Dennis Schröder rejoined Lakers for Darvin Ham and chance to ‘make it right’

In a friendship that now spans a decade, the most memorable conversation Darvin Ham and Dennis Schröder ever had was over chicken noodle soup.

The timing is somewhat inexact, but both men agree it happened during Schröder’s second season after the Atlanta Hawks selected him 17th overall in the 2013 NBA Draft. Then 21, Schröder came to Darvin Ham steaming: He had spent a full offseason in Atlanta, not so much as flying home to Germany over the summer, but he hadn’t cracked the starting lineup. Just a year into his burgeoning NBA career, Schröder was ready for the nuclear option.

“He came into my office talking, ‘To hell with this (expletive), D-Ham. I ain’t come here for this,’” Ham recalled to Southern California News Group. “‘I ain’t come here to sit.’”

Ham, then a Hawks assistant coach, said the two should get chicken noodle soup, and with a warm lunch, Schröder got a serving of cold, hard perspective: “(Dennis) was like, ‘Trade me.’ And I was like, ‘Where you wanna go?’”

Ham handled Schröder’s bombastic trade request with a laugh and an arm around his shoulder. Even though he was a young assistant, Ham had seen ups and downs in his time as an NBA player – he had gone through a few himself – and told the young guard something that has stuck with him through the years: “I told him sometimes you gotta go through the bull ‘ish’ to get to good ‘ish.’”

That conversation over chicken noodle soup was the foundation that kept Schröder and Ham connected across coasts and through their careers in the NBA. Now 29, Schröder starts at point guard for first-year Lakers head coach Ham, a dream both men talked about for years.

For both, it’s a second stint in L.A. But Schröder’s departure in the summer of 2021 was more bitter: The Lakers traded a first-round pick for him in the hopes that he would be their point guard of the future, but contract extension talks fizzled during the season, and a first-round playoff exit soured the tenure.

But Schröder came back, in part, to play for a coach he implicitly trusts – and also to show that he can’t be deterred by what he now describes as the most challenging setback of his career. Instead of forgetting the past, he’s reckoning with it.

“Of course we had a couple of other options (in free agency),” Schröder told SCNG. “But for me, to make it right, that’s the spot. It’s like, ‘OK, it’s got to be the Lakers.”

ATLANTA ROOTS

To understand Ham’s deep paternal fondness for the 6-foot-1 Schröder – he still calls him “little” and “kid” even though he now has three children of his own – one need only look at the Lakers’ recent results.

During Anthony Davis’ latest injury setback, Schröder has put his imprint on several gutty wins. Against the Miami Heat (without LeBron James), he scored a season-high 32 points to thrill a raucous home crowd. Against the Sacramento Kings on the road, he drew the critical foul against De’Aaron Fox that led to his game-winning free throws.

Lakers guard Dennis Schröder controls the ball after stealing the ball from the Memphis Grizzlies’ Desmond Bane, right, during the final 10 seconds of the game on Friday night at Crypto.com Arena. Schröder completed a three-point play with 7.6 seconds left and the Lakers held on for a 122-121 win. (AP Photo/Ashley Landis)

Then, of course, there was Friday night, when Schröder snuck up on the blind side of Desmond Bane and picked his pocket, sprinting down for an and-one layup that gave the Lakers a one-point win over the Memphis Grizzlies – one of their best wins of the season. For Ham, even more impressive was how he took the lion’s share of guarding All-Star Ja Morant, who scored just six points in the first half and shot 9 for 29 overall.

“That was huge for him,” Ham said. “He’s a kid that’s ultra-confident and ultra-competitive. And wants his teammates to care as much as he does.”

Those traits were what first drew Ham to Schröder back in 2013, when Ham was starting out on Mike Budenholzer’s staff in Atlanta. Ham understood that Schröder represented the franchise’s future and wanted to help him make an impact.

In Ham, Schröder found a mentor who would always keep it real with him – there are few things he values more than directness: “I’m gonna tell you, ‘Listen, this is (expletive) up. We gotta talk about it.’ And he do the same thing.”

Ham helped smooth over Schröder’s spur-of-the-moment trade request during the 2014-15 season, and the point guard became a key sixth man behind All-Star Jeff Teague on a team that won 60 games in the regular season. In retrospect, Schröder calls it “the best team I’ve ever been around,” largely because of the unselfishness up and down the roster.

In Atlanta, the two grew their personal relationship, too. As past colleagues have learned, the fastest way to Ham’s heart is a good set of wheels. That seems to be true throughout the Ham family: His son Dominic noticed that Schröder drove a sleek black Lamborghini and mentioned to his father that it would be a great ride to take to North Atlanta High School’s prom.

When Dennis Schröder, left, was playing for the Atlanta Hawks and Darvin Ham was one of the assistant coaches, their families became close. Schröder offered and followed through on a promise to drive Ham’s son, Dominic Ham, to his high school prom in his Lamborghini. (Photo courtesy of the Ham family)

Naturally, Schröder was happy to play chauffeur for the teenager as Mom and Dad took as many photos and videos as possible.

“I was like, ‘I got you,’” Schröder said. “And a lot of people who say I got you don’t really do nothing. But I told Darvin, ‘Listen, I’m gonna pick him up with the Lambo and we’re gonna have a good time.’”

A trait that stands out about Schröder is how loyal he is to those in his circle: It’s common for him to house a cadre of family members and friends at his house. Whenever Ham ran a basketball camp in Cologne, Germany, Schröder would pass through. Ham is definitely deep in the circle.

“I love him because he understands when people are being authentic, people are being genuine,” Ham said. “If he knows you have his back, he’ll run through a wall for you.”

FALLING FLAT

If Schröder learned humility in Atlanta, it didn’t exactly come across when he made his first impression in L.A. One of the first comments he made as a Laker was to infer that he would be a starter just a season after finishing as runner-up for Sixth Man of the Year: “I did this off the bench stuff already in two years with OKC,” he said.

But at the time, that skyrocketing self-confidence seemed justified: The defending champion Lakers had dealt Danny Green and a draft pick for Schröder with the vision of him as a point guard of the future, on the same timeline as Davis. The only thing the franchise needed to do was sign him to a contract extension.

Ah, the extension. Talking to the principals today, both Schröder and the Lakers will deny that anything was officially offered or rejected. But reports at the time universally indicated that Schröder could have extended in season for around four years and $84 million, which would have been by far the best payday of his career. Schröder said on the record he wanted to hold out for free agency – he also might have been hoping for more pending a strong playoff performance.

Both the Lakers and Schröder were disappointed on that front. A Davis injury left the Lakers sputtering in a first-round loss to Phoenix. There were many underwhelming performers for L.A., and Schröder was among them: An 0-for-9 performance with zero points in a 30-point Game 5 loss stands out as a particularly sore spot.

While Schröder talked about “unfinished business” during his exit interviews with the Lakers, the franchise ultimately moved on at point guard when they traded for Russell Westbrook a few months later. Schröder eventually signed with the Lakers’ ultimate rival Boston for the $5.9 million midlevel exception – a trifling amount compared to what he stood to make if he had signed the extension.

There was a time when that free agency misstep might have been humbling enough, but this is the social media era. Schröder was ridiculed endlessly on all forums for “fumbling the bag” – he even posted himself once to encourage followers to get their jokes out. But that move was defensive, he acknowledges now. It was “the lowest in my career, for sure.

“It was a lot. It was a lot of people,” he said. “And I know now, people are really happy when other people fail.”

But failure? Schröder wouldn’t call it that. He counts his blessings: his wife, his three children, an NBA career that now spans a decade. He’s able to provide for his mother, an immigrant from Gambia, and he’s able to give back to that country as well.

“I mean, I didn’t fail,” he said. “I didn’t have a great career moment, but I still got the best job in the world.”

BACK AT IT

A huge part of Schröder’s job with the Lakers is to defend. His willingness to pressure for 94 feet was something former coach Frank Vogel liked about his pesky style. Ham appreciates that, however the matchup looks on paper, Schröder is willing to guard anyone. In a recent game against Sacramento, as the Lakers struggled to stop De’Aaron Fox, Schröder raised a hand and asked if he could try.

“I said, ‘Hell yeah.’ Because that’s what you want as a coach. You don’t wanna feel like you’re forcing someone into a situation they don’t want to be in, in terms of a matchup or whatever. So for him to come and say, ‘Give me him. I want him.’”

Schröder doesn’t shy from challenges. He runs toward them. And he took the same approach with his NBA career seemingly on the rocks.

Germany’s Dennis Schröder is fouled by Poland’s A. J. Slaughter during the FIBA EuroBasket 2022 third-place game on Sept. 18, 2022 in Berlin. Schröder averaged a team-best 22.1 points and 7.1 assists in the tournament, including 26 points in the bronze medal-clinching win, and made the all-tournament starting five. (Photo by Maja Hitij/Getty Images)

After getting traded from Boston to rebuilding Houston, Schröder was looking for a job this summer. If he felt angst about that uncertainty, he funneled it into the German national team’s performance at Euro Basket in the summer, averaging a team-best 22.1 points and 7.1 assists to make the All-Star starting five from the tournament. But the highlight was the finish: He scored 26 points in Germany’s third-place win over Poland to secure his country’s first Euro Basket medal since 2005 in front of an approving home crowd in Berlin.

“Probably the worst that people talked about me, the worst in my career. But I still made 2022 still a great year, because we won with the national team, a bronze medal.”

Even before that third-place game, the Lakers were maintaining a watchful eye and scouting him abroad, with Ham lobbying on his behalf. By mid-September, the Lakers had agreed to bring their one-time point guard of the future back on a minimum deal.

Vice president of basketball operations Rob Pelinka told SCNG that Schröder’s playing experience with Westbrook (in Oklahoma City) and James and Davis – as well as his understanding of the scrutiny and spotlight of being a Laker – pushed the front office over the line to bring him back.

“I think the second time around in anything in life, you’ve learned a lot, and kind of coming back you have a better feel for what it’s gonna be about,” he said. “I think there was a lot of institutional knowledge coming back the second time, which has helped him be an effective player for us.”

Whether Schröder has matured since his last Lakers stint is a bit of a delicate question – Schröder himself would say he’s always been about winning, and even back in 2021 said on many occasions “it’s not about money.” Maybe the diplomatic conclusion is that in his current Lakers tenure, there are plenty of people who believe him.

Ham pointed to the practice the day before the Lakers would go on to beat Memphis, when he ran into the point guard in the dining lounge. Schröder had been battling a cold for a solid week and played through it. Ham asked if he was doing OK.

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Schröder’s response: “No, I’m fine, man, we gotta win. We gotta win.” A dose of chicken soup, if you will.

“He felt like he didn’t bring it like he should have brought it the last time he was here in L.A.,” Ham said. “And he wants to come in here and help, and help impact winning and make it right. I don’t think he’s talking about a contract. I think he’s talking from the heart in terms of helping a team be successful.”

One lesson Schröder took was to not look too far into the future. When asked if he sees a long-term future with the Lakers, he was cautious not to get ahead of himself.

He’s back in the market he wanted to be in, playing for the coach he wanted to play for. He’s getting the second chance he sought. He went through the bull to get to the good.

Why look past that?

“I would play until my wheels fall off,” he said. “But nothing is promised, you know what I’m saying. Whenever your time is up. Of course I would love to. But again, unfinished business for this year.”

Lakers guard Dennis Schröder scores after making a steal at midcourt to give his team a lead with 7.6 seconds left as the Memphis Grizzlies’ Ja Morant (12) and Desmond Bane (22) watch on Friday night at Crypto.com Arena. Schröder’s steal and three-point play was the defining moment in what is arguably the Lakers’ biggest win of the season. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

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