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Earl Watson’s Suns get the better of Luke Walton’s Lakers in battle of the NBA’s youngest coaches

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Suns guard Devin Booker drives against Lakers guard Thomas Robinson during a preseason game on Oct. 21.
(Kelvin Kuo / Associated Press)

As Phoenix Suns Coach Earl Watson explained the debates about rap music he has with the teenagers he coaches, he saw one of his flock wandering the wrong way. 

“I have no clue where he’s going; he’s 19,” Watson said to a group of reporters, before shouting down the hall to second-year guard Devin Booker. “THIS WAY! The gym’s this way.”

Booker turned around silently and jogged toward the basketball court. 

On Friday night at the Honda Center in Anaheim, Watson’s Suns faced the Lakers in a matchup of the NBA’s youngest head coaches. Watson is 37, a year older than Lakers Coach Luke Walton. They’re exceptionally young for their positions, but they also coach players who are exceptionally young. The Suns have four teenagers on their roster right now, and the Lakers have two, plus eight players under 25. 

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The Suns won, 98-94, in the Lakers’ last of eight preseason games, and the next step in the ongoing process of Walton’s teaching the young Lakers his system. 

With center Timofey Mozgov out with a bruised tailbone, the Lakers gave second-round draft pick Iv-  ica Zubac, 19, his first start. 

“It felt like [a] dream,” Zubac said. “I can’t lie. I didn’t know what to do. It didn’t feel real to start for the Lakers. I was so happy since I got drafted. I’m living a great life.”

Lakers point guard D’Angelo Russell, only eight months removed from his teenage years, pulled Zubac aside to calm him down before the game. 

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“You could tell he was nervous,” Russell said. “Everybody was talking to him at once, saying if he knew this play or if he knew this defensive assignment. It was a lot thrown at him.” 

Zubac finished with four points, a steal, two rebounds and a turnover. 

Besides Russell and Zubac, the Lakers started forward Nick Young, while resting Luol Deng, guard Lou Williams and forward Julius Randle. Russell and Randle led the team with 17 and 15 points, respectively.

The regular season begins Wednesday at Staples Center against the Houston Rockets. Between now and then, Walton and General Manager Mitch Kupchak will discuss their final cuts. The roster stands at 17 players and the Lakers must reduce that to 15 by Monday. 

As for his young players, Walton will continue to teach them in the same way he has through this preseason. 

“They’re doing much better than I was,” Walton said. “When I was 19 I was going into my sophomore year of college, finally moving out of the dorms, trying to sign up for classes. That’s all I really had to worry about. These guys have a lot on their plate. I make a point not to [forget that]. It’s important to remember what most of us were like when we were 19. They’re not just doing that in the NBA. They’re doing it in Los Angeles.”

Walton couldn’t remember many specifics from back then. Watson, though, had a memory of a teenage Walton, who went to Arizona. 

“I hosted him on his visit to UCLA,” Watson said. “We went to Universal Studios CityWalk. We went to this place selling jerseys and autographs. I was like damn, that’s your dad [Hall of Famer Bill Walton]. He was like that’s not his autograph. They didn’t know what to say.

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“Luke has always been the same person. Very deep. He knows the game very well, which doesn’t surprise me why he’s a good coach. His passing was unbelievable. He sees the game at a different level . . . and only a few can go with substance and see it the way he does.”

tania.ganguli@latimes.com

Follow Tania Ganguli on Twitter @taniaganguli


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