In March, shortly after they started running the Los Angeles Lakers, Magic Johnson and General Manager Rob Pelinka traveled to Memphis on a scouting assignment. It was an important trip. They skipped the unveiling of Shaquille O’Neal’s statue outside Staples Center in Los Angeles, and they did not publicly surface at any other NCAA tournament games.
Johnson and Pelinka sat in the front row of FedEx Forum to watch UCLA face Kentucky in the Sweet 16 and to evaluate a smorgasbord of star prospects, including Lonzo Ball, De’Aaron Fox and Malik Monk. Primarily, they wanted to gauge how future NBA players would fare against other future pros.
“You want to see the best players play in a huge game like this and see how they respond,” Pelinka said at halftime. “It’s very important. A big thing when you’re judging talent is how guys compete at the highest level.”
Pelinka’s sentiment should not be forgotten now, as the notion of the Lakers taking Ball with the second overall pick, secured in Tuesday night’s draft lottery, is hardening into certainty. Ball’s father LaVar, who doubles as a wannabe sneaker salesman and shout-show wing nut, has long espoused his belief Ball would play for his hometown Lakers. Since Tuesday, he’s stated Ball will only work out for the Lakers.
But the game Pelinka and Johnson saw Ball play in March should create a measure of doubt that LaVar Ball can, to use his words, speak it into existence. In his biggest game, Ball showed his biggest flaws. He drifted when the game became difficult, showed defensive indifference and failed to adjust when a top-shelf opponent took away his desired tactic.
Ball scored 10 points, just two in the second half, and took only 10 shots. Meanwhile, Ball’s counterpart, Fox, scored 39 points. Kentucky’s ability to clog passing lanes thwarted Ball’s playmaking and led to frustration. By the end of the game, as Kentucky senior Dominique Hawkins observed, “he was throwing the ball to [fellow UCLA guard Aaron] Holiday and then walking up the court.” Minutes after the whistle, in the Bruins locker room next to sullen teammates, Ball declared his intention to leave UCLA.
If Pelinka wanted to judge Ball against the best in person, what do you suppose he took away from that night?
Now, some caveats. Pelinka was speaking in generalities, unable to comment specifically on underclassmen. It’s obviously crazy to judge Ball only on his worst night, and the Lakers will base their evaluation on far more than one game.
Still. For any team holding the second pick in a loaded draft, especially one whose top evaluators saw it in person, Ball’s juxtaposition with Fox couldn’t be easily forgotten.
For the Lakers specifically, Ball might not be a perfect fit from a basketball standpoint. The Lakers’ decision on Ball may also hinge on their commitment to point guard D’Angelo Russell. Ball and Russell’s skills are redundant. Trading Russell and picking Ball would be one way for the Lakers to add to their draft capital. But if the Lakers view Russell as a foundational piece, they could conclude it’s better to devote resources to adding to him rather than replacing him, especially with Josh Jackson, Jayson Tatum or Fox as appealing alternatives at No. 2.
Ball’s range and passing vision set him apart. But his flaws are glaring, too, even setting aside the complications arising from LaVar’s outlandishness. As college evaluators pointed out in March, Ball’s unusual shooting mechanics make it physically impossible for him to shoot off the dribble going right. He had enough ballhandling and a reliable step-back to counter the deficiency in college, but “shooting while moving to the right” seems like a useful skill for an NBA guard to have.
Ball’s devotion to his team came into question following the loss. When Kentucky lost in the following round, Fox bawled in the locker room, his arm around a teammate, and eloquently described how a group of mostly first-year players had become a family. It was a stark contrast to Ball’s matter-of-fact declaration he was NBA-bound.
It would be one-dimensional, and probably unfair, to parse Ball’s competitive character based only on his post-tournament demeanor. When asked about Ball’s jump shot, UCLA senior Bryce Alford, son of Coach Steve Alford, offered a window into how teammates view Ball and his work ethic.
“It works because of the reps he gets in,” Alford said. “He’s one of the first in the gym and one of the last out every single day, on our days off. That’s what I’ve been impressed about him — with the hype that surrounds him and how he’s already set up for success in his future, he still works like he’s not. He works like he’s got something to prove. That’s why he makes shots: He gets in the gym, and he shoots.”
The Lakers may well take Ball with the second pick. By consensus of draftniks, he’s been among the top two prospects all year. His size, passing vision and shooting range make him a worthy candidate to be taken with the second pick. But it’s probably best to remember the night he played in front of the Lakers’ brass and remember it’s not a foregone conclusion.