Actual, tangible news on the Los Angeles Lakers is hard to find in the middle of June during an NBA Finals the team isn't playing in. Most of it concerns smoke-filled backroom whispers about their intentions in the 2016 NBA Draft or free agency, but the team seems to have made a concrete move in recent days with reports they will add Raptors 905 (the Toronto Raptors' D-League team) head coach Jesse Mermuys to Luke Walton's assistant coaching staff.
One of the hardest things to understand from outside of a team is what exactly their various assistant coaches are bringing to the table. So to add a bit of clarity on what exactly the Lakers (and by extension their fans) can expect from Mermuys' hire, Silver Screen and Roll reached out to Blake Murphy, managing editor of Raptor's Republic.
Murphy covered Mermuys closely with the 905 last season, and offered some great insight into his strengths as a coach. Here is our (lightly) edited Q&A:
Silver Screen and Roll: So it sounds like you covered Mermuys pretty closely with the 905 last season. Where would you say his strengths lie as a coach?
Blake Murphy: The biggest thing Mermuys brings to the table is player development. Even in just a single year, the 905 experiment proved remarkably valuable from that standpoint. Axel Toupane played his way into an NBA contract, Greg Smith was able to re-establish himself as an NBA player, Ronald Roberts had himself on the cusp of a call-up before injury struck, Norman Powell improved a great deal as a playmaker, Delon Wright's pick-and-roll defense improved, and Bruno Caboclo took strides (although he's still far away) across the board. Even Davion Berry, acquired at the trade deadline, took off in just 10 games with the club.
How much of that is scouting and how much is coaching is unclear (Mermuys was also the team's assistant general manager), but given the individual improvements, particularly with Toupane and Powell, it's easy to get excited about what Mermuys may be able to do with the Lakers' young core.
He's also unrelentingly positive and seems, from the outside, like a natural fit with Luke Walton
Would you say he's more offensively or defensively focused, based on your experience?
Murphy: It's a little difficult to separate Mermuys' own preferences and strategy, just because the Raptors organization wanted the 905 to run as similarly to the parent club as possible. So while at a high level, there were strengths and weaknesses, it's not as if Mermuys designed the entire system himself - he was running what Dwane Casey and company run, with some creative license based around situation and the roster (their end-of-quarter sets were often right out of Casey's playbook, for example).
Having said that, it seems as if Mermuys has a good deal of potential as a defensive coach. Even as an expansion franchise with a ton of turnover, Mermuys managed to coach the 905 to the No. 6 defense in the D-League. They lost Axel Toupane, their best individual defender, they lost Ronald Roberts to injury, and they stopped getting Norman Powell on assignment, but the defense still continued to improve as the season went along.
Mermuys also tweaked the defensive scheme to better suit Sim Bhullar as Bhullar carved out a larger role in the second half of the season, no easy task given his athletic limitations.
It's entirely possible Mermuys just didn't have the weapons in Year One to stand out as an offensive specialist, but the defense is definitely what stood out.
Given that he coached in the D-League, most would assume he also is fairly good at helping players, well, develop. Can you speak to that? Any memorable instances of him doing particularly good work with a player?
Murphy: I touched on this above, but Toupane, Powell, and Bhullar are the big ones.
Toupane looked lost offensively to start the season, trying to do far too much when he got the ball and generally looking uncomfortable with the North American game. By the time the Nuggets picked him up, Toupane had not only developed the corner three as a weapon and continued to establish himself as a potential four-position defender, but he'd also improved dramatically as a secondary ball-handler and playmaker off the bounce. Those skills may not be necessary for his immediate NBA role, but there's a reason he won the D-League's Most Improved Player award.
In the case of Powell, everyone got a good look at the strides he took. The book on him was that he could defend and drive in straight-line fashion, and that was about it (which was still fine for a second-round pick). When he went to the D-League, the 905 put the ball in his hands a ton and challenged him to create for others, and by the end of his stint(s), he was far more comfortable attacking off the catch and making the next pass (there were a few great examples of this in the Indiana series). He improved as a shooter, too.
For Bhullar, the season was far more about functional conditioning than his actual production, but he, too, ended the season in a far better place than he started.
What else should Lakers fans know about their new assistant coach?
Murphy: Short of Jama Mahlalela, Mermuys' potential replacement with the 905, there may not be a more positive voice on a bench in the NBA. Mermuys is great helping develop young players, but it's his personality that stands out most, and players like Bruno Caboclo and Lucas Nogueira speak the world of him in that regard.
Big thanks to Blake for answering all of our questions, and you can follow him on Twitter at @BlakeMurphyODC, and you can find more information on Mermuys' time with the 905 at these links:
- On Toupane's development
- On Roberts
- On Powell
- On Bhullar
- Murphy's report on Mermuys' hire and how big of a loss it is for the 905
- On the success of the 905's season
You can follow this author on Twitter at @hmfaigen.