Perhaps years later, after time to reflect, Lonzo Ball will admit that being on the court in a practice with LeBron James, his favorite player growing up, left him a little awestruck.
Or perhaps he told the plain truth Thursday, the awe having left him during an unpredictable rookie season.
“I’m never nervous,” Ball said with a smile after practice when asked if sharing the court with James elicited any nerves. “I mean, he’s just another person at the end of the day. He’s not God.”
But back in 2003 one highly touted player also shrugged off the gravity of an event, when asked about his first NBA training camp. Now James tells a different tale.
“I had no idea what to expect,” James said. “It’s a man’s league. You’re kind of intimidated when you first walk on the floor because you’re looking at all these men that you’ve watched over on television and things of that nature. Then when I got on the court, I realized I belonged, so that intimidation factor went away very fast. It was just time to shut my mouth and learn.”
Thursday marked the first time that James and Ball played together in a full-contact situation. Ball’s competitive debut with his childhood hero probably will have to wait.
Although Ball practiced fully for the first time Thursday, including in full-contact drills, coach Luke Walton said he doubts Ball will be ready to play any time soon. James will play in his first Lakers game during the team’s preseason opener against the Denver Nuggets on Sunday in San Diego, though he and the Lakers have not yet determined the number of minutes he’ll play.
“He will not play 48,” Walton said. “It will be more than one and less than 48.”
Still, the Lakers will have an eye toward not overusing James. They plan to manage his minutes during the season, and that’s especially true during the preseason.
“I don’t know what’s normal for me,” James said. “Last year I pretty much didn’t play the whole preseason besides one half. You know, knock on wood, I got injured in first day, second practice, so I wasn’t able to perform in preseason. … I’ll just talk with Luke. I’m not gonna play a bunch of minutes.”
Ball will still be working through his progression from injury as the Lakers prepare to face the Nuggets. Ball had arthroscopic knee surgery July 17, after receiving a platelet-rich plasma injection to the knee during the first week of May.
Thursday marked the first time since before those procedures that he was able to take full contact. The Lakers did not do a full five-on-five scrimmage, but rather what Walton referred to as a “controlled scrimmage.”
“It’s pretty much all on me,” Ball said. “It’s my body so I know it best and they told me if I can go, I can go. And it felt good today.”
Said Walton: “He looked really good. It was good to see him out there cutting and making his reads and his passes.”
Ball has never been one to express too much emotion or defer too much to the enormity of any particular moment. He didn’t enter the league with as much expectation and pressure as James did, but there was certainly pressure placed on Ball, whom Lakers president of basketball operations Magic Johnson called “the face of the franchise” in his introductory news conference.
Just like Ball did during his rookie year and into his second season, James also shrugged at the journey on which he was about to embark when he became an NBA player. In a quote after his first NBA practice, James said the target on his back was “not going to be new for me.”
Now as he looks back, he admits more about what it was like.
“A lot of things changed,” James said. “Yeah, it went fast.”
Follow Tania Ganguli on Twitter @taniaganguli