The Step Back is rolling out its 25-under-25 list over the next few days. Follow along with our rankings of the top 25 players under the age of 25.
There is pressure on Lonzo Ball to be great. Not good. Not starter quality. Not very good. Great. Like, all-time Lakers great.
Since the Lakers took him No. 2 overall in June, the franchise has done nothing but push him into the leading role. D’Angelo Russell, only three years into his career and the previous player Los Angeles took to restore the Lakers, is now in Brooklyn. After Summer League, where crowds treated him like he was already a superstar, the Lakers handed him the keys and he proceeded to win Summer League MVP. His dad saying the Lakers will win 50 games and that LeBron will want to play with him and win titles doesn’t help either.
And then there’s Magic Johnson, the man who drafted him, gushing about Ball at every turn.
For example, at Ball’s post-draft press conference on Jun. 26, Johnson called Ball the “new face of the Lakers,” trashed Russell and said he expected Ball’s jersey to hang alongside other Lakers greats some day. That’s no pressure for a franchise that has had the like of Magic, Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O’Neal, Jerry West and many, many others play for it.
Then after Summer League, Johnson said this, per USA Today:
"“Just like me, when I got here, there was pressure. I was the No. 1 pick. I didn’t care about that. I am going to play my game. Lonzo is going to play his game. The great ones do.The great ones want pressure. Hey, he’s been living in this city his whole life. In high school, won a state championship. Did you know when he went to UCLA, everybody says he better perform. He performed. Now he gets to play for his favorite team in his hometown. So there’s pressure that comes with that. But the great ones eat pressure for breakfast, right? He is a guy that just plays his game. Nothing is going to change.”"
And then there’s Jeanie Buss saying this about Ball, per CBS Sports:
"“No other draft pick, except maybe Kobe Bryant, has had this kind of excitement about him.”There’s something special about Lonzo […] I think because he just wants to play basketball, he’s selfless. He has a certain charisma and I think the fact that his teammates at UCLA loved playing with him and all the nice things that they have to say about him, I think he’s going to bring an element that’s very similar to Magic Johnson.”"
Franchises are, of course, going to pump up their draft picks. But this is to another degree. The repeated comparisons to Johnson — arguably the best player in franchise history as well as the most charismatic — set an insanely high standard for Ball before he’s played an actual game.
It’s worth noting that it’s clear Ball is the Lakers’ first step in getting back to being “the Lakers.” As often as they’ve pumped up Ball as the next great Laker, they’ve talked about wanting to have two max contract spaces next summer. They want to be a destination for stars, a place where the best players in the league can go and win. And, without question, there are two obvious targets: LeBron James and Paul George.
The Lakers could reasonably still get one or both players if Ball falls short of expectations. It’s no secret George has wanted to be a Laker and that the Lakers are interested. At the very least, they’ve paid a cool $500,000 for it.
And then there’s LeBron. Even as LeBron plays another year into his 30s, he’s the Lakers’ ultimate prize. He’s the player you need to give your franchise credibility. He’d also be the player to validate Ball — assuming he doesn’t want to bring in some other point guard — because he’d be choosing to play with him and to try and win with him in the much harder conference. If LeBron goes to the Lakers, it’s to win and nothing else.
(Of note: If Ball is good as a rookie, the 2018-19 Lakers wouldn’t be all that different than the Kyrie Irving-lead Cavaliers teams were. Maybe that changes as he gets older, but James has always valued potential in free agency).
This is what makes Ball so intriguing. It’s not what his dad says about him or that he was picked high or that he might have been the best player in Summer League. It’s that the Lakers, a franchise with as storied a history as any one, are putting their entire future into his hands. It’s that this franchise is openly saying it before he’s even stepped on the floor in the Z02 and thrown a pass. It’s that the Lakers are banking on a 19-year-old to save the franchise and to maybe bring LeBron West.
For Ball, anything less than it all won’t be enough.