The extraordinary hype ends here, where Figueroa meets 11th Street, where L.A. Live is. There is nothing more to be said in the abstract. South of the valley, north of Inglewood, the new kid will embrace the expectations that are through the roof. All the doubts and praise can be retired as Lonzo Ball begins what his father and NBA GM’s shout is a ROY of the year campaign. It is Lonzo’s dream finally coming true as he is introduced as a member of his favorite team, a team that is as desperate for him to be everything he has been billed as, just as Lonzo is determined to be everything he knows he can be.
It is fitting the Clippers are the first Lonzo Ball competition on the schedule. It’s a L.A. party through and through. And because the Clippers are not who they once were without Chris Paul, in their struggle to craft a new identity there is a familiarity- we know this song- as they play the Lakers who are in the midst of their own new, albeit fragile, identity. What happens six months from now is a mystery for both organizations; no one exactly knows how all of this is going to play out. It feels like a dress rehearsal for both the Clippers and the Lakers.
As for the Lakers, recently Magic Johnson said he wants his young team to play well enough to be able to attract free agents in the summer of 2018. That is owners speak. Always stay immersed in the future and remain uncertain but optimistic about the here and now.
What Lonzo Ball wants is to be a good player. What Lonzo Ball wants is to showcase his talent despite the uphill climb for a rookie point guard who has only played in two preseason games and is a little bit rusty.
Everyone will be focused on Ball on Thursday night but the Lakers have some other pieces to put around Ball so he is not an outlier on the court. No, this isn’t the 76ers with Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons but Ball has a young and ready-to-meet-the-pressure Bradon Ingram, a veteran, space the floor, Brook Lopez, a versatile and hyped, not to mention athletic, Larry Nance Jr, and a bench that was the highest scoring bench last season. Add in the steal of the NBA draft, Kyle Kuzma, who GM’s are still shaking their heads as to why they let him slip so far down, and there is quiet confidence the Lakers are slowly moving into their future.
Trying to shepherd all of this useful energy is Luke Walton, who himself is still learning the coaching ins and outs, when to be a dictator, when to be a socialist, when to allow for the young to act like they are young. There will be mistakes. There will be exciting moments.
What to look for:
1. Turnovers. The Lakers and their fast pace racked up a mother of God amount of turnovers in the exhibition season. They had trouble consistently controlling their speed. It’s like John Wooden said, be fast. Don’t be in a hurry. Because defense is a challenge for them, particularly transition defense, the turnovers can break a game open. This is still a young team with a young psyche not yet developed to handle the up and down flow of a game. There was a preseason game in which Walton complained of the team not playing hard. That is all you need to know.
2. Ball movement. There is a tendency for young players to push the ball up and then think they have accomplished something because they have established a pace but that is just the first part. The second part is moving the ball around to get the best shot. The Lakers aren’t gifted with skilled shot makers. Ball movement, cutting, pick and roll sets are crucial for efficient offense. Young athletes default is to jam the ball down the opponents throats. That fails every time. The Lakers weakness in the preseason was half court offense because they didn’t share the ball enough, nor did they move without the ball.
3. Transition Defense. Cross matches on fast breaks, running back, not getting discouraged after a senseless turnover, will help reduce the defensive apathy the Lakers have been known for the last few seasons. If Ball is known for one defensive principle it is not quitting on a play after he has made a costly turnover. It is as if he is in competition with himself to make up for the mistake. The rest of the team would do well to follow his lead.
Regardless of how his debut goes, and afterwards there will be quick assessments because it seems Lavar Ball has shoved Lonzo down everyone’s throats, the Lakers will have successfully turned the Kobe Bryant page. No one is predicting anything close to playoffs just yet. The team is too young and their toughness ebbs and flows. They don’t know what they don’t know.
Brandon Ingram has high expectations and often it gets in the way of just playing the game. Larry Nance Jr. is his own worst enemy when he has one of those not perfect moments. Jordan Clarkson is improving defensively but is not where he needs to be entering his fourth season. Ivica Zubac’s defense is dreadful. Julius Randle has improved his jumper but needs to do a better job at reading defenses. Like why are you challenging KAT? In the middle there is Lonzo.
He is supposed to be the one. Not the Kobe one. Not the Shaq one. Not the Magic one. But the one who begins the Lakers recovery.
It’s been a long time since hope has been here, since ticket sales have been a tough get, since people are actually talking about the Lakers as something more than what you used to know. The future isn’t the talk. It is the present, the right now, the Lonzo Ball difference that is the talk.
Tonight. It begins. Lonzo, game one.
photo via llananba