LOS ANGELES — Typically, NBA teams do their best to remove pressure from their young players. Some come off the bench for a time; others share the spotlight with veteran players until they become able to carry a franchise.
But Lonzo Ball isn’t your typical NBA youngster. And the Los Angeles Lakers are anything but a typical team.
So when the Lakers played their first preseason game Monday night, the video montage at Staples Center began and ended with Ball, and featured him far more than any other player. When the starting lineup was announced a few minutes later, Ball was introduced last.
This is not the way most teams would handle a young player. But these are the Lakers, and they are banking on Ball being their next superstar. So, in their eyes, why wait to anoint him their leader on and off the court?
“We need him to be,” Lakers Coach Luke Walton said after a 113-107 loss to the Denver Nuggets. “The way he plays the game of basketball, everywhere he goes … if he went to a rec center, people would follow him because he makes people better.
“That’s what great leaders do.”
Heady talk about a teenager (for another three weeks) with the burden of becoming the next face of the biggest glamour franchise in American sports before he’s played in a single game that counts. But for all the bluster of his father, LaVar, Lonzo Ball has carried one trait through every level of the sport: He knows what it takes to win.
That aura already has begun to affect to these Lakers. No, they won’t be good this season — in fact, they likely will be terrible. No matter how much talent a team has, running out lineups featuring nine players under 25 — including three starters who are 22 and under — is a surefire way to lose lots of games in the NBA.
But the mere addition of Ball has infused the franchise with a kind of energy and excitement it’s lacked for years. Ever since Kobe Bryant limped off the court with a torn Achilles on April 12, 2013, the Lakers have been looking for a player to carry this franchise into its next iteration. The resulting four years — the worst in the team’s glorious history since moving to Los Angeles in 1960 — did the unthinkable: They made the Lakers irrelevant.
That isn’t the case anymore. Even for a meaningless preseason game such as Monday night’s, Staples Center had the kind of energy the Lakers used to inspire. Every time Ball touched the ball, the fans waited with anticipation for something good to happen.
And, more often than not, it did. Yes, Ball had four turnovers, including one particularly ugly fling out of bounds that went nowhere near a teammate. But he more than counterbalanced that with moments such as a step-back three on the left wing, an alley-oop off a give-and-go on a fast break with Jordan Clarkson and an and-one over Paul Millsap on another fast break opportunity.
The resulting line — eight points, three rebounds and four assists in 21:26 — may not be eye-popping, but that isn’t the point. The Lakers have built a team suited to Ball’s talents, and believe he can drive the entire group forward. He already has earned the respect of his veteran teammates.
“I’m really impressed with him,” Luol Deng said. “First of all, his IQ on the basketball court … for his age, he sees a lot of things a lot of people don’t see. That’s a great quality to have in a point guard.
“But off the court is where I’m surprised the most. The kid works really hard. He’s in the gym working on his game. Very respectful, very quiet, studying the game every time we are in the locker room. But definitely you can tell he’s serious about the game.”
Ball appears to be serious about everything, in stark contrast to his father’s carnival barker act, which saw its latest act play out Monday when he announced his youngest son, LaMelo, would be home-schooled for the next two years because of disagreements with his high school coach.
While he’s more than happy to sport the family’s Big Baller Brand clothing line — as he did for Monday’s postgame news conference, where he wore a blue sweatsuit bearing the line’s Triple-B logo prominently — he answers questions with the same minimalist efficiency with which he plays the game. It’s a combination of polite and perfunctory that isn’t often seen among players with massive amounts of attention heaped on them as they approach their 20th birthday.
It’s something he’ll have to lean on in the weeks and months ahead, as he adjusts not only to the usual rigors of life as a rookie in the NBA, but the far more difficult task of being the face and fulcrum of everything his team does — and especially when that team is the Lakers.
Even a minor ankle sprain, such as the one Ball suffered in the first half (he returned for a stretch in the second half before sitting out the remainder of the game), becomes a potentially team-crippling situation. The Lakers have plenty of other young talent, including fellow rookies Josh Hart and Kyle Kuzma, second-year forward Brandon Ingram and center Ivica Zubac and third-year forward Larry Nance.
But even Walton admitted that if Ball has to miss any time, the team will be dealt a significant setback.
“Hopefully when he wakes up in the morning it’s not too sore,” Walton said. “And it’s not because I really want to win the next game, I just know if he can’t practice and he can’t be out there on the court with the guys, [and playing] the way we want to play, it is just going to slow down that process.”
It’s just another example of the unique position in which Ball finds himself. For a team and a city built on star power, the Lakers are betting on Lonzo Ball being the foundation of their next great team. Now it is up to him to justify their expectations.
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