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The Daily Wildcat

 

    Former Wildcat earns respect as NBA Laker

    Arizonas Luke Walton tries to pass a St. Louis University defender during Arizonas win, Dec. 3, 2002 at McKale Center in Tucson. (Chris Coduto/Arizona Daily Wildcat, 2002)
    Arizona’s Luke Walton tries to pass a St. Louis University defender during Arizona’s win, Dec. 3, 2002 at McKale Center in Tucson. (Chris Coduto/Arizona Daily Wildcat, 2002)

    Luke Walton still looks like a college student.

    Standing inside the Los Angeles Lakers locker room, Walton is busy text messaging on his cell phone with his famous scraggly hair still wet after the Lakers’ loss to the Phoenix Suns on Friday night. After playing for five years (medical redshirt his freshman season) under the tutelage of Lute Olson, Walton is in his third season playing for one of the NBA’s most esteemed franchises, yet his days at Arizona are fresh in his memory.

    “”I was there five years. If they would have let me play more, I would have been there more,”” Walton said. “”From my senior night to my freshman year, to everything in between it was really the best time of my life.””

    Walton’s voice is deep, Çÿ la his father Bill, but he talks in a semiwhisper, with obvious disappointment in his voice, as each of the Lakers exemplified because it was the team’s seventh consecutive loss to the Suns. On this night, Walton’s numbers are quiet – four points, two rebounds – but in four games this month his role with the Lakers has increased and so have his averages.

    “”This wasn’t a typical night for him tonight,”” Lakers head coach Phil Jackson said. “”He’s played much better than this offensively and has contributed to us.””

    Walton is a key member of the bench, putting up 9.8 points and 5.5 rebounds per game while averaging 31 minutes per game in April. From the time he was drafted – in the second round, 32nd overall – Walton has proved he belongs in the NBA. Walton’s teammate, All-Star guard Kobe Bryant, has seen the improvement first hand.

    “”He’s always been a hard worker and has had a high basketball IQ, and when you put those two things together it’s just a matter of you evolving as a basketball player,”” Bryant said. “”That’s what he’s done.””

    Walton has evolved, increasing his scoring and rebounding averages in every season, and with Jackson back in the fold, Walton’s passing skills from the forward position are coming in handy in the triangle offense.

    “”I love playing in Phil’s offense,”” Walton said. “”I’ve been lucky enough to have coach (Lute) Olson and now coach Jackson. I love his philosophy on the game with the movement and all the cutting and passing required in this offense so I definitely feel like I’m in a good place here.””

    Earlier this season, Walton had to deal with an obstacle that has always hampered his career: injuries. Walton missed the first 11 games of the season and had to play catch-up.

    “”First part of the season he was struggling a little bit but he worked hard every day,”” Bryant said. “”He was here early at practice, he stayed late at practice, continued to work diligently at his game and now you see the turnaround, you see the payoff. He’s doing a lot of great things for us, he’s very valuable to us and I’m happy for him.””

    Many of the fans in attendance are happy for Walton too. Every time he touches the ball a chorus of “”Luuuuuuuke”” rings out.

    Walton as a Wildcat

    At Arizona, Walton was an icon, a stabilizing force for the four seasons he played, and the only Wildcat ever to average more than 15 points, seven rebounds and six assists during one season.

    Things didn’t start out for Walton as he had planned. Battling injuries in his first season, Walton redshirted. In his second year though, Walton shared a starting forward position with one of his best friends, current New Jersey Nets forward Richard Jefferson, and earned Pacific 10 Conference All-Freshman team honors.

    “”Your first couple of years are tough because the older players are always good too, so you have to wait your turn,”” Walton said. “”Coach Olson is always harder on you your first two years.””

    In his first two seasons on the court, Walton took a backseat to his higher profile teammates, playing a point forward position later exhibited by Andre Iguodala and dishing out 3.5 assists per game. In his junior year, Walton broke out, handling a larger part of the scoring load while notching career highs in rebounds, assists and field goal percentage. He was named a first-team Wooden All-American.

    Walton gives all the credit to Olson.

    “”I think a lot of it has to do with coach Olson,”” he said. “”He’s one of the greatest coaches of all time. He makes you do things that sometimes you don’t want to do, and it might seem repetitive, but by the time you leave the program it makes you into a hell of a ball player.””

    In his senior season, Walton’s injuries once again flared up, and his numbers dropped.

    “”He barely practiced because he was beat up so much,”” said Wildcat senior guard Hassan Adams, who played one season with Walton.

    Still, he was able to average over 10 points, five rebounds and five assists for the second consecutive season.

    “”To this day, I believe if he didn’t have his injuries his senior year, he would have been the best player in the nation,”” Adams said.

    Walton and Walton

    It’s no secret that the biggest fan of UCLA basketball is none other than Luke’s dad Bill Walton, a basketball Hall of Fame center and current NBA analyst for ESPN. Despite the outside pressure to join the Bruins, the younger Walton never felt the pressure from his family.

    “”I loved watching Arizona when I was in high school, and I loved the way they played,”” Walton said.

    Prior to Friday’s game, the elder Walton walked over to his son during warm-ups and whispered some words of encouragement.

    “”We don’t get to see each other that much during the season because we’re busy so much,”” Luke Walton said. “”(He tells me) good luck, what he thinks I need to do during the game if he’s seen any of my past games. Besides that, it’s just nice to see each other.””

    Adams remembers playing San Diego State during Walton’s senior year and visiting the Walton household.

    “”Bill Walton, he’s a character,”” Adams said. “”You can tell he rubbed off on Luke with the kind of personality that Luke and his dad have. They’re good people.””

    A San Diego native, Walton has a character that matches the city where he grew up.

    “”Luke is laid back, he never really got too excited,”” Adams said. “”He was funny in his own way.””

    Adams and Walton

    When Adams arrived at Arizona, he started at the bottom of the totem pole, just as Walton did three years before. Although Walton played with future NBA stars at Arizona, he quickly recognized Adams and Iguodala’s talent.

    “”When I came in, I came in with Richard, Reuben (Douglas), Ricky Anderson. Loren Woods was there and then Gilbert (Arenas) and Jason (Gardner) came in,”” Walton said. “”When Hassan and Andre came in, they were as talented as any of the players I had played with.””

    Walton had some sage advice at the time for the pair of promising freshmen.

    “”I just always made a point to tell him and Andre to just be patient and listen to what coach says. He has a track record of getting people into the NBA, and that’s what everyone wants to do.””

    Adams said Walton was always teaching and became his friend and mentor.

    “”Luke got … my career started,”” Adams said. “”Just knowing what to expect, going out of his way to teach me the little things. Some players and they’re like ‘I’m not gonna teach him because he’s coming and doing this.’

    “”But he was always looking to help. He wasn’t jealous – anything you need he was going to be the one to help you. He was like that and he’s still like that to this day.””

    Walton’s leadership earned him the co-captaincy in his last two seasons at Arizona. While traveling in the NBA, Walton tries to keep in contact with many of his old teammates.

    “”He communicated with everybody, and he communicated with different personalities, and that’s what makes him special,”” Adams said.

    Walton said he tries to give Olson phone calls whenever he can to let him know how’s he doing and to congratulate Olson on his success.

    Walton and Jefferson’s relationship is still strong as well. During the season, Jefferson and Walton talk “”all the time,”” but they don’t get to see much of each other because they play on different coasts. In the summer, the two work out and hang out together.

    Arizona success in the NBA

    Since 1989, the year the NBA draft was shortened to two rounds, no other school has had as many NBA draft picks as Arizona’s 26. But not only do Wildcats get drafted, they rarely warm the bench. Of the 10 Arizona players on opening-day rosters, seven are averaging double digits in points and Salim Stoudamire is close at 9.7 points per game. While Walton was cold on Friday, Woods grabbed 10 rebounds and Arenas, a 2006 NBA All-Star, scored 41 points.

    “”They have a hell of a lot of players,”” said Bryant, a Philadelphia native who has gotten to know Iguodala. “”They obviously have a great basketball program. Iguodala is like a little brother to me. They just have a lot of great players.””

    As with his own career, Walton attributes the success of Arizona players to Olson.

    “”I think the reason there are so many of us in the NBA is because of coach Olson,”” Walton said. “”I give all the praise in the world, he’s one of the best coaches ever.””

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