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Magic Johnson calls Lonzo Ball ‘the new face of the Lakers’

The franchise’s greatest point guard has huge expectations for its newest one.

NBA: Los Angeles Lakers-Press Conference Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

In the Los Angeles Lakers’ practice facility, replicas of all of the retired jerseys the team has hung in Staples Center stick to the wall.

Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Jerry West and the names of other legends overlook the gym where the current roster practices, and in cases like Friday, where the team holds press conferences to introduce its newest players.

While introducing Lonzo Ball to the local media after the Lakers took him with the No. 2 pick in the 2017 NBA Draft, Johnson (who is now the team’s president of basketball operations) gestured towards those jerseys with the same signature point he used to use to direct his teammates during his playing days.

Johnson had one more play to call.

"You look to your right you see some jersey's hanging up on that wall. I expect a Ball jersey up there at some point, all right?” Johnson said, his signature grin plastered to his face.

That’s bigger praise than most organizations usually offer an incoming rookie, mindful of putting too much public pressure on their newest and youngest players, as well as being wary of upsetting or disrespecting more established players in the locker room.

But on a team that’s highest-paid player is a contractual albatross and the rest of the roster is peppered with youth, Johnson and the Lakers aren’t beating around the bush about their expectations for Ball.

“[He is] the new face of the Lakers, the guy who I think will lead us back to where we want to get to,’ Johnson said, and the man he called his “partner in crime” has similar views.

"We feel like Lonzo is a transcendent talent,” said general manager Rob Pelinka. “We knew from a basketball standpoint there were no questions."

The only thing most the Lakers front office had questions about in regards to Ball as a prospect were the other members of his brood, or more specifically his father, the braggadocios LaVar Ball.

To answer those questions, Johnson and Pelinka described traveling to the Ball family home in Chino Hills and watching LaVar coach Lonzo and around 17 neighborhood kids run conditioning drills up and down hills. LaVar cooked them sausages, pancakes and strawberries for breakfast, and had “man-to-man” conversations with Johnson the latter described as “special.”

After the visit, there were no more questions to be answered. Johnson and Pelinka knew who they wanted to lead the Lakers into a new era the same way he led neighborhood children up and down those hills near his home.

"We know that those leadership qualities are what's going to take the Lakers to their immediate destination, which is winning a championship,” Pelinka said.

Lonzo, as he does in most cases while answering questions from the press, kept his answer about what he hopes to bring to the team much simpler than grand proclamations about championships and retired jerseys.

"I'm coming here with a winning attitude, and hopefully I can add to the team,” Ball said.

What Pelinka and Johnson expect Lonzo to add immediately is a dosage of unselfishness, a verve for passing and off-ball movement that has been missing as the team has descended to the depths of the lottery for the last several seasons.

"Guys want to get out on that break and run hard, because Lonzo can get them a pass. And not just a pass, but a scoring pass,” Johnson said, describing Lonzo-led fastbreaks finishing in lobs to Larry Nance, Jr. and dunks from a trailing Ivica Zubac with yells of “wow!” and gesticulations of his arms.

“Watching so much tape of him, you can see yourself, you can see Jason Kidd,” Johnson said. "I think our players are going to love playing with him.”

But while they have big offensive expectations for Lonzo, Pelinka made sure to let the media, fans and Lonzo himself know they expect big things from him on the other end as well.

"The way Zo' plays the game is infectious,” Pelinka added. “I think Lonzo has the ability to be an all-defense player during his careeer... I think he's going to be a great two-way player."

Aside from being the new face of the franchise, getting his jersey retired, inspiring his team to play more unselfishly, winning championships and being an All-NBA defensive player, Johnson had one other request for Ball before the day was over.

"Lonzo, just leave me one or two records, okay?” Johnson said. “Don't break all my records.”

All quotes transcribed via Periscope. Harrison Faigen is co-host of the Locked on Lakers podcast (subscribe here), and you can follow him on Twitter at @hmfaigen.

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