Developing the Lakers Young Core

When Miles Simon was playing college basketball at Arizona from 1994-98, “player development” wasn’t much of a thing.

The way you worked on your skills apart from official team practices or games was to call up some buddies, head to a gym, and pick sides.

But things have evolved considerably over the last 20 years, as more and more money has poured into youth sports, specialization thus increasing in search of trophies and scholarships, creating a growing market for experts to teach younger athletes.

That’s extended to the NBA level in recent years. In 2017-18, every NBA team employs its own coaches that specialize in player development. When the Lakers had an opening last June, they called Simon. A high school star at Mater Dei in Santa Ana, Calif., Simon auditioned for the job and eagerly took it once Luke Walton made the offer.

Perhaps known best as the Most Outstanding Player of the 1997 Final Four, Simon was drafted by the Orlando Magic in the second round, but soon left to play in Israel, Italy, Turkey and for the Dakota Wizards of the CBA, whom he led to a title in 2002 as the MVP and Playoff MVP. Simon tore the ACL’s in both of his knees, however, and retired in 2004.

We sat down with Simon for an extended conversation about how he got into player development, what it’s like coaching under Walton, and got into specifics about the three players he’s worked out individually since they were drafted last June: Lonzo Ball; Kyle Kuzma; and Josh Hart.

Below is a transcription of the conversation:

MT: After several years as a professional basketball player, I know you spent three years as an assistant coach under Lute Olson at your alma mater. How did that evolve into player development?
Simon: It’s been crazy, but fun. Towards the end of my career I suffered two ACL tears, and after the second, I tried to come back and play but I couldn’t at the level I was used to. So I called it a career and knew I wanted to get into the coaching side of things, and I was lucky that a spot opened up on the Arizona coaching staff. I worked with the guards there, from Chase Budinger to Jerryd Bayless and Marcus Williams, and when Coach Olson stepped down, our whole staff changed and I went into broadcasting. But I still had a passion for the game, and wanted to be around it as long as possible, so I started doing player development on my own. I moved back to Orange County, started working with some high school kids and teams. Where it really took off for me was an opportunity in the summer of 2009 to work at the Vince Carter Nike Skills Academy. A coach actually dropped out, and I got in, and the people that worked at Nike really liked what I did with the high school and college guys. It continued on from there where I started developing some relationships with guys I’d recruited to Arizona, like Landry Fields, who ended up going to Stanford. I worked him out for the pre-draft, which got me into the player development. I’d like to say I helped take him from maybe being undrafted to an early second-round pick. So I kept doing the Nike camps and the player development, and also coaching AAU Basketball in the Nike EYBL for the California Supreme. The Nike people liked enough of what I did that the summer after the Miami Heat lost to the Dallas Mavericks, I got a call from a friend that works on the NBA side of Nike, and they thought I should work with Chris Bosh. So I had to meet with a few people that were making that decision with Chris, and then they set us up. He was my first big client, and I worked with Chris for five or six summers. Then, I got invited to coach USA Basketball for the U16 and U17 levels as an assistant, and we won gold medals for two straight summers. So it’s just progressed over several years, and then when a job opened here with the Lakers, (Lakers assistant coach) Jesse Mermuys, who I worked with at Arizona, called me and asked if I was interested. I said, ‘Of course.’ I came and interviewed for Luke (Walton), and I actually did a workout for him. I brought Travis Wear* – who I’ve trained since he was in high school – and three weeks later, Luke offered me the job.
*Like Simon, Wear attended Mater Dei High School.

MT: So, you were the Final Four Most Outstanding Player as a junior at Arizona in 1997, and a senior the next year when Luke was coming in, right? I assume you hosted him on his recruiting trip?
Simon: Yeah I finished in the spring of 1998 and he came in that fall. I hosted him and Richard Jefferson on their recruiting trips … got them both to commit.

MT: Any good Luke stories?
Simon: Well, since he redshirted one year, he was a senior in 2003, when I was playing in the CBA. I was having some tendinitis in my knee, and my coach was Dave Joerger, now the coach of the Kings. I asked Coach Joerger if he could release me since it was getting later in the season, because I wanted to go home and rehab my knee so I could play overseas for the last couple months and try to make some real money. So it was Luke Walton Senior Day, and I suggested to one of my buddies that we go to see that game (against Oregon) and hang out. And I met my wife there that day, in McKale Center, where she happened to be visiting her younger sister. She was living in Orange County at the time, as was I. So it all connects. Life comes full circle. A lot came from the University of Arizona for me. But really, I wasn’t in touch with Luke on a monthly basis or anything, just more friendly acquaintances and Arizona alumni.

MT: I know from talking to Coach Mermuys that you guys originally had a connection through one of your teammates…
Simon: Yeah, when I was playing, one of Jesse’s best high school friends was a walk on and my college roommate, named John Ash. Jesse used to hang around with John, who’d hang with me, and we’d go to their high school and play pick up. Then as I left, John – who was younger than me – became great friends with and lived with Luke, and that’s how Jesse’s relationship started to form with Luke.

MT: Jesse is around my height (5’9’’) but I’m guessing he held his own at those pick up runs.
Simon: He’s a tough dude. He wasn’t the most talented guy but he played the hardest out of anybody. He has a great passion about him for the game and for the players, which are things I really admire about him.

MT: I want to get back to the developmental side of things with you, but to tie the Arizona bow up, what’s it been like being here under Luke and with Jesse and everybody.
Simon: It’s awesome. It’s the best experience possible. It’s all that I could ask for or think of and more. Being around the best players in the world on a daily basis, and we have such a great group of guys to be around. It’s made my job fun, easy and also challenging. These guys want to get better, so you have to stay on top of your game to also get better. The competitive nature, the team atmosphere, a lot of our coaches playing at a high level – Luke and Brian Shaw and Mark Madsen are all champions – so listening and learning from those guys … being around Magic Johnson, my favorite player growing up, to see the competitive nature and the fire with him. It inspires me to try and continue to do better not only for our players, but the Lakers organization.

MT: In addition to player development, I know you also do some “traditional” coaching, like breaking down opponents. How do you balance game coaching vs. development?
Simon: I love both. They’re equally important, and one thing Luke does a great job of is giving every coach great responsibility. Whether it’s working with players, scouting reports or taking opinions and letting them voice opinions. That allows Luke’s assistant coaches who have never been head coaches to learn how to be a coach and also gain the respect of the players because they have a voice. Watching the film and doing my scouting reports is the best on-the-job training that you can possibly have, because you have 30 of these really great coaches in the NBA. There’s only 30 of those jobs in the world, so to look and pick at what they’re doing, try to out game plan them and get your team prepared to try to win is a fun thing to do, and is super challenging.

Miles Simon and Luke Walton

MT: What have you seen and learned specifically from Luke?
Simon: He’s very even keeled. He’s well thought out in everything he says and does. His preparation is really top notch. How much film he watches and his attention to detail. His eye for the game. The things he sees on the court … it always seems to me like he doesn’t miss much. If we’re playing full court and a player misses a screen or a chance to slip to the rim or, ‘You could have made this extra pass,’ or ‘You missed this defensive rotation.’ He sees nearly everything, and just understands the game. He’s almost like a basketball savant. He has a great feel for what’s going on, and the players, and part of that probably comes with him playing at such a high level for a long time and being around a championship mentality or culture. He’s really, really interesting, fun to watch and great to learn from. He’s also inquisitive, which is how you learn, by asking questions and then taking it in and being able to apply it.

MT: Growing up in Bill Walton’s house probably didn’t hurt his basketball IQ, either. One thing that’s stood out to me from afar is his ability to earn the trust and respect of players by being real, and critical, but never disrespectful. Seems like that’d be a tricky balance to strike.
Simon: Sometimes you have to be able to find that middle ground where you can tell a guy he messed up without just reaming guys, and they know you’re upset, but you go about it in a man-to-man way. And these guys have that respect for Luke, because of his demeanor. He picks and chooses his spots where he can really get on the guys, but he talks to you like a man, eye-to-eye, and not a kid, even though some of these guys are really young. I think the guys really, really respect that.

MT: OK, back to the development side. I wonder how you found your style for improving players. How much came from your playing career, how much from the various coaches you had all over the world?
Simon: My style developed from playing, the most. I think about what I did as a player, and I wasn’t the best ballhandler or shooter, but I could get things done on the court. I try to have a feel of what I think the players are doing now. That goes from (Kyle) Kuz, to Zo (Ball) to Hart to whoever I’m working with. What can I give them that they can apply onto the court?

MT: Each workout is personalized for and tailored to that specific player…
Simon: Yes, because each and every player is different, and they need different skill sets. I’m thinking about their strengths and how to accentuate those – what got them on the floor in the first place. And then their weaknesses, how can I improve on the ballhandling they need, or learning how to shoot off a screen or a pick and roll. It’s looking at tape of those guys, and as I’m watching tape or a workout, seeing where they can grow. When I was growing up, there wasn’t as much player development. You kind of just went out and hooped. The first time I did some individualized workouts was when I was going into the draft, and a guy named Howard Avery from Portland who used to train Damon Stoudemire and Terrell Brandon. That was my first intro into individualization of the game. Now I just apply my own stuff, intensity and all those things. I take each player and try to break them down to help them improve.

Miles Simon

MT: I’d imagine it’s a big advantage to work with a team, since you’re around the guys daily, as opposed to meeting for a few hours every other day over a summer? What more can get accomplished that way?
Simon: Being around every day is big, because I’m actually coaching them in games, and then have real game film to watch and break down for them. Like, ‘Hey Kuz, lately, you haven’t been getting to the rim. You’ve been settling for jumpers.’ So I’ll work on closing out to Kuz and making him put it on the floor and finish, because these are the thing I’m seeing game to game. If he hasn’t been attacking, taking his running hook, getting to the foul line, I want to do (drills) that address that so he can take these things and implement them. And that continuity is important. I got hired in June last year, these guys got drafted in late June, and pretty much went straight to Summer League. Josh was hurt. Zo was hurt going out of Summer League. They took time off. Then all of a sudden you’re in preseason. So this is their first full summer of a true NBA offseason. And I talked to Luke, Magic and Rob, ‘This is the plan, this is what I see that they need to work on,’ and then they gave some of their input: ‘Yes that’s right, we can add this on to it,’ so we have a true outline going forward of what they need to improve on.

MT: How did you end up with those three players?
Simon: I had Tyler Ennis a little bit during the year, but those three are the staples. It fell that way because I was the new guy, and (assistant coaches) Brian (Keefe) and Jesse had other guys. So I started with Kuz, Lonzo and Josh.

MT: To get back to the point you made about Kuzma settling for jumpers over the course of a game or two, how do you literally go about the next several hours to try and make an impact?
Simon: First it’s watching the individual film of Kuz, J Hart and Zo after the game. Maybe two to four minutes of their clips with them. “Hey, this is what you did well. You came off this screen well. You ran in transition. Your help-side defense was good. Hey Kuz, you just kept picking and popping when you had a chance to roll to the basket with a guy on your back.’ So I’ll show them, and talk through it. Depending on the day (if it’s a day off or a back to back) I’ll spend 10 or 15 minutes on the court working on step-up pick and rolls where I throw it, I want him to roll out of the slot. We’ll just get reps in, and be teaching him, ‘This is what you see, this is what you feel, when he’s on your back, go to the rim.’ We’ll apply that almost right away, and then when it happens again in the next game, now he feels like he’s just seen it. Kuz has such great touch around the rim, he can’t just spend all his time shooting threes. He can shoot running hooks and floaters; he’s a great layup maker. He has a good midrange game. Sometimes players, not that they do it intentionally, take the easy way out in settling for jump shots and lose aggressiveness.

Kyle Kuzma

MT: How do you keep the team concept in mind while doing individual drills?
Simon: We’ll do drills out of scenarios of where players will be within the offense. If it’s pick and pops, we’ll do different things out of it, like in a game. Sometimes we’ll shoot out of it, sometimes we’ll pop and come back for a DHO*, sometimes we’ll swing the ball, make him move and go set another pick. We’ll work out of the continuity of what we’re doing offensively and where they’re getting their touches.
*Dribble hand off.

MT: An example?
Simon: Josh Hart didn’t get a ton of touches bringing the ball up the floor last year, so I’d never really have Josh bring the ball up the floor in drills. But this offseason, we want him to learn to handle the ball more, and run a pick and roll, run a drag … or since he’s such a great rebounder, if he gets a defensive rebound, instead of outletting to Zo, Zo is going to run and Josh is allowed to push this year because he’s more comfortable with his handle.

MT: OK, let’s focus directly on the three players you worked the most with, continuing here with Josh Hart, who made some big gains during the season. What did you see?
Simon: I’ll even go back further to the summer before he was drafted. I was the head person at the Nike Skills Academy by then, and he was there as a college counselor coming off their National Championship at Villanova. That was my first time getting to see him work individually after he’d put his name in the Draft and pulled it back out. I just loved his work ethic. They said he was a questionable shooter, but I watched him for three or four days, and he was shooting the heck out of the ball. I thought, this dude can absolutely play. He was one of the hardest workers, was tough defensively, was physical, all these things. So we had this previous relationship, and when we drafted him, I was really, really excited. I texted him right away and said ‘Hey I’m with the Lakers now, can’t wait to work with you.’

Josh Hart

MT: Where did you see him grow throughout a season that started slowly for him until he got back from the G-League and started a few games and eventually really took off?
Simon: I think the NBA was an eye-opening experience for him, because he was so successful in college, arguably a National Player of the Year, with a title, then he’s the 30th pick and he’s not playing. Kuzma and Lonzo from his draft class have these great Summer Leagues, both MVP’s, where Hart was hurt. I think he put a lot of pressure on himself, and he was slumping with his shooting, and his defense wasn’t that great. So we go on the first road trip, and when we get back, he was down on himself. Coach (Walton) sent him to the G-League, and they were going to Iowa the next morning after we landed late at night from Phoenix, and Luke tells (Josh) he’s going. And it’s funny, because the coaches watch everything. Luke and the staff watched Josh’s games to see how he would respond to being sent down. He was just OK, but when he came back, I think it gave him great perspective about how you have to work every day, and how you have to bring it each time you have an opportunity on the court whether you get to shoot the ball or not. At first you earn it with defense, then with more minutes, the more shots you’re going to get. He slowly started to figure it out, and got that start in Cleveland and got a double-double* and he was huge. And that was what we expected from him, not the double-double, but the energy and playing hard. And because it was Cleveland, you should also be playing that way against lesser teams. It has to be every day.
*Hart had 11 points and 10 rebounds with 2 assists, 1 steal and 1 block in 33 minutes in a start for Kentavious Caldwell-Pope that L.A. lost 121-112.

MT: He put it on tape, thus raising the expectation level…
Simon: And I can still remember one thing in particular when we were going through our tough stretch when we were in Orlando and Josh wasn’t playing that great. I did some research and took the previous five drafts before his, and looked at the guys drafted between No. 25 and 30, which is 30 guys total, to see how many guys were still in the NBA. It was less than half. I think it was 13, and two days later, another guy got cut, so it was 12. Most of the guys that remained were hard working, tough dudes like Jimmy Butler and one of the Plumlee brothers. All these guys you can tell work hard every day. So I showed it to him, and said (if you think) you’re guaranteed to be here forever, look at this. I’d also shown it to Luke, and he thought it was really good. So I’m not saying that specific thing sparked Josh, but you have to show these guys what the reality can be and how fast it can happen. Because when he started getting in that starting lineup, he was phenomenal.

MT: What’s one other aspect of working on his ballhandling this offseason that you think will translate to games next year?
Simon: He’s a great straight line driver, but when you’re playing against the better players, the starters, and we’re thinking playoffs … can you make a play where you start driving left, and Russell Westbrook cuts you off, can you cross back over and get another finish? Or is your move shut down? Josh’s ballhandling is key each and every day. He’s a good three-point shooter, so that’s the enhancement, and the ballhandling is the addition. Luke was watching a workout the other day, and Luke doesn’t miss much, and J Hart was knocking down three after three. Luke said his shot just looks really fluid right now, where earlier in the year he had a little hitch.

MT: Watching these playoffs, you notice how earning the trust of the coach to be left on the floor in all situations is so important, and I’ve been thinking, ‘Yeah I’d trust Hart and Kuzma,’ which isn’t too common for picks No. 30 and 27. You don’t know it until you actually see it, I guess, but what’s your take?
Simon: I think I would too. Whenever we get to the playoffs, and hopefully it’s next year, it will be a learning experience at first. But you’re trying to prepare those guys for those moments, even though you can’t simulate it. You want them to have a comfort level in their skillset to make shots or make plays and do things in high-pressure situations.

Lonzo Ball

MT: Moving over to Lonzo … Jesse Mermuys was talking to me during the season about how incredible Lonzo’s basketball instincts are. How do you develop a player like that any differently, if at all?
Simon: His instincts are off the charts. His feel for the game. The things he sees ahead of everybody else are just not things that are taught. Not a lot of people in the world have them. The passing, obviously. He can see and make passes that others can’t. Defensively, really off the ball, he’s so long and his anticipation is unbelievable. The steals that he gets. The blocks. The timing he has defensively. Those are all just natural gifts. It’s really fun to watch those things because that’s a guy you just put out on the floor and he can make plays where you can’t believe he’s 20 years old. The no-look passes, the full-court passes where he’s delivering it 80 feet right where Brook Lopez put his hand.

MT: And so, while he certainly has many different areas in which he can improve physically and technically, he still led the team in net rating as a 20-year-old rookie playing the toughest position to learn in the NBA. What comes next in his development?
Simon: It’s step by step. This offseason, part of his plan is becoming a better ballhandler, and having a comfortability with the ball. He’s so used to getting a rebound, taking one or two dribbles sometimes and passing the ball. That’s great, and there are going to be times he does that, but there will also be times where we need his handle to be better. Guys are pressuring him in the halfcourt and on pick and rolls, or he’s going to have the ball late in the clock. Can he break his guy down and get in the paint not only for a shot for himself but for his teammates? He’s tall, so can he play a little closer to the ground? So his handle is one of the most important things.

MT: Let me pause you there for a second. How do you tighten up somebody’s handle, specifically?
Simon: Every day, it’s seven to 10 minutes of ballhandling. Sometime it’s stationary, sometimes on the move. I approach it with the mentality of shooting. People say shooting is muscle memory, where you have to do it over and over again. Ballhandling … if I want to be able to do a crossover, between-the-legs move, it’s muscle memory. So we’ll do X amount of those every day, so your muscles know that’s what’s coming when I approach you, and then you just become comfortable with it. It’s doing the same things over and over again every day. And it becomes monotonous for players, so as a player development coach, you have to find ways to keep it fresh. So I’ll have three or four different ways that we can practice the same move, so they don’t get bored. I’ll do it on the move, or into a shot, or maybe the next day I’ll do it stationary.

MT: Some people might assume that because Lonzo was an amazing/championship high school player and had a terrific year at UCLA and was the No. 2 pick, that he’s already fully polished. But I wonder if because he’s so gifted athletically and in terms of hoops IQ, he didn’t have to do some of the more technical/skill things to win at those levels. Ditto for Julius Randle, who was probably always bigger and stronger than everybody he played against.
Simon: Yeah, I coached against Julius, and he overpowered people. Played bully ball. And for Lonzo, the way he played with his brothers and for his dad was a fastbreaking style where Lonzo was the passer, and he didn’t have to take a lot of dribbles. Lonzo was faster and longer and more athletic, so he could get to the spots he wanted to with much more ease without having to do much with his handle, because he was just more gifted. Now he’s playing with guys of equal or better talent, so you have to do a little bit more, and adjust.

MT: So what are some of the other things you’ll focus on with Lonzo?
Simon: There are a lot of facets going into his summer plan, from the ballhandling into being a better finisher at the rim. At times he could get to the rim, but he was passing up some layup opportunities after not having as much success early in the year. I remember vividly last summer, Steve Nash came in here and was working one day, and Lonzo worked with him, and I asked Lonzo what were some of the things Nash said, (as) I’d just been watching from afar. Nash told him, ‘When I started to score, that’s when my assists became better and easier … when I first came in the league, all I wanted to do was pass and make everybody happy. But when I figured out how to score, and make my layups, do all those things, that’s when I started to average 20 and 10.’ That’s the thing we’ve been telling Lonzo. At times, even if you miss the layup, it’s OK because you’re drawing the big and we’re probably going to clean it up. But you have to get in there and take them, and you’ll end up making them. Some of that will come as he gets stronger and more mature and go through contact. And then there’s going off each foot, using each hand, runners, floaters … I think he has a lot of this stuff, and as the season went along, we started working on his layup package, and it got better before his injury at the end of the year. It’s something he’s got to really concentrate on.

MT: Brandon Ingram certainly grew a ton from his rookie year to last year in terms of finishing at the rim. Meanwhile, talking about player development is making me think of Kobe, and all the countless hours he spent honing literally every part of his game even more than the rest of the pros.
Simon: Every skill, every day. From what I understand, he kept his stuff pretty basic and simple. A lot of stationary ballhandling. And you’d say Kobe’s handle was really good. People weren’t stealing the ball from him; he could do breakdown moves wherever he needed to, especially when he was young. Crossing people over, getting to the rim, to his pull-up J. That’s muscle memory. Turnaround jumpers over and over again. Threes, over and over again. The repetition and the time is how you get better.

MT: To return to Kuzma before we go, I remember early in the season when Kuz was scoring so easily, but Luke wanted him not to ignore the rest of the game. And that got a lot better. What did you notice working with him daily?
Simon: Kuz is a lot of fun to work with because he has a hunger and thirst to be better every day, and that’s in all aspects, not just offense. Watching film, how can he get better defensively, what is he doing wrong, how can he stop a certain player. His progression went from being Rookie of the Month in Oct./Nov., scoring huge numbers, but he knew he wasn’t great defensively. And we’d show him in these clips, where he wasn’t helping from the weak side and he was stuck to his guy. Or if he wasn’t rebounding or getting back on defense. You had to show him, ‘Hey this isn’t good enough.’ But the one thing you can do with Kuz is coach him hard. He’s very accepting to all coaching, and so are (Lonzo and Hart), but you can tell Kuz whatever you want, and he’ll be receptive and try to apply it.

MT: And he of course had to make a transition to learning two different positions, starting at the four and then moving over to the three later in the season with all the injuries on the wing…
Simon: Yeah, he was a true four in college and never played the wing, but he started playing a lot of three here. Now he’s finding this comfort level having to defend threes, and it’s a whole different ball game defending pick and rolls where your guy is setting the screen, as opposed to defending the ballhandler. It’s this new set of rules he had to learn on the fly, and he really, really did get better. He wanted to see the film on it to understand, so it was really fun to coach him and watch his progression as he became more than just a scorer as the season went on. He was also one of our better playmakers when he wanted to be, so I’d show him that. Sometimes he’d shoot contested shots because he believes he’s going to make them all, when he could have made the extra pass, but now we’ve seen him make behind-the-back passes for dunks, so we know he sees it. We can tell him, ‘That’s a bad shot, you had Julius for a drop off or Josh in the corner.’ And he takes that. So to see his progression was great, because he’s a guy that had to learn a new position the most out of anybody else.

MT: Is Kuz keeping up the work in China right now?
Simon: It’s cool because he’ll send me video of him working out in China, doing some ballhandling into a shot. And he’ll just text me, ‘It’s coming along. It’s getting there.’ And we’re only three weeks into summer workouts. I can already see the improvement. It’s not just him. I can see a bond forming with Kuz and Josh, and there was already the Zo bond. These young guys are growing together, and we talk about the playoff games almost daily. ‘This is where we want to be. We want to get to the championship. We gotta spend this time in the gym to keep getting better and pushing ourselves.’ So they’ve been getting after it hard, and between us, they don’t have to be here (at the UCLA Health Training Center). We can’t mandate them to be here. But to have them in the gym and for them to have confidence in our coaching staff and our strength staff to get them better is really big.

Kyle Kuzma and Josh Hart