CHINO HILLS, Calif. – Growing up, Lonzo Ball remembers the footage of Magic Johnson replayed on his computer screen. It was his first experience watching film and critiquing another player’s game, and his father, LaVar Ball, engrained a message in his mind: this represents the purity of basketball. Lonzo Ball would grow taller in four years at Chino Hills High School, blending a 6-foot-6 frame with considerable skills by the time he committed to UCLA.
“I watched tape on Magic when I was young,” Ball told The Vertical, “and it’s why you can see it in my game. He liked to pass, I like to pass. He was a big point guard, I’m a big point guard. And I feel the way the game is played means a lot to him and me.”
Ball, after just one season with the Bruins, is vying with Washington’s Markelle Fultz, Kansas’ Josh Jackson and Duke’s Jayson Tatum to be the top overall pick in the 2017 NBA draft, but also has a chance to become Johnson’s first selection as Los Angeles Lakers president of basketball operations.
Ball was sitting inside his suburban Southern California home recently with framed pictures of him holding trophies in high school and college on the white walls. His family tightly surrounds him, and the pre-draft process could favor the Lakers should the franchise keep its top-three protected pick.
“The Lakers are in L.A., and they’re close to home,” Ball told The Vertical. “This is where all my family is. Hopefully, they have a nice pick and they have a chance to get me. I want this to be realistic. Just being very family-oriented, to play in front of them would mean a lot to me. The Lakers are a young team and they have a lot of young talent.”
The Lakers represent a hometown preference, but could lose their top-three protected selection to the Philadelphia 76ers in the May 16 draft lottery, so Ball makes clear his desire to change the fortunes of whichever team selects him.
“I’ll play for anyone, all 30 teams,” Ball told The Vertical. “I want the challenge of helping turn around any team in the league. Just making it to the NBA, that’s my goal.”
Ball, 19, helped revitalize UCLA as the Bruins went from 15-17 in 2015-16 to 31-5 this past season, with Ball displaying impeccable passing vision and court presence. From coach Steve Alford to UCLA players, Ball has received credit publicly for restoring a winning culture.
His father turned into a media personality, a public voice to push the family’s branding, and yet nothing appeared to faze Ball. “That’s who he’s been since I was a kid,” Ball told The Vertical about his father. He has listened to critiques about how his father’s outspoken demeanor could impact how opponents respond to him on the court, but says no one has used it as trash talk. NBA executives told The Vertical that Ball’s focus and mild-mannered personality separate him from the off-court noise.
The Lakers are attempting to change the perception of the franchise with the hiring of Johnson in February and Rob Pelinka, a former player agent, as general manager in March. There’s a more aligned approach to decision-making now, a drive to find talent and players to fit the franchise’s historic culture, which has taken dents over four consecutive losing seasons. The Lakers witnessed free agents such as Kevin Durant and LaMarcus Aldridge bypass them during the past two years, failed to pursue a childhood Lakers fan in Isaiah Thomas and are undergoing a process of building through the draft.
Ball believes he could change the way future free agents perceive the Lakers. His proximity and promise as a Showtime player make some believe it’s a natural fit, but he’s more sure about this: He’ll accept the responsibility of improving a franchise – no matter where he lands.
“That’s the culture I want: to enter a situation and help my team win,” Ball told The Vertical. “I’ll do whatever I can for wins. It’s what I did when I was at Chino Hills. It’s what I did at UCLA. It’s what I’ll do again at the next level. Just do what I can to help my team win and make players around me better.”
The opportunity to be able to break down film with Johnson and get advice from the Hall of Famer intrigues Ball. Johnson was an iconic 6-foot-9 floor general, and Ball resembles and relates far more to him than recent Lakers legend Kobe Bryant.
“I can learn a lot from Magic, and it would be a blessing for me to be able to take after him each and every day,” Ball told The Vertical. “Magic is probably the best guard to ever play the game. The fact that he also played as a big guard, he can show me things.
“I would love to have that sit-down and learn to be the best player I can be.”
From sending all three brothers to a small high school program to accepting the business of basketball, the Ball family has been unconventional. LaVar publicized the Big Baller Brand throughout Lonzo’s freshman season and launched Ball Sports Group, with their representatives pursuing a partnership with a major shoe company. When outsiders believed LaVar might serve as Ball’s certified agent, the family hired Harrison Gaines, a 27-year-old attorney who had prior experience in helping negotiate two free-agent deals in 2015.
“Since we’ve been little, we’ve been close,” Ball told The Vertical. “We never get outside of our family and never stray from the plan. We stay together and move as a unit. From top to bottom – my dad to [brothers] LiAngelo to LaMelo – we’re on the same page. We have a playing style on the court, and a way we move off the court.”
The pre-draft process will likely begin in early June for Ball, who will skip the NBA draft combine in Chicago in May. It could include one, maybe two, team visits, and he laughs when asked about his response to a possible question about his father during a team interview.
“I’ll give the same answer to everyone: My dad is going to be my dad, he’s not going to change, but what I do on the court has nothing to do with what he says,” Ball told The Vertical. “He’s off the court and doesn’t impact how I approach the court. It doesn’t affect me in any type of way. I play the same way every game.”
From the moment Ball arrived at UCLA, the sharpening of his craft began. He needed to find a balance of work and school, but the necessity to receive NBA-level workouts meant bringing his trainer, Darren Moore, to live with him on campus.
“It helped me to have the structure of getting in the work every day to get better and better,” Ball told The Vertical. “If I didn’t, I would’ve stayed stagnant or gotten worse. I needed to progress. I’m grateful to have someone with me to help me along the way and stick to the course.
“Overall, I thought our season went good. Just a winning attitude … we built that. T.J. [Leaf], Ike [Anigbogu] came in and gave us a lot. The older guys mixing in with the younger guys really worked out and meshed.
“We didn’t get as far as we wanted to, and I’m sure we’ll all remember that. But it happens. We went from 15-17 to making the tournament, making the Sweet 16. That’s a positive we can take. I’m thankful I got to meet the people there and I’m happy for what happened at UCLA.”
Ball has decompressed since losing to Kentucky in the NCAA tournament and has reviewed the game in search of ways to improve.
“Pick-and-roll, mid-range pull-ups and my floaters – those are the areas that I have focus on right on,” Ball told The Vertical. “If you watch the NBA, it’s almost all pick-and-rolls. The bigs have to make a decision, whether he wants to come up or stay back, and that’s when the mid-range game comes into play. I have to keep on perfecting those aspects.”
A sense of calm surrounds Ball. He was relaxed in his home, his words neither mumbled nor wasted. For him, the search for victory on the court – soon, victory in the draft – is bound by a simple factor.
“I hate to lose,” Ball told The Vertical.
“I hate it.”
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