Luke Walton: ‘Ready to Get to Work’ with Divac, Kings

Reunited with his former teammate, the new Kings coach aims to build on Sacramento’s strong foundation and enhance its fast-paced playing style.
by Alex Kramers

When the Kings had a head-coaching vacancy and Luke Walton became available, Vlade Divac waited “five minutes” before reaching out to his sharp-minded ex-teammate with the famous last name.

Divac, entering his fifth season as Kings general manager, met Luke – the son of Hall of Famer Bill Walton – while rounding out his playing career during the 2004-05 season in Los Angeles. As their friendship materialized, the Serbia-born center recognized the two shared “the same soul for basketball.”

So Divac, realizing the fellow former Laker is perfectly suited for leading a “Kings style” of basketball, acted swiftly and decisively to recruit him to Sacramento.

“I didn’t want to waste time, because I felt very confident that’s he’s the guy for us to go to the next level,” Divac said. “I think the way we played last year, that’s the identity for Kings basketball. That’s what we’re going to stick with. I think we have a nice core of players who are going to play that kind of style.”

On Monday, Walton, who experienced the Kings-Lakers rivalry as both a player and a coach, officially traded his gold-accented Los Angeles apparel for royal purple Sacramento ties and polos.

“When this opportunity came and (Divac) reached out, showed me the type of support and laid out his vision of where he sees this thing going, it was identical to how I saw one, the game, and two, from the outside, what this Kings team was about and where they were headed to,” Walton said. “It was something that I talked to my wife and family about, and we decided this is going to be an awesome chapter in our lives.”

Reunited some 400 hundred miles north of Hollywood, the Kings front office executive and head coach share a common goal of reinforcing a winning, collaborative culture in California’s capital city.

“There’s trust that’s already between us that would take years to build without having that history together,” Walton said. “I’m so excited to work side-by-side with him and this crew right here.”

Walton’s basketball pedigree is beyond reproach. Over his decade and a half in the NBA, he appeared in 88 Playoff games and won back-to-back titles under Phil Jackson; shared the floor with Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe Bryant and Karl Malone; and coached Stephen Curry and LeBron James.

When a career-threatening injury cost him most of the 2009-10 season with the Lakers, Walton sat alongside Jackson on the sidelines, helping assistants with scouting reports and breaking down game film. That window into coaching, while spending long days in meetings with one of the sport’s legends, ignited his passion for the profession.

“That was more of getting a better general idea of what coaching was like. As a player, I had no idea the amount of time they spent and what they were looking for,” Walton told the Los Angeles Daily News in 2016. “A lot of the way I am as a coach comes from my years playing under Phil.”

Walton’s official coaching record reads 98-148 over three years in Los Angeles, but that number ignores the 39-4 mark — and NBA-record 24-0 start — he posted as interim coach during his 2015-16 campaign with the Warriors, in which the team won 73 games. His remarkable performance during head coach Steve Kerr’s absence earned Walton three votes for Coach of the Year, and helped prepare him for his current role through essential first-hand experience.

“Coaching with Golden State and Steve Kerr is a big influence on how I see today’s game,” he said. “But you look back at the other coaches I’ve had – Hall of Fame coaches – and it’s about the attention to detail that they had, holding people accountable or to a standard of play that they wanted as a coach. That really separates the great coaches I’ve played for and the way that they influenced me as a young coach now.”

After inheriting a Lakers team that had won just 17 games in 2015-16, Walton increased the team’s win total in each of his three seasons, from 26 to 35 to 37 victories.

Now, he's taking reins of a 39-win Kings team with a foundation of exciting, All-Star-caliber talent, and plans to incorporate his up-tempo, three-point-heavy playing style – with roster far better suited to excel in both areas.

“We’re going to play fast,” Walton said. “We have one of the fastest point guards in the League on our team, we have versatile players who can get out and run the wings, and we have shooting.”

In what must be music to the ears of De’Aaron Fox, Walton's teams ranked in the top-five in pace in each of the last three seasons.

In 2018-19, the Lakers played at a nearly identical pace (103.63, fourth in the League) as the Kings (103.89, third), while firing away from deep a bit more frequently (31 three-point attempts per game compared to Sacramento’s 29.9), per Los Angeles, however, posted a significantly lower offensive rating – 107.4, versus Sacramento’s 109.6 – and ranked second-to-last in three-point accuracy (33.3 percent); the Kings finished fourth (37.8 percent).

The biggest reason for that variance? Five Lakers players attempted at least 200 three-pointers, but none shot better than 35 percent. Each of the Kings high-volume shooters, on the other hand – Buddy Hield (42.7 percent), Nemanja Bjelica (40.1), Fox (37.1) and Bogdan Bogdanovic (36.0) – topped that clip, while midseason acquisition Harrison Barnes connected on 40.8 percent on his 130 tries.

Walton expects his team to continue launching from long range without hesitation.

“We’re going to shoot a lot of threes this year,” Walton confirmed. “I think as a coach, it’s your job to get to know your roster, and then try to put them (in a position) that’s best for this group of players. I think we have a group (for which) shooting a lot of threes is what’s best for them.”

Defensively, Walton’s aggressive, switch-centric scheme helped vault the Lakers from the worst rating in the League in 2015-16 to 13th in each of the last two seasons. Before an injury sidelined Lonzo Ball, the team’s best perimeter defender, on January 21, Los Angeles had the seventh-best defense in the League (106.7) through 48 games.

While the Kings roster, as currently constructed, doesn’t possess the same type of personnel, Walton anticipates the team will improve on its 21st ranking (110.8) through communication and repetition.

“Defense wins championships,” he said. “I love offense; I love how beautiful it can be when you have five guys moving the ball and shooting and everything else, but defense is how you win when it really counts. We’ll put a huge emphasis on our defense, challenge our guys daily and start practices with defense at the front of our practice plan, just to kind of prioritize how important it is to us.”

Beyond a playbook influenced by Jackson and Kerr, Walton has connected with and garnered the respect of his players with a calm-but-authoritative demeanor. He’s developed a reputation as a “player's coach,” who offers praise and support, but isn’t afraid to challenge anyone making mistakes or not giving maximum effort.

"(The Lakers) are losing one of the best human beings in the NBA," Kerr said recently. "They're losing a guy that knows the NBA as well as anybody I've ever met. They're losing somebody who the players believe in, players want to play for."

Fostering positive relationships up and down the roster, Walton has instilled confidence and empowered his players, while, considering he’s still only six years removed from suiting up for games himself, mixed in trash talk and implemented music during shootarounds and practices.

“Luke’s great. He’s a great coach, and he’s young, too. He knows how to talk to the guys and knows his X’s and O’s,” Corey Brewer, then-Lakers and current Kings veteran, told The Mercury News in 2017. “He is positive with them. I think they need that and that’s why they’re getting better.”

Walton is mindful that he’s about to steer a rising squad that came within a handful of wins from breaking its postseason drought, but knows there are no shortcuts when it comes to development.

“It’s about building the habits; the winning takes care of itself when you have the habits, the right people and you’re playing the right way,” he said. “We always want to win more. We want to make the Playoffs. We ultimately want to win championships. But all of that starts with how we build and create our habits Day 1 on the practice floor, and letting that carry over into the games.”

The youthful but experienced coach is ready to grow alongside his young group, and help them continue to make strides toward their crowning achievement.

“The common theme, I think, that (championship) teams all have is, one, culture, and two, work ethic,” he said. “A lot teams only see the final result of a championship team, but people don’t realize how much hard work goes into the day-to-day practices, players building bonds together, going through adversity together … From what I’ve been told and what I’ve seen from this group, the players here are on the right track right now.”

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