Forget Mike, D-Leaguers Should Dream to Be Like Luke

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Updated: June 10, 2010

Luke Walton never played in the D-League.

He entered the NBA in 2003 after being drafted in the second round by the Lakers (32nd overall) following a solid but not spectacular fifth-year senior season at Arizona. Back then his name was Luke Walton The Son of Hall of Famer Bill Walton.

Now in his seventh season with the Lakers, Walton has established his own NBA identity. He is far from a candidate for time in the D-League, but his performance in Game 3 of the NBA Finals was a blueprint of how a role player can impact a game, even on the biggest stage.

Some things can be gleaned from a stat sheet. Walton’s impact isn’t among them. In order to appreciate Walton’s impact on Tuesday night’s game, you had to actually watch the game. But just for fun, here are the numbers: 2 points on 1-1 shooting, 2 rebounds, 1 assist, 2 fouls in 13 minutes of playing time. (See what I mean? Not much there.)

But trust me when I say that Walton was a key player in L.A.’s 91-84 victory, which allowed the Lakers to reclaim home court advantage and take a 2-1 series lead. I’ll explain after the jump.

The offense
Luke Walton is not a scorer, but he is an excellent passer, has a high basketball IQ, and knows the triangle offense as well as anyone on the team. Walton was inserted into the Lakers lineup early in Game 3 to defend Paul Pierce after Ron Artest picked up two quick fouls, but the substitution’s impact was felt most strongly on the offensive end. Walton provided a calming influence on a team that was getting run ragged by a Celtics team feeding off a frenzied Boston crowd. Not only does Walton avoid the bad shots Artest has a penchant for taking, he also has a knack for knowing when, where, and how to get the ball to the right teammate at the best time to set up a good shot. The difference in the crispness of the Lakers offense was night and day.

The defense
Luke Walton is no Ron Artest defensively, but he held his own surprisingly well against Paul Pierce last night. Part of it may have been that Pierce just wasn’t hitting many shots, but I also think Walton did a good job of using his body and strength to keep Pierce at bay and force him into long jumpshots rather than allowing him to get into the lane. Defense is a team concept, and Walton contributed his share more than most Lakers fans probably expected when he came into the game.

The shot
It didn’t seem like much at the time. Heck, you could even question if it was a good shot. But the lone shot attempt that Walton took was a 20-foot step-back jumper less than five minutes into a game that Boston was controlling. Before taking that shot, the Lakers faced their biggest deficit yet at 12-5. He buried it, and the make served as a catalyst for the Lakers offense as they closed the quarter on a 21-5 run to take a 9-point lead at the end of the first quarter.

The stat
I mentioned earlier that Walton’s stat line was rather pedestrian, but if you’re into advanced metrics, there is one number that tells the tale of Walton’s night. His plus/minus for the night was +13. Considering he played just 13 minutes, that’s like saying the Lakers gained a point on Boston every minute that Walton was on the floor.

D-League players aren’t going to be called up to the NBA to be Kobe Bryant or Pau Gasol. Or Derek Fisher for that matter. No, Luke Walton never played in the D-League, but there was a D-League sensibility to his Game 3 showing, and I mean that most emphatically as a compliment. Walton is Exhibit A on how to make a difference and a positive contribution to your team without the fanfare.

He didn’t do it through scoring. He didn’t even do it through rebounding or assisting. He played smart (0 turnovers), he played with poise under pressure, and he helped his team win a critical game in the NBA Finals. There is always room for a Luke Walton type of role player on an NBA championship roster. In fact, if you search back through history and watch the games—not just the highlights or the box scores—you’ll find that almost every NBA champion had its own Luke Walton type. Don’t be surprised if some of these types come out of the D-League in the very near future.

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