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Becoming Lonzo Ball in an impatient NBA world

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LOS ANGELES — Ten games into his NBA career, Lonzo Ball is a basketball Rorschach test.

What do you see when you look at him play? Do you see the playmaker averaging 6.8 assists per game, the guy who keeps the ball moving and rebounds surprisingly well, the one who is pushing the Lakers to the third fastest pace in the league, the one energized their athletic bigs to get out and run the floor, and the guy who has been crucial to L.A.s unexpected 5-5 start?

Or do you see the player who is shooting 29.9 percent this season, the one shooting just 39 percent at the rim and struggling with decisions when the defense collapses, the one that teams are sagging off and daring to shoot, the guy struggling on defense, the one searching to find his way in the half court? Do you see the player some are comparing to Ricky Rubio and are saying will never be an All-NBA (or maybe All-Star) player?

It’s a Rorschach test, the answer says more about you — and your biases about Ball and the Lakers — than it does the player himself.

Ball is both those things — an impressive playmaker and a guy struggling with his shot and defense at the next level.

What is Ball? A just turned 20-year-old rookie 10 games into an NBA career. He’s a guy developing, but in an impatient world that does not want to wait for him. He’s a guy for whom the game is still moving a million miles an hour and he is trying to keep up. What did you expect from him at this point, consistency? The next Magic Johnson?

“Those two young guys, they’re a handful,” Grizzlies coach David Fizdale said Sunday of Ball and Brandon Ingram, after the pair helped the Lakers beat Memphis. “I think as their shooting becomes more consistent, they are going to become a problem Everybody is looking at the body of work right now, but these kids get better and they got a heck of a staff down there that I know is going to develop them.”

Not to go all Sam Hinkie, but it’s a process. Players take time to develop. To make any long-term comparisons at this point, to suggest he may not live up to the standards of a No. 2 pick, is foolish this early in his career. We just don’t know.

Ball is a young man going against grown-ass men being physical with him nightly in a way he has never had to deal with before. NBA scouts and staffs are now getting a body of film to study, tendencies to put into scouting reports, and they will take away what he wants to do (like get back and take away the long look-ahead pass). It falls on Ball to adjust (something that didn’t happen the same way at UCLA). The good news for Lakers fans is Ball puts in the work.

Pass first point guards tend to come along slower in the NBA than their scoring counterparts, just look at the first 10 games of Jason Kidd (his and Ball’s numbers are similar). That’s especially true for pass first point guards who don’t have great shooters around them — Ball does not. Brook Lopez is the best three-point shooter among the other Lakers starters (Brandon Ingram has a nice three-point percentage overall but was just 6-of-16 shooting in spot-up situations coming into Sunday, he has to get his buckets with the ball in his hands.)

Ball was not expected to be an elite scorer, he never was (he averaged 14.6 points a game at UCLA). Yet scoring, and making better decision on when to attack and look for his shot, is going to be the first hard lesson to learn. He has to start with being more comfortable with his jumper — until he becomes a bigger threat to score teams are sagging off him and daring him to shoot. When he did, lining up a wide open three deep in the fourth quarter Sunday while Memphis was making a comeback, there were audible murmurs of concern in Staples center from fans (they were right, he missed it and was 1-of-8 from three on the night, 3-of-13 overall).

“I want him to keep shooting. I’m glad he’s not turning them down,” Lakers’ coach Luke Walton said. “I’m glad he’s trying to put pressure on the rim. The way to break through (his rough start shooting) is to keep working, at practice coming in early and get the shots up, then keep doing it in the game. Eventually you will figure it out, especially if you’ve been a good shooter your entire life.”

“A lot of shots that are open I’m getting, now I just got to knock them down,” Ball said.

Ball had his best success in the half court Sunday when he was aggressive and drove into and attacked the space the defender was giving him playing off him, something he needs to do more consistently. He has struggled in the past with his decision making on those drives — shooting over long defenders when kick-out passes were open, or passing when he had the better shot — but that is improving. What Walton said he wants is for Ball to remain aggressive.

“I feel I’m getting better at it,” Ball said of attacking that space. “Especially in transition, there’s a lot of gaps I can get into and I’m just trying to get better at it every time.”

It’s partially a matter of better decision making, something that comes with time and experience.

“Like he had a couple today that felt like heat checks, and if he hit the one before and the crowd’s behind it I’m okay with that,” Walton said. “But there are other quick threes he took when they were on a run. It’s pretty much the same shot, but within the game the momentum is different, so you got to learn the difference between those.”

Ball, like most rookies, is still a raw lump of clay being molded into an NBA player. Watching Ball a lot this season, it’s tempting to think that another ball-dominant playmaker — like the kind of big names the Lakers will target in free agency next summer, LeBron James and Paul George — would help Ball’s game. It would give the floor spacing and open up passing lanes (but again, Ball’s jumper needs to improve to really make that work).

We can see the gifts, not just the passing but the eagerness to do it at tempo that has started to transform the Lakers’ culture. This is a fast team (sometimes a little too fast and out of control, as young teams do), an athletic team in the way the Lakers have not been in a very long time. Like Showtime era long.

But Ball isn’t Magic Johnson, coming in after a few years of college (and being tested there by the likes of Larry Bird), then entering on a championship level team with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar putting up 25 and 10 still, and with Hall of Famer Jamaal Wilkes stroking baseline jumpers to the tune of 20 points a night.

Ball is young and developing, joining a team with the core players young and learning just like him (plus a couple of veterans, such as Brook Lopez, helping them win games). It was Magic that drafted Ball, and what he wanted was leadership and a guy to shift the culture of this team — and he has gotten that. This is a much better Lakers team than a year ago. A team with a long way to go, a team that’s likely watching the playoffs from home this spring, but a team that has a direction now.

Ball brought that. How much more will he bring? That we have to wait and see, we just don’t know yet.

‘Tired’ Jimmy Butler sits out All-Star Game at his own request

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LOS ANGELES — Jimmy Butler leads the NBA in minutes played per game at 37.3. He’s ninth in the league in total minutes played and played 77:35 minutes in the two games leading up to All-Star Weekend.

Butler was tired and asked Mike D’Antoni to give him some rest, according to both parties (despite speculation this was really a win for the Los Angeles nightlife). Butler did not play in Sunday’s All-Star Game.

“Rest,” Butler said when asked why he didn’t play. “I have to rest. I have to rest my body up. This Timberwolves season is very, very important to me. I’ve got to make sure I’m ready to roll when I get back there.”

“He was tired and he just felt like his legs weren’t there,” Team Stephen head coach Mike D’Antoni. “He didn’t practice yesterday or play today. You have to respect that. He plays hard. Sometimes your body just needs a rest.”

Butler is having the kind of season that has him in the discussion for a place on the MVP ballot. He’s averaging 22.4 points per game with a very efficient true shooting percentage of 59.3, plus he’s playing strong defense. He and Karl-Anthony Towns have led the Timberwolves to a 36-25 record that has them as the current four seed in the West, poised to break an 11-year playoff drought for the franchise.

Still thankful, LeBron James breaks Michael Jordan’s record for years between All-Star MVPs

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Los Angeles – When LeBron James became the youngest-ever NBA All-Star MVP in 2006, he said during the trophy presentation: “I’d like to thank the fans for voting me in as a starter.”

Twelve years later, he sounds similar, maybe just a little more thoughtful: “It’s always been my fans who voted me in. For 14 straight years, my fans have voted me in as an All-Star starter, and it’s been up to me to go out and let them know and show them, listen, I appreciate that, and here’s what I’m going to give to you every time you vote me in.”

He plays similarly, too.

LeBron again won All-Star MVP, leading his team to a 148-145 victory Sunday. He finished with 29 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists.

“Every night I step on the floor, I have to lead my guys or prove to myself that I’m still able to play at a high level,” said LeBron, 33. “I feel great.”

The 12-year gap between LeBron’s first and last All-Star MVP – he also won in 2008 – is the longest in NBA history. It tops the 10 years between Michael Jordan’s first (1988) and last (1998).

Here’s the difference between the first and last All-Star MVP for every multi-time winner:

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Players’ effort in this exhibition game comes and goes, but LeBron appeared invigorated .

When LeBron’s team trailed by 15 in the second quarter, he checked in and quickly led it back into the lead. When his team fell behind by 13 midway through the fourth quarter, he again led a spirited comeback. He hit the go-ahead bucket.

Despite playing a game-high 31 minutes, his intensity lasted all the way through the final buzzer.

His coach, the Raptors’ Dwane Casey, said he asked LeBron whether to foul or defend on the final possession while up three. LeBron said defend.

“If he says that, or any great players say that, you want to go with them because it was their idea, their belief, and he had it,” Casey said. “…He got the guys jacked up and juiced up as far as wanting to get a stop.”

LeBron and Kevin Durant swarmed Stephen Curry, who couldn’t shoot and could barely pass. Curry’s team didn’t even get a shot off:

“As you can hear in my voice, that tells how competitive it was,” LeBron said scratchily.

Again, his message echoed 2006: “We’re competitors, and our competitive nature kicked in and said let’s get some defensive stops.”

A lot will get made about the format change, and it might have mattered.

But maybe LeBron is just uniquely capable of dominating and embracing of this stage all these years later.

Defense? Dramatic finish? Team LeBron wins All-Star Game that’s worth watching

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LOS ANGELES — The NBA gambled its new format — with captains picking teams playground style — would produce an All-Star Game where the players showed some pride, played hard, and the showcase again would become something that resembled basketball (unlike last season).

It worked.

For proof guys were invested this time around, check out how Team LeBron responded to winning with a defensive stop, taking away Team Stephen’s attempt to get a clean look at a game-tying three in the closing seconds.

The THRILL of #NBAAllStar VICTORY!

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“It had a real game feel to it,” LeBron James said.

Team LeBron beat Team Stephen 148-145. LeBron was named MVP with 29 points, 10 rebounds, and eight assists. He also hit the game-tying and go-ahead shot that got the win.

“I played with (LeBron) a few times,” Kyrie Irving said of the play and pass that set up that LeBron game-winner. “I cut back door, (Russell Westbrook) was driving, I saw the opportunity. I saw, before even Russ even passed to me, LeBron was going to circle to the rim, and he’s one of the best finishers at the rim.”

Most importantly, this was an All-Star Game with some defense — it had 81 fewer points than the layup line game last year, and the fewest points in five years. It also proved to be the closest game in six years.

“We wanted to kind of change the narrative of the All-Star Game being a joke,” Kevin Durant said. “Today we wanted to make it a real basketball game.”

There was more defense than last year from the start of the game — for example, LeBron blocked an alley-oop pass in the first quarter. Of course, “better than last year” was not a high bar to clear, but there was some effort to not just have a layup line. Most of the time.

Also to start the game, Anthony Davis came out wearing the “0” jersey of injured teammate DeMarcus Cousins (he switched back to his own #23 before the first half was over).

On the night, Team LeBron got 19 points out of Kevin Durant, 16 from Paul George, and 14 from Andre Drummond. Team Stephen was led by 21 from both DeMar DeRozan and Damian Lillard, and 19 points and eight rebounds from Joel Embiid in his first All-Star Game.

The fantastic ending made up for what was a laughable opening skit/national anthem before tip-off that did something very rare — it unified NBA Twitter. It was awful.

Now all anybody is talking about is the game itself. And that’s what the NBA wanted.

LeBron James hits go-ahead shot in All-Star win (video)

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LOS ANGELES – LeBron James‘ team trailed by 13 midway through the fourth quarter of the All-Star game, but he led a competitive comeback.

This shot put his team up 146-145 over Stephen Curry‘s team, and Team LeBron held on for a 148-145 win:

Great penetration by Russell Westbrook, and he and Kyrie Irving moved the ball well. LeBron made it count.