A trend that has become a little too consistent even after Rajon Rondo broke his hand a couple weeks ago has been Lonzo Ball still not playing down the stretch of close games, despite being the only healthy true point guard on the roster (not counting Tuesday night in Denver, when he turned an ankle).
Ball was asked by Allen Sliwa on Monday’s episode of ESPN LA’s “Lakers Talk” about what it’s like to watch from the sidelines in those moments and, while he said all the right things, this trend should probably go the way of the dodo:
“It’s really tough. Obviously you want to be in there and do what you can for your teammates, but we have a lot of talented guys on this team so, you know, you’re not going to play every night as much as you might want to,” Ball said. “You’ve just got to roll with it and be ready when your name’s called. At the end of the day, Luke’s going to his best job to put the five he feels can close the game in.”
To his credit, Luke Walton has done a great job of explaining why, on various occasions, Ball has been out of the game late in fourth quarters. That kind of communication is important. What’s more important, however, is that the former second overall pick and player deemed the point guard of the future gets reps late in the fourth quarters of close games.
Walton’s continued excuses come across as him finding reasons not to playing Ball down the stretch of close games when looking at them together in a larger picture. In reality, he should be doing the opposite. While the focus of the team became about wins as soon as LeBron James signed, that doesn’t mean the development of younger players should fall by the wayside.
This trend of finding reasons not to play Ball in clutch situations is exactly the kind of thing the Lakers have to be wary of as they also try to win. And it isn’t like Lonzo is a demonstrative step down from the other options, either. When engaged, he’s just as impactful as any Laker outside of LeBron, and a good way to keep him engaged is to reward him for playing well with late minutes.
It should be noted that this specific quote came before a game in which a sprained ankle kept Ball from playing late. That’s completely outside Walton’s control. But in situations where Lonzo can go, Walton needs to do a better job of making that happen.