In the moments before Lakers executives Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka strolled to the podium at the team’s practice facility in El Segundo for a news conference, John Coltrane and Frank Sinatra songs played over the speakers.
Earlier in the day, something with a little more edge played over the sound system. Music thumped while LeBron James led a team against Rajon Rondo’s squad in a pickup game, complete with shoving and trash talking.
Those games late this summer — the ones witnessed by Johnson, the president of basketball operations, and Pelinka, the general manager — have left the Lakers’ top basketball decision-makers gushing about what they’ve seen.
Last year before the season, the gym was silent. “Nice guys,” Johnson said in a way not meant to compliment nice guys. But with the best player in the world in the gym, these games have had real meaning — building the groundwork for the upcoming season.
But in the gym, maybe the second-most important Laker to the team’s long-term future can’t get on the court. He can’t interact with James or Rondo in a way the other eight players do.
No, Lonzo Ball, despite being cleared for full five-on-five contact, hasn’t been on the court with his teammates as he rehabs from knee surgery. Not yet — and one of the keys to the Lakers’ future is missing out.
During the news conference, Lakers management said doctors have told them Ball can rejoin the court for full-contact drills, but as he’s working back from knee surgery he had in mid-July, the team is taking a more cautious approach.
But while the Lakers are being prudent, it doesn’t mean that Ball and the Lakers haven’t seen an opportunity go by.
Listen to Johnson describe some of what he’s watched when he’s seen his players on the court this summer:
“We’ve seen the level of play, they are going hard, it’s physical, it’s tough, it’s trash talking. It’s just a lot of fun and also a lot of teaching at the same time, LeBron is out there teaching in pickup games, Rondo is teaching in pickup games. JaVale [McGee] blocked [Kyle Kuzma’s] shot today and told him, ‘Next time you better come in and dunk it. You shouldn’t have let me block it.’ A lot of that is going on that didn’t happen before. So it’s really great to see these young guys getting a chance to learn from champions.”
Ball’s teammate and friend, Kuzma, has benefited from the work. Johnson raved about his body, calling him chiseled, and said that there have been times in the team’s pickup games where he’s been dominant.
“For a week, there was nobody in this gym who could touch Kyle Kuzma,” Johnson said. “He just lit it up for a whole week — until LeBron came back. He thought he was LeBron up until LeBron showed up.”
Ball hasn’t been absent; he’s been in the facility rehabbing his knee. He, Johnson, Rondo and Pelinka all broke down film of a Lakers-New Orleans Pelicans game from last season, with the players trying to narrate their decision-making.
And, the Lakers say, there’s still a benefit simply from watching how a player like James carries himself.
It might be true, but they know it’s not the same, not considering how Kuzma has seen his game rise and how Brandon Ingram has started to get a sense for what it’s going to be like to play alongside James.
While hesitating to call it a total teardown, both Pelinka and Johnson talked about the changes in Ball’s jumper — a form at least partly responsible for the second-worst three-point percentage of anyone brave enough to attempt as many as he did.
“I think his shot looks incredible,” Pelinka said. “I feel like you can boil it down to release, the spin on the ball and arch. So I had many conversations with Zo, of … just get those things right where you feel fluid about it. He would take things in. The way he’s shooting the ball looks a lot more fluid now.”
That work can’t fully be completed — or even tested — until Ball is back in the mix, playing in live situations. In the first portion of his NBA career, that, more than the broken jumper or the news-generating father, has held Ball back — four injuries and 30 missed games as a rookie.
Right before Pelinka and Johnson took the stage Thursday, Sinatra sang the first words to his song “Young at Heart” — “Fairy tales can come true.”
For the Lakers to have even the faintest shot at their storybook ending this season, Ball’s going to have to be on the court.
And so far, he’s just not been there enough.