Lonzo Ball's journey has just started, now it has to catch up with expectations

Lonzo Ball's journey has just started, now it has to catch up with expectations
Lakers point guard Lonzo Ball talks with reporters during media day activities at the team's training facility in El Segundo on Sept. 25. (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

He was predicted to be transcendent. He was judged a basketball genius. He was compared to Magic Johnson by, well, Magic Johnson.

With cameras at each elbow and praise from every corner, Lonzo Ball was feted through Lakers media day Monday as if he were on a victory tour.


Everyone forgot this teenager's journey hasn't even started.

"It's a lot of attention for one person," said Kentavious Caldwell-Pope.

Ball was heralded as an All-Star, a player who elevates his entire team, a guy who has already walked in and changed the culture of one of the greatest franchises in NBA history.

Might be nice to chill, until, you know, his first official practice.

"It seems like he's got a crazy following," said Julius Randle.

Ball became a Laker this spring as the No. 2 overall draft pick, became a Lakers hero by owning the Las Vegas Summer League, and then a Lakers celebrity with the Facebook debut of the reality show about his overexposed family. Now that the team is actually playing real basketball, the hyperbole is being piled on even thicker, with media day commotion painting Ball as a Lakers superstar.

"He's a cool, good-looking young man with a game to match," said Johnson, the Lakers' basketball boss. "Wow, that's L.A."

Wow, that's also a little scary because, as Johnson admitted Monday, nobody really knows what is going to happen next.

There's never been such a hyped rookie in Lakers history. Johnson was huge in 1979, but it was before social media. Kobe Bryant was interesting in 1996, but he shared the stage with Shaquille O'Neal.

Ball is not so much a star as an experiment. No kid has ever arrived with a presence seemingly as big as the Lakers themselves. No kid has come to the team with such deep hometown roots, yet with such a potentially disruptive home influence.

Can he stay focused with so much of the focus directed to the rest of his life? How will he deal with his father LaVar lobbing inane verbal grenades from Chino Hills? Can he withstand being a target of opposing players, who already blanch at his reality show, his new shoe brand and his quick elevation to popularity without earning it?

"We have to wait to see if it affects him, we can't say that right now," Johnson said. "It's a wait-and-see situation. Is he doing too much? We don't know that right now. Is it bothering him? We don't know that right now. Let's wait and see what happens."

Even as Johnson is outlandishly promoting Ball, he has discussed the outside issues that could befall his 19-year-old point guard.

"I've already talked to him to say, 'Make sure your focus is there,'" Johnson said. "There's a lot on the kid, but let's see what happens."


What happened at Monday's media day is pretty much what has happened since Ball joined the team from UCLA this summer. Everyone bows to him, and he just shrugs. Everyone shouts about him, and he barely whispers.

"Everybody is making a big fuss about him but he's not making a big fuss about himself," said Johnson. "He's cool like that."

One could easily assume that this chill attitude will allow Ball to easily navigate the madness that surrounds him but, again, this is basically new for everyone.

"This is my first year, and I really don't know what to expect," Ball admitted, about pretty much everything.

We know he should be impervious to a pressure he's felt since he first stepped on a gym floor in the Inland Empire. But visiting full arenas to play amid full-throated boos will place him in a different sort of hostile environment.

"I've been like this all my life, I don't feel this [heat], to be honest," Ball said. "I've been getting it all the time. … It's just basketball. ... That's what it is, at the end of the day, just playing it, my love."

We all know about LaVar, who will say anything to make a buck, and Lonzo says he is used to it by now. But LaVar's words eventually infected the UCLA locker room, and if he starts peddling criticism of the Lakers, that throws big shade on his son.

"I'm not going to monitor LaVar, I've got 15 dudes to monitor," Johnson said. "If something happens … where it will affect his son on the court? Maybe I'll pull him aside. They said, 'Did you see LaVar on TV yesterday?' No. 'You gonna watch him?' No. I'm concerned with his son getting off to a good start and fast start."

In relation to strong beginnings, we also know that nobody on the Lakers has yet messed with Ball's funky shot, and he's thrilled.

"Not yet, no one's touched it, so, good times," he said with another grin.

Ball is understated but personable, cool but thoughtful. He seems much older than his age, and disarmingly humble for someone with 416,000 Twitter followers. He seemingly has the personality to pull this off, this incredibly difficult task of surviving as the hometown star of the most popular local team in the entertainment capital of the world. But the storm is just beginning, and he knows it.

"Ready to learn, ready to get better, looking forward to the challenge," he said.

Later, in the closest he'll come to bragging, he added: "I think I'll be fine. I've been playing basketball my whole life. I think I'm pretty good at it."

He's better than pretty good. But playing basketball will be the easy part.

Get more of Bill Plaschke's work and follow him on Twitter @BillPlaschke