EL SEGUNDO, Calif. — Lonzo Ball doesn’t need to talk a lot to know he’s funny.
He doesn’t need to score to know he’s playing great basketball.
He doesn’t need to escape the influence of attention-seeking father LaVar, because Lonzo loves being part of the best team he has ever had: his family.
That is what Lonzo Ball is all about: team and family.
Never about himself.
That might seem different in a league full of guys taking over games and making sure everyone knows it.
The Lakers now have a front office guided by the ultimate team player, Magic Johnson, with a spirit of collaboration pervading an office where former general manager Mitch Kupchak’s door was always closed and co-owner Jim Buss was never around. And they have coach Luke Walton teaching a share-everything style of play and preaching that doing good deeds is not about getting credit.
The days where Kobe dominated, and the team celebrated him for it, are done—in more ways than one.
“That identity will be defined as the team develops, but clearly the way Lonzo plays will set the tone,” Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka told Bleacher Report late Thursday night after Ball was drafted. “And it really meshes so naturally well with the way Luke’s vision for the team is, which is open floor, ball movement, versatility, length.”
Where once Bryant was their divine scorer, the Lakers believe Ball can be their divine passer. It makes it appropriate they wound up with him at the No. 2 overall pick instead of polished scorer Markelle Fultz at No. 1.
“We didn’t look at ball-stoppers,” Pelinka said about a Lakers draft that netted four promising shooters in Ball, Kyle Kuzma, Josh Hart and Thomas Bryant.
The theme for Magic’s Lakers is collective excellence, even as Pelinka remains well aware of the power of the superstar from his days as an agent for the likes of Bryant and James Harden.
Pelinka has declared his intention to bring “hopefully two max-salary players to our franchise” next summer via free agency. But even there, atop the Lakers’ list are two guys who fit this team-first build: Paul George and LeBron James.
George grew up idolizing Bryant, yes, but he did so while betraying his Lakers-loving family and rooting for the young, hip-hop Clippers because they had a group of guys who loved playing together. James, meanwhile, is a basketball icon who is much more Magic than Kobe in playing style.
That vision of togetherness the new Lakers regime envisions for the future is a big reason why Ball is a centerpiece and D’Angelo Russell is already out of the picture.
It was Russell’s bravado the Lakers fell for in 2015, drafting him in hopes of reliving the Kobe era with another edgy alpha male. In just two years, however, everything has changed about what the Lakers want to be since everyone used to be compared to, asked about or overshadowed by Bryant.
Now here’s Ball, whose favorite Laker of all time is, by far, Magic, even if he did grow up watching Kobe.
Ball met Bryant once a few months ago, but when you ask Ball about it, he’s unmoved by the interaction. Bryant asked Ball if he had a post-up game; Ball said he did.
But individual post-ups are not what Ball wants.
“Try to be a good teammate and a better point guard,” Ball summarized in his typically brief way.
The cool confidence is there; it’s just not self-aggrandizing the way it runs like ice through Russell’s veins. Perhaps it’s because he’s the oldest of the three Ball brothers, or perhaps it’s because there’s no room for an epic ego next to his father, but Ball looks like a grownup at 19—and he is proud of it.
The Lakers’ decisions to draft Kuzma, a three-year college player at Utah, and Hart, a four-year player who won a national title at Villanova, were linked to that same spirit. Kuzma and Hart impressed Lakers officials with their maturity in interviews wherein they articulately conveyed values about hard work and winning. They also fit the positionless, multifaceted style of play that Pelinka called his “guiding principle” in building the Lakers roster.
Ultimately it will be basketball performance that brings the Lakers another championship, but we now see the path this front office is taking will be wide. There will be room for many contributors to lock arms as long as they want to help each other.
That’s the sentiment Johnson and Pelinka found when they visited the Ball home for their second predraft meeting with Lonzo, observing how he interacted with his brothers and his parents.
Even though Ball was the Lakers’ likely guy all along, Pelinka said, “The time with his family was really one of the keys to help us crystallize our decision.”
What Johnson and Pelinka saw was real—nothing big or branded. It included LaVar caring for his wife, Tina, who is recovering from a stroke, and LaVar coaching up the neighborhood kids.
It was, for the record, LaVar who made sure Lonzo had Magic as the template for his game. It was LaVar who in this era of travel teams and AAU ball trained Lonzo to make the most of his teammates by placing him on talent-poor rosters and challenging him to find a way to win.
In so many ways, it was LaVar who positioned Lonzo to be the team player the Lakers love now.
“When he’s on the floor,” Walton said, “all four guys out there with him become better instantly.”
Walton also was quick to note, “What’s incredible, according to Zo, is that the dad has been great, has always been there for him, is supportive, loves him…and that’s what you want [to hear] as a father.”
This is Lonzo Ball’s story now, and it’s as simple as team and family—because when sports is at its best, one is a lot like the other.
Hearing Ball so matter of factly and sincerely state how he wants to make Brandon Ingram better—”I feel he’s going to be a superstar in this league”—felt surprisingly warm despite its simplicity.
That’s because it was distinctly different than anything Russell ever said about Ingram…or anything Bryant ever said about Russell.
It is Ball’s natural way, and it is why one NBA scout summed him up this way: “Transcendent passing ability. Natural-born leader.”
Kevin Ding is an NBA senior writer for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @KevinDing.
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