Jason Buckner on process, his time as a Pacers scout and his new role with the Pistons
He has always been passionate about sports and impacting others.
Jason Buckner wasn’t looking to move to another front office. He had worked with the Pacers since 2012, first as the manager of basketball administration and later as a regional scout. But Buckner, who turns 41 on Monday, said a new opportunity felt right and he was drawn to help reshape the Detroit Pistons.
“I’m a man driven by my faith and purpose,” Buckner said, joining me on the Fieldhouse Files podcast. “I just really wanted to go where I could of the most service and also have opportunities to grow in my skillset. When (Pistons GM) Troy (Weaver) and (assistant GM) Dave Mincberg reached out to me and let me know what they had going on here in Detroit — the different opportunities they were going to have on their staff, the format they were going to run the front office and the kind of culture they were looking at building — so for me it was just something different.
“I gained so much knowledge, so much opportunity working for the Pacers over the last eight years. And really this is an opportunity to see a different way of building a team and running a front office.”
With the Pacers, Buckner was valued for his talent evaluation, relationships and background information he gathered about potential draft picks. And when more than 30 players were brought in each summer for pre-draft workouts — at least in normal years, not this one — he would interact with them and take mental notes about their demeanor, intentions and passion for the game.
After each of those workouts, too, some scouts and others in basketball administration always took players out to lunch. They’d walk over to a nearby restaurant in downtown Indy and purposely take the group of six draft hopefuls into a new situation. They then took note of how the players treated the restaurant staff, how they interacted with others, what they chose to eat, etc. Key franchise decisions makers weren’t involved, by design, with the goal to see the personality of players once they let their guard down in a different environment.
Buckner moved on from the Pacers in July and a few months later, on Oct. 28, Buckner officially signed with the Pistons as the director of draft scouting. The previous season had just wrapped up and the draft, at that time, was just a few weeks ago. But he was already getting a jump start on 2021.
Although Buckner plans to commute often between Indy and Detroit, Indy remains home for him and his young family. He and wife Lauren have a daughter who’s almost three, as well as a two-month-old son.
In Indy, he’s in a central location and within a few hours of many major college basketball programs. And big-time games are often held in Indianapolis, like the Jimmy V Classic and Champions Classic this month, along with the Big Ten men’s basketball tournament and NCAA Tournament.
Most front-office people around the league are off limits for interviews, at least on the record. But there are so many good stories to tell. Like of Peter Dinwiddie, which I wrote nearly two years ago. Buckner, a former IU basketball manager, is another one to rise through the ranks with the Pacers, experience growth and then take on more responsibility with another franchise.
“It’s funny, you just never really know how your previous experiences will benefit you in the future,” he said. “I’m definitely a testament to the fact that being open and being available and willing to take risks can put you in great positions to succeed in a roles you never would have dreamed you’d be in when you first started out. I’m really thankful for all those different twists and turns that led me to my position here with the Pistons.”
This was a fun podcast interview, which you can hear in its entirety above or on our favorite audio app. It was recorded last month before the draft.
How much do you enjoy going out, being on site at games to evaluate players and then file game reports?
I love it. There’s nothing like hearing the sneakers squeak, balls bounce and the ball go through the rim — and just seeing how players prepare for games, how players interact with their teammates, the physicality. Basketball, in general, is a really special sport and I love the perspective that you gain by being a scout and looking at it from that point of view.
When I was growing up, I was very intrigued by the front office side of things. They used to have this book called the NBA Register and that was something I read like my bible. Every year when the new edition came out, it was like Christmas to me. I always looked at things from building a team perspective and looking at stats.
There were many highs and lows for the team during your eight years. What sticks with you the most about your time here?
The main thing that stands out to me was the family atmosphere. It’s a family-owned franchise, a lot of the people that were there were people I’ve grown up with and grown close to before my time on staff and especially during my time on staff. I love those guys and will always have fond memories of my time with the Pacers.
What do you know now that you had no idea about, in terms of scouting and background intel, when you were starting out?
I think it really goes to the process. I try to work backwards. At the conclusion of each season and going through exit interviews and hearing the things that we were frustrated about with a player or a particular reason a player wasn’t reaching his full potential. I always kept a list of that and worked backgrounds in trying to ask what questions can lead to that result. How can we predict that this guy is not going to be the hardest worker, or this guy is going to be a nuisance in the locker room? Different kinds of things that usually make the relationship go south in the end.
And then what are the questions that can help us pull out some of the positive things? So the guy we love in the locker room and love on the team — you’re trying to jot down those characteristics and then work backwards. What questions can we ask during the (draft) process) that will help push out that this is a guy that is the leader in the locker room, is the positive influence on the road, is the coach on the floor and those kinds of things? Guys that have great passion for the game and some grit. How do you ask a staff member, how do you ask an AAU coach to try to predict those kind of behaviors in the future?
How has your father, Quinn Buckner, positively impacted you as well as your career in basketball?
He’s just a fantastic mentor and a fantastic father. He’s a really loving and considerate guy who is one of the all-time great leaders and winners in sports. It’s a huge advantage to have that kind of guy looking over your shoulder and cheering for you and pushing you and questioning you. You can’t have a better taskmaster than Quinn Buckner. I’m very fortunate and blessed to have him as my father. He is the number one reason, along with my mother, to where I am today.
I just love that wherever we are, whether it’s on the road or a home game, he’s always bumping into me and giving me shit about something I said or did. He always lightens up the mood and you have to appreciate that.
You definitely have to talk trash. You got to be quick with the tongue around pops because he’ll throw some barbs at you pretty quick. And my mom is really strong in that too. So we always joke that the Buckner family table at Thanksgiving, you got to be able to come quick with the lines because they’re pulling no punches there in between stuffing servings.
Did you ever sit down with him and watch The Last Dance? Because Quinn has friends everywhere and it’s where I learned just how close he was to Michael Jordan.
He’s a guy that a lot of successful people enjoy being around and he enjoys being around successful people. I think there’s a certain approach to life that those guys have in common and there’s a low tolerance for BS and they definitely enjoy themselves. I know that their friendship means a lot to each other when it comes to my dad and MJ.
Lastly, I want to highlight how you are a black man succeeding in the front office, but there’s not a lot of people there who do look like you. And there needs to be more opportunities and representation. What are your thoughts on that in general across the league because, outside of former players, there’s not a lot of black front office people, basketball operations assistants, etc.
Yeah, it has increased. I’d like to see the numbers, but taking a guess from my first time out on the road, back in 2012-13 to now, I have to think that the numbers have at least doubled if not tripled as far as the amount of African-Americans that are on scouting staffs, the African-Americans that have manager, director and up roles with teams. … I think there’s definitely more guys in the pipeline right now. There’s a lot of talent there and hopefully, as time goes on, more and more of those guys get opportunities to run their own franchises.
And that’s why I’m really excited to work here with Troy Weaver. In some regards, I feel like I have a responsibility to make sure that he succeeds because I know his success is important to so many other African-Americans that are in this industry besides myself.