AUBURN HILLS – Stan Van Gundy plucked Rex Walters from the D-League to join his Pistons staff this season largely because he sees Walters as a boon to his goal of more robust player development. Walters is flattered by Van Gundy’s faith but also sees the move as a way to burnish his personal development as a coach.
But it wasn’t like Walters didn’t look in the rear-view mirror on his way out of Grand Rapids, where he coached the Drive last season.
“I loved Grand Rapids. I loved it,” Walters said recently after working out Pistons lottery pick Luke Kennard at the team’s practice facility. “It was a lot of fun. We had great guys. But, obviously, to have a chance to come up here and learn from the staff, number one, but obviously from (Van Gundy). And being around great players, it’s an opportunity you just can’t pass up. So when it was presented, I was pretty excited about it.”
Van Gundy was disappointed with the lack of individual progress among Pistons players last season and made player development a point of emphasis going forward. He’s assigned another assistant coach, Aaron Gray, to set the agenda for Pistons big men and handed Walters the responsibility for their perimeter players.
With both Walters and Gray having plenty of NBA playing experience, he feels they’ll be especially suited to making a connection with the players under their charge.
“I just think from a players’ perspective, it’s a respect thing,” Van Gundy said. “ ‘The guy working with me has done it’ and Rex had a seven-year NBA career, plus Rex brings a coaching background of a decade as a Division I head coach, so he’s got both. We thought it would strengthen us here and change our approach a little bit.”
Walters has jumped in with both feet this off-season, getting plenty of work with Kennard, among others, during Summer League in Orlando. He’ll work extensively with the Duke rookie and knows that a big part of his job will be getting Kennard up to speed on the complexity of NBA defenses. That last part didn’t really come as a surprise to Walters, but he had confirmed what he already suspected about the evolution of the NBA since he retired in 2000 in that regard during his season in the D-League.
“The game’s a lot more complicated than it was when I played,” he said. “Pick-and-roll coverage is a lot more complicated. We blitzed everything in Miami – 90 percent of the time – and so now it’s different.”
That year in the D-League gave Walters a great foundation for transitioning to Van Gundy’s NBA staff, handling all the things that fall to a head coach in a league without the vast resources of the NBA at his fingertips.
“You learn a lot. This game is so much different than the college game, just so many more possessions. There’s so many more situations,” he said. “You’ve got to be better in pick-and-roll defense . There’s just so many more things you have to cover and be organized. And the player level is better. They know if you know and they know if you don’t – and they know it really quick, so you’ve got to be on the mark consistently. I learned an awful lot. It was a great opportunity for me. I loved it. I really did. It was a great challenge.”