As a kid, Lonzo Ball would lower the basketball hoop in his backyard in Chino Hills to about seven feet before he emulated one of his idols.
On that short hoop he’d try LeBron James’ signature one-handed dunk.
As he grew up, Ball’s game began to take on other qualities similar to James’ game.
“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 and go for 50 every night, but he focuses on his team, tries to go for triple-doubles, gets guys involved. It’s my first time playing him, should be a lot of fun, and I’m looking forward to it.”
Ball spoke on the practice court inside Quicken Loans Arena, a place James revitalized through two stints with the Cavaliers. He has arguably been the best player in the NBA for several years and has helped his team to a 20-8 record this season, including nine wins in their last 10 games. The Lakers will try to court him next summer, and as they do his belief in Ball’s future could be paramount to whether or not he joins the Lakers.
James’ game has no doubt influenced thousands of young basketball players, but few have the opportunity to share a court with him once they’re grown.
“I think LeBron is one of the most unselfish superstars our game has ever had,” Lakers coach Luke Walton said. “I think he would prefer to make a game-winning assist than a game-winning bucket. I think that’s a special quality. Zo obviously is not a superstar yet, but he has that same mindset of when he’s playing, he doesn’t care if it’s him scoring or someone else scoring. He’s just trying to make the right play.”
On Tuesday, James spoke glowingly about Ball in an interview with ESPN.
“I guess when you're drafted to a franchise, they want you to kind of be the savior, and it takes a while,” James said. “I mean, listen, man, this guy is 20-something games into his pro career. [It] doesn't happen [that fast]. Here it goes again, it goes back to my instant oatmeal [quote]: Everybody wants it right away.
“Can he play ball? Absolutely. The kid can play ball. Do guys want to play with him? Absolutely, because it's a guy who is not about him. It's about the success of the team. And he gives the ball up, and he passes the ball, and there's energy behind the ball.”
James and Ball have never met, but it wasn’t the first time James has shown an affinity for Ball. He spoke highly of Ball after Ball notched his first career triple double, unseating James as the youngest to ever do it. On Ball’s birthday, James posted a birthday message on Twitter.
It’s a little surreal for Ball, who had James’ poster on his wall growing up and who owned James jerseys from both Miami and Cleveland.
“I wouldn’t say I was surprised, I was just kind of grateful,” Ball said. “Glory to God as, you know, I’m at the position I am today where people like LeBron recognize me. It just gives me motivation to keep going.”
Brandon Ingram lingered on the court as the Lakers finished practice, working on his jumper.
That’s a part of his game that, when it improves, will come in handy against teams that pack the paint in order to neutralize him. The Knicks did that Tuesday night and Ingram made only two of 12 shots, finishing with five points.
“Defense was collapsing every time I drove to the basket,” Ingram said of his performance against the Knicks. “I tried to make some plays by dishing it off, dishing to the corners as I was going to the rim seeing all those guys. Some of them led to turnovers, some led to easy shots trying to open a little. I think I missed a lot of shots in the first quarter. The way I score the ball and the way everyone else scores the ball, it would’ve been an easy win for us if I would have scored the basketball.”
Walton stuck with Ingram late in the game over Jordan Clarkson even though Clarkson was shooting better. He said that was partially because Ingram was trying to play the right way, and that is something he rewards. His game also better fit what Walton thought the Lakers needed.
“I was debating whether for defensive purposes to leave Brandon in and let him have that experience in Madison Square Garden and going back to JC for offense,” Walton said. “I chose the defensive route with Brandon.”
Ball, who suffered a thigh bruise against the Knicks when he collided with Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, wasn’t limited in the Lakers practice on Wednesday. … The Lakers had a light day Wednesday. They watched film and they did some shooting after practice. … Although they started the season in the top five in defensive ranking, the Lakers’ defensive performance has slipped lately. Now the Lakers rank ninth in the league with a defensive rating of 102.9.
When: 5 p.m. Thursday.
On air: TV - TNT; Radio - 710, 1330
Update: Lakers forward Larry Nance Jr. will face the team that his dad played for and the team that retired his dad’s jersey. He called the experience of playing LeBron James, his favorite player growing up, surreal last year.
Follow Tania Ganguli on Twitter @taniaganguli