NBA's Youngest Coach, Luke Walton, Is on the Level with Millennial-Laden Lakers

Kevin Ding@@KevinDingNBA Senior WriterSeptember 23, 2016

EL SEGUNDO, CA - JUNE 21:  Luke Walton is introduced as head coach of the Los Angeles Lakers on June 21, 2016 at Toyota Sports Center in El Segundo, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2016 NBAE (Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images)
Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

EL SEGUNDO, Calif. – D'Angelo Russell's eyes are sparkling as he makes clear how he feels about his new coach.

"At this level, I don't really know what it takes to win," Russell says. "So from a guy who knows what it takes to win, I can't do anything but sit back and listen."

He is proud that Walton, from their first time together in offseason workouts, requested Russell's voice to break the team's huddles: "This is the point guard! He's the leader!" Walton bellowed. "When he speaks, guys, you gotta listen."

Russell also is struck by how many veteran NBA players have vouched for Walton's character. "You got Luke, man," they told Russell with unmistakable warmth and even a tinge of jealousy. "You're gonna be good." 

After a rookie season that was logically disappointing and uniquely demoralizing, Russell has found a new level of excitement since he appeared at Walton's introductory news conference.

A few weeks later, when the Los Angeles Lakers' young players were asked to attend a ceremony announcing the naming rights to a new practice facility, Russell couldn't contain himself.

While the event figured to see the young Lakers looking like dispirited children sitting through a classical music concert, when Walton was asked to say a few words to the corporate folks, Russell suddenly rose to his feet.

No one else was standing. Russell didn't care. He stood for a solid three seconds and applauded.

It was a surprising show of support, but also of gratitude. Russell feels different than he did before.

"I feel like I know him, you know what I'm sayin'?" Russell explains to B/R. "I feel like I've known him for some years now—and I haven't."

When Russell, 20, describes how it has been to have Walton, 36, on the court with the young Lakers, actually playing basketball with and against them in informal offseason gatherings, the comfort level he has with his new coach is unmistakable.

D'Angelo Russell has bonded with new Lakers coach Luke Walton, who spent part of his summer playing alongside his new team.
D'Angelo Russell has bonded with new Lakers coach Luke Walton, who spent part of his summer playing alongside his new team.Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

Russell laughs at the shirts Walton wears—slit at the shoulders to become sleeveless, showcasing the familiar Grateful Dead-inspired tattoo on his right arm honoring his three brothers. Then Russell pushes it further and calls out Walton for his "overly strong Old Spice deodorant."

"You can tell him I said that, too," Russell adds.

The "give" part of the give-and-take was lacking in Russell's relationship with Lakers coach Byron Scott, 55, last season. It was missing in every way.

Yet that only makes Walton's arrival as the youngest head coach in the NBA more interesting.

This person uniquely equipped to reach and teach the millennials that pack the Lakers' post-Kobe Bryant roster is undertaking the most compelling case study in coaching today.

Walton's life has been charmed, he freely admits, akin to one long-running wink and smile.

Two NBA championships with the Lakers. Four NCAA tournament appearances and one Final Four with Arizona. The son of one of the most iconic players in basketball history. There is little joy Walton hasn't experienced in the game. And few who haven't wanted to experience it with him. It wasn't Pau Gasol or Derek Fisher whom Phil Jackson lovingly referred to as his son after the Lakers won in 2009 and '10, but Walton.

So popular is Walton that he even found himself avoiding a stalker while with the Lakers during the 2007-08 season.

That unfortunate turn of events long over, Walton spent the previous two seasons captivating a new team as Steve Kerr's assistant and resoundingly successful fill-in as Golden State Warriors head coach.

Walton led the Warriors to a 39-4 start last season while filling in as head coach for Steve Kerr, who was recovering from spinal surgery.
Walton led the Warriors to a 39-4 start last season while filling in as head coach for Steve Kerr, who was recovering from spinal surgery.Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

"He's got these qualities that are hard to define," Warriors general manager Bob Myers says. "But you know them when you're around him."

Myers pauses, considers this person he has only known a few years but calls "one of the highest quality people I've ever met," and boils it down to something simple.

"You know," Myers said, "that you want to be around him again."

Walton is a warm breeze to all he meets, bringing a trust-first mentality that led to an agreement with his wife, Bre, that acquaintances must contact her if they would like to stay over at the Walton home—because Luke always says yes, no matter the circumstances.

Wind it back further, and you'd see Walton as a kid doing one thing on a Thursday and something entirely different on Friday. Whether beach kids, basketball teammates, troublemaker kids at his school, inner-city kids from other schools…Walton was tight with them all.

Willing to shrug off some issues and hug out others, Walton found his worlds were always colliding but never crumbling. He navigated social danger zones with freedom and confidence instilled by his mother, Susie, a longtime parenting and relationship counselor in San Diego.

Growing up so comfortable with various walks of life when many are reflexively fearful of what they don't understand is rare. When told that isn't natural, Walton responds simply: "It was to me."

Though it may appear Walton's welcome nature would make him a doormat for nefariousness in the world, he has a firm foundation for what he thinks and does.

"Some friends and family would encourage me not to hang out with other friends," he reflects. "I've always been able to find the good in people. And I stand up for them and defend them for who I saw them as.

"I've been told a lot that I do constantly find the good in people. So maybe that's what makes it easy to relate or connect—because, one, I'm not trying to get things from people; and two, I'm not judging anybody on what they've done or the reputations they have."

Walton has found a sense of comfort no matter who he is around, no matter their background.
Walton has found a sense of comfort no matter who he is around, no matter their background.NBA Photos/Getty Images

Therein lies the Luke Walton secret to success.

And he has Kerr's example to thank for maintaining sweet innocence in a business built by hard-driving, win-at-all-costs coaches.

Despite his own limited coaching experience, Kerr implored Walton not to fall into the trap of developing some manufactured coaching persona. Players can see right through that crap, Kerr advised.

After suffering anxiety in the preseason as he settled into his role as interim head coach while Kerr dealt with complications from spinal surgery, Walton coached the Warriors to a 24-0 record, the best start in NBA history. They were 39-4 when Kerr came back, and they wound up setting the league record with a 73-9 regular season.

Another kind of victory, though, was all Walton's.

"Most people would be altered by that experience—in a negative way," Myers says. "A lot of us would have our chest stuck out a little bit more or arrogance could creep in. And as I told Luke then, it was a testament to him he was the same person—the same exact person—from when he was slotted to be our lead assistant going into the season as he was following his tenure as our head coach. He really didn't change."

Sometimes they take Friday off.

A trip out of town here and there. That's about the only slacking the Lakers' core crew of young players has allowed in recent months.

Damian Dovarganes/Associated Press

At around 9 a.m., they show up at the team's training facility. They're in the weight room together by 10 a.m. They hit the court after that, with pickup sessions and self-improvement lessons almost always bleeding into the afternoon.

It's a purely voluntary thing, this Breakfast Club. There's no group text to see who's in or who's out; it's just standard. Per NBA offseason regulations, Walton can't mandate anyone attend.

The accountability is impressive for guys who are supposed to be easily distracted from work at their ages but mostly haven't been: Brandon Ingram (19), Ivica Zubac (19), Russell (20), Julius Randle (21), Larry Nance Jr. (23), Anthony Brown (23), Jordan Clarkson (24) and Tarik Black (24).

Brandon Ingram (far left) has spent part of the summer getting acquainted with his new Lakers teammates, D'Angelo Russell and Julius Randle at USA Basketball scrimmages and voluntary Lakers workouts.
Brandon Ingram (far left) has spent part of the summer getting acquainted with his new Lakers teammates, D'Angelo Russell and Julius Randle at USA Basketball scrimmages and voluntary Lakers workouts.Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

The entitlement and instant gratification for which the millennial generation is maligned was pooling somewhere else this summer.

When Luol Deng, 31, and Timofey Mozgov, 30, show up for training camp to earn their respective $18 million and $16 million salaries as active mentors, they'll understand immediately whose team this is.

With Kobe off into retirement, Walton has taken the role of veteran leader, reporting to the team facility with the sort of clockwork consistency for which Bryant was famous. He is tight with Kobe and has reached out for Bryant's input on a few matters since being hired as Lakers head coach.

This is Luke's team now.

As such, the hope that Walton can develop the kids' potential was the prevailing topic in the recent Buss family ownership meeting, rather than the possibility Jim Buss will step down at season's end. The get-together also included a heavy dose of optimism from Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak.

Kupchak and Walton have spent a lot of meaningful time together the past couple months in the office, too—discussing the team as well as helping Walton understand the NBA personnel business better.

The new era feel also stretches beyond the Lakers executive offices. Longtime Bryant advisers such as trainer Gary Vitti and physical therapist Judy Seto have stepped down—and Kupchak has suddenly embraced a shift toward youth in all sorts of staff positions this summer besides head coach.

No one would have blamed Walton had he arrived late to witness all the changes, especially after another long playoff run with the Warriors and being back in his beloved Manhattan Beach near his bazillion SoCal friends. But Walton was a regular presence all summer.

"It goes back to being lucky and blessed in this life," Walton says. "I'm one of the few people who get to wake up in the morning and love heading to the office. I mean, absolutely love it.

"Grab a coffee on your way in. Can't wait to see the players in there. Get them out on the court and start working on things in a game that I love. I might be young and naive, and when we're in February and our record's not that great I won't feel the same way, but as for right now, which is all you can control, I'm very excited about the future."

Black, for one, knew it would be like this.

LOS ANGELES, CA - APRIL 13:  Tarik Black #28 of the Los Angeles Lakers dunks the ball in the second half against the Utah Jazz at Staples Center on April 13, 2016 in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by do
Harry How/Getty Images

He was the main man at the University of Memphis in 2011, when Walton the player first explored becoming Walton the coach. Walton spent over three of the NBA lockout's five months that year as a Memphis Tigers assistant coach.

"Coach Luke was the best, man," Black says. "He was the best. I aspired to accomplish what he had accomplished, and I just sat there and asked him questions all the time. I asked a ton of questions. Mentality. Basketball-wise. People. Everything."

It's much the same now. These young Lakers come in to be with a head coach who wants to be there with them, who even wants to play with them, who wants to help them find their best selves.

As well as they can, the Lakers will play as the Warriors do—and as Walton did as a highly unselfish, hugely competitive player.

"His passing ability…oh, my God," Black says. "He's still killing us with straight passes. You know he can't run and jump with us right now. His back is what it is; he can only do so much. Still…how he shares the ball, it's amazing."

Walton even dared to take part in full-court, five-on-five one day during the last week of August. The head coach of the team…running with the guys in the offseason.

"It shows us what he's looking for," Black says. "It's easier to imitate something than to hear something and try to make it happen. We honestly love it, because how much fun is it to play with your head coach? And talk trash with him.

"Then you start understanding he really cares. He's out here playing with us. He's out here having fun with us. This is someone we can have fun with. That just builds a trust and relationship that you need in order to be successful.

"That sets the culture of caring. And guys are going to imitate that, too—really imitate that."

One of the pertinent reasons Jackson, now 71, stopped coaching back in 2011—right before Walton headed off to Memphis—was that Jackson's body no longer allowed him to be active on the court as a teacher.

For a Lakers organization that has turned to Jackson to coach its team time after time, and longed to have him back more times than anyone can count, there may not be a person in the league with a greater measure of Jackson than there is in Walton.

It is Jackson whom Walton credits for teaching him what an open-minded coach could mean to his players.

14 Feb 2002:  Head coach Lute Olson of Arizona Wildcats talks to his forward Luke Walton #4 during the Pac-10 game against the UCLA Bruins at the Pauley Pavilion in Westwood, California. The Bruins defeated the Wildcats 77-76.  \ Mandatory Credit:  Jeff G
Jeff Gross/Getty Images

"Coach [Lute] Olson always used to ask: 'What were you thinking?!' Walton says, recalling his playing days at the University of Arizona. "And if you tried to answer it, he'd say: 'You always have an excuse for everything.' So I learned. He's asking me, but he doesn't really care what I say; he's just letting me know he knows I messed up.

"When I first got to the Lakers, I messed up something in one of the first practices, and Phil was like, 'Luke! What were you thinking on that?' I forget what the play was. Something in the triangle. But I didn't say a word; I'm not falling for this.

"It was like an awkward silence for 10 seconds. And he was like, 'No, seriously. Until you tell me what you were thinking, we're not moving on.' I still thought he was messing with me. Eventually, I answered him.

"There are different styles of coaching. For me, I like the back and forth. Especially at this level. These are some of the best players in the world. They didn't just get here by accident. They're really good at what they do. And sometimes they have ideas that might be different from what we do but might work better with the personnel we have."

Prodded to offer his thoughts while with the Lakers, Walton learned to appreciate the worldview Phil Jackson brought to coaching.
Prodded to offer his thoughts while with the Lakers, Walton learned to appreciate the worldview Phil Jackson brought to coaching.Glenn James/Getty Images

Warriors All-Star Draymond Green praises Walton for his ability to manage that line between authority and community. But Green also wants it known that Walton is more than a good guy.

"He's a chill guy, but he's a smart guy," Green told B/R last season. "He's got a brilliant basketball mind. That's what makes him special."

(And Green remains close enough friends with Walton that he can quite pointedly ask him how Walton is going to deal with all the losing that is coming.)

Myers refers to Walton innately being able to see basketball developments multiple steps before they appear. But Myers adds it's more than that: Walton's ability to connect with Green, for example, is a product of Walton's broad and deep understanding of how all things in the NBA work.

"Having been reared by Bill or just through osmosis from growing up around the game of basketball, Luke understands it," Myers says. "And he has this ability to process the NBA in a really healthy way. I think the Lakers players, especially, will enjoy him because he's not agenda-driven, he's not self-promoting."

That appears to be exactly what Russell has been looking for in a coach.

"I feel like the most successful coaches are players' coaches," Russell says. "I feel like 90 percent of what they learn throughout their career is from us. It's not from the next coach or the next assistant coach or the next basketball guru; it's from the players. The players that you have are going to teach you to be the best you can be. I feel like that's where it's at in this era."

Consider how Russell talks about Jackson:

"Phil was Phil, but I feel like those players took his game to the next level. Coaches teach…then players can put their own tweaks to it, and it still gets the job done. At that time, Kobe and Shaq [O'Neal] made it so much easier."

By playing for Jackson's title teams, Walton might have more cachet as a coach with this generation than the actual man called the Greatest Coach Ever.

Having played part of nine seasons with Kobe Bryant and the Lakers, and parts of two with Cleveland (minus LeBron James), there is little in the NBA Walton hasn't experienced.
Having played part of nine seasons with Kobe Bryant and the Lakers, and parts of two with Cleveland (minus LeBron James), there is little in the NBA Walton hasn't experienced.Jeff Gross/Getty Images

Don't misinterpret Russell's position as indicative of some overall millennial disdain for the coaching profession, though.

Studies show that millennials want to be coached and are used to being coached. Per a 2014 SuccessFactors survey (h/t Harvard Business Review), they want more feedback and help in personal development. Their generation is less self-reliant and raised with greater structure and supervision from more involved parents.

So millennials will accept authority—if it's the right kind.

A survey for the AARP's Leading a Multigenerational Workforce publication found that millennials prefer to work for managers who appreciate personal goals, can be positive educators, are comfortable offering support and create a collaborative organizational structure.

If you don't fit that bill, it might be impossible for you to gain their trust. Only 19 percent of millennials say that most people can be trusted, according to a Pew Research Center poll.

Walton gets it.

"He is a kid," Walton says of Russell. "A lot of these guys are kids. They went to one year of college and now they live in L.A. and play for the Lakers at 19 years old. It's crazy to me to think of even trying to succeed under those conditions.

"When I was 19, I was getting ready for my second year of college. I still didn't even know how to pay my own bills or set up my cable, and these guys are literally playing for the Lakers. So I already have a tremendous amount of respect for these guys that are doing that."

Walton has struck the right chord with this baby-faced Lakers squad so far, according to Russell.

"I look at him more as a big brother figure," Russell says of his new coach. "I can't say father figure. Not just like an old guy walking around…or a guy who is just talking and talking."

How ingrained is it in Walton to have a healthy give-and-take in his relationships?

Walton confesses he didn't feel as much magic as he expected when his first child, son Lawson, was born two years ago. A newborn baby can participate in only so much.

"Now I'm starting to get the whole children-are-the-greatest-thing-of-all-time thing," Walton says, laughing. "At first, I was like, 'Maybe I'm just a     s--tty human being.'"

Lawson is learning to read with Luke. Lawson picks out a book each night. They sing little songs to go with certain books.

It's priceless stuff, and it affirms for Walton that maybe after thinking of himself as a player for so long, he was actually meant to be a coach.

Russell has been an eager pupil, texting Walton to ask about Golden State playoff alignments for Stephen Curry or what angle a play was run at or just to say he's pumped to run a specific set.

He's also stumbled across a few old games on NBA TV in which he found a familiar face.

"I'll see Coach playing, and he'll do something crazy, and I'll be like, 'Oh!'" Russell says. "And I'll record it and send it to him, and he'll laugh about it.

"I told him I remember playing with him on (NBA) 2K; I used to always play as him. I'm a fan. I'm definitely a fan. Because he was a point forward. I can't speak on Elgin Baylor and all those guys, but my era, I know he was a point forward."

Then there were the phone calls from Russell to Walton after every summer league game, followed by the conversations reviewing the game clips Walton pulled to show and teach Russell.

"There were times when he had excuses for why he did things, which is great," Walton says. "Open communication is the best way to learn, I think, so we can argue about what I think and he thinks—and the best way to move forward. It's been like that nonstop."

Walton has quickly learned the differences in communicating with this Lakers team compared to the Lakers club he played for from 2003-12.
Walton has quickly learned the differences in communicating with this Lakers team compared to the Lakers club he played for from 2003-12.Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

The same exchanges are building with Ingram, Randle, Clarkson, Nance and the others, and Walton has already learned how best to have them.

He has to be on call for the guys when they reach out. And if their headphones happen to be off, he must have a direct-strike mentality with his lessons.

"As soon as you see that interest fade, you're out," he says, chuckling.

Still, Walton is not one of this age, and he understands that.

He rolls his eyes at the fascination with social media, and he is old enough to keep what he calls his "basketball journal" of valuable ideas he gets from reading books, talking to fellow coaches or just musing on his own.

"Pen and paper," he says. "Can you believe that?!"

However he can teach them, old or new school, Walton is determined to do it.

He already is.


Kevin Ding is an NBA senior writer for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @KevinDing.


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