TIME IS NOW FOR YOUNG LAKERS TO STRENGTHEN VOICES
Remember the narrative entering the season? It was basically about LeBron James and a bunch of sponges. What good students these young Lakers players are. They listen so well. They are curious and ask good questions. They are so sincere in their quest for knowledge and self-improvement.
And that learner’s mentality made for a potentially wonderful match with James’ immense knowledge and dominant leadership.
It is true: Being good listeners is vital when there is much more to be learned and you are moved into James’ band overnight. He has never been a soloist, but he is the clear lead singer—and speechmaker, political activist and even ready-for-leading-man actor. LeBron’s voice is as powerful as they come, which naturally must lessen the focus for those around him in developing their own voices.
Yet James’ injury absence has been a reminder of how important it remains for the Lakers’ young players to strengthen those voices—and how difficult it is. That’s also why it feels so rewarding when you see Lonzo Ball unleash a primal scream after his deep three-pointer goes down to set the tone for overtime. The victory Thursday night in Oklahoma City feels like a paradigm-shifting achievement because we’ve seen the young Lakers struggle to stand tall and consistently confident without James at their side.
The vets whom Lakers coach Luke Walton calls “generals”—James and fellow veteran newcomer Rajon Rondo—were both sidelined, so Walton turned to another veteran newcomer in Tyson Chandler to join the starting lineup, citing Chandler as “a very vocal player.” The Lakers are 2-0 since, with Chandler helping certain teammates find more balanced footing between being earnest listeners by age and you’d-better-be leaders without LeBron if the team is going to win.
A forgotten element in that optimism about the youngsters being good listeners was Magic Johnson’s concern as soon as last season ended that so many of them were “quiet.” Moe Wagner was drafted partly for his vigor in vocal energy. Johnson understood the incalculable value of the young players finding their voices to become winners in this league.
And after the Thursday victory that included possible career highs in controlled, leadership voice from Kyle Kuzma and Brandon Ingram and in aggressive, confident voice from Ivica Zubac and Josh Hart, Johnson tweeted: “Laker Nation, our young @Lakers grew up tonight with the victory over OKC!”
It was a similar sentiment from James, notably using the word “men” in his tweet—“YesSir Men!!! Helluva WIN!!! @Lakers #LakeShow”—to congratulate his teammates.
The ages of the five “men” to get the job done in overtime in OKC? Ball, 21; Ingram, 21; Zubac, 21; Hart, 23; and Kuzma, 23.
Is it fair to expect guys that young to know the right things to say? Part of developing that voice isn’t even whether you’re mouse or man when it comes to the mouth, it’s knowing what to say that will actually connect a group.
In the Lakers’ worst moments without James, Walton has seen his young players not know the best response. Rather than talking about what mistake to correct on the last play, or refocusing on what needs to be executed for the next play, frustration sometimes led to what Walton described as a more internally focused, misguided response of “I need to do something.”
In that regard, the recent struggles should serve the Lakers well even when James returns to action—because with him around, everyone else’s role is clearly categorized again as what’s best for the team.
The lesson now is that the voice always has to be something that serves the greater good.
“Little things you learn as you mature,” Walton said.
Let’s rewind to last April and what Johnson had to say about Ball:
“When you’re the point guard, you have to be able to say, ‘Hey, man, that was a bad shot.’ Or ‘Hey, we need you to step your game up.’ He has got to do that now in the fourth quarter.
“This year, of course, he was a rookie, rolled with the punches and didn’t say too much. Next season, I told him he can’t do that. He’s got to step up into that leadership role. And when they’re not playing defense, he’s got to say it. Or if we need a big stop, he has to say it.
“He doesn’t have to change who he is and talk all the time, because that’s phony. But in crucial moments of the game, he has to say something.”
There’s a misconception that Ball fundamentally lacks voice. He’s actually one of the Lakers’ more entertaining, engaging teammates behind the scenes. He is certainly still developing his leadership style, along with his ability to direct teammates in organizing an offensive set, but it’s important to realize that he has a better grasp than most of the right way for the team to play.
Ball’s default is to be that team guy. Tuesday was the first time all season he led the Lakers in individual scoring. And Chandler noted Ball did speak up with him during that game about a key play, encouraging Chandler that he had to get open for Ball to feed him the ball.
It was just unrealistic to expect Ball to enter this season with more voice. He was rusty from his offseason knee surgery. Rondo was brought in largely for his voice at point guard. James’ arrival of global proportions predictably moved Ball’s local story off the front page.
Because Ball is innately in tune with the team concept, however, his voice is one the Lakers need more in order to stay true to the team concept … especially when James is out. The trick is that Ball is more comfortable talking to the team when he’s performing individually.
“For me, it’s more about action,” he said. “I don’t think you can talk if you’re not doing your job.”
However, what Ball said to the guys after he was called for a controversial foul that led to overtime Thursday—before his memorable post-three howl of pride—was hardly limited by regret or context.
“I told my teammates I got ‘em for the next five minutes,” Ball said. “And I feel I did pretty good.”
They’re still good listeners.
Even though Ball leaves the more outspoken Kuzma out when saying vocal leadership at this level is “new for me. It’s new for B.I.,” Kuzma’s willingness to be coached has been probably even plainer this season than when he was a rookie last year.
Rather than celebrating a big shot he hit in overtime Thursday, Kuzma stopped to listen intently to advice from associate head coach Brian Shaw as the ensuing timeout began; Kuzma had failed to control an available defensive rebound before that. After forcing his own shot in a transition opportunity and being benched earlier in the game, Kuzma took responsibility for that mistake also.
Way back after the final preseason game, Rondo was the proud proctor walking through the team plane while the young Lakers pored over game video, hunched over as if at their desks in class and diligently finishing some geometry chapter review. Rondo estimated 12 players were studying film on the plane and was blown away by the young players “wanting to learn so much.”
That hasn’t changed. Ball said his pick-and-roll decisions and finishes have advanced via Rondo’s ongoing tutelage: “I appreciate him 100 percent.” Those two have been staying together after practices to work on Ball converting available layups. Much of Zubac’s success can be tied to executing the lessons experienced centers JaVale McGee and Chandler have imparted about simplifying the game—creating a passing lane or just hustling to the dunking spot near the rim.
The goal, same as it is in normal life, is for players to be equally capable and comfortable when listening and learning as when speaking and sharing. Take in wisdom one day, pass some on another.
Ingram’s complete embrace of being more vocal—with teammates, team staff, referees, media, fans, whomever—has quietly been a major change this season, his third in the NBA. That shift is what has made it possible for Ingram to show what Walton calls “the best version” of Ingram, which is someone who can give his voice to the team.
While James has been out, it has often been Ingram running the offense. Sometimes it has stalled out with forced shots; sometimes it has revved the way it did for Ingram to have nine first-half assists against the Thunder.
But check out how Walton described Ingram’s “best version” effect on the team in the victory over Chicago on Tuesday. It transcends him balancing passing, shooting and defending:
“He was taking control as far as calling the plays and getting guys in spots,” Walton said.
With or without LeBron, the more confident voices there are, the better off the whole team will be.
Ingram’s max versatility is in many ways the team’s template. Offense or defense. Speak or listen. Whatever is needed at the time.
For now, the young guys have needed to speak.
And they’re starting to understand the power of those voices.