WASHINGTON — Instead of overreacting to every comment by his loudmouth father, blathering incessantly about his awkward shooting form or giggling at his sometimes pedestrian stat lines, folks should try viewing Lonzo Ball in a different way. Getting wrapped up in the hysteria is much easier when the white noise is coming from so many directions: social media, blogs, reality television shows, hot-take debate programs and TMZ airport interviews. But strip away all of the hoopla and it’s easy to acknowledge what’s happening with the Los Angeles Lakers this season — and it’s quite disturbing: Their promising rookie point guard hasn’t been given even the slightest amount of room to just play and compete.
What’s lacking from the oversaturation of everything Ball is perspective. A rookie point guard struggling in his first dozen games isn’t cause for panic or concern. It’s called life in the NBA. In an era when the point-guard position is loaded with more talented athletes than ever, a recently turned 20-year-old making his first run through the league should routinely get gobbled up. Ball isn’t asking for a break, and he doesn’t expect one to come.
“I already know. I live in reality,” said Ball, who also lives on reality TV. “It’s whatever.”
Ball has done nothing on his own to warrant the unprecedented level of scrutiny that he has received this season. He’s dealing with hype that he didn’t completely create and hate that he personally didn’t invite. His father, LaVar, is the greatest self-promoter this side of Donald Trump and has been writing checks for Lonzo to cash his whole life. But the challenge has the potential to be more deflating when going up against grown men who don’t want to be on the wrong end of one of Ball’s better performances.
To his credit, Ball doesn’t seem to be bothered by all of the attention. In fact, he’s so comfortable with it that he might have a more difficult adjustment if it went away. “The spotlight has been on me for a while now,” Ball said, while admitting that it’s different on this stage. “It’s more amplified. It’s the NBA. It’s pretty much global now. A lot more media. A lot more eyes.”
Ball possesses incredible mental strength and the ability to block out all that’s surrounding him — the blinding glare of the purple-and-gold spotlight, the nightly Twitter roasts, the endless dissection of every hitch, flaw and awkward motion before his shot release, and the unfair comparisons to players who had to pay their dues under considerably more rational lenses. That will be put to the test from now until the Lakers go into next summer awaiting the next savior to come to town — either through the draft, or, better yet, free agency.
“It’s tough,” John Wall told Yahoo Sports about Ball. “I mean, his dad does a lot of talking for him. Him saying he didn’t want to play for anybody but the Lakers. Him being a Laker. They want him to be the next franchise guy for them. It’s a lot of burden to fall behind Kobe Bryant.”
Like Ball, Wall arrived in the league with high expectations and an errant jumper. Teams dared Wall to shoot because it beat the alternative of letting him have a layup line to the basket every night. He dealt with some humiliating situations in his rookie year, such as the time he was in Phoenix standing alone atop the 3-point line when a long rebound carom bounded out his way. Steve Nash scrambled to chase down the ball, but when he saw Wall had it, he froze up at the free-throw line and waited for Wall to draw all glass on his shot.
“I don’t want to be guarded like this my whole life,” Wall said he told himself, and now in his eighth season he has a jumper that opponents at least have to respect. But it took patience. It took repetition. It took improved confidence. And, it took being humbled. Too many factors — most of which are beyond his control — have prevented Ball from being given similar leeway.
“[Him] being a Laker, with all the stuff his dad is doing, I can’t really relate, because I didn’t have my father around me,” Wall told Yahoo Sports about how he would’ve handled similar circumstances. “He’s a kid that don’t really say too much. I think he’ll be fine. He don’t let it bother him. And I think a lot of people want him to have a different type of demeanor, but I think he’s been that way his whole life. He’s very mature for his age. Most guys would get frustrated and let the outside people bother them. It seems like it doesn’t faze him one bit.”
If he only had to worry about being the pimpled face of the league’s most glamorous team, Ball would have enough on his plate. But he’s also been tasked with promoting an upstart shoe and clothing brand, to have his family’s burgeoning business rise or fall with his successes and failures. Those responsibilities sometimes cloud the fact that he’s just a hooper — and a fairly decent one at that. He came two rebounds and two assists short of his first career triple-double on Thursday in a 111-95 loss in Washington and displayed an innate feel for the game that can’t be taught. He makes those around him better and encourages unselfishness because he’s OK if the extra pass doesn’t lead to an assist. His jumper can cause the occasional wince or even create a cool breeze as it whizzes past the rim. But he plays the right way, and that can’t be ignored once you sift through the ancillary parts of being Lonzo Ball.
Had he been drafted with any other organization and Magic Johnson hadn’t chosen to pump more helium into LaVar Ball’s hyperbole blimp with some over-the-top praise, Lonzo might’ve been held to a more reasonable standard. His game isn’t good enough yet to share the marquee with his more accomplished foes, like Wall or Kyrie Irving. Measuring him against them only contributes to an irrational perception that he’s truly arrived when he’s merely showed up at the door. The basketball world may be going mad with its Ball obsession, but he knows that eventually none of it will matter if he can’t actually ball.
“Everybody has different paths,” Ball said. “It’s your job. It’s your decision to get better every day and work at it every day. Come ready to work and do what you can for your team.”
If only it were that simple.