The Lakers land NBA Draft steal as Dalton Knecht slips to them at No. 17

EL SEGUNDO, Calif. — With each passing selection, Rob Pelinka felt a wave of anxiety in the Los Angeles Lakers’ war room.

Once Tennessee wing Dalton Knecht slipped outside of the top-10 picks, the Lakers were hopeful he’d somehow fall to them. As teams continued to pass on the 23-year-old sharpshooter, the Lakers’ optimism — and coinciding nerves — increased.

Still, team executives looked around at each other and repeatedly said, “There’s no way he’s going to still be there.”

Except, when the Philadelphia 76ers drafted Duke guard Jared McCain at No. 16, Knecht was still there — and was a unanimous selection among the Lakers’ scouting department. After months of speculation about how the Lakers would approach the 2024 NBA Draft, they kept the No. 17 pick and selected Knecht on Wednesday.

“We never would’ve imagined a player as skilled and perfect for our needs would be there for us as Dalton Knecht,” said Pelinka, the team’s vice president of basketball operations and general manager. “We had him as a top-10 player unanimously across our scouting boards. I was at the SEC tournament scouting him extensively. In my mind, there is no way a player like this will be available for us to pick on draft night. Across the board, just couldn’t be happier.”

Read Sam Vecenie’s winners and losers of NBA Draft Round 1

The Lakers requested a workout with Knecht during the draft process, but his camp declined because they didn’t think he’d be available by the 17th pick. The 6-foot-6, 212-pound wing was projected to go in the top 10 in most mock drafts. The Athletic’s draft insider Sam Vecenie ranked Knecht ninth on his draft board and projected him to go sixth to the Charlotte Hornets in his final mock draft. The Athletic’s John Hollinger had Knecht ranked 14th on his board, also a few spots ahead of where he was taken.

Pelinka offered a comprehensive breakdown of Knecht’s skill set and how he sees him fitting in with Los Angeles.

“He’s a three-level scorer, a guy that’s going to defend,” Pelinka said. “He’s physical. He’s athletic, really a three-and-D player, which every roster craves. But he’s also a really good athlete. At the combine, he had a 39-inch vertical. So, he’s got the ability to go off the bounce, attack the rim when teams run him off the line. So, that versatility is really hard to find.

“And we just think he fits so well with our pillar pieces in AD and hopefully if things work out in free agency, with LeBron. But to have a guy that will cause gravitational pull because of his shooting and also when you run shooters around the court like he can do, it morphs the defense. It just opens up driving lanes. So, there’s just a lot of versatility to his game and I think he gives us a weapon that we currently don’t have on our roster.”

Knecht’s basketball journey is unconventional. He was a late bloomer who didn’t garner any Division I offers coming out of high school. He instead began his college career at Northeastern Junior College in Colorado for two seasons before playing two seasons for Northern Colorado in the Big Sky Conference. After a breakout campaign, Knecht transferred to Tennessee, where he became one of the best players in the country last season. He won first-team All-America honors, first-team All-SEC and the SEC Player of the Year award. He was also a finalist for National Player of the Year and won the Julius Erving Award as the country’s best small forward.



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As a fifth-year senior, Knecht averaged 21.7 points on 49.9 percent shooting. The bona fide sniper shot 39.7 percent on 6.5 3-point attempts per game last season. He shot 42.3 percent on catch-and-shoot 3s (an elite mark) and 36.8 percent on 3s off screens (a good mark). He ranked ninth in 3s per game and 11th in 3s attempted per game. He can thrive as a spot-up weapon for LeBron James’ drive-and-kicks or Anthony Davis’ short-roll passes. He can also fly off floppy actions and flare screens, creating separation with his footwork and body control.

But Knecht is more than just a shooter; he’s a true three-level threat. He has legit size with a 6-foot-9 wingspan and 8-foot-7 1/2 standing reach. He’s also a good athlete, boasting a 39-inch vertical, which allows him to score in traffic over rim protectors. He’s excellent at jumping off two feet. He’s a smart cutter who will make a defender pay for top-locking him. He’s a solid finisher in transition as well. In theory, he should be able to contribute offensively from day one, and projects as a backend rotation player at a minimum.

In several ways, Knecht is similar to Lakers head coach JJ Redick, who enjoyed a productive 15-year NBA career by being one of the league’s best 3-point marksmen and movement shooters. Knecht has one of the best mentors possible in Redick, who can shepherd him into finding his role in the NBA. Redick emphasized an increase in 3-point volume in his introductory press conference, and Knecht seamlessly fits into that strategy.

Pelinka said Redick grabbed a whiteboard and began designing pindown actions and after-timeout (ATO) plays for Knecht moments after the selection.

“That’s really exciting,” Knecht told reporters in New York when relayed Redick’s planning. “At Tennessee, I watched a lot of JJ Redick with Coach (Rick) Barnes and just the way he moves and paces himself and was able to create space. So, hearing that, it’s really exciting and it’s going to be real special.”

Knecht slipped in the draft because of age and defensive concerns, according to league sources. At 23, Knecht is old for a first-round prospect, hypothetically limiting his long-term upside. That also theoretically puts more pressure on him to contribute right away, as there isn’t the same grace period compared to if he were 19 or 20. The Lakers aren’t concerned with Knecht’s age, though, as they believe the chip he carries on his shoulder and his slipping in the draft will drive him to continue to improve.

Knecht agrees, citing his unique path to the league as evidence of his ability to disprove his doubters.

“Every time I touch a basketball or walk into a gym, I always feel like I got something to prove,” Knecht said. “And it doesn’t matter where I’m at, it’s always going to be there and have that chip on my shoulder for feeling like I’ve been underrated my whole life. So it’s going to be something that I’ll carry with me for the rest of my career.”

As for his defense, Knecht’s size and athleticism haven’t translated to that side of the ball as well. He has a bad habit of standing upright too often, allowing defenders to blow by him on the perimeter. He’s fine within a team scheme, for the most part, but he’s currently a defensive minus that teams will inevitably target. How much — and how quickly — he progresses on the defensive end will determine if he can stay on the floor, barring him being a 40-plus percent shooter from 3 (which is certainly possible).

On that front, Pelinka also said the organization is not concerned with any perceived defensive limitations for Knecht because of his size and athleticism.

“This kid has improved his body,” Pelinka said. “He’s gonna live in the weight room. He’s committed to getting stronger, staying quick. And I just think his size alone — he’s a plus-four wingspan. He’s got good size for a shooter. A lot of teams, when you have a shooter, you have to hide him on the other end. And that’s not the case with him. … I like his chances.”

In early April, James referenced fans wanting to see a player like Knecht, who had just scored 37 points in an Elite Eight loss to Purdue.

“We watched that Purdue-Tennessee game because of Zach Edey and (Dalton) Knecht,” James said then. “Players, depending on who they are, will drive the attention when it comes to viewership.”

Knecht said he woke up to a bunch of calls and texts after the clip of James discussing the college game went viral.

“Yeah, I remember that clip,” Knecht said. “I was just like, ‘There’s no way.’ And when I watched that video, it just brought a smile to my face. And also my parents, they called me right away and told me about it. So that’s just gonna be special.”

Wednesday marked the first time the Lakers could trade three first-round picks in 2024, 2029 and 2031. (Technically, they’d have to trade the No. 17 pick after it was selected.) That the Lakers stood pat, especially with teams like the New York Knicks and Minnesota Timberwolves making notable trades to improve their rosters over the past couple of days, is interesting when considering how James and Anthony Davis feel about the current state of the roster.

Pelinka said the Lakers’ draft-night inactivity was not for lack of trying.

“We explored every upgrade we could to make our team better,” Pelinka said. “I do think if you polled all 30 GMs across the league, just in general, trades have become more difficult because of the new CBA system. And so, there’s less access, I think, to making those big moves than maybe there was under the old system. But it didn’t keep us from trying to look at everything and ways to put ourselves in ways to be in position to be better.

“But even this pick alone, I feel like gives us a big boost and we’re excited about it.”

Whether James and Davis share that excitement remains to be seen. For what it’s worth, the Lakers have another shot to try to pull off a blockbuster trade on Thursday, when they also have the No. 55 pick.

When the night began, the Lakers weren’t sure if they were going to keep their pick, trade up, trade down or trade out of the draft altogether. But once Knecht fell to them, they knew they had landed a gem — the type of shooter they’ve coveted for years — and wanted to keep the pick.

“The draft is an unpredictable process,” Pelinka said. “You never know how it’s going to go when the night starts. And for it to end this way, we couldn’t be more thrilled.”

(Photo of Dalton Knecht against Auburn last season: Eakin Howard / Getty Images)

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