There were 17 teams in the NBA D-League in the 2013-14 season, and each of them had a handful of assistant coaches. Logic holds that most of their ranks won't ascend to NBA head coaching jobs. The odds are even lower for player development coaches, but D-Fenders head coach Casey Owens saw something special in the "laid-back, Southern California kid" who was dominating the team's scrimmages without taking a shot.
"At some point we all kind of expected him to be the head coach of the Lakers," said Owens. "I thought that then [when I was coaching with him.] It may be ten years, but this guy is going to be the head coach of the Lakers."
The level of optimism required for such a feeling is rare, but it has been matched by fans of the Los Angeles Lakers in the recent weeks since Walton was hired to replace Byron Scott at the beginning of May.
Some might argue that all of this hope is unwarranted given the uncertainty surrounding both of those pieces of news. Is Walton actually a good head coach, or did he just ride the Steve Kerr's established system and a historically great roster to 39 wins and a nice payday in Los Angeles?
Opinions differ, but his former boss thinks that theory is bogus.
"I think it's ridiculous," Kerr told Ethan Sherwood Strauss of ESPN.com when asked about getting all of Walton's wins. "I'm sitting in the locker room and watching the games on TV, and I'm not even traveling to most of the road games. Luke's doing all the work with the rest of the staff. Luke is 15-0 right now. I'm not. So it's the dumbest thing I've ever heard, to be honest with you. I don't even understand it."
Walton being able to guide a talented team to a 15-0 record is nice, but that is not going to happen in his first season with the Lakers. As Kerr noted when Bill Oram of the O.C. Register asked what advice he would offer Walton next season, "It's too bad you don't have Steph, Klay, and Draymond anymore. You're on your own pal."
Walton won't get to bring those All-Stars with him to Los Angeles, and in their place he'll have a young roster with as many questions about it as many have about him, the experience of a 10-year playing career, and a background in player development to lean on.
The latter aspect will be the key to Walton's tenure. If the former Lakers forward wants to lead his old team back to prominence, he's going to have to help the team's young core reach their full potential. Those who have worked with him believe Walton has the skillset for it.
"What he's really good at is teaching the little tricks, how to get fouled, or particular footwork against a double team, or passing out of a double-team," said Owens. "[Whenever] there was a stop in play, he'd talk to the team about 'hey, we need to have the floor better spaced here...it was just awesome to watch."
That kind of coacing came with Walton to the Warriors, where Draymond Green spent "more court time with Walton than any other player," according to Monte Pool of CSN Bay Area. In their time together, the brash forward learned to back up his big talk, grinding his way from second-round pick to superstar. The player always deserves most of the credit for putting in the work to make these improvements, but Julius Randle told Mark Medina of the L.A. Daily News that he's hoping his time with Walton can lead to a similar breakout.
"There's a lot of similarities between Draymond and I, but it'll be a lot to learn," Randle said. "It'll be fun for us all to get up and down with everybody and sharing the ball. That's going to be big for us this year."
After the Lakers hired Walton last week, Randle reported he and his teammates have frequently sent texts to each other expressing excitement about the 2016-17 campaign. That enthusiasm bubbled when Walton's phone conversation with Randle entailed both positive reinforcement about his play and constructive feedback about his development. On a day Randle brightened kids' spirits in a visit hosted by the Lakers, Delta and P.S. Arts, it sounded like Walton's recent talk with Randle also brightened his mood.
"It's great to have a coach to believe in you," Randle said. "I think that's key, not only for the success of the player, but for the success of the team for a coach to believe in his players. We're excited and all ready to get back to work."
Walton's early handling of Randle matches with the early picture that has been painted of the 36-year-old as a master relationship builder, a person players will want to listen to both on the court and in free agent meetings because of his powerful positivity.
"I would say he is a laid back type of coach. He never raised his voice but when he talked, people listened," said D-Fenders point guard Josh Magette, who played for Walton during the 2013-14 season. "A lot of coaches talk down to their players but Luke did a good job of talking to us."
Others who worked with Walton during his time with the D-Fenders echoed that sentiment.
"He was as cool as you'd think he'd be," texted D-Fenders guard Andre Ingram. "A players' coach."
"He had great rapport with the guys and he was a teacher, like instantly," added Owens. "He's easy to get along with and he can talk to players, he'll be able to talk to the front office, he'll be able to talk to assistants on his staff, he's just got an outstanding personality."
Perhaps the greatest evidence of such a personality lies in his former employers. Owens sounds as excited to get to work under a man who was his assistant just two years ago as Kerr sounds disappointed to lose him.
"[You] can't replace him, you know?," Kerr told Strauss in a recent interview. "I wanted to bring in people who knew basketball but who were just unique, fun human beings, great senses of humor, fun to be around... I'm going to miss the daily interaction with Luke. What he brings to the players is pretty powerful. He's going to be tough to replace."
Walton will be one of the Warriors few losses in a 73-9 season, and his addition is a win for the Lakers after a season of defeat after defeat. Aside from all of those losses, one of the reasons so many were eager to move on from Scott was his constant criticism of his players in the media, but such negativity doesn't sound like it will be an issue for the affable Walton.
"I think you'll see a lot of poise from him on the sideline, I don't foresee him being a ranter and raver or screamer," said Owens. "He's got a lot of poise for a younger coach, and that's going to translate really well to the players, and I think they're going to trust him deeply."
That type of trust didn't appear to exist on the Lakers last year as the team rode a wave of dysfunction both on and off the court to the worst record in team history. The player who Walton rebounded for after every practice, even during his stint as interim head coach, gave an example of how he might communicate with his players in a positive way.
"I shoot a bad shot, I'm hearing from coach Kerr," Green told CSN Bay Area when asked to talk about the differences between Walton and the man he was standing in for at the time. "I shoot a bad one with Luke, he might tell me when I come to the sideline like, 'Ay, we can get a better one.'"
So sometimes screaming works (both Kerr and Walton had pretty good records at the helm over the past two seasons), but Walton has other, more unique ways of getting the most out of his number one pupil.
"I was able to get it going [Green had just hit his first three three-pointers], and my teammates started to look for me," Green told Carl Steward of the Mercury News after a game in early January. "Then Luke drew up a play for me (during the timeout) and told me I wasn't going to make it on the fourth one. So I had to knock that one down."
A more positive culture won't be the only thing Walton will have to install this offseason. A major ingredient to increase the joy in the Lakers' locker room will be more wins, and while they aren't expected to be title contenders next season, the front office and ownership expect Walton to make changes to how the second worst team in the league plays. Walton has told them he plans to play similarly to the team he's leaving behind.
"That's how Luke intends to play when he becomes our coach," said Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak when asked about Walton bringing elements of the Warriors' offense to Los Angeles during an appearance on AM 570 LA sports with Bill Reiter and LeAnn Tweeden. "He really believes in that style of play and he's been very successful in Golden State with that style of play."
So all Walton has to do is make the locker room more positive, help his young players develop, and pick up a few more wins along the way. If all of this seems like a lot for a first-time head coach, make no mistake, it is. Fixing everything wrong with the Lakers won't fall to their new head coach, but he will be responsible for a large share of improving the team.
Walton was given a five-year contract, implying that he'll have plenty of time and security to help turn the Lakers around. However, those expecting him to take that entire five-year window to significantly improve the team should take note of a lesson Owens learned when it only took Walton two years to ascend to the head coaching position his former boss predicted it would take him ten years to attain: Walton's laid back nature belies a competitor that excels at exceeding expectations.
"The fact that he's a rookie head coach, I don't think you can read too much into that. Some guys are built for it, and he's one of them," said Owens. "Sometimes things feel right, and I think this one does fit."
"I think the future is bright for L.A., there's no question."
All quotes obtained firsthand if not otherwise cited. You can follow this author on Twitter at @hmfaigen.