Walton Knows the Drill So Well
Luke Walton is a quiet basketball player. He is not prone to back-slapping, high-fiving, bring-the-fans-to-their-feet dunks or between-the-leg passes or behind-the-back cleverness.
He is not often heard whooping or hollering or seen wiggling his rear end or pounding his chest in proud affirmation of a routine basket or ordinary pass.
Walton leads the Pacific 10 Conference in assists and yet his coach, Lute Olson, says Walton doesn’t get credit for many of his passes that lead to baskets because those passes come before the assist pass; they are made to the player who is in perfect position to make the assist.
To see basketball played well and soundly, keep your eyes on the 6-foot-8, 240-pound University of Arizona junior forward. Watch how he knows which square inch on the floor is the right place for him to be and which square inch is the right place for a teammate to catch the ball.
Friday night, the euphoria had not evaporated from USC’s 89-78 victory over Oregon in the first Pac-10 tournament semifinal game when Walton got an assist on Jason Gardner’s first basket, scored a layup of his own and threw a bullet pass to Rick Anderson at precisely the moment Anderson arrived in front of the basket in position for a layup. All this in the first three minutes of Arizona’s matchup against Cal.
Up above sat a proud father, a good friend, a man happy to be known as Luke’s dad. Bill Walton is not happy because his son, against the predictions of many experts who thought Luke too slow and too floor-bound to star at the top level of NCAA Division I basketball, is an emerging star.
Bill Walton is happy because his son has found in Tucson what Bill once found in Westwood at UCLA.
“A home,” the father says. “A philosophy of life. A family led by a man who should be in the Hall of Fame and who has taught Luke about life and about basketball. Lute Olson is to Luke what Coach Wooden is to me.”
Luke Walton makes basketball seem a simple game. He makes it easy for teammates to get shots. He makes the choreography of Olson’s scripted offense seem an easy one-two-three, one-two-three rhythm when it’s not, when it’s complicated and filled with pitfalls if there is not someone wise and talented with the ball.
Olson estimates that Walton handles the basketball 60% of the time the Wildcats have it. ESPN analyst Dick Vitale has called Walton the best-passing big man in the country and that’s not typical Dickie V hyperbole.
Bill Walton is proud to say his No. 3 son soaked in the lessons taught by Boston Celtic teams on which Larry Bird and he starred. Maybe a boy can’t learn basketball instincts--Luke has those too--but he can learn about the game, including the parts that aren’t always appreciated.
If a vote were taken on who is the star of this Arizona team, guard Gardner would be the winner. “Jason’s the leader of that team,” Bill Walton says emphatically. “Jason Gardner is a great player.”
A father is hard on a son, that’s for sure, and maybe it is Gardner, who leads the Wildcats in scoring and who will be the go-to man if, say, Arizona needs a last-second field goal to win an NCAA tournament game. But if Gardner gets the shot he wants, it most likely will be because Walton gets it to him at the right place at the right time.
And if Gardner can’t get the shot, Walton will get one of his young teammates a layup. Or Walton will get himself a little jump hook in the lane. And he’ll probably make it.
There has been a secret unfolding of young Luke’s career out in the desert. He pops into Los Angeles a couple times a year when the Wildcats make their UCLA-USC swing and the local fans, especially those in Westwood, shake their heads and wonder why Luke isn’t playing for his father’s alma mater.
Bill is diplomatic. Kind of.
“I wanted Luke to go to a place where the coach would enable him to find a basketball identity, a style, that would make Luke become a complete basketball player and a complete person,” Bill says. “And Luke has that. At this point in time, Arizona, under Lute Olson, is a special place to experience basketball and team. The foundation Luke has received at Arizona is going to serve Luke well in the rest of his life, and that’s all you can ask of a coach.”
You can also ask a coach to teach your son how to improve every year as a basketball player. That Olson has also done for Walton.
Besides leading the conference in assists--the only non-guard among the top nine--Walton is also fifth in assist-to-turnover ratio; sixth in steals; seventh in rebounding (third in defensive rebounding); and 12th in scoring. There is no more well-rounded player in the league and maybe not in the country.
With 52 seconds left in the first half, Walton had accepted a pass from Gardner. Walton was about four feet from the basket and had a good shot.
But his teammate, Dennis Latimore, a strong but slow-footed freshman, was even closer to the basket. Walton saw Latimore, saw that Latimore’s defender was taking a step toward Walton and in a split second Latimore was grabbing the ball and scoring. The right play at the right time. Again.
Diane Pucin can be reached at email@example.com.