As things slowly return to normal in the NBA and the difficulties that arose over the past year ease into the rearview mirror, Buzz Peterson is as grateful as anyone.
"Eighty-two games and playoffs, practices, that’s what I want," the Charlotte Hornets assistant GM said. "It’s just so good to be back over at the arena."
Peterson is embarking on his fifth offseason with the Hornets in his current role as a talent evaluator. He's also the president of basketball operations for the Greensboro Swarm, Charlotte's G League affiliate. Serving as a right-hand man of sorts to GM Mitch Kupchak, he plays a key part in the organization's personnel evaluation, especially when it comes to collegiate scouting and the NBA Draft process.
With the flux in changes over the past year-plus due to the pandemic, it's caused him -- and others in the department like player personnel director Larry Jordan -- to adjust.
"I will say during COVID, it made it a little bit more difficult with the shortage of games not being able to go see them," Peterson said. "That made it tougher. When you go to the combines, guys you want to see don’t play. That makes it more difficult. But I will say this: Every year I get older and with age I feel like I understand it a little better. Now that our coach (James Borrego) has been here for a little bit, you know how he likes to coach some, the way he likes to switch. Whether it’s switching on defense or whatever or if he likes to play more of some blah, blah, blah. You get a good sense of what kind of player may thrive under him a little bit better. So, the older I get the more ... I don’t know if it’s educated or get a little wiser or whatever.
"You take a guy like Mitch. Good night. Mitch has been around for what, 30-plus years? He’s seen a lot, he’s been through a lot. So, I really pay attention to what he's saying and what he’s thinking. I've spent a lot of time with him. I spent a lot of time talking with him. Probably more than he is wanting to see me. But I feel like I’m gaining a lot of knowledge and getting a lot of resources from his skill set or evaluation or just communicating with agents, communicating with the coaching staff or with players. I mean, why not try to pick his brain? The guy has been around for all the years. And not only that, he’s been very successful. So I feel like as a guy that’s here right now, that boy I can learn a lot from him and every day get more knowledgable about this profession."
Peterson spoke with SI.com's All Hornets about the difference in preparation for this year's draft compared to last year's, why the team has been so successful in hitting on its draft picks over the last three years, owner Michael Jordan's trust in his personnel group, how the organization evaluated LaMelo Ball during the 2020 draft process and more.
You mentioned things are different in regards to evaluating players this year as compared to last year given everything that was transpiring due to the pandemic. What are some of the specifics you are referring to?
Well, the part that is difficult is you didn't get the eye contact that you wanted. Our scouts and Larry Jordan, they watch a lot of film. And so does Mitch and myself. We watch a lot of film. But just having that eye contact, you may be able to see the shoulders are a bit broader if you are in person. Or you may be able to catch something that’s a little bit different that happened in the game or in practice on tape that really piques your interest. That’s the difficult thing. You got a quick glimpse of guys in Chicago at the combine. Some of the guys didn’t even work out, didn't even show up, which makes it difficult. So you are relying a lot of film and what the scouts are saying about different prospects and everything. So it is a little difficult. I will say that.
At least you were able to bring players in to work out over these last few weeks unlike last year, right?
That is is true. So you can bring them in and watch them there, which is much better. Last year it was a lot different. You can do that. Yeah, that does help. You can't put everything in that one workout, but you can put them in situations that maybe they were not in during the season, where their coach coaches a different kind of way and structure and maybe not more of an up-and-down situation. This way you can put them in a drill, see if the young man is, whatever, athletic enough or whatever and can make that move.
So it sounds like you are much more of a believer in watching players in live action. How specifically does that help you break down their game?
When you are dealing with a young age ... sometime with some of these guys when you are picking in the lottery you are dealing with 19-, 20-year-olds. Sometimes 18. You are trying to figure out the future for this player. You are trying to figure out how he’s going to be going down the road. So, you may see him three or four times where you are just kinda go, 'Ok.' When I compare him to someone else I’ve seen that guy do it or when I compare him to someone else who never made it, but I see these intangibles that I believe he’s going to make it or he’s not going to make it. So you are putting all these factors in and going through your head on whether he’s going to make it or not on that next contract. Is he going to get that next contract? Is he going to be able to sign a good contract with that next one? Is he going to help your team out four years from now?
That's obviously the gist of the job for someone dealing with personnel. How challenging is it to have to constantly be correct, knowing it could cost you your job if you are not?
You wish you can be a meteorologist on this part, but you can’t. You've got to do your best to nail it. I mean, you can’t be a meteorologist on this one for sure. You see enough people play, but sometimes something can happen. In a young man’s life there could be something that interferes. Whether it’s injury, whether it’s off the floor that he meets a person that has control of him. It could be something like that thats throws it off.
Can you explain what the process was like last season as the organization was figuring out LaMelo Ball's potential and if you were going to draft him?
Well, we saw him work out in California, which helped a little bit. But that is just a very little sample. We had several interviews with him. We talked to several people. We went back to when he played over in Australia. We went back to when he played in high school. So it was one of those things where you felt pretty good about the people you talked to and what you saw. It could be pretty good. Again, a lot of people didn't go down yet to Australia and see him play. I think we were one of only a few teams to go down there. And remember not a lot of teams were able to get down there because remember he was done, I want to say, before Christmas. So there weren’t a lot of people who got down there. You didn’t get a lot of him to make a choice. And a lot of this is you’ve got to get lucky. We went from eight to three (in the lottery) so that helped out a lot. And we feel like we got the right player. So we really felt fortunate about it. Man, he was the rookie of the year.
LaMelo is the latest in what's been a pretty solid run of draft picks in the three-plus seasons Mitch has been in charge. What is the reason in your mind for the increased success?
Larry Jordan is our director of player personnel, so he’s the guy in charge of it. So Larry, I’ve got to give Larry a lot of credit for staying on top of the scouts. It’s a long season. And there’s motivation, there’s get your reports in, there's intel reports. He’s constantly looking over five, six guys — not every day but several time during the week. 'How’d that game go. What’d you see? Where are you off to next?' Checking their reports, there’s a lot that goes into that.
And then on top of that you have Mitch, who oversees the whole department of ops. He’s asking Larry a lot of questions and Larry’s got to get those questions answered from the scouts. And so those two guys, they are on top of it. I mean, they are checking every box, asking a lot of questions. And if you don’t have the answer they are like, ‘Well, get back and watch more tape.’ Or, 'Get back on the phone and find out. I need an answer. I don’t want an I’m not sure. I need a yes or no.' And those two are pretty adamant about it, that they are staying on top of the scouts and holding everybody accountable for that choice we are going to make.
And people may think if you are No. 11 whoever pops up you get. Nah, there’s a lot of work that goes into it. A lot of preparation. Meeting after meeting. Zoom call after Zoom call. Hundreds of discussions about each player and then when it comes time to pick you feel decent about it if you’ve got everything lined up. This is the guy. We don’t wait until Thursday, 'Here’s comes the draft on the 29th.' We want to know a couple off days out before that we are prepared and we’ve got everything. If we are going to make changes after today it’s going to be a big discussion with ownership and this is why we may make a change. But those two guys are really on top of it, led by Larry.
How much pride is there among Mitch, Larry, yourself and everyone in the personnel department knowing you are indeed a team and this just isn't necessarily on one individual?
It’s a team effort. It’s everybody. For instance, you may take one player and he might have been seen six times. And he might’ve been seen by Mitch, by myself and three scouts. And you put everybody’s ranking in there and you talk about it. Then it’s a team effort. Everybody weighed into that decision on that player. I feel good with what we’ve done and I feel good now because you know why? I know we are going to be prepared when it comes time because we’ve done our homework, and we’ve done it thoroughly over and over and over. Then when it comes time I’m going to be very confident about it.
How involved is Michael Jordan in the process?
Well, at the end of the day it’s his team. He’s made an investment in it. So he’s got to make the final decision. If he doesn’t feel good about it, then we’ve got to go with he says. But at the same time I do feel like he has all of us in this position because he trusts us and what we are doing. It doesn't mean that he has to agree with what we are doing. He may think something else. He may have another opinion and then we’ll talk about it. And then he’s got to weigh in with what he wants to do, and what kind of decision he wants to make. And that’s anywhere from selecting a player, to picking a coach, to free agency to whatever it may be. At the end of the day it’s his money and he wants to win badly. We all know that. So Larry and I talk about it all the time. We know how competitive he is. Larry grew up with him and by the time I got to high school I got to know him. But the guy wants to win everything and the way the thing is now it just doesn’t happen that quickly. You’ve got to build it up to a certain point. But I do feel we are on the right track right now to building this thing where it needs to go and it’s unfortunate what happened last year with injuries. That happens. But I do feel good where we are right now.