Lonnie Walker IV, Bruce Brown put UM bond on hold during NBA Western Conference finals | Opinion
As if University of Miami basketball coach Jim Larranaga didn’t have enough to celebrate this spring, when he turns on the TV on Tuesday night to watch Game 1 of the NBA Western Conference finals, two of his former players will be on the court facing each other – Bruce Brown of the Denver Nuggets and Lonnie Walker IV of the Los Angeles Lakers.
The former Hurricanes, who were teammates in 2017-18, made headlines in the previous round and serve as a heck of a recruiting tool for a UM program coming off its first Final Four.
For so long, the “U” symbol was synonymous with NFL success. In the past three months, teenagers have seen current and former UM basketball players reach unprecedented heights. Surely, that will help Larranaga lure the next generation.
Walker’s 15-point fourth quarter in Game 4 against the Golden State Warriors led to the Lakers’ 104-101 win, and he became the first Laker since Kobe Bryant in 1997 to score 15 or more points off the bench in the fourth quarter of a postseason game.
One night later, Brown exploded for 25 points off the bench to help Denver win Game 5 over the Phoenix Suns. Brown so far has led the Nuggets in bench points, rebounds, assists and steals during the 2023 playoffs.
I caught up with both players by phone Monday as they prepared for Tuesday’s game. Their UM bond remains strong, and they are pumped to face each other.
Brown said Walker’s performance motivated him.
“I was watching that game and was excited for him to get that opportunity on the biggest platform, and I was I super motivated, like, `I’ve got to do the same.’” Brown said. “It’s going to be super exciting going against him. I’m definitely going to dab him up and congratulate him, but I’m telling him I’m coming at his neck.”
Walker said: “We’re like brothers. Once a Cane always a Cane. It’s surreal to say the least to be in the playoffs against Bruce. Our energy transfers to each other. It’s a blessing. Everything is coming full circle. Davon Reed was with the Nuggets and the Lakers, and he’s the one who recruited me to go to Miami and for him to be with me in L.A. at the beginning of this season was another full circle moment.”
Larranaga vividly remembers flying to New York and watching the 2018 NBA Draft in a Barclays Center suite with his assistant coaches and other members of the UM athletic department. Walker, who left Miami after his freshman season, was one of 20 players invited to the green room that night, and he dressed the part, decked in a white double-breasted suit and wire-rimmed glasses.
Walker was picked No. 18 by the San Antonio Spurs, tying Shane Larkin as the highest UM draft pick since Rick Barry was selected No. 2 by the San Francisco Warriors in 1965. Brown, who left UM after his sophomore season, was selected in the second round by the Detroit Pistons, and likely would have gone higher if he were not coming off a foot injury.
It was the first time two Canes were chosen since 1970 (and those were in the 10th and 15th rounds).
I asked Larranaga if he can tell when a high school recruit is an NBA prospect. He replied, without hesitation: “In both of those cases, yes. Some guys you’re not sure, like Isaiah Wong, he weighed just 162 pounds, so you think, `He’s got to get bigger and stronger.’ Bruce was 6-4 and 200 pounds. Lonnie was 6-4 and 195 or 200 pounds. They came in as men. Their bodies were made for the NBA.”
The UM coach was so sure Brown had what it took to make the NBA that he did not let him play in the 2018 NCAA Tournament, even though doctors had cleared him. Brown injured his foot that January, missed a dozen games and was dying to play against Loyola-Chicago in the first-round game.
Larranaga refused. Miami lost 64-62.
“I remember thinking, `If Bruce had stayed healthy, we would have been in the Final Four that year,’’’ Larranaga said.
Walker agreed. “We had so much power offensively and so much going defensively. We were a hell of a team.”
Although that loss still stings, Larranaga and Brown agree holding him out was the right decision.
“Bruce wanted to play but hadn’t practiced in two months and the fifth metatarsal is very easy to break again if you don’t rehab and get stronger slowly,” Larranaga said. “I told him `You’re not playing, you need to slowly start getting back into shape so when you get to NBA Combine, you’ll be ready to show everybody how good you are’. And he has.”
Brown said looking back, he was not ready to play.
“If I had played in that game, anything could have happened, and I wouldn’t be in the position I am in today,” he said. “I owe Coach L a lot and that speaks to him as a person. A lot of coaches wouldn’t do what he did for me.”
Walker and Brown left for the pros early, but both benefited greatly from their time under Larranaga, who is known for developing players. They stay in touch with him and have formed a brotherhood with current Hurricanes. Brown took the team to dinner last summer. He and Walker were thrilled to see the Canes in the Final Four.
“I love Coach L to death and to see him accomplish what he did was amazing,” Walker said.
The feeling is mutual.