In the heart of Los Angeles, a modernized Showtime spinoff has been captivating hoops audiences for the past five months. Except this time, the Lakers are mere spectators instead of active participants. UCLA, which has endured three consecutive offensively impotent seasons, capped off by a defective 15-17 nadir in 2016, is the new show in town, and freshman point guard Lonzo Ball has catalyzed their renaissance.
Yet, UCLA is a small-screen pit stop on the Naismith Trophy finalist’s way to The Association.
Washington’s Markelle Furtz is considered the presumptive No. 1 overall pick, but Lonzo is not far behind, garnering more buzz for both his style of play and the market in which he’s leaving his mark. The hope is that he becomes the change agent who can lead a 21st-century reboot of the Lakers franchise.
Magic Johnson was the leading star of the ‘80s Showtime era, and his ascendance into the Lakers front office creates an additional incentive for Lonzo to remain in L.A. and become his disciple. Magic oversees basketball operations. Kobe’s agent, Rob Pelinka, serves as general manager. Championship-winning Laker reserve player Luke Walton now stalks the sideline as a first-time head coach, and there’s speculation that L.A. native Paul George would prefer a free agency homecoming in 2018.
At a time when franchises are scouting tiny corners of the globe, Los Angeles is ostensibly building a foundation from cats who probably repped the same local rec leagues.
The NBA abolished territorial picks in 1966, but excuse Laker Nation from going “Ball in” (awakens a slumbering Jim Jones) on the idea of drafting their homegrown star this June. The hype over Lonzo potentially staying put in LA. has reached fever pitch as the Bruins and Lakers have diverged.
NBADraft.net and Draft Express both project Lonzo as the Lakers’ No. 2 pick. During an interview with an Arizona radio station last month, his boisterous pops, LaVar, stoked the fire by proclaiming his son would only play for the Lakers.
“He’s going to be the first one that’s homegrown, and trust me, he’ll do the same thing he’s doing at UCLA,” LaVar declared. LaVar later clarified that his comments were his merely speaking an ideal scenario into existence—not a threat—but it raised eyebrows. Especially when coupled with his comments about representing his own son.
During Lonzo's senior season at Chino Hills, situated just outside Los Angeles County, he directed an offense that scored more points per game than all but one team in the nation. En route to a 35-0 record, he personally averaged a triple double. But most blue chip prospects have standout high school careers.
Transcendent floor generals are expected to spark rapid turnarounds, and Lonzo has already authored one at UCLA. In the two seasons prior, UCLA finished no higher than 60th in scoring. They were 97th or lower in offensive rating since 2014. This past year, with Lonzo leading the nation in assists, UCLA led the nation in both scoring and offensive efficiency.
NBA evaluators see in him a sui generis prospect with a precocious point guard’s soul, an elite basketball IQ, enough bounce to catch a few lobs of his own, and pull-up range from nearly 30 feet. Lonzo’s steez has a little of Penny Hardaway and a pinch of Jason Kidd, topped off with a hint of Steph Curry.
Great point guards are superior decision-makers who read, identify, and react to defensive lapses; Lonzo operates in a unique realm. He’s college basketball’s Doctor Strange. He dictates the tempo and even bends the defense to his will with preternatural passing instincts and prophetic vision. His assists don't just derive from drive and kicks or the pick and roll. He drops dimes before his recipient knows he’s open.
He’ll rise up to fire a three, and while everyone is boxing out for a rebound, his “shot” will whiz by the rim. It’s only then you realize it was an alley-oop.
In the McDonald’s All-American Game, his record-tying 13th assist was more inspired than Kenan Thomspon’s Mighty Ducks knuckle-puck shot. Lonzo bounced a pass from the left wing over the head of his defender and gauged it perfectly as the ball cleared the cylinder, resulting in a mid-air catch and flush.
Even though UCLA’s intensity on the other end has been sporadic, Lonzo’s exhibited the potential to also become a versatile All-NBA defender down the line.
The opportunity for a franchise cornerstone to double as a homegrown hero is rare. LeBron, Derrick Rose, Wilt Chamberlain in Philly, and Clyde Drexler after he was traded to Houston are the most notable examples.
Remarkably, Lonzo may never have to leave home. There are, however, a few realities to confront.
The first reality check for any Lonzo-to-Lakers scenarios is outside of his control. L.A. already has a franchise point guard in D’Angelo Russell. Fans have been impatient with his development, yet he has excelled since Lou Williams was ferried off to Houston in February. This is a deep draft, and Pelinka may be enticed to draft Kansas’ Josh Jackson or Duke's Jayson Tatum.
If the stars aligned for the Lakers—owner's of the NBA's second worst record and a first round selection in June's draft that's only top-three protected—experimenting with Russell and Lonzo together wouldn’t be too farfetched for Magic. Forty years ago, the Lakers drafted Norm Nixon. Two years later, he was joined in the backcourt by Magic. Over the next four years they were co-producers of the early Showtime Lakers production, dishing 17 combined assists per game, 8 of which belonged to Nixon on average. Russell, a natural combo guard with point guard gifts, is a superior scorer and may be just as suited for the off-guard.
It's also worth pointing out that two All-Star appearances and a pair of championships later, Nixon was traded to the San Diego Clippers for prototypical guard Byron Scott. Russell may be the necessary sacrifice to acquire the aforementioned George, from Indiana.
There are also cracks in Ball’s game, which are especially worrisome if they're not patched up with caulk. Lonzo is not an athletic freak, and some question whether his jump shot will be the difference between him translating into a perennial All-Star or a pass-first role player à la Shaun Livingston. Those worries are exacerbated by his 58 percent clip from the charity stripe.
Lonzo is also the vessel for oldheads who harp about the lost art of the midrange J. Groupthink spurred by an acceptance of analytics has convinced coaches and talent evaluators to devalue the less efficient long 2-pointer. Ball is the first hotshot perimeter playmaker to completely eliminate it from his diet, as over 92 percent of his field goal attempts come at the rim or from behind the arc.
It's unclear whether he's reluctant to attempt midrange shots because of Steve Alford’s offensive ethos or because that weapon isn't in his scoring arsenal. Backcourt mates Aaron Holiday and Bryce Alford’s percentages suggest it may be by design. Yet, few have ever taken it to Lonzo’s extreme. Lonzo can also get to the rack, but when teams game-plan for him, the midrange shot is a massive swath of land he'll have to prove he can convert in.
Ultimately, a few Herculean showings in the NCAA Tournament will dispel some of those concerns about any weaknesses.
There have been nights when Lonzo has opted to facilitate, while his points total stalled in single digits. The nature of the tourney and UCLA’s porous defense make it so that he'll have to call his own number on a nightly basis.
Hero ball is often used as an epithet to describe cocksure gunners who operate outside the offensive framework, hog the rock, and play inefficient basketball in clutch situations. Successful hero ballers get branded as gamers—Kobe epitomized the best and worst of hero ball.
Lonzo doesn't have hero ball in his DNA. He's too unselfish, but in a do-or-die scenario it's imperative he show evaluators his scoring prowess by taking command when the time calls for hardwood heroism. These next few weeks will be pivotal in evaluating Lonzo’s skillset and his fit for the purple and gold.