Lonzo Ball’s first week of training camp started with Magic Johnson doubling down on his prized point guard and predicting Showtime Magic-and-Worthy-like fast breaks for Ball and Brandon Ingram.
And before he even gets to dribble the ball in his first official game as a professional, Ball deftly handled every question that came his way like a 10-year vet, whether it was what he eats for breakfast (waffles and sunny-side-up eggs), what shoes he will wear this season (Big Baller Brand at the start, for now) or how often he talks with his father during camp.
And when the No. 2 overall draft pick did finally have the ball in his hands, Ball shined, leading a team of reserves (Kyle Kuzma, Corey Brewer, Thomas Bryant and Vander Blue) to three straight wins during the Los Angeles Lakers’ first 5-on-5 scrimmage with refs Wednesday night.
In the first week of Lakers training camp, the legend of Lonzo Ball only seems to be growing. No matter what happens Saturday night in Anaheim, when the Lakers play their first preseason game against the Minnesota Timberwolves, they have been pleased with what they have seen from their new floor leader.
“I don’t even care about the [first] scrimmage,” said head coach Luke Walton, who described the team’s first foray into 5-on-5 play as “gross” and “sloppy.”
“Lonzo, he’s been great. He is [doing well] in the defensive work, he’s talking, he’s leading, he is giving effort, he’s coachable. For his first training camp, he is handling it very well.”
There will be growing pains to come for Ball. How will he shoot when defenses sag off him? How will the rookie fare on a nightly basis in a conference where elite point guards like Russell Westbrook, Stephen Curry, Chris Paul and Damian Lillard live? And how will his 6-foot-6, 190-pound frame handle the rigors of an 82-game season against grown men for the first time?
Ball has a lot of questions to answer. But the Lakers like what they have seen so far, with some even saying that all the hype surrounding Ball is legit.
“I think it is well-deserved,” veteran center Brook Lopez said. “When you have a player of his caliber, there is going to be that attention around.
“When you play with a pure point guard like that, it just makes things easier for everyone. He elevates players to a whole other level or two. He is so good at turning other players into impact players. He is going to be a transcendent talent like that.”
With one of the all-time greats mentoring him, Ball doesn’t seem to be fazed by anything. Surely, Ball has grown weary of the media attention; Johnson said all the rookie wants to do is get the season started.
But Johnson has contributed to the ballooning hype by talking up the point guard’s vision, leadership skills and what he sees in Ball’s future.
“He is a natural leader,” Johnson said. “When you won a state championship, turn UCLA around and [get it] heading in the right direction, he makes everyone around him better, but he also gives you a pass that you can score.
“Some other guy [around here] used to do that,” Johnson continued with a chuckle. “So we needed a leader on this team and we have one now. … I think [Ingram] and Lonzo will have a great chemistry, like myself and James Worthy used to have where I knew I could look at James and he knew. … I knew what was going to happen and he knew what was going to happen. And James got out on that wing and boy, there was nobody in basketball like James Worthy being out on that wing. It is going to be the same with those two guys.”
For the first three practice sessions of camp, Walton opted to have his team work largely on defense. The Lakers also worked on pounding the idea of running into every player’s head. The Lakers want to run after missed shots and even made shots. They want to run all the time to take advantage of Ball’s uncanny ability to push the ball up the court with beyond-half-court passes.
That was on display again when the team scrimmaged Wednesday evening. Just as he did when he became the MVP of the Las Vegas summer league, Ball took a couple of dribbles before firing a pass over half court to a sprinting Kuzma for an easy dunk. In helping the Lakers win the summer league championship, Ball often looked like a quarterback firing one-handed, pinpoint bombs over the heads of defenders and into his teammates’ hands for easy baskets.
“Oh man, he threw a full-court pass like we always do,” Kuzma said of the scrimmage. “It was a couple of dribbles up on the floor, [pass and] dunk.”
In Vegas, Johnson and general manager Rob Pelinka saw how Ball made passing contagious as he elevated a summer league roster. Now, the Lakers are banking on Ball doing the same with NBA talent surrounding him.
“Playing with better players is [only] going to enhance him,” Kuzma said.
Perhaps Walton wanted to see if Ball could elevate a scrimmage squad that didn’t include one projected starter for the season. Walton said he liked the idea of what Ball could do with Brewer and Kuzma, who can run on the wings.
“We won all the games, they had to kick us off the court,” Brewer said. “… When I play with good point guards, I’m better. When I played with Andre Miller, I was great. When I played with Ricky Rubio, I had good years. So that’s Lonzo. It’s a good thing.”
“We were all scoring,” Brewer added of the scrimmage. “… If you’ve been watching him, you know what he can do. It’s just him. He’s really good. He’s poised, he’s under control. He just plays the right way. He makes the right pass every time. He makes passes that some guys can’t make. Lot of guys can’t make the passes he makes. There’s only a few guys that can make those passes and they’re really good players. So he’s going to be a really good player.”
Ball says it’s going to take time for him to learn his teammates, where they like the ball and how they like it passed to them. But he has played with many of them during the summer and that chemistry is forming.
“I can’t put a timetable on it. I think it just comes with playing together and just going from there,” Ball said. “I think it just happens naturally.”
More than anything, Ball just tells his teammates to run and he will find them. On Saturday, Ball takes the next step in his career by playing in his first preseason game. Johnson can hardly wait.
“I think he is tired of all this,” Johnson said of the media attention. “He is just like me, I just want to play, and I think he wants to play.
“And then Saturday night … sold out … in Anaheim … wow!” Johnson added with his voice growing animated. “That is when we are [finally] going to get to see him play.”