Well removed from the championship heights they’re accustomed to, the Lakers are forced to celebrate the smaller things.
That frequently involves the exploits of prize rookie Lonzo Ball, who bumped his individual record to 6-0 in scrimmages leading into Saturday’s preseason opener against the Timberwolves.
As he and the Lakers learned in that contest, a 108-99 victory for the Timberwolves, there’s a big difference between informal internal competition and a (relatively) real game against a talented team that could make waves in the Western Conference.
But unlike his disastrous Summer League debut in July, Ball’s first preseason outing was merely a mixed bag.
Shooting (2 for 9 overall, 1 for 5 on 3-pointers), one of the lone blemishes during his MVP performance in Las Vegas, was an issue once again, as was Ball’s lack of awareness and strength on defense. He finished with three turnovers, frequently trying to feed teammates with difficult passes in traffic. But he also flashed his usual versatility, dishing out eight assists with seven rebounds and two steals in 35 minutes.
Perhaps Ball’s most notable contribution was the frenetic, if often sloppy, pace at which the Lakers played. It’s not something they’re even close to being talented enough to win with. But the intent is clear — give the ball to Ball, and let him go.
At one point he whipped a brilliant cross-court pass through traffic to Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who immediately passed to Brandon Ingram for what would have been a wide-open corner 3 had he not fumbled the ball out of bounds. Perhaps Ingram was surprised to have gotten it in the first place, with Ball having created a quality scoring opportunity out of nothing.
At various others, however, Ball forced lobs, or dribbled behind his back in traffic, or forced up bad shots, or didn’t take open ones.
It all boils down to decision-making — a skill Ball has really only just begun to hone.
Anticipation and expectations are so high for the 19-year-old rookie that even his carnival barker of a father, LaVar Ball, has become a celebrity. Witness the massive line of Lakers fans who lined up to meet him at Saturday’s game like they would one of their team’s many Hall of Famers.
It’s a level one of them, Lakers president Magic Johnson, expects Ball to meet.
One game into his first preseason, we still have no idea if he’ll even come close. But Lakers coach Luke Walton said he liked what he saw, challenging Ball to continue to push the pace while being even more aggressive looking for his shot.
For Ball’s part, he was just glad to reach his latest mile marker on the road to what the Lakers are desperately hoping will be their latest star career.
“It felt great, especially when they call your name and the fans start cheering,” he said of his first preseason game. “That’s what you dream of as a kid.”