Associated Press

Lonzo Ball’s first game came with lots of hype, rookie learning experiences

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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.

Report: Cavaliers flying blind into draft because LeBron doesn’t know what he’s going to do

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The first day we’re going to get a hint of LeBron James‘ plan this summer is June 29 — that’s the date he has to opt into, or out of, the $35.6 million on his contract for next season.

Opt-in and that means either he’s staying with the Cavaliers or there has been an arrangement made to trade him (likely to Houston). Opt- out and he becomes a free agent on July 1 — he could re-sign with the Cavaliers, or he could sign anywhere else for next season.

What LeBron is doing could impact what the Cavaliers do at the NBA draft, keep the No. 8 pick and draft for the future or try to trade it (probably packaged with Kevin Love or another player) to get LeBron more help now.

But LeBron isn’t going to let the Cavaliers know because he himself doesn’t know, reports Joe Varden of the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

According to sources, the Cavs’ front office and James’ camp have been in contact over the phone and in person, though there has been no meeting with James present, nor has there been any real dialogue as far as James’ future is concerned.

Because the superstar himself doesn’t know.

The Cavs have been signaling (strongly, in some cases) that they’re looking to upgrade their team from the group that was swept out of the Finals this month, whether James stays or goes.

If LeBron is going, then the Cavaliers should consider trading that pick to a team eager to land someone still on the board (if Michael Porter Jr. is still available there likely would be plenty of solid offers). However, if he’s going they should use that pick to start the rebuild (and Porter would be a good step that direction).

In reality, the Cavaliers have to act as if LeBron is gone. That was the sense one got being around the team through the playoffs and Finals, that this relationship had run its course. The Cavaliers should draft the best player they can with that pick, unless some team comes through with a killer offer for the slot (and Love plus the No. 8 is not going to land Kawhi Leonard, who the Spurs are not moving that fast to trade anyway). Then, if and when LeBron leaves, start looking at possible trades for Love, Kyle Korver, and every other veteran on the roster. Start the rebuild.

Still, new GM Koby Altman is flying blind on draft night, and LeBron’s not going to help the team out.

 

Brad Stevens says Kyrie Irving, Gordon Hayward should be fully cleared by Aug. 1

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Everyone watching the Boston Celtics in the playoffs kept thinking the same thing: Add Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward back into this lineup next summer and — bang — instant contender.

That leads to the question: Just where are Irving and Hayward on their recovery tracks? Glad you asked.

That’s a good sign for the Celtics. And for fans of good basketball.

One word of caution: Progression when adding stars into a system is not necessarily linear. Or, to put it more plainly, throwing superstars who need the ball in their hands into the mix comes with its own set of adjustments and challenges, things do not always go smoothly or as planned. There could be some fits and starts as the Celtics figure things out next season. (And that’s not even getting into the Kawhi Leonard rumors, which are legitimate but also a long way from reality as of today.)

If you were going to trust one coach to figure it out and get guys to buy in, Brad Stevens would be your guy. The Celtics are rightfully going to enter next season as the bar to clear in the East (free agency depending). Just don’t expect things to go smoothly from day one, because that’s just not how basketball or life work.

Michael Porter Jr. says his injury situation “got exaggerated a lot”

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If healthy, Michael Porter Jr. might be as talented as anyone in this draft. He’s a 6’11” wing or small ball four who can shoot from the NBA three-point line and has the athleticism to get up and down the floor then finish with authority.

But health is a concern. There was the back injury which forced a microdiscectomy surgery that forced Porter to miss all but three games last season. Back injuries in big men are tricky things and can linger. Then last week there was an off-again-on-again workout and medical evaluation with the pause due to a hip issue. Was that soreness tied to the back issue?

In an interview on ESPN radio, Porter played down the injury concerns.

Former Missouri freshman Michael Porter Jr., who had issues with his hip and back, said Monday that he’s “feeling great” and wouldn’t dismiss the idea of working out for teams this week ahead of Thursday’s NBA draft.

“It’s a possibility,” Porter said on The Will Cain Show on ESPN Radio. “I feel good. … I got evaluated. I let the doctors come in and do all their tests on me. I’m feeling good. I think the teams are comfortable, but I might get a couple workouts in.”

As for last week’s hip issue.

“It was just a little sore, so I told [my agent] my hip was kind of sore and he just wanted to shut it down for a couple of days,” Porter said. “And then people took that and kind of ran with it, saying, you know, my hip was injured, I couldn’t get out of bed. … None of that was really true. I was just sore and I wanted to take a couple of days off. So that’s all that was.”

Porter is the mystery man in this draft — and those guys always seem to rise and have someone fall in love with them. It’s hard to imagine Porter going lower than eighth, but he has been linked to teams as high as the Kings at No. 2.

Porter is the kind of player that some team lower in the draft may fall in love with and be willing to trade up to the top five to snag him. The health is the question. An NBA front office member who has seen Porter’s medical reports described them to NBC Sports as “fine.”

There are also concerns about Porter’s grit and toughness. He has the reputation of having been insulated and having been a bit of a diva, what happens when he gets to an NBA team where he is not the first (and, at first at least, maybe not the second) option. What happens when he has to play more of a role and have it not be about him and his touches? Teams are asking about that.

Despite the concerns, there will be a team taking him in the first half of the lottery. It could be a home run. Or… that’s what makes the draft interesting.

Report: As expected, Jamal Crawford declines $4.5 million player option with Minnesota

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Jamal Crawford wants a bigger payday, and after a solid season scoring 10.3 points per game for Minnesota last season, he might get it despite a tight market. That’s why what happened on Monday was expected.

Crawford opted out of the final year of his contract with the Timberwolves, reports Shams Charania of The Vertical at Yahoo Sports.

Minnesota Timberwolves guard Jamal Crawford has declined his $4.5 million player option for next season and will become a free agent, league sources told Yahoo Sports.

Crawford, a three-time Sixth Man of the Year, will become one of the top reserve scorers on the open market after facing Monday’s deadline to decide on his option.

The concern for teams is that Crawford is 38 and already showing some decline in his skills and game. Crawford can still be productive, but teams will be leery of offering more than two years guaranteed on his contract. And for a guy who comes off the bench — even a three-time Sixth Man of the Year — teams are not going to spend big.

Crawford may also just be looking for a new team chemistry and role, something at this stage in his career he should be able to get.