Meet the Staff: Jesse Mermuys

One was a First Team All-Pac-10 honoree at the University of Arizona and the other was playing at local Glendale Community College. But Luke Walton and Jesse Mermuys bonded through offseason hoops during their college days, and now they are working together to push the Lakers into the future.

As one of the assistants on Walton’s staff, Mermuys has a hand in shaping the culture of the team, which has been defined, to this point, by its positivity.

“When you’re around Luke, you’re happy,” Mermuys said. “You’re in a good mood. You just can’t help feeding off of his energy and his vibe. He has an unbelievable knack for just making you feel good. He keeps things fun all the time.

“And I think he wanted to establish a culture where we’re working at such a high rate and we’re trying to outwork every other team, but we’re doing it and enjoying it and it’s fun to do it and we want to do it.”

The goal for this season, of course, is to develop the Lakers’ young core of talent, including D’Angelo Russell, Jordan Clarkson, Julius Randle and Brandon Ingram.

For Mermuys, who radiates positivity both on and off the court, there is just as much of an opportunity to learn from these players as there is to coach them.

“I think when you have that mentality and an appreciation for how amazing these guys are mentally and physically, how could you not be positive?” Mermuys asks. “I get to work with D’Angelo Russell, Julius Randle — those are big-time talents that I get to have the opportunity to work with, coach and mentor on a daily basis. How could you not be positive? I don’t know.”

Indeed, Mermuys’ encouraging nature was on full display at the Las Vegas Summer League where, as head coach, he led the Lakers to a 3-0 start before falling in the tournament rounds.

While in Vegas and since returning to Los Angeles, Mermuys has worked extensively with all the young players, including Russell, whom he sees as a “special kid.”

“He has some maturity, obviously, that he’s going to have to grow and come up in this league,” Mermuys said. “But he’s so intelligent and he’s smart and he’s charismatic and he’s a good dude who really wants it.

“You can tell when you talk to him and are around him how hungry he is. That drive — with his size and talent — that is the key to success. If you’re willing to put in the work and you have that burning desire to be great, the sky’s the limit in this league. I’m just super excited to even be a part of that process.”

The key to this year will be to bring that potential out of Russell and co., and Mermuys has an ideal player-development background.

Last year, he was the first head coach of the D-League franchise, Raptors 905. Under Mermuys’ watch, not only did 905 break the league’s expansion wins record with a 15-23 mark, but several players went on to play in the NBA that very year.

Greg Smith and Axel Toupane were called up to Minnesota and Denver, respectively, while Toronto routinely sent Norman Powell, Anthony Bennett, Delon Wright, Lucas Nougera and Bruno Caboclo to 905 for playing time and growth.

“From day one, it was mandated to make sure development was first,” Mermuys said. “Obviously everyone wants to win and it’s a competitive, first-class organization. But we were really trying to establish a culture and program.

The Tucson native has always wanted to be a head coach in the NBA, and he started his journey toward that goal back in 2001 as an assistant at Salpointe Catholic High, his alma mater.

Three years later, he began a string of roles — including assistant coach, director of basketball operations and video coordinator — at Pima Community College, New Mexico State, Southern Utah University and the University of Arizona.

In 2008, that parlayed into an assistant gig with the Denver Nuggets, who he stayed with for four years. He then spent the next season with the Houston Rockets before joining the Raptors as an assistant in 2013.

After all these experiences, he’s now trying to pass some lessons along in Los Angeles.

Mermuys admits that he is surprised by how quickly the young Lakers have bought into the culture that the coaching staff is implementing.

For that, he gives the credit, once agin, to Walton.

“That guy is a special guy,” Mermuys said. “When you think things are going to be really hard with trying to get them to buy in, he has a way somehow of making things work faster and better than anybody else. I don’t know how he does it. He’s got magic dust. I don’t know if big Bill Walton sprinkled him with something special, because he is an amazing dude.

“These guys, literally from day one, have just been all in. We haven’t had to fight and scrap and sell them on anything. They’re waiting at the door for instruction and trying to do everything that we’re asking them to do.”

Meet The Staff: Jesse Mermuys | Brian Keefe | Theo Robertson | Jud Buechler | Will Scott