When the Lakers fly back from road games, assistant coach Jesse Mermuys takes his seat next to head coach Luke Walton in the middle section of the team charter plane.
For the colleagues and friends who first met in 1999 in Tucson, Arizona, first comes a video breakdown of that night’s game, then an edit of the previous two games the next opponent played highlighting their offensive sets.
When the work is done, Walton and Mermuys break out their iPads, so they can play chess.
Mermuys allows that Walton wins more often than not, because “He had Bill Walton and John Wooden giving him lessons … I had to learn in the street with salt and pepper shakers.”
We spent some time with Mermuys to go deeper into what it’s like coaching alongside his longtime friend, what makes Walton special as a coach, how the young players like Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Julius Randle, Kyle Kuzma and Josh Hart are developing and more.
Below is a transcript of the conversation:
MT: You and Luke go back a long time, to when he started playing at the University of Arizona, a program you were closely tied to. What’s the story?
Mermuys: We had pickup runs not only at Arizona in the summers, but at my high school (Salpointe Catholic H.S.) as well, which was near U of A and was the premier basketball high school in Tucson at the time. A guy that was two years ahead of me and one of my best friends, John Ash*, was a walk on at U of A, and a teammate of Luke’s. There were just a ton of tie ins, though, because I’d been a part of that program my whole life, going to Lute Olson’s camp every summer. I knew the coaching staff and was just always there. The basketball community in Arizona is a pretty small, connected group. So through all of that, Luke and I just clicked and became friends, and as the years went on, became closer and closer.
MT: You’ve been in the NBA for several years now, and worked for several coaches (for the Nuggets, Rockets and Raptors) … what specifically drew you to this job as Luke’s guy?
Mermuys: What’s amazing about the friendship from the standpoint of the NBA is that for the entire time Luke was playing (2003-13), I was working my way up through the league doing all these different jobs. And you never thought he was going to get the kind of job he got right after playing that soon. That was amazing. I thought that I’d be hiring him, the way things usually work timing wise. So he was able to see my progression, because we’d maintained the connection throughout the league, going to dinners when he came to the cities I was coaching in. It was nice for him to basically be a part of my journey.
MT: You ride to and from the arena with Luke, and sit next to him on the flights on road trips … what are you getting out of all the extra time?
Mermuys: Yeah, there’s a lot of time where he’s able to get some extra bouncing off, working different decisions back and forth, getting more feedback because of that. (That goes back to) a few years ago, when I was advanced scouting, and I’d stay at his house. He got to hear the trials and tribulations on the coaching side. How hard it is. How I’d be up ready to do my scouting report until 3:30 a.m. and have to fly out at 6 a.m. He was able to see all the work that goes on behind the scenes, and he was always very supportive when I got promotions. I think for him to have a close view of that built trust that you usually don’t get when you’re looking at a resume. So when he got the job, it was real easy. It just made a lot of sense, and I was excited about it, because he’s my friend, and I care about him, and I want to help him succeed. Rarely do you get that opportunity to go to work with somebody in that context, where we can work together every day, and our kids can go to school together. I think that carries over to the players, and creates a great vibe for the players.
MT: So does that basis of friendship and trust then allow you to really and truly be honest with him? Where you can check him or challenge him in a way that maybe most people wouldn’t be comfortable doing with “The Boss”?
Mermuys: One hundred percent. There’s so much value there, and because I’ve been fortunate to work in several places for different bosses, I have a bunch of different experiences that I draw on. It’s his first time being a head coach, so when you have to have some hard conversations, it’s your job as an assistant coach regardless of your relationship to help your boss do the best job he can. Sometimes that’s not easy. Having the friendship makes you be able to go a step further, because he can trust in the fact that there’s nothing but great intentions there to help him. I think Phil Jackson and his mentors told him how important it is to get someone you trust on your staff, which is so important in the NBA.
MT: I guess it’s an obvious question, but why specifically is that important?
Mermuys: Just like chemistry with the players is so important and translates to winning, especially when you don’t have veteran and the best players, the same goes for coaching staffs. When the staff’s chemistry is good, it carries over to the players, and makes that working environment better. Every little bit matters. There’s always going to be different opinions when you’re dealing in groups in any business, and there will always be a disgruntled player about playing time or role or rotation. There are so many things, that when you rely back to that chemistry, bond and trust, that carries a lot of weight and helps you win at a higher level.
MT: Why do you think Luke is a good head coach?
Mermuys: He has hit-you-in-the-face, unbelievable moments as a coach where I’m implored to tell him, at the next time possible, ‘Man, what a great job, that was amazing.’ Some of his halftimes addressing the team, some of his postgames, how he handles different situations. His ability to be firm but not negative. To hold guys accountable without beating them down. It’s really impressive stuff. And I’ve worked for some big-time guys, NBA lifers like George Karl, Kevin McHale and Dwane Casey, and obviously coach (Lute) Olson, and what Luke does is just really impressive.
MT: What’s an example of one of those hit-you-in-the-face coaching moments for Luke?
Mermuys: When we played Denver* at halftime, he was extremely fired up. As a coaching staff, we were pissed off. I remember being furious, wanting him to go in there and let ‘em have it. And Luke just did such an amazing job. So he’s fired up, and he’s letting them have it … but he’s building them up at the same time. It wasn’t negative. It wasn’t degrading. It wasn’t attacking. But it was still super intense and jarring for them. I just remember being blown away as we walked back out of the locker room. Then after the game, I remember telling him that it was really impressive.
*On March 13, LAL blew a 13-point first quarter lead and led by only one at halftime, against a team they’d blown two fourth quarter leads in on the road. The Lakers wound up winning 112-103.
MT: Early in the season, you told me something about the way you wanted to run in transition, that you thought would sneak up on the NBA a little bit. Turns out you’re second in the NBA in fastbreak points (17.3), trailing on Golden State (19.5), but well ahead of third place OKC (15.0). Is that what you envisioned?
Mermuys: We weren’t able to execute what I imagined, but because we tried, and it was so difficult in today’s game, we got a ton of gains and ended up still being (almost) the fastest team in the NBA. There were a lot of things that stuck and carried over when we shot for the moon with running in transition a certain way, even though it didn’t pan out exactly how we wanted it to.
MT: OK, let’s go down the list of the young guys a bit. Has the way Julius Randle has played as a starter evolved your understanding of him and how he fits in the modern NBA, with such a different emphasis on floor spacing?
Mermuys: His play has obviously been extremely impressive, and he’s really come into his own. I’m extremely happy about that. I think a factor as far as today’s game goes which has really helped it is that Brook (Lopez) has played much better, and can shoot threes. That’s helped Julius, because with Ju not shooting threes and being more of a banger inside and a multidimensional, positionless guy, it’s worked in part because of Brook’s shooting ability. And Ju has played really well all year long, but he’s done it in different roles: backup five, now as starting four.
MT: Julius is so unique, though, because he’s strong enough for seemingly almost every NBA center – he was pushing 280-pound Jusef Nurkic around a few weeks ago – but still faster than almost every power forward, so there aren’t many guys that can deter him from getting what he wants offensively. So that makes sense about pairing him with a stretch five type guy, but you could probably get away with just starting him at center and playing a stretch four too, right? At least on many nights?
Mermuys: Yeah, he’s extremely unique, and he hasn’t gotten the credit for it this year because everyone is always focused on offense … but he’s been one of the best individual defenders in the NBA this season. And his shooting is going to evolve. He’ll be a good shooter eventually.
MT: Early this season, Kyle Kuzma was really scoring the ball well, and while complimenting him on one hand, Luke and the rest of you coaches were quick to say that you expected more defensively and in terms of shot selection and thought he could get better. It seems like he’s been attentive to that, and has really made all-around strides?
Mermuys: To tip my hat to Luke and the other assistants – Miles Simon has done a really nice job with Kuzma – when you’re a young player and you’re scoring in the NBA, sometimes, whether the coach wants it or not, that can become great for the player’s short-term success, but a hindrance to his long-term success. Because it’s about winning. If your scoring isn’t impacting winning, then we’re not doing a good job. And credit to Kuz, because it takes a really strong person to be able to, as a young person, give up some of that hype and success to try and do it the right way and become a winning player. He’s taken a lot of criticism, a lot of coaching, and has really tried to buy in to becoming a winning player, an all-around player. That road is a little bit longer. So I’m really impressed with Kuz’s makeup. It’s really exciting for the future because of that. It could have very easily turned into a him vs. the coaches butting heads situation. ‘You’re holding me back, I can score at will, I want to shoot it every time, I’m gonna get me 20,’ and he hasn’t done that. That happens in the NBA a lot, especially when players have a lot of immediate success. But Kuz has really bought into becoming a better defender, making winning plays, doing little things.
MT: And you see that clearly on the film if you watch Kuzma in November vs. Kuzma in March.
Mermuys: Oh, one hundred percent. He’s much better individually defensively. (Opponents) still will sometimes try to go at him, but it’s not like it was. Before, he was giving up almost everything he was getting … and he still has a way to go on that end of the floor like all young players do, because you just need to learn the game. Learn where to be, learn the actions, and it takes time. But he’s so much better because he’s put effort into it, and he’s taken a real look at trying to become an all-around, winning player, and I think that’s awesome for him.
MT: So that’s a good example of the culture building you were alluding to, where Luke is asking something of Kuzma for the better of the team, but Kuzma is actually listening, and therefore you can maintain that positive environment…
Mermuys: Absolutely. There are so many situations where it can turn combative because of the nature of the business, with so much money involved, so many individual things that are being sacrificed for the good of the team. When you have culture and chemistry and trust in the NBA, it’s like the holy grail, because it’s so hard to achieve. Everything in the business is going against that for individual success. So I tip my hat to Luke for fostering and creating that environment, but also to the character of the players that the front office has brought in.
MT: All that you’ve been talking about with the importance of culture on and off the floor strikes me as related to why you as a staff love Lonzo Ball so much. Is it fair to give him a lot of credit for the way he impacts winning, or at least the way he projects to in the future?
Mermuys: Yes. It’s gonna take a little bit for the masses to really see it, but that guy is so special. He’s a special player. What he does impacts winning on a really high level. He has things that you can’t coach, that you can’t develop, that you can’t show with film that are really special talents that you’re born with. I don’t know when that point is, but that will eventually get out and hit people in the face. Even when he has what look like bad games from the outside, he’s doing so many things out there that are below the surface that are incredible.
MT: For example, in March, he led the entire NBA in steals and deflections.
Mermuys: That’s a great example.
MT: Unfortunately, we haven’t seen Brandon Ingram on the court much since his terrific February (18.6 ppg on 54.5 percent shooting, 5.6 apg, 5.2 rpg, 1.1 bpg, 0.6 spg), but it’s pretty clear how much he’s grown this year. Where do you see him getting to one day?
Mermuys: The path that he’s on, he’s going to be able to do it all. That point guard time was awesome for him. I think it really helped. And with him, it’s just a matter of time. As he gets stronger, as his body fills out. His length is incredible, his skill level … you can just see it out there. At least I know I can. There are moments in the game where when you watch the All-NBA guys, and then watch everyone else, it’s such a vast difference. They’re so far superior. The gap between the All-NBA guys, the top 15 and everybody else, is just a huge gap. And you watch Ingram and at times see a flash of that. His body control, his steps … he just has that in him. You can see it’s going to be coming. He’s a great kid, a great teammate, he works hard. He has everything covered, it’s just now about keeping working, being patient and watching him grow. He’s going to be a special player.
MT: Before the season, many hoped 30th pick Josh Hart would be a true NBA 3 and D guy … but he’s perhaps already shown more than that. What stands out to you about Hart?
Mermuys: What he brings to the table is extremely valuable, and everybody needs that strong, physical wing defender that can rebound, that can guard bigger guys. That physicality is just so important out there. And with Lonzo and Ingram (and to an extent Kuzma) being slender, non-physical guys who need to work on their bodies, Josh has been a godsend there. Josh, being older and more mature, as strong and as tough as he is, is a great fit for us for the future. What he was doing defensively and rebounding was enough. And then when he adds offense, when he does make threes and he does get those tough, physical layups, it’s like icing on the cake.