It took less than a week for the young core of the Los Angeles Lakers to show they weren’t going to be fawning fanboys in the face of LeBron James’ presence, a reality best punctuated when just four days after James officially convened with the team on Media Day, Lonzo Ball made it clear that despite James being his favorite player growing up, he wasn’t some starstruck kid anymore.
“I’m never nervous to play with nobody. He’s just another person at the end of the day. He not God,” Ball said.
The rest of the young core haven’t said so quite that strongly, but they’ve also made an effort to downplay the chance to play with James being a big deal throughout training camp and the preseason. When asked what it was like learning to play with James after one of the Lakers’ exhibition games, Kyle Kuzma made it sound like it was as routine as learning to play with any other teammate.
“It’s a learning process. Everything is a learning process right now. It’s a brand new team with brand new players still trying to get to know each other, but I don’t imagine it taking that long to figure everything out,” Kuzma said.
That’s the mentality Lakers head coach Luke Walton has wanted the team to have.
”You don’t want them to be in awe. I mean obviously we all respect that he’s one of the greatest players that our game has ever had, but as teammates and peers you want guys that are going to be out there to make plays next to him, not just throw him the ball and hope that he gets it done,” Walton said.
Still, Walton acknowledged that he’s seen the players react slightly differently to playing with arguably the best player ever than any other veteran.
“There’s definitely a respect that you see. When he’s talking in practice, they’re listening. He’s leading the way, he’s leading the team with the way that he’s practicing or way he’s communicating. They all follow his lead,” Walton said.
In fact, rather than the young players on the team, so far it’s actually been Walton who has been the most openly impressed with James.
“I’ve always heard what his basketball IQ was like, but in the short time I’ve spent with him, it’s off the charts. It’s really impressive what a student of the game he is, and the way he sees the game and can communicate that to his teammates. It’s very impressive,” Walton said, noting that at one point during training camp scrimmages James was identifying plays Walton was calling out to the offense from a play sheet and telling the defense how to guard them.
Walton hadn’t shown James the sheet yet.
James is able to do things like that by combining one of the highest IQs the game has ever seen with preternatural instincts, a borderline-photographic memory and the desire to watch endless film.
For Brandon Ingram — who James has already said he wants to help reach his full potential — seeing how James makes his own greatness possible, rather than said greatness itself, has been what’s left him most impressed.
“You actually get to see what goes into practicing. How prepared he is,” Ingram said. “He’s trying to be as vocal as he can be to make sure that everybody understands everything that’s taking place in any drill or in practice.”
And that’s been what has stood out from James’ Lakers tenure so far — what seems to be a deliberate effort by both James and the young Lakers to not feed the “LeBron says [complimentary thing] about [insert young Laker]” or “[insert young Laker] says they’re excited to play with LeBron” industrial complex that fans and aggregators were hoping would pop up the moment he got to Los Angeles.
On Instagram, James is calling Ball “young king” and telling him that he was “born for this moment,” but in media scrums when asked if any of his young teammates have “jumped out at him,” he says things like this actual quote.
”All of them, we do a lot of jumping and running.”
That’s presumably because James is aware of the power of his own voice and saving it for his own platforms, but also emblematic of the businesslike mentality both James and his young teammates are trying to take about this new situation.
Even with that noted however, every so often the young guys can’t help but let a little bit of acknowledgement of how playing with the greatest player they grew up watching can be its own motivating factor slip through, like when Ball was trying to downplay if he had thought about what it would mean to suit up with his favorite player ever.
“Not really. Like I said, I’ve been watching him my whole life, but playing with him, he’s very vocal. His voice is very demanding,” Ball said, before noting to be true what we probably should have known all along, despite the Lakers’ best efforts to downplay it.
“You want to be good for him.”
Pete Zayas contributed to this report. You can follow Harrison on Twitter at @hmfaigen.