Lonzo Ball is already perhaps one of the most polarising figures in basketball… and he’s not even in the NBA yet. The 19-year-old point guard phenom from Southern California has had his name all over news publications, sports shows and social media, and is maybe the most talked-about professional prospect since LeBron James was making high school kids look like pre-schoolers.
No doubt it has not just been Lonzo’s play that’s earned him his fame. Actually, it’s not even the main factor. Just about everybody with a basic interest in basketball has heard of Lonzo’s outspoken father LaVar, who has been all over the television and airwaves talking trash about his son’s ability and paying out legends along the way. The publicity has been huge, the media coverage off the charts. All for this 19-year-old who is yet to play a professional game, and his brash and cocky father.
But Lonzo isn’t just any 19-year-old. Far from it in fact. The UCLA point guard turned the heads of NBA scouts all season while turning the Bruins back into the college hoops powerhouse they once were. Ball’s performance in the Pac-12 has him currently projected to be a top-three pick in the upcoming NBA draft, and labelled as a potential franchise cornerstone. His style of play, mature far beyond his years, has people thinking he might become something special.
But at the moment, it appears that LaVar has taken some of the spotlight from his son. Or maybe he has brought more attention to him than he otherwise would have received. The thing about this situation is that the conversation has become convoluted. But regardless of all the noise, the real story is how good can Lonzo actually be?
Well, according to his dad, pretty damn good. LaVar has made bold predictions all season long that UCLA would be national champions and that Lonzo would be the number one pick in the draft. Nothing too out of the ordinary for a proud and confident father, although a little more public than most parents would choose to be while praising their children. What did start to turn heads, however, was when the predictions and claims started becoming more public and more over-the-top.
LaVar went on the record as saying his son was better than Steph Curry right now, and if the two traded places, UCLA wouldn’t be as successful because the reigning two-time MVP was too small and would shoot the Bruins out of the game. Next was the claim that back in his “heyday,” LaVar would’ve killed Michael Jordan one-on-one, despite the fact that in his one season of Division I basketball, LaVar averaged a mere 2.2 points per game. After that, he insulted Charles Barkley, argued that his children were in a better position to succeed than LeBron James’s kids, and even made the prediction that if Lonzo joins the Lakers, he’ll have the same impact on them that Magic Johnson himself had.
It goes without saying that this kind of brash, unapologetic mentality rubbed a lot of people the wrong way. There were many people as well who loved his mentality, and praised him for his public support of his son. And truth be told, many people are unsure where exactly he’s coming from. Some of it may be tongue-in-cheek, or he may be dead serious. Some people believe it’s a marketing strategy to get his son’s name on everybody’s mind and build the Ball brand. All may be true, it’s hard to tell. But it’s got people talking. And it’s got people thinking.
The thing that’s almost getting lost in all of this is that Lonzo is one outstanding player. The 6-foot-6 point guard averaged 14.6 points, six rebounds and 7.6 assists, and led the Bruins to a 31-5 record, their best in nearly a decade. But it’s not just the numbers with Ball. In fact, they don’t really do his game justice. It’s the athletic ability, maturity and all the intangibles that make this kid a special player. He’s tall, he’s long, he’s lightning-quick and he can jump out of the gym. He can shoot the lights out despite his awkward Kevin Martin-esque jump shot, and he can do everything physically you’d want a perimeter player to be able to do.
But what’s most impressive about Lonzo is his ability to make everybody better. His passing skills are off the charts, and his ability to read the game and make plays is advanced far beyond his years. He plays the right way. He makes the highlight plays, but more importantly, he makes the simple plays that many young guards fail to focus on. He pushes the ball with advance passes, not with dribbles. If a teammate is hot, he rides them. He makes everybody around him better on a nightly basis. His all-around ability and unselfish style of play have drawn comparisons to Jason Kidd, although Lonzo is a little bigger and can shoot better than Kidd could at his age. The ceiling is high, but is it as high as his father would believe? That remains to be seen.
The funny thing is, for all of his father’s outspokenness, Lonzo is a pretty quiet guy who simply goes about his business on the basketball court, unfazed by the public pressure that his dad is potentially putting on him. As Lonzo said, “He’s been like that my whole life.” For all of this pressure, real or perceived, LaVar no doubt has a gentle side that many probably failed to initially see. Despite his predictions that his son would lead UCLA to a national championship, the Bruins were knocked out in the Sweet 16 by a Kentucky team hungry to shut down all the hype around Lonzo, who did struggle in the game. When LaVar was asked if he was disappointed in his son’s performance, he replied, “I wasn’t disappointed in him at all. Every time I watch my son play, it’s a joy.”
Strange as it all may seem from the outside, whatever goes on in that family seems to be working. The 19-year-old will become part of the National Basketball Association in a matter of months. All the hype and all the talk will be put to the side and Lonzo will have to prove himself on the basketball court. Just like he always has.
As LaVar said, “I think it’s a hell of a story. The fact that you have to watch and see if my boy is going to be as successful as I’m talking about.” Whether his other claims are true or not, there’s no doubt he’s got that one right. Lonzo Ball’s career will be one hell of a story.