The Los Angeles Lakers welcomed in a new chapter of Laker basketball with a familiar face this week, officially introducing Luke Walton as the next head coach of the purple and gold. For Walton, the choice was simple to accept his dream job, back home, after just two seasons as an assistant coach with the Golden State Warriors under Steve Kerr.
“It felt right, it felt good,” Walton said in an interview with LakersNation.com. “I spent a lot of years here in my NBA life and to come back here and be part of it again just feels right.”
Walton, who spent nine playing seasons with the Lakers and two seasons with the Cleveland Cavaliers, before pursuing his coaching career, will head into the 2016-17 NBA season as the youngest coach in the NBA. Hard to believe that just two seasons ago, Walton was the player development coach for the Los Angeles D-Fenders, the Lakers D-League affiliate.
“I wouldn’t obviously have guessed it to happen this quick, but this was obviously the career path I was going in after I got done playing and Steve Kerr was generous enough to offer me an assistant coaching job in Golden State, and the success we had obviously sped up the process. Obviously, a lot of that is the players we have up there and how great they were to work with. And, I think down here with Kobe (Bryant) retiring and the end of his 20-year run being here, they kind of wanted to move in a new direction, and they thought that I’d be a good choice to help do that and here we are.”
That new direction includes the development of the Lakers young core, specifically last year’s draft picks D’Angelo Russell (No. 2), Larry Nance Jr. (No. 27) and Anthony Brown (No. 32), as well as 2014 draft picks Julius Randle (No. 7) and Jordan Clarkson (No. 46). Russell was in the building for Walton’s press conference on Tuesday, listening intently, while Walton talked about bringing back a fun and joyous culture to the Lakers organization.
“A lot of us are coming out of college, just really wanting to be able to experience, to play and have fun and that’s all he said was being able to have fun and run as much as possible,” Russell told reporters after Walton’s press conference. “I think that’s what we need.”
Walton remembers being in Oakland, alongside Kerr, when the Lakers drafted Russell with their second pick in the 2015 NBA draft and told LakersNation.com that he’s “thrilled” to coach him.
“We (Walton and Kerr) both looked at each other and were like that’s a smart pick, that kid is going to be a heck of a player in this league,” Walton said of his reaction to the Lakers drafting Russell last summer. “I didn’t think I’d be coaching him a year later, but it’s exciting. He’s got good size on him, he can shoot, he can play make. He’s a very good young talent in this league, and the opportunity to help him grow and tone those skills is exciting.”
“It got me excited right now,” Russell said after Walton’s press conference. “I’m ready for Summer League. I’m ready for the first game. I’m ready for preseason. I’m ready for the first practice. I’m ready for all of that.”
One of the criticisms of former head coach Byron Scott in his second and last season with the Lakers was an inability to relate, connect with and in turn, properly develop some of the Lakers young core. Questions about roles and individual expectations were a constant throughout the season, especially with Russell. The Lakers are hoping Walton’s strong relationships with players in the league and reputation for creating a fun, but highly competitive environment will quickly translate to the young core.
“It’s a hard job, there’s times you’ve got to be tough on them, but it’s more than just basketball when you’re the coach, it’s your job to make sure that everything is going well with them and that you can have these types of talks with your players, and you let them know you care about them and you are in this to help them out,” Walton said about his role. “It’s not about you when you’re a coach and it’s about the players and it’s about getting the best out them and I think they respect that and they respond well to it.”
The Lakers are going to need a lot more than just their young core if they plan to showcase a competitive roster next season. In addition to making the right decisions in the upcoming draft and fielding potential trade options, free agency will be huge for the future of the franchise. After striking out in free agency the past couple seasons, many are concerned about the attractiveness of the purple and gold as a free agent destination, but Walton isn’t one of them.
“I think it still is,” Walton said about L.A. still being a big time destination for free agents. “I think the league has obviously changed. Free agents now are willing to go really anywhere. When it’s said and done, if the money is equal and there’s players that know how to play with this Laker team, then it gives us the upper hand because of the fact, one, we’re in LA, two we have a great fan base and three the history of the organization. Athletes know the history of the game, and they like being a part of that stuff.”
With the rumors beginning to swirl and NBA free agency less than two weeks away, the Lakers will soon have another shot at proving whether the purple and gold is still one of the hottest destinations on the market.