he's gonna make other players better. Even if you have players at that position, he's gonna push those players. And there will be a pecking order established as to who is the better player. And you can always trade a player if you have a piece that's desirable around the league, you can always trade a player. So that's our philosophy, to take the better player. Sometimes, I think when you draft on need, you pass up on a lot of good players because you need a player at a certain position.
BK: And if you have two guys rated about the same, does the tiebreaker then become positional need?
RL: Sure. If you need a guard and you think those players are pretty equal, sure. Because you have to have a certain amount of players at every position. You want to try to balance your roster out. So that could tip it in one direction or the other.
BK: And while guys further down in the draft tend to make less of an impact, there have been guys — Josh Howard, Manu Ginobili, Michael Redd — that blow away the guys taken 15 or 20 spots ahead of them. How do you account for that and how do you try to see which players may have that kind of potential, even though 20 or so teams missed it?
RL: I mean, there's certain things you like about players, that you see in them, that endear you to that player. But scouting and drafting players is not an exact science. You may pick a guy that you think is pretty good and he turns out to be a great player. And you can say, "I knew it all the time." But you didn't, really (laughs). You just evaluate the talent that you see before you and try to pick the best players. Players that have the ability or the better percentage of being a good player at this level. There are good players you're gonna find that go in the second round. That perform better than players before them. I think part of that is some players get slighted a little bit. They thought they should have been a first rounder. They go in the second. They have a chip on their shoulder.
AK: Gilbert Arenas still hasn't gotten over it.
RL: Yeah. He says, "I'm gonna show you guys and all those teams that passed on me that you made a mistake." And I think it's what's inside a player. How badly a guy wants to be a player. You can be a first-round player or a high pick and turn out not to be much in the league. And a lot of that depends on how badly you want to be a player. After getting drafted, how much you continue to work on your game to improve, to get better. And you can't see that by going out and watching a kid play. You can see the talent level, the ability the kid has, but you can't see what's inside. How badly a guy wants to be a great player.
BK: In terms of watching the summer camps and the workouts, how much stock do you guys put into individual workouts versus the draft camps when the guys are all playing together and out on the floor?
RL: You put it all in the pie, so to speak, and you come out with an opinion of the guy. I think a lot of the individual workouts you can get fooled. Especially, to me, (with) the European kids. A lot of those kids will not play five on five. They like to do the individual workouts. And I think you can get fooled by that, because kids will do those individual workouts for years and years and get very proficient at doing those workouts. Shooting the ball and making shots at certain spots. But you get in the game, when it's five on five, and they can't do those same things. So I think you can get fooled by just individual workouts. I think you have to look at everything. Individual workouts and watching the kids play, because ultimately, that's what we do. We play five on five. And that's what you prefer to see. You can only see certain things in individual workouts, ability to handle and shoot the ball. You can't see how a player reacts to being defended (in) game situations. So you prefer to see a guy play.
BK: And I guess if there is a benefit to drafting low, it's that more of the players who are late first round, second round guys tend to play in these camps.
RL: Yeah. The talented kids usually go first. That's what the draft's all about. Usually the kids that are down where we draft are kids who stuck around, especially if they're college kids here in the states, for three or four years. We've seen them. We've seen them, between the six or seven scouts we have, we've seen them a hundred times. So we know them quite well. And the more you see a kid, I think the better your opinion should be of him. What he can do, what he can't do. What type of player you think he projects out to be at this level. Seeing a kid once or twice, you can get fooled. So the more you see a kid, the better.
AK: Last year, you guys drafted 10th and it’s been a long time since you were in a position to draft that high. Was there a different feeling of anticipation or excitement going into that draft versus when you’d been drafting in the mid to late 20s?
RL: It’s a different feel because you know you’re going to be able to draft a higher quality player. A kid that if you pick a good player, he’s probably gonna be a cornerstone of your organization going forward here. So it was exciting from that standpoint.
AK: How did you guys go about deciding to go with Andrew Bynum, who could very well end up a cornerstone guy, but will take some time to get there, as opposed to a guy who might have been ready right away?
RL: Well, we felt — Andrew Bynum’s a center, he’s 7 feet with a 7-foot-6 wingspan, you normally don’t find centers 10th in the draft. If you’re gonna draft a center, you’re probably in the top four or five. And the good centers, they go real early. We liked a lot of things about Andrew. As a kid. His work ethic. His size. His frame. Being able to draft a center at number 10, which you normally can’t do. We felt he was too good to pass up. We know it’s gonna take time. He was 17 years old when we drafted him. But if he had gone to college for a couple of years, we probably never would have been able to draft him at 10. So we felt he was a player at 10, to get a center, that we just couldn’t pass up.
AK: What was the organization’s feeling on his rookie season, in terms of progress and the way things went?
RL: Well, I know if you ask him, he’ll say he didn’t play nearly as much as he wanted to. And we’d like to see him play more than he did too, honestly. But once you draft a player and you hand him over to the coaching staff, it’s those guys’ decision how much a kid plays. But we think Andrew’s gonna be fine. We think he’s gonna be a cornerstone player for us for a number of years. He’s a young kid. He works hard. He wants to learn. He asks a lot of questions. So I think the future for him is very bright.
BK: This year, the top center on a lot of people’s boards is Patrick O’Bryant. And then some people talk about Mouhamed Saer Sene, from Senegal. How does Andrew compare to them, in what's generally considered a down draft, especially for centers?
RL: Well, the kid from Bradley (O’Bryant), he’s a long kid too. He’s pretty athletic for a seven foot kid. He’s long. I think it’s going to take him a while to develop physically. He doesn’t have the body Andrew had. This kid played two years of college and Andrew was coming out of high school as a 17-year-old. Andrew has a bigger body, a bigger frame. I think this kid is a center, the Bradley kid. But it’s gonna take him a while because he’s not strong. He gets pushed around. The other kid, the African kid, Saer Sene, he’s the same way. He’s a thin kid. He’s very athletic running. He’s long. He’s a shot blocker. I think if you put him in an NBA game today, what he can do is block shots, because he’s long. He goes after shots. But if you’re talking about him physically, Andrew is a much bigger center than those two guys are.
BK: And while it’s still developing, he does have a more polished low post game and low block offensive game.
RL: Yeah. I’ve seen the kid Saer Sene play once, in the Hoops Summit. I saw him practice a couple times. And I don’t know him as well as I know Patrick O’Bryant or our kid, Andrew. But I think physically, Andrew is a center. He can stand up and play in the post. Pound guys. Be physical. I think the Patrick O’Bryant kid, he’ll develop some physically. But I think Andrew’s gonna be a bigger player. A physically bigger player, as far as strength and weight. I don’t even know if the other kid, Saer Sene, is even a center in our league. And that’s what you run up against when you see young kids that play center in college or in Europe. Most of them can’t play center in our league. They’re not big enough. They’re not strong enough. But Andrew is. Andrew’s a center.
AK: So while there’s obviously guesswork with Andrew when it comes to measuring his true potential, but looking at him physically, there’s no guesswork.
RL: No. He’s 275 now as an 18-year-old kid. Two years in the weight room, working in the weight room, he’s gonna play in his prime right around 300 pounds, which is pretty big. He’s gonna be there. 290, 300 pounds. That’s what he’s gonna play at.
BK: Looking at the draft, and I know teams keep things pretty close to the vest and don’t just announce who they want to take, are there players, in a broad sense, that you’ve looked at and can talk about?
RL: Well, we normally don’t talk about players, as far as like you said, throwing names around. But we’ve gone through some draft stuff, and I’ll say this. We’re 26th and you always want to be higher than you are. You wish you were five spots higher. But we’re 26th and there’s probably 21 or 22 kids that we like and we know we would take right now if the draft was today and one of those kids were there.
BK: So you hope that one of those 21 or 22 kids make it to No. 26.
RL: Sure. And that’s possible, because every year in the draft there’s two or three kids that you would never take, that go before you in the draft. But we have 21 or 22 kids that we like. You can’t bank on that, but normally it happens. But we’ll keep working. The draft is the 28th. We have a couple more weeks before the draft, so we’ll keep working to come up with 26 kids we like.
AK: Plus, a few of them are playing positions that you don’t need. I mean, Patrick O’Bryant, if he slipped to you….
RL: (laughs) We’d have to take him.
AK: Well, yeah. But he’s one kid out of the way. That’s my point.
RL: Yeah. We have three centers on this team. We don’t need to add another center. If you look at our team, look at the players we have in positions, we need a backcourt player. So it’s easier to find a backcourt player at 26 than a center or a frontcourt player. So that's a good thing.
AK: That leads into a question I had. What do you guys see as pressing needs, both going into the draft and going into the off-season with free agency, trades, etc.?
RL: Well, we think we need a guy, like I said, in the backcourt. Preferably a guy with NBA experience. A guy who’s been in the league and knows the league. You know what the guy can do. And the only way to acquire someone like that is through a trade or through free agency. You know, you draft a kid 26th, and if you’re a pretty good team — and we think we’re a pretty good team on our way to being a better team — if you draft a kid 26th and he comes in and plays for you you’re probably not very good. So the kid we draft is probably not going to play a lot the next year or two. The way for us to get better is to find a veteran backcourt player, I think.
BK: If I threw some names at you, could you wink once if you like them, wink twice if they're not on your list?
RL: (smiles, no response)
BK: Just kidding.
AK: Can you talk about who has worked out for you, or would that be a little further from the vest than you’d like?
RL: We’ve had a lot of kids work out for us, but that’s not a true indication all the time. We’ve had probably 40-some kids in here. We’re probably going to have another 20 before the draft’s over with. This week we have a workout. We have three workouts next week. And we have a workout the week of the draft where you can bring in four kids each workout. And we’ll do that. So we’ll have five more workouts, times four. That’s 20 more kids that we’ll bring in. We’ll bring in 65 kids before it’s said and done.
BK: And do you have them playing against each other?
RL: Well, there’s certain rules. You can only have four kids in, so you can only do so much: two on two, one on one, basically. But yeah, we’ll have them do some of that stuff. A lot of shooting. Looking at different aspects of their skills. What type of skills they possess. How they fit in with how we play in the triangle offense. All those things.
Look for the second half next week...