Column: Lonzo Ball will need to get tougher if he wants to have staying power with the Lakers

Magic Johnson famously looked up to retired numbers on the wall of the Lakers’ practice facility last summer and loudly saved a space for the NBA’s most celebrated rookie.

“We expect a Ball jersey up there one day,’’ he said.

It turns out the Lakers would have been thrilled simply to see more of that jersey on the court.

Ten months after being anointed as the face of the franchise, Lonzo Ball showed up for his exit interview Thursday as a guy who needs to show that face a lot more.


There were no details offered about the message offered by Johnson and general manager Rob Pelinka to Ball in their season-ending meeting, but here’s an educated guess about what the kid was told.

You can’t lead this team by playing in just 52 games.

You can’t become great by refusing to play with pain.

You need to get tougher, and you need to do it now.


“Basically, it’s just the biggest summer of my life,’’ Ball related when asked what he was told by Lakers officials at the UCLA Health Training Center.

Big, as in, he needs to get bigger, both mentally and physically. He needs to solidify a growing body that was frequently battered. He needs to tighten up a will that sometimes waned.

Lakers coach Luke Walton talks with rookie guard Lonzo Ball and veteran big man Brook Lopez during a game on March 16.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times )

Enamored fans of Ball’s buzz might not want to hear this, but if he were given a grade for his rookie season, it would be an “incomplete.’’

If one were insistent that a letter grade be attached to his game, it would be a “C.’’

He was the second player taken in the 2017 draft, but he did not rank among the league’s top five rookies. He wasn’t even the best rookie on the Lakers, with that honor obviously going to Kyle Kuzma.

Ball might have led the Lakers in cheers, but his inability to either avoid or battle through injuries, particularly knee troubles that led to him missing the last eight games of the season because of a bruise, also made him a leader in club frustration.

Nine Lakers played more games. This included two guys, Jordan Clarkson and Corey Brewer, who are no longer Lakers.


The mandate to strengthen himself makes this the biggest summer of his life, and Ball said he liked hearing the bosses say it.

“I’m only 20 years old, for somebody like Magic and Rob to tell me that, they’re pretty much telling me they believe in me,’’ he said at the season’s final news conference. “If I put the work in, I’ll see success on the other side. I’ve just got to listen to them, take care of what I can take care of.’’

It’s become pretty clear that Ball is a great kid. He’s unselfish. His teammates love him. He did a great job handling the most pressure ever placed upon a Los Angeles rookie in any sport, even somehow shutting up his father LaVar, who has been wonderfully invisible since disappearing into Lithuania in January.

OK, well, Lonzo said he actually never told LaVar to shut up.

“Nope, I never tell him any of that, he pretty much does what he does, I do what I do,’’ he said.

He also said LaVar, despite attempting to stir up a Lakers’ locker room rebellion against coach Luke Walton, was never a distraction.

“Nope, first year was all me,’’ Ball said.

And when it was all him, it was splendid. He changes the game every time he steps on the floor. He made every Laker better. He made every Lakers game better.


”He’s the head of our offense … he pushes our pace,’’ second-year forward Brandon Ingram said Thursday. “He plays the right way. He sees the game a little bit different every time he steps on the floor. That really affects our team.”

But you know how many games Ball played with Ingram and fellow cornerstone Kuzma? All of 37. It’s going to be tough for Johnson to sell potential acquisitions LeBron James and Paul George on life with the three young stars if the Lakers can barely imagine it themselves.

Bloodied by a scramble for a loose ball, Lakers guard Lonzo Ball catches his breath during a break in the action during a game against the Warriors on November 29.
( Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times )

So yeah, one more time, this has to be the biggest summer of Ball’s life, and when I asked if he has to get stronger, he quickly agreed.

“Most definitely, I want to play 82 games next year, definitely have to get in the weight room, get my body ready,’’ he said.

When I asked if he needs to learn to play with pain, he also agreed.

“Yeah, I don’t think anybody can go through seasons 100%. Sometime you’re going to play with something, you just got to go through it, go out there and play,’’ he said.

When asked about the biggest learning experience in his first season, he talked about the grind that wore him down.

“People say it’s a long season, but you really don’t know the NBA season until you go through it,’’ he said. “I feel like I have a good taste of what it’s all about now, just all the travel, all the preparation going into the game and stuff, the way your mind has to be, to play 82 games, to compete every night.’’

And you thought his biggest problem was his shot? Even though Ball shot only 36% from the field, including just 30% from the three-point line, and 45% from the foul line, the Lakers apparently are not going to mess with his funky delivery. There were times it actually worked, and they are going to build on those times.

“Don’t change form or nothing, I’ve been shooting like that my whole life, so they said they’re fine with it, just make sure I get the reps up,’’ Ball said. “Just perfect it, pretty much.’’

He will, however, work on different types of shots, especially mid-range shots and runners, shots that can give him the finishing touch that he currently lacks. He will need to average more than 10 points a game for this team to contend.

“Scoring, from all levels, especially off pick-and-roll, getting into the paint … floaters, pull-ups,’’ he said.

The most important part of his summer won’t be about scoring. It will be about finding sturdiness. Even Kuzma agreed that Ball’s biggest fight awaits.

“He’s going to attack his mentality, that’s one thing that he needs to do,’’ Kuzma said. “For us to be great, no matter who comes here, everything is going to fall on his head. Just the reality we live in … we all know … he has to bring it next year, and we know he will, for sure.’’

He will have to, for sure.

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

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