NEW YORK — Magic Johnson and the Los Angeles Lakers made it official at 7:47 p.m. ET Thursday, when Showtime met ‘Zotime with the second pick of the NBA draft. Lonzo Ball was selected as a point guard by the greatest point guard of all, and wouldn’t you know it, he walked onto the stage without his stage dad in tow.
LaVar Ball long ago predicted this night would come. Actually, he long ago predicted his oldest of three boys would be drafted in Markelle Fultz‘s spot, the No. 1 slot. But who’s keeping track?
From Manhattan to Brooklyn, from the Grand Hyatt lobby to the floor of the Barclays Center, LaVar led his oversize entourage on a high-voltage trip around the big city while doing nothing to temper his standing as the most polarizing face and voice in basketball, college or pro. And while doing nothing to lighten the alleged load he has planted squarely on his son’s shoulders.
But instead of wasting time and energy hating on LaVar and, by extension, on Lonzo, too, fans should remember that the son is not the father, and that the NBA is always best served when a visionary playmaker such as Lonzo walks through its doors.
“I’m truly blessed to be able to play for my hometown,” Lonzo said, “and I can’t wait to get on the court.”
Out in Los Angeles, Lonzo will play a beautiful game for the beautiful people. He will play the game that Magic Johnson and Larry Bird played. The game that Jason Kidd and Steve Nash played. The game that LeBron James prefers to play.
Ball movement, with a flair, is the best product the NBA can offer, and Lonzo is selling that product all week. In his one-and-done year at UCLA, while his old man provided running commentary from a bullhorn, Lonzo was the embodiment of every virtue in John Wooden’s cherished pyramid. He delivered more assists in a single season (274) than any Bruin before him, and he allowed T.J. Leaf and Bryce Alford to score more points than he did.
Now the kid gets to learn from Johnson, the one and only.
“Obviously, he’s the best point guard to ever play,” Lonzo said of the Lakers’ president of basketball operations, “so I’m looking to go in there and just learn from day one.
“There’s never going to be another Magic Johnson, so I’m trying to be myself. But if I can come halfway short of him, you know it’s going to be good.”
Once more, with feeling, the son is not the father. Long before he predicted that Lonzo would lead the Lakers to the playoffs in his rookie year, LaVar said his kid had better athleticism and perimeter aim than Johnson. Lonzo? He said he hopes to be half the player his boss was back in the day.
Truth is, Lonzo is Magic minus 3 inches in height and minus the electric personality. LaVar might have realized early on that his son lacked that Hollywood sizzle and decided to make up for it times 50.
So be it. People say LaVar is destined to ruin his kid. People said the same thing about Richard Williams when he decided to raise Serena and Venus Williams his way straight out of Compton, instead of the way academy coaches and governing-body elders wanted them raised. At last count, without even tallying up their doubles victories, Serena and Venus won a combined 30 Grand Slam titles.
How many titles will Lonzo win? LaVar said his kid can top Michael Jordan‘s six (of course he said that), but it all depends on whether Johnson and his general manager, Rob Pelinka, can recreate Showtime by putting the likes of 2018 free agents James and Paul George around him.
Isiah Thomas, best little man to ever play the game, recently spent a day with Lonzo for NBA TV and came away more impressed with Lonzo’s disposition than his step-back, corkscrew jumper. Given Ball’s even temperament, work ethic and game-day IQ, Thomas saw the UCLA playmaker as the safest pick in the draft.
“This is a real basketball player,” Thomas told ESPN.com. “He’s a pass-first, shoot-second guy, but he can shoot. He’s not a pass-first-because-I-can’t-shoot guy. I’m not saying he’s going to dominate the NBA, but he’s definitely going to help your team win a lot of games.”
Of course, Thomas is quite familiar with the man who just picked Ball. The Isiah-Magic rivalry was only 2 degrees cooler than the smoldering Bird-Magic rivalry, so it was fitting to ask Thomas if Ball could end up being a poor man’s version of Johnson. Or perhaps something even better.
“I will say Lonzo has Magic’s brain,” Thomas said. “As a student of the game and knowing how to get his teammates involved and understanding how to motivate his teammates to get the best out of them, Lonzo did that in high school and college, and I don’t see that changing now. When you get people who are willing to help you look better and want the best for you and not necessarily what’s best for themselves, that’s what building a team is all about. And I’ve never heard selfishness mentioned in the same sentence with Lonzo Ball.
“He’ll be a superstar, but with him, the criteria for superstar — that box will have to be altered a bit. If your criteria for a superstar is you’ve got to score 30 and be Kevin Durant or LeBron James, those are rare people we won’t see for another 30 years in our league. But I believe Ball will be a superstar in his own way.”
The selfless way. The only way to turn basketball into ballet.
Bob Cousy, six-time NBA champ with the Boston Celtics, was the first marquee player to embrace this concept. Cousy was the founding father of the no-look pass, and whenever he got carried away and threw one into the stands, old-school reporters would go running to his curmudgeon of a coach, Red Auerbach. They would ask Auerbach if he would start forcing Cousy to throw conventional chest passes, preferably with two hands and a bounce.
“I don’t give a s— how he does it,” Auerbach would tell them, “as long as it gets to the target.”
Cousy loved that answer. “It was Red’s way of saying, ‘Keep doing it, the fans love it,'” he said.
At 88, Cousy has seen the game evolve a dozen times over, and frankly, he’s sick and tired of watching teams run the high pick-and-roll with shooters stationed in the corner. But one central truth about the sport has remained untouched: A great passer takes the sport places no other player can.
“If basketball is an art form,” he said, “it resides in the passing game. I’m biased, but you’ve got to have someone running the show. Playing without a true point guard is like sending a football team out there without a quarterback. And I think you need a point guard who comes over half court thinking, ‘I have to do something wonderful for the other four guys,’ and not, ‘I have to do something wonderful for myself.’
“Not many people have exceptional passing skills, but when you have that, you can do a lot of damage to the defense. You can talk about the 3-pointer and the slam dunk, but that wears off. Creative passing never does.”
Lonzo is the ultimate creator of this draft, not to mention a prospect who already carries himself like a pro. Thursday night, after Lonzo made his way onto the draft stage (alone) wearing a purple Lakers cap and a black Big Baller Brand bow tie, the kid showed he’s more composed than many older figures around him. On his winding walk from the arena floor to a post-selection interview room, Lonzo was led by an amateur-hour official who was inappropriately screaming at credentialed people to clear the hallway. Lonzo never lost his cool, his patience or his stride.
If nothing else, LaVar seems to have raised a fine, levelheaded young man. The NBA instantly became a better, more entertaining place when Lonzo was drafted. The kid is an artist, and let’s face it: Most basketball fans would rather watch players paint than players in the paint.
So at 7:47 p.m. ET Thursday, it was time to change the playbook. Time to stop hating Lonzo’s dad, and time to start loving Lonzo’s game.