It seems like something ripped out of a movie script: the kid from Chino Hills — a mere 40 miles east of Staples Center growing up during the age of Kobe Bryant being one of the dominant figures in the NBA — goes to UCLA, becomes a star and is taken with the No. 2 overall pick in the NBA draft to succeed Bryant as the face of the Los Angeles Lakers.
One would expect a kid in that situation to immediately gravitate toward Bryant, to try to glean every bit of information from the legend that he could. In this instance, however, that kid — Lonzo Ball — hasn’t taken that approach. In fact, it is the second of the two first-round picks the Lakers had in June’s NBA draft, forward Kyle Kuzma, who had dinner with Bryant to pick his brain.
Ball, on the other hand, seems to be in no rush to do the same.
“If the situation presents itself,” Ball told reporters last week, “then it’ll happen.”
That doesn’t make it sound like the situation will present itself anytime soon.
Some of this can be chalked up to Ball’s demeanor — placid to the point where it feels it is in direct contrast to the constant boasting of his father, LaVar, and the circus that is following his two younger brothers, LiAngelo and LaMelo, as they all prepare to play in Lithuania next month. But it also can be traced back to something else: the way Ball and Bryant view basketball couldn’t be more different.
The most obvious example is Ball’s choice of favorite player. It isn’t Bryant, the smooth superstar just a short drive (well, at least in terms of miles) down Route 60. It is LeBron James, whose jerseys from his days with both the Miami Heat and Cleveland Cavaliers were worn by Ball as a kid.
“In my opinion, he’s the best player in the world,” Ball said. “He just plays the game the right way.
“He probably can easily try to go for 50 every night, but he focuses on his team, tries to go for triple-doubles, gets guys involved.”
Ball is correct in his assessment of James, who remarkably remains the best player in the sport in his 15th season and after what seems like an eternity’s worth of games and minutes played in both the regular season and playoffs. And in watching Ball play, seeing him constantly kicking the ball ahead in transition situations or moving the ball instantly from one side of the court to the other in half-court settings, it’s easy to recognize the influence of watching James.
what’s more compelling is that Ball will likely be used as a recruiting tool to try to convince James to come to the Lakers next summer — and, truthfully, to be the player to remove Bryant’s shadow from hanging over the franchise. While Ball, Kuzma and Brandon Ingram don’t have the same star power of other young talents such as Kristaps Porzingis, Ben Simmons or Joel Embiid, the hope in Los Angeles is that they can be enough to convince James and/or other stars (Paul George, DeMarcus Cousins) to join them next season.
Ball openly professing that he has modeled his style of play after James can’t hurt, at least.
No one, on the other hand, would compare Ball’s game to Bryant’s. Whereas both Ball and James are always looking to move the ball elsewhere, to make, as Ball alluded to, “the right play,” it always seemed like Bryant was trying to go for 50 (and, to his credit, he often did). His style was far less collaborative, and far more commanding. It’s the same iron-willed mentality displayed when Bryant made a pair of free throws and then walked off the court under his own power after tearing his Achilles’ tendon late in the 2013 regular season — what might have been the most remarkable moment in a career in which he won five championships and scored 81 points in a single game.
That was what made Bryant into one of the NBA’s all-time greats. It’s also what made him the antithesis of Ball’s ideal of how the game should be played.
The irony in all of this is that if anyone had to guess how the son of LaVar Ball would play, and who the son of LaVar Ball would be drawn to, the assumption would be Bryant, not James. It’s fascinating that Ball is drawn to James, and a completely different brand of ball. Kuzma — one of the biggest surprises of this year’s draft class thus far — has impressed for his part, averaging more than 16 points per game and showing the kind of shooting and offensive versatility he displayed only in flashes during his time at the University of Utah.
But Kuzma wasn’t the No. 2 overall pick, wasn’t the local kid who went on to star at UCLA, wasn’t brought to the Lakers to lift the franchise back to its rightful place among the NBA’s elite and to replace Bryant as the face of one of the league’s tentpole franchises. Even after an uneven start to his NBA career, the Lakers hope Ball will become the player capable of doing those things. If Ball does, though, he’ll do so in a totally different way than Bryant did for 20 years in Los Angeles.
The Lakers might have their next big star, but he won’t be in the image of their last one. [/restrict]