Niyo: For Pistons’ Jason Buckner, scouting more than an educated guess

Detroit’s director of draft scouting learned early on the importance of preparation.       …

Niyo: For Pistons' Jason Buckner, scouting more than an educated guess 1
Niyo: For Pistons' Jason Buckner, scouting more than an educated guess 2

If you dig deep enough, you’ll find the Pistons’ preparations for this summer’s NBA Draft may have started a few decades ago. And you’ll discover some of the groundwork for what comes next in a critical offseason for Detroit’s pro basketball revival was laid at the home of Quinn Buckner, one of the game’s true champions who is now a broadcaster and business executive in Indianapolis.

At least that’s the way Buckner’s son, Jason, the Pistons’ director of draft scouting, views it in hindsight. All those conversations at family meals where opinions turned into debates, or a simple question ended with the younger Buckner and his siblings trudging upstairs to search for the answers.

“You’ve got to always be ready to defend yourself at our dinner table,” laughed Jason, one of Quinn and Rhonda Buckner’s four children. “And as a kid, if you had a question, the first thing my dad would say was, ‘Go look it up.’ We had a whole bookshelf of encyclopedias in the house and you’d have to go run up there and look it up.”

Quinn Buckner was raised in a family of educators, you see, so he understood the value of learning isn’t simply in the knowledge you gain. It’s also in the curiosity — and the research — that leads you to it.

“You’ve got to support your argument,” said the elder Buckner, 66, who is one of only eight men who has won NCAA and NBA titles as well as an Olympic gold medal as a player. “Then it becomes part of a process or a habit, and a good habit. You make sure you do your background work so that you, as Jason’s grandmother used to say, ‘Don’t get the cart before the horse, son.’”

It worked, obviously — “That’s just kind of how I’m wired at this point,” Jason says — and now it’s the essence of his job in Detroit, where he signed on with general manager Troy Weaver last fall after spending the last eight years working for the Indiana Pacers.

“It’s a huge part of it,” Buckner said. “Everything needs to be buttoned up, and you have to know what you’re talking about when you’re presenting an idea or a prospect.”

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He’d been what he describes as an “external relations guy” for the Pacers initially, digging into the backgrounds of NBA prospects to assist the scouting department as manager of basketball administration. It was a role where his sales background — at Philip Morris, Learfield IMG and fundraising for the University of Louisville — also proved useful.

“My job was to go out there and build relationships with all the trainers, the AAU coaches, the shoe companies, USA Basketball, and all these other people that kind of make up the basketball industry,” said Buckner, 41, who later added a regional scouting role for the Pacers.

He and Weaver had crossed paths plenty over the years, making small talk at various college games, practices or elite camps.  

“And I liked the way he carried himself — he was a young guy that really was serious about the craft,” Weaver said. “So when the opportunity arose and we started throwing around names, he emerged at the top of the list. We wanted someone that was well connected with college coaches, in the amateur basketball scene, and with agents, and Jason was a hard-working guy that was very thorough and had all those things at his disposal.”

Buckner, in turn, was ready to take the next step in his career.

“I just felt like I was ready to get a different perspective, and Troy is a guy that I always had admired,” said Buckner, who remains based in Indianapolis for now with his wife, Lauren, and their two young children. “I don’t want to say he was one of my idols, but he was a guy that I really looked up to in the industry. Because he’s known for having such a keen eye for talent and the way he treated people. … He’s a guy that I always rooted for, even though we weren’t on the same team. And once he got to Detroit and they gave me the call, it was a no-brainer.”

Now that they are on the same team, everyone is keenly aware how pivotal this summer is to building a winner in Detroit. The Pistons have the second-best odds heading into next month’s NBA Draft lottery, and while they have a 14% chance at the No. 1 pick, they’ve got a 52% shot at a top-four pick and can fall no lower than sixth. They also own three second-round picks, which means Buckner and the scouting staff will be busy between now and the July 29 draft.

The deadline for early-entry candidates to declare for the draft is Sunday, and the NBA’s G League camp and draft combine will take place next month in Chicago. With COVID restrictions lifting across the country, NBA teams expect to be able to host prospects for pre-draft workouts, too, unlike last summer.

Buckner says the Pistons’ scouting list included some 450-500 players at the start of this past college season. By the time conference play began in January it was perhaps half that many. Some prospects eliminate themselves with their play, while others fall off for other reasons.

Part of a scout’s job is to figure out which ones might be a fit, and which ones aren’t. Like the “Eddie Haskells,” as Buckner calls them, “who know how to put on a great face to your head coach but are like a completely different person when they’re interacting with managers and staff or their peers on campus.”

Yet it’s not simply about paring down a list, either. It’s about finding out what’s underneath the visible skills on the court, and what the possibilities are.

“What’s this kid about?” Buckner said. “What are his needs? What are the things that drive him? What are his goals? And what is his plan to get there? … I think context is huge, too. Could they be something different in a different situation? Where might they be held back by opportunity or fit? It’s not what are the knocks on the player. It’s where are they strong, and maybe uniquely strong. Some of that is in talent, but a lot of times it’s in the internal wiring of the player.”

Sometimes you miss, and part of Buckner’s job is to go back in time and figure out why. But sometimes you hit, as it appears the Pistons did with last November’s pandemic-delayed draft, landing multiple future starters in a rookie class — Killian Hayes, Isaiah Stewart, Saddiq Bey and Saben Lee — that Weaver already has dubbed their “core four.”

“If there’s anything that stands out from that draft, it’s that Troy Weaver is a special evaluator of talent,” Buckner said. “So for all of us, it’s, ‘Hey, what can we learn and make sure that we’re applying, so that we set the table for him?’ I mean, that’s the biggest part of my job, narrowing down that menu to help him start doing his work to figure out, ‘OK, this is the guy.’”

With any lottery luck, their guy will be one of the top two picks in a draft class that’ headlined by Oklahoma State star Cade Cunningham but features a handful of teenage prospects considered elite talents.

“We’re pretty happy with the depth in this class, too, though,” Buckner said. “There’s a ton of high-level talent at the top, but I think throughout the draft we’re gonna be able to find guys that can help us at each pick.”

As for what kind of help they’re looking for, it’s different now than it was when Buckner started with the Pacers nearly a decade ago.

“The way the NBA is played today is night and day,” he said, noting the emphasis on analytics and the 3-point shot has “completely revolutionized” the game. “It was a lot more about size and imposing physical will on teams then, where now I think footspeed is a bigger part of it, versatility is a bigger part of it. It’s speed, quickness, versatility and length.”

Still, what makes a winner hasn’t changed. And for someone who grew up with a front-row seat to a lot of it — Buckner will always remember joining his dad in the Boston Celtics’ championship parade in 1984 — it’s deeply ingrained.

“We were constantly having these conversations throughout my childhood and into adulthood about, ‘What does winning look like?’ ‘What does it take to win?’ ‘What is the internal makeup of winners?’” Jason said. “My dad is really drawn to successful people and what makes them tick.”

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Quinn was captain of Bob Knight’s undefeated Indiana team in 1976, and Jason later served as a student manager for the Hoosiers on one of Knight’s last teams in Bloomington. And though we all saw his father’s friendship with Michael Jordan spotlighted in “The Last Dance” documentary last summer, his son saw it firsthand with the likes of Jordan, Larry Bird and Tiger Woods through the years.

“And one thing you realize,” Jason says, “is all those guys love the process as much as they love the game.”

Not coincidentally, he can say the same. He laughs as he recalls his childhood obsession with sports, but also how it grew well beyond the games.

“I was a really big basketball geek,” he said. “But every single year, my Christmas was the day the official NBA guide got delivered. So my brain had always been geared toward working in the front office more than being a player, as much as I loved playing the game.

“Even when I’d play the EA video games, like NCAA Football, I would fast forward through the season just to do the recruiting. The stuff I loved was all the offseason stuff. The games were kind of secondary to me. So, yeah, if you ask me about the job I have now, it’s been in my heart for quite some time.”

Twitter: @JohnNiyo

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