Last year, Lonzo Ball was the closest thing the Los Angeles Lakers had to a marquee name. The No. 2 overall pick in the 2017 NBA Draft was sold to the fanbase as the franchise’s next great point guard, with president of basketball operations and Lakers legend Magic Johnson begging Ball to leave some of his records intact at the latter’s introductory presser.
Ball didn’t have a perfect rookie season, but he still had a good one by most measures, good enough for him to make the All-Rookie second team. Still, given how heavily Ball was hyped by the people that drafted him and how poor he is at basketball’s most visible and easy to recognize skill (shooting), the idea that he was somehow a disappointment was prevalent among some segments of the fanbase.
The arrival of LeBron James over the summer didn’t change all that, but it did make Ball less of a focal point for media and fan attention. In an excellent, must-read feature that is worth a full read, Ball told Bill Oram of the Athletic that he’s appreciated the way James’ presence has alleviated some of the pressure on him:
In Year 2, Ball has found himself on the periphery of James’ universe. At times, quite literally.
“I would say it takes pressure off of me and the rest of the young guys,” Ball told The Athletic during the Lakers’ recent four-game road trip. “Obviously you have LeBron, the best player in the world, all the attention’s on him. A lot of the wins and losses are targeted towards him. I know he’s dealt with that his whole career so he’s fine with it. But myself, it’s taken the spotlight off a little bit, just making things a little easier for me.”
Ball’s words are understandable coming from a 21-year-old who was probably asked to do too much, too soon. Oram’s feature gets into a lot of the pressure and issues that Ball faced during his rookie campaign — seriously, you should read it — so we won’t go over all of those here, but it has become increasingly obvious that the Lakers probably put too much on his plate last season.
By not getting other playmakers on their roster — or at least not many other ballhandlers — the Lakers tried to run their entire offense through Ball as a rookie. What they (and we) learned from that experience is that Ball is not that type of player.
Ball is not a playmaker in a traditional sense. He’s an instinctive ball-mover who is like nitrous for an NBA offense: He’s great when you need a boost, but he’s not an engine unto himself. You wouldn’t get mad if you hit the NOS on a car without a working engine and things didn’t go well.
The Lakers also didn’t get a real, NBA-caliber backup point guard last year in what was clearly a move to clear the decks for Ball to get the majority of the playing time. Not giving head coach Luke Walton a veteran security blanket to play over Ball had its positives in that it ensured Ball had proper time to develop, but it also probably set him up for the perception of failure, if not failure outright.
Ball couldn’t be benched last year, even if he was really struggling and hurting the way people viewed his offensive gifts. That may not have damaged him long-term, but this year his struggles can be hidden by the presence of Rajon Rondo when necessary.
With the addition of Rondo, and an offensive focal point in James, the Lakers have shifted Ball into his more natural role as a secondary playmaker who keeps the offense lubricated and serves as a tenacious defensive rover.
Even if that’s not a role people are used to seeing a point guard playing, that’s where Ball fits best, and while he still might struggle at times and it’s not a guarantee he’s on the next great Lakers team, he’s at least mostly being put in a less pressure-filled position to succeed. After a choppy rookie season in which Ball was still better than most think, that’s all those who want to see him reach his full potential can ask for.
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