After weeks of meetings, Lakers coach Luke Walton, general manager Rob Pelinka and president of basketball operations Magic Johnson flew to Chicago on Tuesday for the NBA draft combine.
The lottery might be consuming the thoughts of fans, but that top pick is only part of the equation.
At the combine the Lakers will get the opportunity for time with some top players — including Washington’s Markelle Fultz and Kentucky’s De’Aaron Fox, who will both be there for at least interviews. More than that, they’ll have a chance to continue evaluating players who might be available for their late first-round pick, their second-round pick or for summer league and training camp invitations.
“We are so prepared in how we’re evaluating guys that could be in the draft, free agents that might come up this July or next July and then players you think might come up to trade for,” Pelinka said shortly after the season ended. “It’s a combination of analytics. It’s a combination of game film. It’s a combination of talking to a lot of people around the league and getting a sense of who players are. But I will tell you there’s going to be a very high value for us on guys of character. Guys of integrity and guys who have a high basketball knowledge.”
The process of evaluating incoming rookies has already begun. Last week the Lakers held workouts Wednesday and Thursday that included six players on each day.
For the next few days in Chicago they’ll have access to 67 draft-eligible players, most of whom won’t be in consideration for one of the top three picks. UCLA star point guard Lonzo Ball won’t be there. Neither will Kansas forward Josh Jackson.
Two lottery picks who will be there are Fultz and Fox, who are considered, along with Ball, as the top three available players in the draft.
Fultz is scheduled to skip media availability Thursday and Friday, and he is not expected to participate in the five-on-five drills.
Fox will get another chance to impress Johnson. Johnson attended UCLA’s Sweet 16 loss to Kentucky in which Fox had 39 points. Fox looked significantly better than Ball in that game, though Ball told The Times he played with a hamstring injury that day.
Three of Ball’s teammates at UCLA are participating — TJ Leaf, Ike Anigbogu and Thomas Welsh.
The players arrived Tuesday and began medical evaluations Wednesday morning. Wednesday afternoon they began interviews with teams. Each team can meet with no more than 20 players at the combine, while each player is allowed 13 interviews with teams. The sessions can last no more than 30 minutes.
There the Lakers will have a bit of an advantage. Lakers assistant Jesse Mermuys is one of four coaches who will help run the players through their on-court workouts. Detroit’s Tim Hardaway, Brooklyn’s Bret Brielmaier, and Charlotte’s Pat Delany will join him, giving all four men a closer look at each player.
The Lakers finished last season 26-56, for the third-worst record in the NBA. That gives them a 46.9% percent chance to be awarded a pick in the top three of the draft during next week’s lottery.
If their pick falls out of the top three, they must give it to the Philadelphia 76ers as part of the trade in which the Lakers acquired Steve Nash. In that case, they must also give their 2019 first-round pick, whatever it is, to the Orlando Magic.
Regardless of what happens during the lottery, the Lakers will have the 28th pick in the draft, which they acquired as part of Johnson’s first trade. Johnson sent Lou Williams to Houston for that pick and Corey Brewer.
Johnson and Pelinka have said they have a plan for improvement whether or not they keep their top pick. It’s why neither they nor Walton have had much of a break yet. Having been in this position for four years in a row, the franchise’s decision-makers have little room to relax.
Follow Tania Ganguli on Twitter @taniaganguli