Checking on Coach Walton

by Mike Trudell
Lakers Reporter

It’s been three weeks since Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak held a press conference to discuss the hiring of L.A.’s newest head coach, Luke Walton.

The two communicate frequently, often via text message, but Kupchak has been careful to give Walton space to focus as an assistant coach on Steve Kerr’s Golden State staff as the Warriors head to the NBA Finals.

We, however, will focus on the exact opposite, asking Bleacher Report’s Kevin Ding – who’s covered the Warriors throughout the postseason – for his observations of Walton and for some insight into what will be applicable for the Lakers:

MT: You’ve been keeping track of Luke Walton for us on the road, Kevin … what are your general observations of him since he was hired by the Lakers?

Ding:​ Luke almost always seems in good spirits, but he's a little more energetic with such a new challenge awaiting him. It's clear that he is giving his primary attention to his current challenge of finishing the Warriors' season with another championship, though. I don't get any sense that he is dividing his workload; he is giving Golden State his best efforts until the season is over.​

MT: Every time the TV cameras show Steve Kerr on the Warriors’ bench, he seems to be talking to Walton. What’s your sense of that relationship and how it has impacted Walton?

Ding:​ It's one of the many important relationships in this Golden State organization that is built on real trust. It was good fortune for Luke to get this experience under Steve, because Steve is very different from Phil Jackson despite how much they both learned from Phil. Steve's operation is much more democratic and open-door than Phil's, even though Phil was committed to empowering all his players, too. Luke has mentioned to me what a great job Steve does in building a world where everyone's voice matters, and that is more in line with Luke's personality, too. So in that sense, Steve and Luke are rather similar--and the Lakers will be getting more that atmosphere where people can be relaxed and confident instead of worried or nervous as in recent seasons.

MT: How did Walton’s experience filling in for Kerr to start the season impact his role both as an assistant for this season ​ and a head coach next season​?

Ding:​ That's valuable experience just learning how to draw up a great play in a pressurized moment with literally only seconds to do so. With so many former players jumping right to big coaching jobs, the basics of being a coach are things they and Luke needed to learn. The basics of being a head coach involve being more of a leader and visionary and less of a friend to the players, so Luke got a taste of how that will feel and how it must be when he transitions to the Lakers. Brian Shaw (who has been reported as Walton's lead Lakers assistant, although no announcement has been made by the club) will undoubtedly help Luke there--because B-Shaw was a guy who was uncommonly good at relating to the players while an assistant yet learned some hard lessons about the difference being a head coach when he got the No. 1 job with the Nuggets.​

MT: Has Walton been thinking more like a head coach since getting the Lakers job? Do you think he’s going home at night after Warriors games thinking about D’Angelo Russell, Julius Randle or the No. 2 overall pick?

Ding: I'm sure his mind drifts forward when he has some free moments, but he hasn't had many free moments with the Warriors going seven crazy games against the Thunder and now into the NBA Finals circus. He's still out there working up a lather on the court before games, passing the ball to and playing post defense against Anderson Varejao to get him ready, for example. When I saw Luke after the Warriors pulled out Game 6 in OKC in the locker room, he just gave me a wink. Both happy and relieved, I'd say. He also had a plate of food he was going to eat, as he hadn't had time even to do that.

MT: How do you think Walton will be able to bring these concepts that the Warriors have honed with some of the best talent in recent NBA history with a young Lakers team?

Ding: ​What is going to decide the fate of that is mainly going to be how good of a teacher Luke is. From what I understand, he made clear to Jim Buss and Mitch Kupchak that he views himself as a teacher, not just a guy who used to play basketball, and that resonated with the Lakers because they know they have young players who need to be taught. Luke is uniquely gifted at relating to all sorts of people, so I don't doubt he can get messages across to superstars or veterans or rookies--but he's also still very much young at heart and in style, which is going to be key in connecting with players who are 10 or 15 years younger than he is instead of 30 or 40 years younger. He is committed to making a meaningful difference but also knows it's not all about him.


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