USA TODAY Sports
LOS ANGELES – Lonzo Ball was ready to fight.
Not in a legal sense, like the UCLA saga in China last month in which his younger brother, LiAngelo Ball, was one of three Bruins players arrested for shoplifting in what was the most global chapter of the ongoing Ball family story.
Not in a fisticuffs sense, like that game at the Phoenix Suns back on Nov. 17 when the Los Angeles Lakers rookie was so widely criticized for not coming to his teammates’ defense in a mid-game shoving match in which he strolled back to the bench. Or in a revenge sense, as he was moving on from the Saturday night Denver subplot in which young guard Jamal Murray seemed to taunt Ball by dribbling around him in the waning moments of the Nuggets’ win.
No, the 20-year-old whose week included a faceoff against two-time MVP Steph Curry of the Golden State Warriors and ended with a matchup against the Houston Rockets’ two-headed point guard monster of James Harden and Chris Paul was ready for a basketball battle on Sunday night at Staples Center.
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“I think you have to go into (every game) like everybody’s the same, because if you’re just admiring them then they’re just going to eat you up,” Ball had told USA TODAY Sports before tipoff. “If you look at everybody the same, then you’re going to be ready to fight.”
He had spent the flight back from Denver studying Rockets film for this daunting matchup on the team-issued iPad, then locked in during the next day’s shoot-around when coach Luke Walton was preaching togetherness and toughness. He had overcome the psychological hurdle of all these great players coming his way, realizing that this new reality of his isn’t going away anytime soon.
Yet still, there was this…
– Ball missed all four of his shots in the Rockets’ 118-95 win, dropping his shooting percentage to a 31.3% mark that is worse than any other rookie who has taken at least 30 attempts and 408th overall. The Lakers lost their fifth consecutive game and dropped to 8-15 in the process, meaning they are now four games out of playoff position in the Western Conference. In related info, free-agent-to-be LeBron James’ well-known business manager/mogul, Maverick Carter, was on hand and likely unimpressed (by the Lakers, anyway, as the Rockets pushed their best-in-the-West mark to 18-4).
– Ball had three assists while playing 22 minutes, marking just the third time this season he had three or fewer dimes. His 1-to-1 assist-to-turnover performance lowered his personal ratio to 2.54 – far below the early-season playmaking greatness of his counterpart, Paul, who has a 5.57 mark that obliterate his previous career high if it continued (4.6 in 2007-08, according to NBA.com/stats).
But as Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni said before the game, such comparisons are, well, unfair. All around the league, there is a growing swell of subtle support for Ball as he tries to find his way. Let him get comfortable, Curry and fellow Golden State Warriors star Kevin Durant said before downing the Lakers on Wednesday. Give him time, they all agree. And truth be told, they’re right.
D’Antoni knows as well as anyone how the hype can be short-lived, as he was the mad scientist coach behind the “Linsanity” madness during those halcyon New York Knicks days in 2012 when Jeremy Lin graced the cover of Sports Illustrated back-to-back weeks. Only time will tell if Ball can reach even Lin’s level of longevity, let alone the notion that he might put together the kind of career that D’Antoni’s all-time favorite, Steve Nash, was able to produce.
But day by day, and week by week, Lonzo is learning the ins and outs of this new professional landscape and developing the kinds of habits that should eventually pay off. You still see the special qualities, the ability to push the ball that is so very unique and the selflessness that they all still rave about. If only the actual production would come around.
“UCLA helped me just because coach (Steve) Alford played in the NBA, so it was kind of like the stuff we do now, but this stuff is amped up more,” said Ball, who is averaging 8.7 points, seven assists and 6.9 rebounds per game so far.
“We watched film, but here it’s a little bit more. We’re on the planes with iPads all the time, like last night for example (after the Denver game). It’s a back-to-back, and you get on the plane and you’ve got two hours to get on your IPad and you’ve got to watch the Houston film and then you’ve got shoot-around and you’re right back at it. The turnaround is a lot faster than it was in college.”
In other words, the adjustment period continues.
As Walton so candidly said before the game when he deemed the Murray move “immature,” Ball and all of his Lakers teammates simply need to get tougher. They are being bullied on a regular basis, with the Denver incident simply the latest example.
“My back was turned (on Murray when he pulled his stunt), but I really don’t pay no mind to it,” Ball said. “I don’t feed into it. I know everybody’s trying to get under my skin and stuff, but I don’t let it get to me. I came in expecting everything, pretty much. Nothing has really been out of (what he was expecting), so it’s cool.”
Except for the off-court distractions. His outspoken father, LaVar Ball, has remained as vocal during his NBA days as he did during Lonzo’s time at UCLA. His brother’s incident had a happy ending, but still caused concern within the Lakers organization that so badly needs Lonzo to start becoming the special player they saw when they took him second overall back in June.
“Yeah, (the chaos around him) is definitely calming down, given that it happened two weeks ago,” Ball said. “When it first happened, it was definitely on me and stuff. But it definitely died down.”
And now, of course, it’s time for his game to liven up.
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