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THE DAY AFTER the Lakers take Lonzo Ball with the second pick of June's draft, Lakers president Magic Johnson is holding court. It's the usual news conference introducing a new prospect, but this one projects a different tone. This is Johnson's first occasion as the czar of the Lakers' next golden age.
The event takes place on the practice court at the team's old training facility, the last relic of the Kobe Bryant era. And it's here that Johnson tells Lonzo, "I'm going to put a little pressure on you right now." Magic points to the back of the gym, where the uniforms of Lakers legends -- his among them -- hang on the wall. "We expect a Ball jersey hanging up there one day, all right?"
Looking one part hostage, one part valedictorian, Ball sits between Johnson and Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka -- who just the night before had declared Lonzo a "transcendent talent." Ball, having forgone the traditional pressed suit in lieu of a black zip-up Big Baller Brand hoodie, crosses his arms on the dais as he receives these compliments dispassionately but respectfully, as if he's in an HR session.
"A'ight," Ball replies with a faint smile.
Johnson is here to introduce Ball. But what Magic, never a man to traffic in understatement, has truly introduced are the Lakers' expectations: Lonzo Ball will become a superstar, part of the Lakers' lineage of Hall of Fame talents. He will be a proper heir to Kobe Bryant -- which Johnson implicitly conveys D'Angelo Russell was not.
Around the NBA, there is an almost affectionate esteem for Ball's approach to basketball; he is a 20-year-old whose primary motivation in life is to find chances for teammates to score. But when insiders are asked whether Ball can meet the Lakers' expectations, their praise pivots to a series of disclaimers. Should Ball never evolve into a prolific scorer, he would have to transform into a species that's nearly extinct -- the score-last All-Star who relies on vision over pyrotechnics. Ball isn't a pure shooter, nor is he the type of explosive pick-and-roll point guard that's ascendant in today's NBA.
Admirable as Ball's generosity might be, he carries deficiencies that, although once tolerated in point guards, are now often disqualifiers.
TO GAIN A true sense of Lonzo Ball's skill set, what you'd have to do is this: Stand on the court during a live NBA game, preferably right under the basket; envelop yourself in a 360-degree view of the action in real time -- and ideally avoid being struck by the 20 arms and legs whirling around you.
This is my experience on a Sunday night in November as the Lakers take on the Grizzlies at Staples Center -- or at least it virtually is. There's a VR headset strapped to my head. It's ungodly heavy, as if a second skull has engulfed my first. But the effect is profound, even though I never move more than 6 inches from my position in the NextVR truck parked outside the arena.
With this headset on, I'm every bit as present on the floor as Brook Lopez or Mike Conley. Turn my head to the right and Luke Walton is a foot away, barking at official James Capers. Turn it back and Marc Gasol is headed my way as if I'm about to enter his sanctum inside the lane. In truth, the intruder on the court is Lonzo Ball, whose eyes are like searchlights, surveying the expanse, watching for subtle movements by opponents that might open a seam.
Everyone exists in Lonzo's field of vision. Grizzlies center Brandan Wright does. He backpedals as Lonzo comes off a pick by Julius Randle in the first quarter. So do the Grizzlies' pair of help-side defenders, stunting and lurching at Lonzo as he weaves through traffic. Somehow, Lonzo appears to be watching all three before spinning clockwise as he elevates and slings a sidearm two-handed pass across his body. The pass hits Randle in the hands for a dunk.
This is Ball's vision in heightened effect, where every trip down the court is an optical marvel. And to live inside it for a few hours is to gain a firsthand appreciation for how tantalizing the package is, the sight lines no person with binocular vision should rightly have. He is, in a phrase, a passing savant. But here's the thing about passers: You're only as good as your finishers.
IT'S THE FIRST week of practice in August 2016 at UCLA, and Ball is about to endanger his Bruins teammates. In the old men's gym where John Wooden once coached, and where the NBA's elite furtively play pickup all summer, the Bruins run through one of their first drills of the season, a basic pick-and-roll action, with Ball at the point receiving a screen from hulking 7-foot center Thomas Welsh. The returnees have heard about Ball -- who hasn't? -- and his playmaking exploits. He's gonna make the game so easy for you, they've been told ad nauseam. But this drill marks the first time Ball's teammates will witness whether Ball the Player conforms to Ball the Mythology.
Senior Isaac Hamilton is perched in the corner, watching the sequence at the top of the floor. Ball barely uses the pick from Welsh, and before he even comes off it with a clean angle, he fires through traffic to Hamilton on the weak side.
"Isaac almost had his head taken off," remembers Tyus Edney, UCLA assistant and former point guard for the Kings, Celtics and Pacers. "He was scared. Nobody was around him, so he just caught it and didn't shoot, and didn't put it on the ground. College guys just don't see those kind of passes."
If you're not accustomed to precision, it can hit you upside the head.
"Without [Ball], I'd have to change my philosophy and I'd have to go more to a pick-and-roll game. That's fine, but what makes drafting him so nice is that he plays the way we want to play."Lakers coach Luke Walton
Fourteen months later, on Halloween night in Staples Center, the Lakers are leading Detroit by 13 in the third quarter when Kentavious Caldwell-Pope dishes the ball just past half court to Ball on the left side. Ball streaks toward the basket, only to shuttle a last-second pass while falling out of bounds toward Larry Nance Jr. perched under the weakside glass. Nance barely sees the ball as it floats through his hands.
Successful NBA teams establish an acute sense of telepathy, and the Lakers are relying on Ball to cultivate it -- but they'll have to learn to anticipate it too.
"There's this learning process you go through -- when he likes to throw it, where he likes to throw it," says Lakers center Lopez. "He'll get the rebound, catch, turn and just fire -- all in one motion. You very, very rarely see that kind of vision and anticipation. I can't state that enough. It's such a sublime talent at that age."
According to Second Spectrum, Ball ranks first in the NBA in pass-aheads -- passes that travel at least 30 feet downcourt. And the average time Ball keeps the ball beyond the half-court line is 2.11 seconds, the fastest in the league among starting point guards. Those are auspicious numbers if you're building a system, as Walton aspires to do, that incorporates principles that have defined the offenses of the Warriors and Spurs.
"He makes it a lot easier to have buy-in on the type of basketball we want to play here," Walton says. "Without him, I'd have to change my philosophy and I'd have to go more to a pick-and-roll game. That's fine, but what makes drafting him so nice is that he plays the way we want to play."
Still, for all the success teams such as the Warriors, Spurs and now the Celtics have achieved with an egalitarian system predicated on ball movement, these teams have done it with scoring point guards. And as much as the Lakers profess to love the way Ball plays, they're looking for more: a savior for a franchise that has fallen from its seat atop the basketball world.
LONZO BALL PAUSES to mull the question.
Do you want to be a superstar?
He sits on a folding chair alongside the same practice court where Magic introduced him 20 weeks ago. It's noon on the Monday after the win over Memphis in which Ball went 3-for-13 from the floor and 1-for-8 from beyond the arc.
The pause isn't because the answer is obvious or because he wants to be politic on the record. It's the pause of a man probing his identity to make sure his response conforms to his value system. What are the real-world implications of wanting to be a superstar? What are the implications of not wanting to be a superstar? Everyone else certainly wants him to be a superstar, so should he?
When asked whether scoring is a prerequisite for stardom, Ball allows that it might well be. No coach is going to consign a Kyrie Irving brand of shot-making to the bench. But in a game where "feel" is the new athleticism, there's more room at the table. "You have to rebound, you have to defend," Ball says. "If you're passing, it has to be a pass for a score -- not just to pass. I think you can affect the game, but in the NBA I've found that you have to score a little bit, just to open it up."
That, however, is something Ball has struggled to do, in volume and in efficiency. Long NBA defenders have exposed weaknesses in Ball that were less apparent in the Pac-12. His deception resides in his ability to thread needles with his passes, not in changing speeds, something at which he doesn't excel and which hurts him as a penetrator. Through Dec. 19, he ranked 134th of 135 in effective field goal percentage in the lane (Marcus Smart), per Second Spectrum.
"He's a bigger Ricky Rubio. ... I just don't see how he'll move the needle in terms of wins and losses unless you can get out on the break 50 times a game."An NBA general manager, on Lonzo Ball
Says one executive who scouted Ball extensively for a team that picked in the top 10 this past summer: "If there's a prototype of a player who can have an immense effect without being a scorer, it's him. But half-court scoring is really important in the NBA, especially in the playoffs. Can you beat your man off the dribble when the shot clock is winding down? Can you score against a power forward on a switch? Can you shoot on the move? The answer is we don't know."
HERE'S A FUN game to play -- and one that exposes what could well be the problem with the shooting stroke of Lonzo Ball: Extend your arms in front of you, then create a triangle by touching the tips of your thumbs and index fingers to each other. Now close your left eye. What do you see? Is the triangle still centered? If so, your right eye is dominant.
Those who make a living studying the mechanics of shooting suggest that a majority of "pure shooters" are right-eye shooters -- Klay Thompson, whose form is nearly perfect, is a prime example. In contrast, right-handed shooters who come across the center point of their body as they get into their shot motion tend to be left-eye dominant. Kevin Durant proves left-eye shooting isn't always catastrophic. But in the case of Ball, it might be. He circuitously loops the ball around on the way to its release point, and when he rises to shoot, his right forearm sits at a significant angle rather than vertically. When onlookers say his form is off, this is most often what they're talking about.
There's some good news: Ball gets his hand underneath the ball nicely, and his control fingers, the index and middle, are well-placed. Although he takes too long to get into his motion, his release is quick.
The shooting mechanics have long been a source of scrutiny -- and for good reason. Though Ball has amassed a 60.6 percent effective field goal percentage outside the paint over the past two weeks, he still ranks 155th (40.1 percent) out of 173 players who have attempted 100 such shots this season, per Second Spectrum.
"He's a bigger Ricky Rubio," one general manager says. "People like the Jason Kidd comp because Kidd couldn't shoot coming in, but Kidd exerted his will on the game physically, and he could control the game in the half court. Ball hasn't shown he can do that, even though he clearly knows what defenses are trying to do.
"I just don't see how he'll move the needle in terms of wins and losses unless you can get out on the break 50 times a game."
PASSING IS NOT the primary goal of basketball -- it's merely a means to an end. But there's something about passing that speaks to basketball's better angels. Passing is an expression of selflessness. And a slick pass that defies our sense of the possible with a perfect navigation of time and space? That's basketball grace. Perhaps Magic Johnson, whose vision, size and feel for the game compensated for his forgettable long-range stroke, sees in Ball a vessel to restore his ideal of the point guard position.
Over the past five years, only two players have finished inside the top 10 of an MVP vote averaging fewer than 15 points per game: Joakim Noah in 2013-14 (fourth) and Draymond Green in 2015-16 (seventh). And it is Green who represents an interesting parallel for Ball, insofar as his contributions are less quantifiable. In 2015-16, Green scored 20 points in only 17 of his 81 games. Yet few people, be they statheads or basketball mystics, would challenge his place on the tally. There's a collective appreciation that Green's feel for the game infuses the on-court principles that make the Warriors the Warriors. If Ball can't be the Lakers' Steph, they need him to be their Draymond -- if not in mood, then certainly in substance.
It's a work in progress. And so, on a November afternoon, in folding chairs on the sideline of the practice gym, Lonzo Ball and Lakers assistant Miles Simon are studying footage of Ball's bad habit of playing good basketball -- footage of Ball passing the ball too willingly. On possession after possession of a loss to Portland in which Ball attempts only two field goals in 28 minutes, he swings the ball one or two dribbles too soon -- before the big-man defender even commits to him, or before the intended recipient has established a true advantage so he could maximize the touch.
Impatience has long been the quintessential NBA rookie mistake, yet remarkably Ball's brand of playing too fast is a product of passing too readily. It's the ultimate basketball mind-bender: Ball's problem is he plays the right way too well. His teammates want him to move a few boxes and Ball shows up with an 18-wheeler. It's Lakerland's rendition of The Gift of the Magi, a lesson of generosity gone awry.
Will Ball be a superstar? In the end, it might be the wrong question to ask. Basketball's new economy doesn't leave a lot of room in the rafters for the guys who attempt only 11 shots a game. So Ball might not get that jersey on the Lakers' wall. A more likely scenario? The next jersey on that wall won't belong to Lonzo Ball -- but will owe its presence to him.