CLEVELAND — On the surface, Lonzo Ball is merely the most recent passenger thrust onto the modern-day hype train. To the average fan, he's LaVar's son. A pawn. The first of three boys from Los Angeles who are primed to dominate the league's reality show-like headlines for years to come. Born in Anaheim, attending UCLA and playing in Los Angeles, Ball is the trifecta of sports and entertainment. USA Today even has a "Lonzo Wire" where fans are encouraged to "Keep your eyes on the Ball."
But once you peel back the onion, plug your ears and open your eyes, there's a basketball player in there, and one hell of a professional.
Sure, the jump shot is a bit wonky, the footwork can occasionally resemble that of a newborn horse and the turnovers can be a bit of an issue. But with Ball, at least during his rookie season, it's not who he is and what sort of numbers he is producing as much as the way he plays the game, the way he carries himself and what he can become.
On Thursday night, Ball's Lakers capped an East Coast road trip with a stop in Cleveland where the rookie point guard faced the player who has served as his guidepost throughout his ascent to the NBA: LeBron James. As James was burdened with digging a Cleveland franchise out of the dregs of the NBA at age 18, Ball, who recently turned 20, is tasked with doing the same for a Lakers franchise in the wake of Kobe Bryant's retirement.
While many players have come and gone since James was drafted No. 1 overall in 2003, very few have come with the level of scrutiny—often too cynical to be dubbed fanfare—Ball has over his first two months in the league.
"The kid hasn't said anything," James told ESPN's Dave McMenamin on Tuesday night. "It's been everybody else. So, I love his humility. He goes out, every time someone asks him a question, he says, 'This is not about me, man. I just want to win. I don't care about what I did.' I seen he had a triple-double one game and they lost. He was like, 'I don't care. We lost.'"
Prior to their first game as opponents, Ball opened up about how much he admired James growing up, practicing windmill dunks, admiring how James has the ability to "drop 40 or 50 points" yet focuses on making his teammates better, making the right pass, playing defense and hitting the glass.
While Ball admits his strength disadvantage has forced him to change his game compared to that of his idol in James, it's clear that, in addition to having the potential for triple-double nights, he replicates LeBron as much as he can off the court. The kid is polished. He handles himself impressively well. Throughout the entire day leading up to and following the game, members of the media attempted to get Ball to slip and admit that James is some form of Goliath to his fledgling David.
Will you be nervous?
"Will I be nervous? No. Not at all."
When was the last time you were intimidated by an opponent?
"I've never been intimidated. It's just a game."
How does this, your first matchup against James, compare to your first Lakers game? Madison Square Garden? Do you have goosebumps?
"I wouldn't say 'goosebumps.' Just being excited. I want to get out there and play."
But will you get more goosebumps?
"I don't get goosebumps."
A fan and student of the game, James has always supported young players, especially those with star potential. He can rattle off a list of names who served as his lodestar as a burgeoning small forward—Larry Bird, Scottie Pippen and George Gervin among them—while hosting camps for top prospects and providing support for those at the NBA level.
James makes a point to speak to certain players after games, doing so with Isaiah Thomas following last season's Eastern Conference Finals, and, more recently, with rookie point guard Ben Simmons following the Cavaliers' recent win over the Philadelphia 76ers. Thursday night, however, also featured the combination of the hype-laced Ball, a major media market in Los Angeles and a nationally televised meeting between the two players. So when James shielded his mouth to talk to Ball following the game (a common occurrence following the fallout from his Christmas Day chat with Dwyane Wade in 2014), the headlines were endless.
To that point, the two players had never spoken. James famously attended one of Ball's NBA Summer League games in Las Vegas. He would later tweet at the rookie on his late-October birthday. Other than that, two high-profile, highly scrutinized athletes simply did their own things on different courts.
So what did he say? Was it advice? Was it in regards to free agency?
"It's none of your business," said James, ever so bluntly.
When James came into the league, then-Cavaliers teammate Ricky Davis was under the impression that LeBron's role was simply to pass him the ball, a role player of sorts. While James indeed notched an assist on a lob to Davis before scoring himself in his first contest as a professional, it would become clear that the Akron product's game transcended any sort of role.
While many want to focus on James' rookie stats compared to those of Ball, it goes much deeper. With Ball, you not only see glimpses of a James-like game where he makes the right play as opposed to a play, but in the way he continues to go about his business while the West Coast tabloid shrapnel whirls past his head. On a night where he's outplayed by 36-year-old Jose Calderon, comments from the opposition are routinely glowing, focused more on the person than that night's box score.
"What I love about him is he goes about his business and talks about winning games," said Kevin Love, who also went to UCLA for college ball. "He says nothing matters if we're not winning. Preaching that at an early age is going to be big for him in the future. More than anything, that's what I like to see from him. When we cross the lines, none of us are friends, but I've appreciated him going about his business that way, at least to the media and his teammates.
"Los Angeles is such a massive, giant media market. I don't know what it would've been like for me to go from UCLA to the Lakers. Talent level, playing Thursdays and Saturdays to going up against the type of point guards we have in this league while living in Los Angeles ... it's a hell of a burden. Working extremely hard, I know he's been handling his business well, and you have to appreciate that."
While James may be a "walking triple-double," as his head coach Ty Lue would say, he didn't get to this point by basking in the glory of being a top pick with a boatload of attention surrounding him. He did it through years of hard work during the regular season, but even more hard work in the postseason and offseason. He speaks often about knowing what the game of basketball has provided him, be it financial freedom or a platform from which to provide social commentary. But none of that would be possible without putting the game first.
While having the poster and the jersey and the highlight reels of James can provide fuel to a teenager who's looking to make it big, it's here where Ball will be able to launch himself into that next tier as an NBA player: avoiding the hype, trusting the process and focusing on the bigger picture.
"That s--t is tough," James said to McMenamin. "And if you can't focus in on the job at hand.... You got to have no distractions. You can't have no distractions when you're trying to be great. You can block out a lot of s--t, but you can't have no distractions.
"There's no such thing as a distraction on the road to greatness. There's going to be so many people that try to throw you off kilter and try to throw your train off the rails. You just got to be like Seabiscuit. You know Seabiscuit? ... Blinders."
Just 20-something games in, there is no telling what the rest of Lonzo Ball's career will look like. While he can continue to emulate James' style of across-the-board play, it may be how he carries himself behind the scenes that ultimately leads him down a path of greatness. If we're going to use the first meeting between the two players as some sort of metric, Ball certainly passed the test.