There’s a thump in the Sierra Vista High School gym. A Warriors trainer is adjusting someone on his table as the rest of the team puts up shots in the background.
But the 6-foot-8 frame on the trainer’s table isn’t a player. It’d be easy to make that mistake. Warriors assistant and summer league head coach Luke Walton rises just as the buzzer sounds to signal the end of shootaround before Golden State’s first Summer League game.
Walton’s 6-foot-8 frame fits in seamlessly with everyone on the Warriors roster, and he looks right at home with them as he slides his black baseball cap on backwards while chatting it up. That’s what helps him connect with them.
So does his age, just 35 years old and the fact that he is just three years removed from his NBA career.
But Walton’s connection with players isn’t the only reason he is viewed as an up-and-coming coaching prospect.
He was a routine participant in huddles with Steve Kerr and Alvin Gentry during timeouts and quarter breaks even though this was his first year as an assistant coach. And some believe he is the frontrunner to be named Kerr’s top assistant in the wake of Gentry leaving to coach the New Orleans Pelicans.
The transition from player to assistant in a year is hard enough, but now, Walton gets to step into a head coaching role.
The main difference between being a head and assistant coach is that you constantly need to be on top of everything, constantly thinking of what’s coming next, says Walton:
“There’s a lot more responsibility, there’s decisions that need to be made. Every three-minute timeout segment it just seems like it’s flying by, because you got to think about substitutions you have to think about what play you’re going to run as your ATO (after time out) so the brain is just constantly going. As an assistant you can kind of pick and choose little parts of things to watch or what the head coach asks you to watch. But as the head everything is running through your mind.”
Walton didn’t get much time to adjust, since the team had just three practices before their first game in Vegas. Walton credits the players that they are even able to form some semblance of a team:
“Yeah I mean it’s tough, I think you’ve got to give this group that they put together a lot of credit because three days of practice normally shouldn’t be enough time. But these guys seem to be on the same page. We got a couple guys that were on the D-League team that have done a great job of taking that leadership role and helping explain what we are doing.”
Walton draws on lessons he learned last season where he was mentored by both Gentry and Ron Adams, who have more than 40 years of NBA coaching experience combined.
With such veteran coaches, it could be intimidating, especially when it’s just your first year in the league. But it wasn’t like that on this team, explains Walton:
“I’m sure a lot of first-year coaches it would have been hard, but Ron and Alvin were absolutely amazing. They were patient, they were in to teaching us younger coaches how it’s done. They would take their own time out, come to your office, come to your room and show you how they do things. And it’s great because they do things completely different.”
A lot of that had to do with the culture Kerr instilled in the Warriors from the start. Nobody was worried about stepping on anyone’s toes or holding their tongue because all opinions were welcome, Walton said:
“I was never worried about saying anything because Steve made it clear very early that he wants everybody giving their opinion and we’ll take what we all feel is the best opinion out of that. And we had such a nice connection with our whole coaching staff, you never had to worry about one of the older more senior coaches getting upset with you. You were always comfortable coming to the table with an idea.”
Walton got Summer League off to a good start with a 83-75 Warriors win over the Cavs Friday night, but followed it up with a 71-70 loss to the Hawks Sunday when a last-second three spun out at the buzzer.
Walton even got his first technical foul — although it was for calling a timeout that they didn’t have. It really just slipped his mind, admits Walton:
“You get only two timeouts for summer league, I’m used to (getting) like six timeouts in an NBA game. And I didn’t call either timeout, two of our players dove on the floor for timeouts, which are good timeout calls, but I had just forgot about that. I knew that I had not stood up and called a timeout, but it was fun, it was a good learning experience. I got my first technical and we got the win anyways so that’s nice.”
History is on Walton’s side, as the last assistant to coach a Warriors summer league team was Darren Erman in 2013, when he led the team to an undefeated 7-0 showing and an NBA Summer League championship.
That’s helpful, considering Walton is following the Warriors’ unprecedented year of success.
With both the Santa Cruz and Golden State Warriors winning championships, is Kerr putting pressure on him to keep it up?
“He’s talked some trash about it, but it’s not really pressure, I mean we’re here to try and win the championship but I don’t think I’ll get fired if we don’t.”