LAS VEGAS – Strip away the circus around him, the carnival-barking father, the LA hype, and Lonzo Ball is just a heck of a player. Even in a potentially transcendent class of point guards, Ball, a sturdy, 6-foot-6 playmaker, stands out. Rival executives watching this week use words like “dynamic” and “special” to describe Ball, with one declaring the ex-UCLA star to be a “once-every-10-years type of passer.”
It’s Lonzo Ball week in Vegas. The Lakers – annually huge draws at Warren LeGarie’s summer spectacular – have a little extra buzz about them. Some of it is because of Magic Johnson, Los Angeles Lakers team president, whose every smile, shrug and eye roll is chronicled on social media. But more of it is Ball, who has been anointed by Johnson as the next Lakers great and declared by his father, LaVar, to be the next great, period.
Early returns: pretty good. After a debut stinker (five points, 2-of-15 from the floor) that momentarily sent Laker Nation into a panic, Ball has been terrific. He collected a triple-double in his second game; he pumped in 36 points in a narrow win over Philadelphia on Wednesday. On Thursday, Ball picked up his second triple-double, posting a 16-point, 12-assist, 10-rebound line in another Lakers win.
There’s so much to like about Ball’s game. The passing stands out. “He’s already one of the best passers I’ve seen at this level,” Lakers summer-league coach Jud Buechler said. High praise? Yes. True? Probably. Ball plays with his head on a swivel and sees the floor in a way you can’t teach.
“It’s probably 90 percent his talent and 10 percent guys just knowing that if they get on the wings, they’re going to get easy layups,” Buechler said. “He’s just incredible at getting that ball and pushing it. We want him to set the pace for our team, set the pace for the game. Get out, run for layups, get easy baskets.”
Defensively, Ball needs work, particularly on the ball. Yet the instincts are solid. In the second quarter against Cleveland on Thursday, Ball got caught in the air and turned the ball over. He quickly read the play, picked off a Cavs pass in transition and found Travis Wear for an open three.
The shooting form remains funky. He jacks up shots with a Kevin Martin-like hitch, with a low release point and an arm swing that brings the ball across his body before it leaves his hand. But the Lakers don’t seem to be in a rush to overhaul it, and if Ball can be anywhere near as effective from three-point range as he was at UCLA (41.2 percent), they won’t.
Besides, Ball showed at UCLA an ability to take over games without being the best shooter on the floor. Said Buechler: “He did that in college in games where he didn’t score in double figures but completely dominated the game with his rebounding, his defense and his passing.”
If Ball were in Phoenix, you would swear he was destined for (All-)stardom. But he’s not. Instead of being allowed to grow naturally in a small market, he’s in the LA fishbowl. Instead of being compared to other rookies in his class, he’s being stacked up against all-time greats.
Just think about what we’ve seen this week. LaVar Ball declared the Rookie of the Year competition to be a wrap before anointing Lonzo as the heir to Magic’s point-guard throne. A mid-summer-league sneaker swap was chronicled like a midseason trade. LeBron James made one appearance this week – to see Ball torch Philadelphia.
Markelle Fultz may have been the No. 1 pick. Lonzo Ball is the biggest star.
Can he handle what comes with it? We’ll see. LaVar has placed a basketball bull’s-eye on Lonzo’s back. He’s already playing the NBA’s deepest position, now his father has given other top playmakers (Stephen Curry, Kyrie Irving) a reason to get motivated for a mid-January matchup.
He does seem to have the temperament. Little fazes Lonzo, from the criticism he took for his first-game clunker to the praise he has received since. He doesn’t elaborate much with the media, with postgame gaggles lasting for just a few minutes. He seems indifferent to the attention paid to him each night.
That’s good. Playoffs are a pipe dream for the Lakers, but this is a season in which a foundation needs to be built. Ball and Brandon Ingram – who bowed out of summer league early with a minor injury, but looked like he had made significant strides in his game before that – need to develop chemistry. They, along with that breezy southern California weather, are the carrots to lure free agents like James and Paul George to LA next summer. If Ball lives up to his Jason Kidd-like potential, recruiting them becomes easier.
The pressure is extraordinary. Ball played in front of record-setting crowds in Vegas and spoke to reporters packed around him four deep. And this is summer league. He’ll be in LA in a few months, in Staples Center, where Magic has already declared he expects a Ball jersey to be hanging one day.
Lonzo Ball got what he wanted. We will see if the Lakers did, too.
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