LOS ANGELES – Everyone had come to Staples Center for a celebrated young star in his own Hollywood fairytale, Lonzo Ball’s rookie hometown debut. Ball had been tested everywhere, the hounding and physical Patrick Beverley chasing him end-to-end behind an overpowering Los Angeles Clippers team.
On this night, it was Beverley limiting Ball to nine rebounds, four assists and three points on 1-of-6 shooting in 29 minutes in the Los Angeles Lakers’ 108-92 season-opening loss. So Ball walked into an empty hallway inside Staples Center, cameras approaching his moment of quiet. Ball knows what’s on his shoulders now. He looked up and nodded late Thursday night.
“I’ll be ready,” Ball told The Vertical. “I have to show it in my game, because when we win, people won’t talk. But if we lose, people will think it affects me. It’s wins and losses for me. We know it’s a process.”
The Lakers’ young talent was evident during the NBA Summer League in Las Vegas, an MVP award for Ball and a coming-out tournament for fellow first-round draft pick Kyle Kuzma. The team had left forward Brandon Ingram out of trade discussions in June, and Ingram’s summer training showed promise for a strong second season. And yet, Ball understands: This is a process. These Lakers still must gather the team play and continuity that had become contagious in summer league, and strategically must place shooters and pick-and-roll sets around Ball.
In the weeks leading up to the NBA draft, Ball told The Vertical his utmost priorities were his midrange shots – and, most critically, his pick-and-roll scheming. He had worked to master his pick-and-roll game in July, and these Lakers must find ways to utilize his playmaking when the defensive stops go away and they must score in the half court.
For as much as the Lakers will target major free agents in 2017, the franchise’s young core is under thorough inspection. For Lakers coach Luke Walton, the development of Ingram and Ball, Kuzma and Larry Nance Jr. must entail more flashes of brilliance than faint efforts.
The Clippers are far more polished and prepared to contend in the Western Conference. Blake Griffin had 29 points, 12 rebounds and three assists and appears primed for his best season yet, without Chris Paul; DeAndre Jordan, Beverley and Milos Teodosic fill every element their roles entail; and the bench has a more confident Wesley Johnson, whom Clippers officials raved about in training camp.
Beverley had come to defend Ball for 94 feet Thursday night and vowed he made it clear to Ball postgame: We are coming.
“I told him after the game, man, due to the riff raff … he’s going to get a lot of people coming at him,” Beverley said. “He has to be ready for that.”
For Ball’s introduction to the NBA and its elite class of defenders, there is no one better suited than Beverley, who strutted his first-team All-Defense honor to Ball and to the crowd, and used his arms and legs to elevate the game’s physical nature. At times, Beverley tugged on Ball. Other times, he gave him slight shoves and staredowns. Ball’s calming presence never allows him to show a mentality shift, but he knows Beverley’s tactics had placed his mind to the individual matchup at times. For the Lakers to flourish, they need his pinpoint management of the offense, and Ball knows it.
“I don’t want to get into one-on-one battles,” Ball told The Vertical. “It’s five on five, not me versus him.
“He’s going to do what he can, but I have to do what I can to get us wins.”
Ball took a side tunnel to meet his family on the Staples Center floor late Thursday, one game down in a rookie season of outside noise and critiques. One of 82, Ball said. This was his introduction to the NBA, and the realization to his hometown that, yes, Showtime will be a process. Next time, Lonzo Ball vowed: I’ll be ready.
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