LOS ANGELES | By now the entire basketball world knows Lonzo Ball is a singular talent with a unique parent.
The UCLA product with preternatural court vision is among the most intriguing prospects in the NBA draft this week. In perhaps the greatest testament to his abilities, his father LaVar Ball’s bombast and $495 shoes and racially insensitive comments don’t appear to be scaring off the Los Angeles Lakers or any other team that believes Lonzo could be the next great point guard.
Because of his headline-magnet father, Ball’s celebrity has already outpaced his talents before he plays his first professional game. Yet ever since his days leading the Big Ballers AAU team set up by his dad, Lonzo has shown nothing but maturity and calm in the face of LaVar’s audacious approaches to hoops, parenting and the business of sports.
“I think it definitely doesn’t help,” Ball said of his father’s notoriety. “Definitely makes it a little bit harder. But any good player is going to have attention on him at all times, and I’m pretty used to it by now.”
Ball’s mental steadiness is another big reason he’s almost certain to be a top-three pick on Thursday. Ever since the Lakers got the No. 2 choice in the lottery last month, most draft observers have believed Ball will wear a gold jersey in the fall, completing a serendipitous match of player and team.
That’s been the dream scenario for the entire Ball family ever since Lonzo showed the first inklings of world-class talent. He was raised in Chino Hills, a suburb about 35 miles east of Staples Center, and LaVar Ball is an ardent fan of the Lakers — and specifically Magic Johnson, the Hall of Fame point guard now running their basketball operations.
After Ball worked out for the Lakers last week, he didn’t mince words about his hopes to make it permanent: “Of course. I want to stay home.”
Los Angeles and its sprawling suburbs have produced an incredible portion of the NBA’s top talent of recent years. All three MVP finalists this season — Russell Westbrook, James Harden and Kawhi Leonard — are from the area, as are Paul George, Klay Thompson, Tyson Chandler, DeMar DeRozan and many others.
Although the Lakers have been his family’s team since before he could walk, Ball said he hasn’t been to many games in person: “My dad didn’t like the seats, because I guess they were too small for him.”
That’s understandable, since father and son are both 6-foot-6. Lonzo watched on television and then emulated the stars from Magic to Kobe Bryant while playing with his brothers at home.
“I patterned my game after (Johnson),” Ball said. “My dad asked me what position I wanted to play. I told him, ‘Point guard.’ He was like, ‘All right, if you’re going to play point guard, you’ve got to get the ball up.'”
That’s what Ball does better than almost any guard in recent college basketball history.
He led the nation in assists (7.7) while turning the Bruins into the highest-scoring team in Division I basketball. The freshman showed astonishing passing ability while orchestrating the UCLA offense, utilizing angles and defensive creases that made him look more like an attacking soccer midfielder than a basketball player.
And if any NBA team is worried about having the ultimate sports parent in the front row, UCLA coach Steve Alford has repeatedly said LaVar wasn’t a problem for him — and Lonzo’s two little brothers are both planning to play in Westwood.
Ball admits his father gives him unwanted notoriety. He also promises he can handle any distraction.
“That was said about me in college, said about me in high school,” he said. “I don’t think it affected me.”
Just a few days away from the decision, Ball still appears to be a splendid fit with the Lakers, whose up-tempo offense under coach Luke Walton looks tailor-made for Ball’s skills. The Lakers just completed the worst four-year stretch in franchise history, but their fans hope that another playmaking superstar will be their reward for the 16-time NBA champions’ misery.
Ball is one of those fans.
“They need a leader,” Ball said after working out for the Lakers recently. “They need a point guard, and I feel like I can fill that hole. … They said they want me to come in — if I get picked — come in and be a leader and play with a lot of pace. So the stuff they were saying was very positive, and it kind of fits my game.”