Lonzo Ball worked his way along the edge of the crowd that had formed inside the visitors’ locker room at Barclays Center.
“S’cuse me, s’cuse me,” he said. Even as the amorphous mass that had formed around LeBron James adjusted to clear a path for the second-year point guard, the focus remained on James. The Lakers superstar stretched out in the center of the room, working his muscles over a foam roller as cameras filmed each undulation of the ripples in his torso.
Similar scenes have played out in arenas throughout the country since James joined the Lakers. Cameras are set up to capture the moment he walks through the locker room. Reporters in search of deeper meaning crane their necks to read the labels of candles James has left burning in his locker.
Like the other non-LeBron Lakers, Ball moves easily and silently around the spectacle. It’s in stark contrast to a year ago, when the circus was, in fact, for him. He was the No. 2 pick who Magic Johnson declared the franchise’s new face, and whose father became its unofficial mouth.
Now, Ball lives in a world where the pregame crowd around James’ locker can swell so big that it forces him into another room, as it did one night earlier this season at Staples Center. When Ball was playing a half-court scrimmage for the first time in training camp after offseason knee surgery, most members of the media had their backs turned, focusing instead on James and his daily press scrum.
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.”
Of the young players the Lakers have drafted and spent time developing over the past half-decade, none has been as polarizing as Ball. He is a paradox. Simultaneously a star and a bust. Famous for being someone else’s son but now a father himself. Moments of genius are tempered by missed layups and wayward passes.
Ball has always been in the spotlight, and while that beam shines more brightly on the Lakers now than it has in half a dozen years, their point guard is not its primary focus.
This comes after an inaugural campaign when Ball was not even the best rookie on his own team. While Kyle Kuzma earned All-Rookie first-team honors, Ball was limited to 50 games and scraped together enough votes to land on the second team. In that environment, every miscue Ball made was exposed. He averaged 10.2 points, 7.2 assists and 6.9 rebounds but shot just 36 percent from the field.
“Every team I played for, I pretty much been the dude on it,” Ball said. “Picked second, I was supposed to come in and impact the franchise right from the jump.”
This season, LeBron’s presence has created a shield for Ball, who is now being afforded the opportunity to develop naturally, a luxury that eluded him last year.
“That’s just how it is playing with him,” Ball said of James. “Obviously if you do dumb stuff, it’s going to show up like any other player, but most of it’s always towards him, that’s just how it is. Best player in the league, best player on our team.”
There is also the unavoidable fact that, unlike last season, Ball has been the most visible member of his own family. His father LaVar has split his time this fall between Southern California and Europe.
“He’s real focused on my little brother (LaMelo) right now,” Ball said. “He pretty much did everything he could with me as far as stuff he could teach me in life and how far he could take me. Now it’s up to me to go wherever I want to go with it.”
Sunday’s 107-99 loss to the Memphis Grizzlies was in some ways the perfect distillation of Ball’s young career. He shot and missed seven times from 3-point range, setting a new career-low for attempts from the perimeter without a make, and he was pulled from a close game in the final minutes after missing twice. Yet, he still tallied three steals and two blocks and the Lakers were plus-one in his 27 minutes on the floor.
“Zo’s had off shooting nights,” coach Luke Walton said, “but he does so many other things on the court that we find a way to win or somebody else steps up and then he’ll make a big play down the stretch.”
Here’s the question: Is Ball simply a unique player who cannot be judged by traditional standards? Or are the Lakers moving the goal posts for an inconsistent 21-year-old who has yet to prove he can be trusted?
Regardless of how you feel about Lonzo Ball, there is likely a stat to back it up. Through 33 games this season, he is averaging nine points, 5.2 rebounds, 4.8 assists and 1.5 steals per game.
Take the scoring out of the equation, and Ball is one of only six players in the NBA to average as many rebounds, assists and steals. The other five are All-Stars: James Harden, Victor Oladipo, Russell Westbrook, Nikola Jokic and Draymond Green.
With the exception of Green, however, those players all score. The only other point guards to average at least 4.8 assists while scoring under 10 points per game are Indiana’s Darren Collison, New Orleans’ Elfrid Payton and Ball’s Lakers backup, veteran Rajon Rondo.
Payton is an especially sobering comparison for Ball, with career averages of 11.1 points, 6.4 assists, 4.3 rebounds and 1.3 steals while shooting 30 percent from 3. Ball has often been compared to Rondo, a reluctant and inconsistent shooter throughout his career, while some within the Lakers organization have wondered aloud if Ricky Rubio may be a better comparison.
So which is it? Is he a star? Or a role player?
“He’s made a commitment to being a star in his role,” said Ball’s agent, Harrison Gaines.
The night the Lakers lost in Brooklyn, Ball finished with 23 points, eclipsing the 20-point mark for just the third time in his career. Three nights earlier, he notched 16 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists in a win in Charlotte. It was his third career triple-double but his first since Nov. 19, 2017.
“That’s basketball,” said Darren Moore, Ball’s manager and trainer. “You’re going to have good ones, you’re going to have bad ones. … In my opinion, I don’t really think that he can have a bad night if he just continues to rebound, push the tempo, set the table for everybody else.”
Ball has also emerged as one of the Lakers’ most dynamic defenders this season, picking up opposing point guards full-court and often forcing turnovers in the backcourt. He has frustrated point guards from Jamal Murray to Mike Conley.
“When you pick a guy up full-court, it kind of turns your motor on,” Moore said, “and I think that it changes the tempo for your game specifically.”
Ball has had to find ways to impact the game while learning to play a new way. He has spent far more time off the ball than at any other level, a natural function of playing alongside James.
“I’ve never really had to move without the ball my whole life as far as setting screens and cutting like that,” Ball said, “so trying to get better at that, trying to get better at catch-and-shoot. Growing up, a lot of my shots came off of me dribbling and shooting it. Trying to get the catch-and-shoot down and go from there.”
Ball has been scrutinized far more closely than a typical young player, due to pressure brought on by his family hype machine, Johnson’s early faith and Ball’s own ups and downs.
“I think it’s all just media narratives,” Kuzma said. “How they think he should play because he’s the second pick and all the fans, but from an in-locker-room, NBA-mindset approach for the game, I think he’s done well.”
Matters are complicated by the fact that Ball is viewed as still trying to find his footing with the Lakers, while the players drafted behind him, Boston’s Jayson Tatum and Sacramento’s De’Aaron Fox, have blossomed into bona fide stars. The Lakers’ other 2017 picks, Kuzma and Josh Hart, have exceeded expectations relative to their own draft positions.
“I’m happy for them,” Ball said. “I’m happy we drafted them. Rob (Pelinka) and Magic did a great job of finding pretty much the two biggest steals of the draft in my opinion. Now it’s just my time to step up and do what I’m supposed to do.”
While the distractions that accompanied Ball last year might have alienated him from some people, he has remained a favorite of his teammates. James has relentlessly praised Ball as a star who does not yet realize how great he can be, while Hart called Ball a “big-time player.”
“He’s not worried about what the media’s saying or what the outside world keeps focusing on,” Hart told The Athletic.
The last two years have been a whirlwind of headlines and controversies, starting with LaVar’s decision to capitalize on Lonzo’s cachet and launch Big Baller Brand while his eldest son was at UCLA.
In the time since, the Ball family’s story has been dominated by drama, both manufactured and very, very real.
Lonzo’s mom, Tina, suffered a stroke during the spring of 2017, before Lonzo became the No. 2 pick by the Lakers; “Ball in the Family” premiered on Facebook; Lonzo’s then-girlfriend Denise Garcia became pregnant; brother LiAngelo was arrested in China along with two UCLA teammates for shoplifting; LiAngelo and LaMelo turned pro in Lithuania; LaVar proclaimed Walton had lost the Lakers’ locker room; Lonzo became a father at 20 when his daughter Zooey was born in July; Lonzo and Denise became tabloid fodder when they reportedly broke up, a story that was later confirmed on the family’s reality TV show.
Lonzo’s transition to the NBA was neither low profile nor especially easy to navigate.
“I try to separate my personal life and basketball,” Ball said. “Basketball is a safe haven pretty much to get my mind off stuff. Outside of basketball, yeah, a lot of stuff has happened the last two years, but I just try to stay focused on the court.
“I know I got a reality TV show, but at this point it’s just not a big point to me because I’m not on the show that much anyway. I just try to focus on this year and make sure everything goes right.”
And that is where LeBron James provides an important buffer for his point guard.
The four-time Most Valuable Player has filled the vacuum that allowed for LaVar to have a voice last season.
Since before he was drafted, Ball said he was used to his dad making brash statements. What he’s not used to is LaVar remaining silent. He said he and his father touch base about once a week, but LaVar has not been heard from publicly in months. He has attended a handful of Lakers games, including Sunday against Memphis, but otherwise keeps a low profile.
“I guess the public likes it more when he’s quiet,” Lonzo said of his dad. “For me, I don’t know. I really don’t care.”
Added Kuzma: “It probably helps a little bit because you don’t really hear nothing too much outside of what Zo says in the locker room.”
Without the spectacle of LaVar, the threat of him spouting off is presently idle, like a dormant volcano. For Lonzo, that shifts the focus back to basketball. That is both a good and bad thing.
It’s great in moments like a November game in Orlando, when video of him defending four Magic players on a single possession went viral, or on Sunday when he defended Grizzlies guard Shelvin Mack the entire length of the floor and ultimately blocked his shot.
However, Ball is still shooting under 40 percent from the field and just 30.9 percent on 3-pointers. He has posted a negative plus/minus in 19 of the Lakers’ first 33 games.
After Johnson told Ball that he was entering “the biggest summer of his life”following his rookie year, Ball’s offseason was full of disappointment. After a platelet-rich plasma shot failed to heal the balky left knee that limited him to 50 games last season, Ball had arthroscopic surgery, keeping him off the court for almost the entire summer. Despite the setback, he arrived in training camp noticeably stronger in the upper body, something the Lakers have pointed to when discussing Ball’s evolution as a defender.
“I was kind of disappointed this summer that I couldn’t do the things I wanted to do, just because of the year I had I felt like I did everything pretty much well except shoot and score,” Ball said. “So that’s something I wanted to focus on this summer. But obviously I got hurt and kind of set everything back. But I like the way things are going.”
While progress has come slowly in some areas, Ball seems to have grown in others. Teammates describe him as more comfortable in the locker room, and he seems to have become more comfortable playing alongside James.
“We’re seeing a little bit more of his personality,” Hart said of Ball. “I think that’s the biggest thing. Whenever you’re new to a team and you’re young it takes a little bit for that personality to show, but he’s definitely showing his personality more, being outgoing, those type of things.”
In Ball’s rookie season, he was accompanied on every road trip by Moore and a personal security guard – an unheard of contingent for a 19-year-old rookie.
While Moore still follows the Lakers on the road, Ball now relies primarily on team security when he needs it. He is more comfortable leaving the team hotel on his own, going out to dinner with teammates instead of always ordering in to his room.
It is hard not to consider that Ball is being treated less like a kid because he now has a child. Fatherhood precipitates adulthood, even though Ball acknowledges he is only able to see Zooey when the Lakers have days off at home and that his daughter spends the bulk of her time with Denise.
“I do stuff for her now,” Ball said. “I don’t do it for me. Obviously, I do stuff for my family, but I always think how my actions are going to affect her. I want to do good, play good obviously for myself, but to make sure I get another contract so she can keep living the life I want her to live.”
That is just one of the ways that, while all eyes are on LeBron, Lonzo Ball is looking ahead.