Luke Walton says Lakers’ job was an opportunity he couldn’t pass up
Someone played “I Love L.A.” very loudly behind closed doors toward the end of the Golden State Warriors’ practice.
It had everything to do with Luke Walton, the new Lakers coach.
He’s still an assistant coach with the Warriors through their playoff run but already being tied to the happy-go-lucky song that always symbolizes good times for the Lakers.
Championship times in the future too, Walton hopes.
The 36-year-old agreed to a five-year deal worth about $25 million Friday with the Lakers. Despite their 17-65 finish this season, Walton was all smiles Saturday after the music, and Warriors practice, ended.
He has wanted the Lakers’ job for as long as he could remember. It’s finally his.
“I played for the Lakers and I feel part of that family. It’s kind of nice to be able to go back and try to help rebuild what we used to have there,” Walton said.
Of course, the Lakers will have to do it with D’Angelo Russell, Jordan Clarkson and Julius Randle — not Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green.
This seems fine with Walton, who is cognizant the Lakers will have about $60 million to spend on free agents this summer. They also have a 55.8% chance at keeping their top-three protected draft pick at the May 17 lottery.
“I think they have some good, young talented players,” Walton said. “Obviously, you need to mix in some good vets, not only to win but to have players on the court that can help the young players grow. I’m excited about the players and the pieces that are there. There’s obviously work to do, but they’ve got a nice start.”
Walton said the majority of his work over the short term would be to help the Warriors win a second consecutive championship in his second season as an assistant with them.
But he will stay in touch with Mitch Kupchak and Jim Buss, the Lakers executives who interviewed him Thursday and hired him a day later.
“I left the meeting thinking it went well. I obviously didn’t think it would get done that quickly,” Walton said. “It’s one of those opportunities that you can’t pass up.”
When the doors opened to the Warriors’ practice Saturday, Walton was in his customary spot at a side basket with Green, talking life with the versatile All-Star forward-center and feeding him the ball for shots around the perimeter. Golden State begins the Western Conference semifinals Sunday against Portland.
“I’m excited for him, but at the same time this will sting a little bit. This is obviously a guy that we want around,” Green said, knowing Walton led the Warriors to a 39-4 mark to start this season while Steve Kerr recovered from complications after two back surgeries.
Green said Walton was someone he could always talk to, even if it meant venting frustration. He knew how to thank Walton: “There’s no better way to send him out than a championship.”
Walton played nine seasons for the Lakers, seven under Jackson, before being traded to Cleveland, where he finished his career in 2013.
A pass-first player, Walton always thought team ahead of individual, which endeared him to Lakers fans long before he was part of championship teams in 2009 and 2010.
The Lakers wanted to bring Walton on as an assistant coach when his playing career ended, but he demurred, thinking he could get one more contract as a player. It didn’t happen.
So he became an analyst for the team’s broadcast affiliate, TWC SportsNet, and was also a player development coach for the Lakers’ Development League team, the L.A. D-Fenders. Then he joined the Warriors’ staff.
He has very high potential. To me, he can be a perennial All-Star.
Luke Walton on Lakers guard D’Angelo Russell
Walton’s lifetime coaching record in the NBA, however, is 0-0. Per league rules, he did not receive credit for his 43-game run as the Warriors’ interim coach. All the victories went to Kerr.
Just the same, Walton tied for eighth in coach-of-the-year voting. Kerr won it.
Even though Walton’s duties aren’t quite done at Golden State, he had thoughts on each of the four young Lakers, starting with Russell.
“He has very high potential. To me, he can be a perennial All-Star,” Walton said. “He has the vision that you want your point guard to have. He sees the floor. Once they put him in the starting lineup, he naturally got a little more aggressive.”
Walton liked how Russell could score not only on three-pointers but in the post and on spot-up midrange shots.
“I think there’s so much natural ability there that if he puts in the work and is committed to wanting to be great, he can be a great point guard in this league,” Walton added.
At power forward, can Randle mimic some of Green’s success as a distributor, scorer and rebounder?
“I see it,” Walton said. “Honestly, Julius can give us the freedom to do a lot of things because of his size and quickness. If he can develop other aspects of his game, that allows us to go small with him at center because he’s strong enough to cover centers.
“That kid averaged 10 rebounds a game as pretty much a rookie? That’s insane. This is a grown-man league. For someone in their first year playing to do that is obviously a big advantage to have.”
Walton likes how Randle pushes the ball after taking defensive rebounds but knows the 21-year-old sometimes plays “a little [too] fast.” His outside shot also needs work.
Clarkson will be a restricted free agent this summer. He slumped a little bit toward the end of this past season but, as Walton clearly remembered, “Not against us.”
Clarkson had 25 points in the Lakers’ surprising 112-95 victory over the Warriors in March.
“He’s another active athlete. He’s constantly in attack mode, which is what you want,” Walton said. “I heard he’s an extremely hard worker. He’s a great guy off the court as well.”
Larry Nance Jr. played the least of the Lakers’ young players. It didn’t stop Walton from lighting up while talking about him.
“I’m a big fan of Nance,” Walton said. “You’re going to have superstars that end up on ‘SportsCenter’ every night, but you need guys that are going to be into doing the little things and making the right plays. Defensively, he seems to always be in the right place, getting his hands on loose balls and getting second and third opportunities on the offensive glass.”
As for the Randy Newman song, the one that seemed so oddly out of place in Oakland but made so much sense considering the news of the weekend?
Walton loved it. Kerr was behind it.
“I expect nothing less,” Walton said. “That’s what we do here. The big thing for us is we want to have fun, and if fun comes from making fun of each other, then we find a way to do it. I got a good laugh out of it.”
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