ANAHEIM — For the first time more than a year, a Lakers game felt like an event.
For a meaningless preseason game, a hockey building was sold out — 18,000 people filled The Honda Center. Magic Johnson was sitting courtside waiving to fans and signing autographs — but not as many as LaVar Ball, who had a massive line of people wanting selfies with him. Pretty much the entire Buss family —˘ including fired Jim Buss, the former head of Lakers’ basketball operations, in his trademark baseball cap — sat on the sideline.
It was all about Lonzo Ball.
When Ball did just about anything — simply get introduced (the loudest cheers by far), or hit a three or pick up a dime— the SoCal crowd erupted. It felt like familiar old times for Lakers fans.
“To me, it feels right,” Lakers coach Luke Walton said. “I mean that’s what it’s supposed to be like. I was a little shocked last year (when the building was about half full) because when I played I was always playing with Kobe so we had crowds like this everywhere we went in preseason. Last year going around, obviously, the arenas were half full.”
Not anymore. Lonzo and the Lakers sold out Summer League games in Las Vegas in July, and they sold out a preseason game against Minnesota in Anaheim. That hype and buzz around the Lakers are back.
It’s just going to take some time for Lonzo and the team to catch up with the hype.
The Lakers lost to Minnesota 108-99, and when the Timberwolves leaned on their best players, they dominated. It was a sloppy, choppy preseason game but the Lakers looked like a young team with a lot to learn.
Ball wasn’t terrible, but he wasn’t good either. He finished with 5 points on 2-of-9 shooting with eight assists. He is dynamic pushing the ball ahead and when he is on the court bigs run the floor hard looking to get rewarded — it changes the culture of the team. Ball’s passes ahead were smarter and less risky than what he was able to get away with in Summer League. When Ball is on the court, there is an energy about the team that is just different.
However, at times — especially as the Timberwolves’ veteran defenders started to adjust — Ball forced passes rather than take shots when he drove, and made some other rough decisions.
“He’s so unselfish that sometimes he has good shots for himself and he tries to get someone else a shot — we want him taking those,” Walton said. “Players and scouts in this league are going to know he wants to play make so, we’re looking for him to be more aggressive as a scorer with the ball, especially early on, then as defenses adjust, play make.”
“He’s right…” Ball said. “I think it’s gonna come with time. It’s my first time playing against somebody else with this group. The way I like to play is to get my teammates involved first, but Luke is right, if my shot’s open I got to take it.”
One of those forced passes was his first play of the game, attempted alley-oop to Larry Nance Jr. that Minnesota read and broke up.
“That was a play, probably should have threw it a little higher, I know Larry can go get it,” Ball said.
The youngster also needs to work on recognizing when to push it, and when to just get into the offense.
“We want to play faster this year, but what we also struggle with, what’s an ongoing process, is when nothing’s available then we want to be a motion offense team where the ball is moving side-to-side,” Walton said. “We don’t want to just jack up quick shots. We want to play fast when the opportunity is there but we need to get better at recognizing when it’s not there and getting into the flow of an offense.”
While Walton did the good coach thing and praised the rookie’s defense, he struggled at times on that end. Lonzo looked like a rookie on defense, struggling over picks, not being able to handle Jeff Teague in space, and occasionally getting pushed around physically — Minnesota posted Jimmy Butler on him a couple of times, and Ball is not strong enough to stop him.
The things Ball struggled with are the things all rookies are going to struggle with. It’s a massive leap to the NBA. But you can see his potential, and with him the potential of the Lakers.
Which is why there is a lot of buzz around this team. Again.