When the Los Angeles Lakers drafted Lonzo Ball with the second overall pick in 2017, they probably were thinking about his incredible floor vision, the shooting skill he demonstrated at UCLA and the defensive advantages his long arms would give him at the point guard position.
What they probably weren’t thinking about was Ball standing up 6-foot-10-inch Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic in the post, forcing a miss from the same traditional big man who had given every single small-ball five option the Lakers had thrown at him fits over their last three games against Denver, but that’s exactly what Ball did when it mattered most on Thursday night.
One play doesn’t make Ball a Jokic stopper, but it did help the Lakers avoid blowing a late lead and beat the Nuggets, 121-114, for their second straight win. However, Lakers head coach Luke Walton also didn’t think it was Ball’s only key play of the night.
Walton told ball in front of all of his teammates that he actually didn’t think Ball was all that involved in the game, at least until he started pressing Nuggets point guard — and frequent Ball antagonist — Jamal Murray. That’s when everything changed.
“Then he started picking up Murray full court, and he turned him over and laid it up. I thought that got him and our team going,” Walton said on Spectrum Sportsnet after the game. “From that point on, on defense he was causing havoc, reading plays and rebounding.
“He’s a big-time game-changer for us when he’s playing aggressive like that.”
Lonzo Ball made a ton of key defensive plays in that fourth-quarter comeback. Total havoc-creator. pic.twitter.com/IbjOLRaNOH— Joey Ramirez (@JoeyARamirez) October 26, 2018
Ball’s relentless and aggressive defense helped him swipe a team-high 5 steals against Denver, with his borderline-magnetic hands making their way into passing lanes time after time on the evening.
Ball was good offensively too — finishing with 12 points on 5-10 shooting while knocking down two of his five threes and dishing 8 assists — but finding consistency on that end of the floor (especially shooting) has been the biggest struggle of his career so far. In fact, Lakers forward LeBron James thinks it’s made some critics overlook just how special Ball is on the other side of the court.
“He’s got some of the quickest hands that this league has. I think a lot of people try to discredit what he can do offensively, but they don’t give him enough credit for what he does defensively,” James told reporters, although he wasn’t knocking what Ball showed offensively, either.
“He’s a very gifted basketball player. A very cerebral basketball player. When he’s aggressive and thinking shot first, everything else opens up for him,” James said. “It just opens up everything for our ball club, and he was great again tonight.”
With Rajon Rondo coming back from suspension for the Lakers when they take on the San Antonio Spurs on Saturday, the strong play Ball has demonstrated as a starter would seem to be at the very least a decently convincing argument for him to remain in the first five.
Walton said he and his assistant coaches will have to watch film before deciding whether Ball or Rondo will get the call on Saturday, but either way, Ball’s last three games have left no doubt just how special he can be when he’s attacking.
“His instincts for the game when he’s aggressive and active, he changes games,” Walton said.
Now we get to see if it changes starting lineups.
All quotes transcribed via Spectrum Sportsnet. You can follow Harrison on Twitter at @hmfaigen.