PHOENIX — If it’s true that good things happen to good people, then Luke Walton is where he should be. Always humble and always aware, the former University of Arizona star is now the guy who will attempt to lead the revamped Los Angeles Lakers into a new era.
It suits him just fine.
“When I think about it, I’m very aware of how blessed I am with this opportunity,” Walton said on Wednesday night before his Lakers faced Phoenix at Talking Stick Arena. “I try to make the best of it. I try to give these guys the best opportunity for them to succeed. It’s been a blessed run as far as basketball is concerned.”
Blessed may be the optimal word.
To put his career in perspective, it’s just 14 years after he played his last game at UA. A surprising 10-year NBA career had him in a Lakers uniform for eight-plus years. He was part of two NBA titles in L.A., and was part of a third while helping former UA star Steve Kerr on the bench two years ago with the Golden State Warriors.
Now, at age 36 and the youngest coach in the NBA, he has the Lakers on the rise – or at least playing much better than they did last year when it won just 17 games. Already, the Lakers have won 19 this season with about 25 left in the season. Never mind Wednesday night’s 137-101 debacle against Phoenix. Clunkers happen – even if they’ve happened often.
He didn’t even know what to call what L.A. played on Wednesday.
“We went on what we have been warning about going on the all-star break early,” Walton said after the game.
Before the game, it was all good and positive. As it should be, given the context of the season compared to last. L.A. has been mostly competitive and a team that has surprised.
“We’re moving in the right direction,” Walton said before game. “The wins aren’t as high as we’d like but the growth that we see and the young guys are improving. We see it happening.”
The Lakers will take what they can get and take the “it’s not a sprint but a marathon approach.”
They will also do it with two other former UA figures. Jud Buechler, who left UA in 1988 and had a terrific NBA career, is now one of the members of the player development staff.
“It’s fantastic and I’m loving it,” Buechler said. “We have that great Arizona connection. I’m really lucky to be back in the league.”
He, too, had a great run, playing for seven different teams in what turned out to be a 12-year career. He also is a three-time NBA title winner, all with Chicago and with Kerr.
How did the NBA shape him for this position?
“All the experiences I had did,” he said. “I was on really good teams and really, really bad teams. I’ve been on both sides. All the experiences have made me enjoy the transition.”
Same goes for Jesse Mermuys, who has taken quite a path to get here. He assists in the Lakers Player Development office. He graduated from Salpointe Catholic, moved to Pima Community College, was an assistant at Southern Utah, went to UA to become a director of operations, then went to the Denver Nuggets, Houston Rockets, Toronto Raptors and now the Lakers. Seems like an NBA lifetime … and yet he’s only 36 years old.
“I’ve always been a dreamer,” he said, referring to his career and the rise. “But (he didn’t think) it would be this soon or this early.”
And, of course, he called it “awesome” to be doing it.
“You get into it and you forget because you work and try to win games,” he said. “Then, you absorb it. When someone asks me a question about it, I think, ‘it’s incredible.’”
That’s the same feeling he gets when asked about coaching the Lakers, a storied franchise, and alongside Walton, a good friend from his UA days.
“Working in the NBA is a blessing obviously, but working for Luke Walton is unexplainable,” he said. “Not only do you care about him – he’s a great person. But, then you get to work for him and (his style) carries over throughout the organization.”
To Mermuys, Walton is: “Cool Hand Luke.”
He has the coolness and calmness that a coach needs — and a fiery side to him from time to time.
“He’s like a basketball savant,” Mermuys said. “Maybe it’s because he grew up with (basketball) from his dad. He’s just a natural for the position. I’m blown away from his expertise. If you’ve never really been a head coach it’s hard to do those things. He does them naturally.”
And when he gets fired up?
“The guys respond … it takes the pressure off of them,” Mermuys said.
Wednesday, the Lakers could have used some of that fire. But he’s learning and it’s much different than how he spent most of the last couple of years under Kerr as an assistant, save for the first 43 games last season when he was the interim head coach with the Warriors when they went 34-9. He was so good he finished ninth in the coach of the year voting even though he wasn’t an official head coach.
Now that he’s a chair over, how is it?
“It’s different but a lot of fun,” he said. “The challenge of it is different. As a player you’re trying to become the best player you can be and when you can’t do that anymore you look for something to fill that void. This is the greatest responsibility you could have as a coach.”
Any advice from his father, Bill, who is sometimes the bane of Arizona Wildcats fans?
“He says to always remember that it’s all about the players and your job is to make their lives better,” Luke said of his father’s advice. “You have to hold them to higher standards, but also coaching is about being selfless.”
How about being patient? Luke will have to be given the Lakers are clearly in rebuilding mode and it’s very apparent after Wednesday’s one-sided loss.
“We have to be patient,” he said. “It doesn’t happen over night and that’s why it’s so hard. You have to put in the work (to get better).”