EL SEGUNDO, Calif. — Magic Johnson pointed a long index finger at the wall of the Los Angeles Lakers’ training complex, where the 16-time NBA champions’ nine retired numbers hang over the practice court.
“I’m going to put a little pressure on you right now,” Johnson said to Lonzo Ball. “You look to your right, there’s some jerseys hanging on that wall. We expect a Ball jersey hanging up there one day, all right? Good.”
Somebody not wearing Big Baller Brand sneakers might be a bit intimidated by Magic’s bold pronouncements. After all, the Lakers’ president of basketball operations immediately dubbed his 19-year-old point guard “the new face of the Lakers, the guy who I think will lead us back to where we want to get to.”
But after a short lifetime spent preparing for this moment, Ball already knows exactly what’s expected from a superstar on his favorite team.
“I’m happy to be home, and I’m ready to get to work,” Ball said as he formally joined the Lakers on Friday after getting chosen with the No. 2 overall pick.
Ball is facing sky-high expectations, but he’s also just one part of Johnson’s plan to transform the Lakers into a championship contender after the worst four-season stretch in franchise history.
Magic made his intentions known a few days before the draft when he traded D’Angelo Russell to Brooklyn, giving up on the No. 2 pick in the 2015 draft after just two mostly promising seasons. Magic made the deal partly to clear the way for Ball, whose passing talent and leadership enraptured the Lakers’ Hall of Fame point guard in a way that Russell never did.
“I’m going to do what it takes to get the right players in here with the right mindset,” Johnson said. “D’Angelo is an excellent player. He has the talent to be an All-Star. We want to thank him for what he did for us, but what I needed was a leader. I needed somebody also that can make the other players better, and also that players want to play with.”
Johnson also echoed general manager Rob Pelinka’s comments one day earlier about the Lakers’ long-term plans when he cited 2018 salary cap relief as the second reason for trading Russell.
The Lakers got rid of the final three seasons of center Timofey Mozgov’s $64 million contract in the deal, acquiring mobile center Brook Lopez — who has one year left on his deal — and the 27th overall pick used to get Utah forward Kyle Kuzma.
With Mozgov’s contract off the books and additional moves planned in the ensuing months, Johnson and Pelinka intend to clear enough cap room for the Lakers to add two free agents on maximum contracts next summer. Paul George, LeBron James, Russell Westbrook, DeMarcus Cousins and other big-name veterans could be available – and Magic is indefatigably optimistic they’ll be interested.
“When you have this much cap space, we’re going to be major players next summer,” Johnson said. “The tide has turned. People want to play here again. It’s exciting times for the LA Lakers. I wouldn’t have made that move if I didn’t think I could use that money. Enough said.”
Jim Buss and Mitch Kupchak had a similar plan several times in recent seasons, believing they could build another super-team around Kobe Bryant. They were repeatedly surprised and disappointed when free agents didn’t line up to wear the Lakers’ hallowed gold uniforms, leaving Los Angeles to struggle to four consecutive losing seasons.
But Magic and Pelinka believe they will succeed where Buss and Kupchak failed, thanks to what they see as an intriguing young core headlined by Ball and wing Brandon Ingram, last season’s No. 2 overall pick.
Pelinka also believes Magic himself is an irresistible asset.
“There’s just a renewed energy around here,” Pelinka said Thursday night. “With Earvin’s vision and his persona, I think the organization is really taking on that positive joy that he seems to live with every day. I think players around the NBA feel that as well and are going to be attracted to that energy here. With the leading teams in the league today, we felt like to be able to look them in the eye and challenge them, we need two superstar players to come here and join this platform and join our core group of great players that we now have.”
But if the Lakers are disappointed in free agency again, they’ll still have Ball – and his father, LaVar, who had promised for years that his son would end up with the Lakers.
Magic and LaVar appear to believe in Lonzo with equal fervor, if such a thing is possible.
“Just leave me one or two records, OK?” Magic told Lonzo with a grin. “Don’t break all my records. I asked your grandfather, ‘Just let him leave me one.'”