Wiedmer: Lonzo Ball's dad might be smarter than we think

Wiedmer: Lonzo Ball's dad might be smarter than we think

July 19th, 2017 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

FILE - In this Nov. 20, 2016, file photo, UCLA's Lonzo Ball (2) walks by his father LaVar Ball, right, to greet family members after UCLA defeated Long Beach State in an NCAA college basketball game in Los Angeles. By now the entire basketball world knows Lonzo Ball is a singular talent with a unique parent. (AP Photo/Michael Owen Baker, File)

Photo by The Associated Press /Times Free Press.

Could it be that LaVar Ball might be onto something?

Hard as this is to write — given that Ball just might be the most obnoxious, overbearing, potentially toxic stage parent in sports history — could this precocious oldest son of his, former UCLA star Lonzo Ball, really become the best point guard in the NBA far sooner than anyone thought possible ?

We say this after young Ball took home the Las Vegas Summer League MVP award despite failing to play in the championship game that his Los Angeles Lakers teammates won by topping Portland's plebes on Monday night.

We also say this after learning that Lonzo handed out at least 10 assists in four of the six games he played and recorded two triple-doubles when no other rookie ever had posted so much as one. Beyond that, no previous rookie ever had dished out 10 assists or more in more than one Vegas summer league game.

To slightly ratchet down the expectations raised by such shimmering numbers, this was summer league play. Most of the players won't make an opening-night roster.

So it certainly would seem prudent to wait until Ball has faced some of the NBA's best point guards — Golden State's Stephen Curry, Cleveland's Kyrie Irving, Washington's John Wall and Oklahoma City's Russell Westbrook, to name but four — before declaring, as his most verbose father recently observed, "(Lonzo will) step over (Magic) and be the best guard ever" with Johnson's tutelage.

Still, the kid can obviously play. Just ask Magic, who's now running the Lakers.

"Passing translates no matter what level you play," Johnson said of Ball on Sunday. "If you're open, he's going to get you the ball."

Other than Johnson having three inches of height on Ball (6-foot-9 to 6-6) and an NCAA title to his credit — though Magic did have to stick around until his sophomore season at Michigan State to win that 1979 championship over Larry Bird and Indiana State — the similarities between the two are striking. Neither entered the league with a great shot; both entered with the ability to pass the ball as few have passed it. Neither ever has been singled out as a defensive demon; both are viewed as the kind of rare winners who make everyone around them better.

And if you doubt his fire or ability to deliver under pressure, consider Ball's line from a recent come-from-behind summer league win over Philadelphia, the only team to pass on him in the draft: 36 points, 11 assists, eight rebounds, five steals and two blocks in that one-point win.

Said ESPN's Mark Jackson — who's fourth all-time in NBA assists with 10,334 — of Ball on the cable giant's website: "Special talent, great vision, outstanding competitor, NBA-ready. His passing ability is contagious. A home run pick for Magic and the Lakers organization."

It would certainly seem to be. And whether you're old enough to remember if you were a Lakers fan or a Celtics fan in the days when no other team mattered, the NBA is a better place when both those storied franchises — plus Philly's 76ers and Chicago's Bulls — are relevant.

(You could also add the New York Knicks to that list, though the Knicks haven't been relevant for so long that most of those who either loved them or loathed them pretty much have forgotten why they felt that way about them.)

But what's also interesting is how much smarter LaVar Ball looks today than he has over much of the last year. While even Lonzo, or especially Lonzo, might wince at his father's declaration that "I'm going to tell you right now, he's better than Steph Curry to me," he may win as many NBA titles as Curry before his career ends.

But the elder Ball was dead-on right about his February statement: "My son will only play for the Lakers."

He may also have been at least partly right when he said in March, "To me 'Zo is the best player in the world. I don't know if he can beat (LeBron James and Russell Westbrook) one on one, but I know he can beat them five on five." And that would appear to be Lonzo Ball's ultimate strength. He knows how to make five play as one. He knows when to seize the limelight, but he also knows how to step into the shadows and let others shine.

Will it lead him to the billion-dollar endorsement contract his daddy wants for him? Almost assuredly not. But it could easily land him over nine figures in endorsements before he's 30, and if that happens, the early spotlight his father placed on Lonzo almost assuredly will have contributed to that.

That said, the guess here is that Lonzo Ball struggles over the first two months of his NBA career as proud veterans such as Curry, Westbrook and Wall want to send a message that LaVar's kid is still a rookie in a big man's league. Then he'll take off, displaying the skills on a nightly basis that won him MVP honors in Vegas.

Yet if the words of Magic and Jackson are any indication, we might even owe LaVar a grudging apology in the years to come.

Or as the brash Mr. Ball told TMZ earlier this year: "You're not going to be able to (judge) this until my boy is finished playing. And then you're going to look back and say, 'Man, how did LaVar know all of this?'"

Indeed, this might become the best elite athlete example ever that father knows best.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com.

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