To say Lonzo Ball failed to meet expectations in his rookie season is both true but not a discredit to what he did manage to accomplish. After all, beyond being drafted second overall by the Los Angeles Lakers, Ball had additional pressure placed on him by his father, LaVar Ball, and Magic Johnson.
The team’s president of basketball operations half-heartedly asked Ball that he not break all of his Lakers records during last June’s introductory press conference. Now, Johnson has provided his understudy with a more stern directive.
“Basically it’s just the biggest summer of my life,” said Ball of the message delivered by Johnson and Lakers general manager during his exit interview.
“It’s time to transition now from rookie year to sophomore year. I’m looking forward to it, ready to put in the work and get after it. I think it’s exciting. For somebody like Magic and Rob to tell me that, pretty much tells me they believe in me.
“If I put the work in then I’m going to see success on the other side. I’ve just got to listen to them and take care of what I have to take care of.”
One specific area Johnson wants to see growth from Ball is on the offensive side of the court. While the organization relishes in Ball’s playmaking ability, his affinity for passing at times hindered the offense because defenses could predetermine his decision.
Johnson described it as Ball needing to become more ‘selfish.’ “He has to look to score,” Johnson said. “He has to also develop a couple more shots. A floater, on and on and on, midrange. It was a good meeting yesterday, and a tough meeting.”
Another area of emphasis for the quiet 20-year-old is establishing more of a vocal presence on the court. “When you’re the point guard you have to be able to say, ‘Hey man, that was a bad shot. Or hey, we need you to step your game up.’ He’s got to do that now in the fourth quarter,” Johnson explained.
“This year, of course, he was a rookie, rolled with the punches and didn’t say too much. Next season, I told him he can’t do that. He’s got to step up into that leadership role. And when they’re not playing defense, he’s got to say it. Or if we need a big stop, he has to say it. He doesn’t have to change who he is and talk all the time, because that’s phony. But in crucial moments of the game, he has to say something.”
Adding muscle to his thin frame is also a priority. Johnson made it clear the Lakers need Ball and Brandon Ingram to play more games than they did this season — 52 and 59, respectively.
The Lakers expect Ball to spend a lion’s share of the summer working on different facets of his game, but it’s not something they will force. “He’s got his family, got a daughter on the way, so he’s got all sorts of things pulling on him,” Lakers head coach Luke Walton said. “As a player, it’s important that you prioritize. What that is, is different for everyone.
“I’d say make basketball your No. 1 priority but that’s not true. It should be your family and basketball very close, depending on how the upbringing is. You have to individually, depending on your situation, decide where that lies. For some people religion is in there as well. Basketball should be at the top of the list somewhere.”
Pelinka added: “We said to him, ‘If you want to be an All-Star and lead this team to the playoffs, we can’t tell you how to work in the offseason. That’s got to be something you choose to do. You should be hunting down the weight coaches. You should be hunting down the basketball coaches. You should be begging to get in the gym and developing that drive for greatness.’
“I know that’s in him but he’s so young. When I was his age I certainly didn’t have the same commitment as you learn and grow in life. But we’re excited to see him start to choose those things. I really think this will be one of his biggest offseasons ever, and we’re going to see the fruits of it in training camp.”
Though the exit meeting with Ball may have brought about a harsh reality and some uncomfortability for one of the franchise’s cornerstones, Johnson is overwhelmingly optimistic moving forward.
“I think when you have to talk directly to a player about what they have to improve on, I think sometimes that can be tough,” he said. “Because we like him so much and we want him to be great. From this season to next season, you’re going to see an improved Lonzo Ball.”