I almost sympathize with Lonzo Ball, inasmuch as you can sympathize with a 19-year-old with ridiculous basketball skills who plays in Los Angeles for his boyhood favorite team while making $6,286,560 million this year. Like I said: Almost.
He’s got it good. But man, is he getting it good.
The Garden crowd Wednesday night hit peak volume when Paul Pierce, in the building for his new gig as an ESPN analyst, was paid tribute on the scoreboard. That No. 34 is going to look good in the rafters.
But there was approximately a 50-way tie for the second-loudest moment of the night. Maybe I’d give a slight edge to Marcus Smart’s swat of a Ball layup in the second quarter with the Celtics up 12 points. Beyond that, everything else that perked up the crowd – save for the occasional “Beat LA!” chant – occurred when Ball still had the ball in his hands.
Anyone who has followed basketball since Ball bolted onto the scene at UCLA last year as one of the most charismatic college players in years knows why. His father, LaVar, is the Skip Bayless of basketball dads. His son would have made a name for himself based on his style and skill – Lonzo really is reminiscent of a young Jason Kidd, from the almost casually spectacular passes right down to the hideous jump shot.
But his father has made himself famous, and at warp speed, by amplifying his obnoxiousness and braggadocio every time he’s in the vicinity of a hot microphone. His son is a basketball star. He is a media star. It’s hard to tell which one is a bigger deal, which is just one more indictment of this irreparably lousy social media culture we’re wallowing in.
(There’s a lengthy case-study to be written on how LaVar Ball’s bragging about his son somehow did not lead to Lonzo being a me-first player, but rather the opposite. It really is a joy to watch him create opportunities for his teammates.)
He’s made his son, who should be one of the most likable young players in the league, into someone who might as well swap his purple jersey number out for a bull’s eye. Fans are going at him with glee. And so are opposing players, beginning with Clippers pit bull Patrick Beverly on opening night. I thought Kyrie Irving – who had his own public back-and-forth with the old man – was going to drop 50 on him Wednesday night. Wouldn’t even have surprised me if he did it in his Uncle Drew get-up just to show the Balls what a grown man who knows and respects the NBA really looks like.
Lonzo Ball seems to handle the attention remarkably well. Like most teenagers, he’s probably used to his dad embarrassing him, though his does it on a slightly larger scale than your standard dad-joke-telling goofy father. He didn’t look rattled as the Lakers fell behind 33-16 after the first quarter and the jeers rained from the rafters. He shot poorly but kept his poise, finishing with 9 points, 6 assists and 5 rebounds in 39 minutes, helping the Lakers make it interesting before the Celtics put the punctuation on a 107-96 win.
The adjustment to the NBA, even for a player of his ability, is incredibly difficult. He should be focused on fixing his shot (he came in shooting 29.9 percent) rather than having to fend off the latest savvy veteran guard who is out not to humble him, but his blathering dad.
Irving, who finished with 19 points but the usual array of highlight-reel plays that make you feel fortunate to be able to watch him every night, didn’t appear especially amped up to torment the kid. He gave off a why-bother vibe and focused more on earning that 10th straight win. For someone reputed to be a ball dominator, he sure has been spectacular here, not only in his performance but in his unselfishness. But it was amusing when Irving, recognizing Ball was isolated on him, waved off a screen with the Celtics up 102-94 and a little over 3 minutes remaining in the game. Rather than breaking out his otherworldly ballhandling skills and putting Ball in the blender, though, Irving settled for a 3 that rimmed out.
I’ll admit, there was a part of me that wanted to see the Celtics, who won the rights to the first pick in the 2017 NBA Draft before trading down to No. 3 with the Sixers, end up with Ball. What can I say? It was a dumb part of me. The Celtics ended up with a surefire star in Jayson Tatum, the most polished young scorer the Celtics have had since Mr. Pierce showed up 18 years ago.
The theoretical rookie showdown with Ball didn’t last long. Tatum scored 5 points before departing for the night with what the team called a sore ankle; he was in a walking boot after the game. Here’s hoping he can make a quick recovery and soon continue his quiet march to consistent excellence.
Maybe his rookie classmate Ball will join him among the excellent long-term professionals, the multi-year All-Stars that will emerge from this deep draft class. Even with some necessary fixes, he has the talent and the grace.
But already we know this: There will be nothing quiet about Lonzo Ball’s future, whether he ascends or stagnates, even if he never says a word.