For 171 years, the Associated Press has "[covered] the world’s biggest stories, always committed to the highest standards of objective, accurate journalism." It has a total of 52 Pulitzer Prizes in its history. Its "unparalleled newsgathering" helps "inform the world." Last Friday, the headline on one of its most distributed sports stories read: "Lakers’ Lonzo Ball posts triple-double, this time in Adidas." On Saturday night, another headline read: "Lonzo Ball’s numbers drop in Under Armour, Lakers win."
Ball was named Las Vegas Summer League MVP on Monday after averaging 16.3 points, 9.3 assists, 7.7 rebounds, and 2.5 steals and recording two triple-doubles, the only triple-doubles Vegas has seen since 2009. But, curiously, it was his choice of footwear that dominated headlines. The shoes he wore (and their effect on his performance) are being taken seriously. Had Twitter existed in past eras, you might’ve expected these summer league pieces to be tweeted out by the AP Oddities account. But here and now, they weren’t. Of course they weren’t. With the expectations set high for Lonzo’s future by both the Lakers organization and its fans, with the unplaceable charisma he exudes on the court, and the permanent suspension of disbelief his father, LaVar, has cast upon him, this is all increasingly par for the course. Lonzo Ball is already one of most interesting players in the NBA, and everyone is frothing at the mouth looking for ways to build him up or break him down. A mild calf strain suffered in Sunday’s semifinal game against the Mavericks put an end to his summer league experience, but in the days prior, Ball himself provided more than enough fodder for basketball media in this summer dead zone.
After playing the first two games of summer league wearing his own Big Baller Brand sneakers, Lonzo switched to Nike Kobe A.D.s in a game against the Sixers. LeBron James sat and watched courtside. The subtext was not lost on anyone: The game became an audition and presentation. For Nike, for the King. Ball strode up and down the floor in Kobe Bryant’s signature shoe, past and future of the Lakers together, bound in a single vessel. He logged 36 points, 11 assists, eight rebounds, five steals, and two blocks. All hype considered (Lonzo’s L.A. support is almost single-handedly responsible for the massive spike in summer league attendance this year), it was one of the most impressive displays in the 13 years of the event. "You know, Mamba mentality," he told reporters after the game who asked about his shoe change. "Thought I’d switch it up." LeBron would use the moment to promote the Nike brand; the media would use it to retool Lonzo’s summer league narrative.
Before Saturday’s game between the Lakers and Nets, this graphic was prominently shown during the ESPN broadcast:
The mainstream media, through the spectacle of Ball, has begun to propagate the kind of loosely correlative, largely trivial data — think LeBron only wins titles in years when Alabama football wins the national championship — that has made the r/NBA subreddit a haven for NBA obsessives looking for alternative ways to engage with the league. Lonzo’s stardom is fueled by our fascination with the anomalies that both make up his game and exist just within his orbit. The strange mechanics in his shooting motion remain: He literally dabs every time he rises up to take a shot — his right arm slants diagonally across his line of sight before flinging outward. The Ringer’s Kevin O’Connor devoted an entire story to analyzing Lonzo’s affinity for Wilson-brand basketballs in comparison to every other basketball brand used in college; it remains the most Reddit thing I’ve seen all year that didn’t originate on Reddit. The shoe stats were a fun way of expressing a certain schadenfreude for a misguided business venture. In Lonzo’s struggles playing in the ZO2s, we saw a meme vivified; we saw the tangible downsides of wearing a wack shoe, which is a level of fulfillment that no amount of Curry 2 jokes could reach.
This isn’t standard operating procedure for analyzing any other basketball player in the league. But Lonzo isn’t any other player. He’s arrived at a very interesting juncture in the NBA, and his skill set is thoroughly futuristic. He is a player who has no qualms shooting from 30-plus feet; he is a passing savant who is pigeonholed as a point guard, but might actually maximize his greatest talents by playing off the ball. He is an unorthodox player who makes for wildly entertaining small-sample-size theater; he is a son with a lumbering, self-replenishing meme for a father; he is a case study that almost beckons the hyperspecific deep-dives that make the internet a wonderful and terrifying place. In other words, Ball captures the burgeoning NBA zeitgeist in ways that even the best and most influential players of this era can’t.
In Lonzo, the r/NBA generation has found its patron saint.
With Lonzo taking the spotlight back from his father over the past two weeks, it’s been a little easier to see with clarity the kind of grand envisioning LaVar has put into existence. I think about the hill right around the corner from their house in Chino Hills. He had all his kids — Lonzo, LiAngelo, and LaMelo — sprinting that mile-long incline five days a week. By the time they were 5 years old, the Ball brothers were used to doing pull-ups, push-ups, and dips. "Stuff like that to keep their strength," LaVar told me last year. "It won’t make you real big, but it makes you very strong."
It served as a little bit of deception; there is more to Ball than meets the eye. Lonzo hasn’t exactly looked like an ideal physical specimen at any level of basketball he’s played at over the past three years. But all those dips over the years create powerful triceps capable of unleashing a ball with grace and velocity. "It looks like [Lonzo] can [only] bench 130, but he’s very strong," LaVar said. "That’s why he can rebound and pass the ball the length of the court with a quick chest pass." There is also something to be said about muscle memory; Lonzo’s been completing full-length outlet passes regularly since elementary school. It’s a skill he’s honed for his entire life, serving as the fulcrum of LaVar’s instant read-and-reaction philosophy. "This is what I tell people [when asked] why we play so fast. We don’t think the game, we just play off of reaction," LaVar told me in 2016. "When you hear a loud sound in the hood, you don’t say, ‘Was that a broken plate, a broken window, or a gunshot?’ You don’t think about it. You just take off running."
And if you take off running, Lonzo will find you. We saw nearly his entire repertoire of outlets in Vegas. Then, against Dallas, he showed us something new.
Ball is a giver. Always has been. "Lonzo wants to get too many people involved," LaVar told me last year. "Like, if you pass him the ball in the corner, instead of just shooting it, he’s going to look for a cutter before he takes the shot, which is too long. That’s why he plays the 1." In short order, he’s also ably played hero and foil. People on Reddit are already trying to get rid of his existence on their news feeds. But with a blank face and terse responses, Lonzo doesn’t appear to be beholden to the hoopla surrounding him. When you’re a Big Baller, you can be whatever it is people want to see in you. It’s the biggest outlet he can give anyone.