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The Great Point Guard Debate: Lonzo Ball and the New Showtime

On the surface, everything about the Lakers’ rookie point guard screams that he’s a part of a family circus, thinking brand over team. But look deeper and you might find a player who is going to revitalize a sleeping giant with the rarest of gifts: telepathic court vision.

Lakers point guard Lonzo Ball dribbles the ball Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The NBA is teeming with talent from the backcourt to the frontcourt, but even as space and versatility have changed the way we evaluate player roles, there still is no position that captures the fan imagination quite like the point guard. This week, we’re celebrating the masters of tempo, the architects of system, and the athletes who have altered our understanding of game management. There is no consensus on who—or what—constitutes as the “best,” but it’s always a conversation worth having. Welcome to the Great Point Guard Debate.

LaVar Ball runs his family like a basketball-player factory. And first-born Lonzo Ball is its first and strangest product. Like his brothers, LiAngelo and LaMelo, Lonzo’s professional path was chosen for him. But the way he walks it is singular. If you look closely—through the clouds of pyroclastic hype, past the lines of LaVar’s pregame supplicants, past the basket-incinerating exploits of his younger brothers, the resurgent Laker Nation, beyond Magic Johnson’s superlatives and Rob Pelinka’s earnestly wrong Bible references—Lonzo’s approach looks like a quiet rebellion.

NBA Preview 2017

LaVar, after all, is the Cronus of hype, deifying his children and devouring them. “I told my sons that one of them wasn’t going to make it,” LaVar told GQ, before indicating that he thought it would be LiAngelo who comes up short. LaVar spoke Lonzo’s Lakers career into existence. LaVar claims he would have beaten peak Michael Jordan in one-on-one. LaVar opined that LeBron James’s son was “not that good at basketball.” And he declared that if Nike or Adidas wanted to sign the Ball boys, they’d have to pony up a cool $1 billion to license Big Baller Brand, his homegrown line of mysteriously sourced, (likely) not thoroughly wear-tested, and incredibly expensive athletic wear.

So, if we believe the legend of “LaVar-ology,” the system by which, according to Tina Ball, LaVar bred and molded the boys in his image, then Lonzo should be a different player. LaVar is a natural self-promoter who understands the head-turning power of a ridiculous statement, uttered with unflinching confidence. He’s like a carnival barker luxuriating in the attention of the marks. His sons should be Monta Ellis–style gunners. Yet Lonzo plays like he’s auditioning for a Hoosiers reboot.

His younger brothers fell closer to the tree. LaMelo, the youngest, is a brash, bleach-streaked explosion of ludicrous runners, fast-break leak-outs, and long-range fall-aways. He once scored 92 points in a high school game, is currently being homeschooled, and spits trash talk from behind a mouth lined with braces. LiAngelo, the bruising Barkleyesque middle brother, now at UCLA, went for 72 points as a high school senior.

Lonzo, by contrast, is quiet. His game is selfless. He prefers to pass rather than score. During the one season they shared the court at Chino Hills High, Lonzo hurled the half-court passes that enabled his brothers to set scoring records. Zo’s emblematic high school performance was a 13-assist, no-points outing at the 2016 McDonald’s All American Game, tying the record for dimes.

Where LaVar, LaMelo, and LiAngelo relish talking shit, Lonzo answers questions with studied blandness occasionally sprinkled with a wit dryer than the Great Salt Lake. And though his ZO2 (retail price: $495) is the signature shoe of the Big Baller Brand label, since getting drafted he’s taken the court in Nike, Adidas, Jordan Brand, and Under Armour. “When you’re a big baller,” Lonzo said when asked about his footwear choices during the 2017 Las Vegas summer league, “you can wear whatever you want.” Indeed.

Lonzo Ball, despite appearances, is something of a rebel.

Lonzo’s style is at once traditional and weirdly transgressive. Nothing about him is particularly exceptional. In an age of unicorns, freak athletes, and positional chameleons, he just plays point guard. His edge—his singular court vision—is intangible. He’s like an all-seeing eye taped to the hood of a Honda Accord. He’s a conventional player assembled from unconventional pieces. Lonzo is a lanky 6-foot-6, big enough to see over the defense but not imposing. He likes to run, but he’s not particularly elusive. His handle is serviceable but not dexterous enough to consistently tear up NBA defenders. He’ll go the basket if a lane opens up, but he won’t, and possibly can’t, force the issue. His go-to scoring move is a step-back 3-pointer, set up by his janky crossover, hurled sidearm across his body.

But that passing … like a musician anticipating the drop, Lonzo tosses his passes a beat or two early. A great example, and ironically the most selfish thing Lonzo does, is how he hits the wing runner early on two-on-one breaks, making it more likely that he’ll get the ball back for an easy dunk.

His signature pass at Chino Hills was a half-court outlet thrown practically over the shoulder, a split second after corralling the rebound to his streaking kin. It’s a dish he’s already serving up in his short career as a professional.

Heading into summer league, for all the reasons listed above, I was on board the “Lonzo is a bust” express. After he scored five points on 2-of-15 shooting from the floor (1-of-11 from 3)—with five assists, four rebounds, and three turnovers—I, along with seemingly the entire sports-watching universe, had my knives out and sharpened. “His worst game ever,” said LaVar. Then, like Pete Townshend windmilling on a Les Paul, the trademark bombast: “But he changed the Lakers’ culture.” Related: The Lakers have 16 titles.

Lonzo, meanwhile, was typically understated. “Tough game. We didn’t get the job done,” he said. “I need to be better.”

In Lonzo’s second game, he scored a triple-double—11 points, 11 rebounds, 11 assists. I was intrigued.

In Lonzo’s third game in Vegas, a 103-102 win over the summer Sixers, he came into his rebellious own. LaVar was absent. James was in the stands. And Lonzo, eschewing the triple-B for Nike Kobe ADs, put on a show, going for 36 points (12-of-22, 3-of-10 from 3), 11 assists, and eight rebounds. At this point I was ready to have his face tattooed on my chest. After the game, Lonzo addressed his tepid shooting with Tim Duncan–like reserve. “It helps going to the basket, getting some easy ones. … I just stayed in the flow. Stayed the course. Played my game.”

The biggest knock against Lonzo to date is that he’s too shook to face Sacramento Kings rookie and former Kentucky Wildcat De'Aaron Fox. But this comes off as a kind of fuck-it-all truculence on Lonzo’s part. Fox, you’ll recall, laced up Ball for 39 points on the way to knocking UCLA out of the NCAA tournament. Then Ball sat out the Kings-Lakers summer league game with a groin injury. The internet tittered. Fox tweeted a face-palm emoji, then quickly deleted it. A narrative was born: Lonzo is ducking De’Aaron. Then, earlier this week, Lonzo tripled down, sitting out the Kings-Lakers preseason game with an ankle sprain.

The resulting hate was as delightful as it was predictable. LONZO IS SCARED! Ex-Wildcat, ex-King, and all-career losing basketball player Boogie Cousins piled on in an Instagram comment, writing: “Shorty gotta stop running from that action.” I hope Lonzo makes this his brand and flat-out refuses to ever play Fox again.

Lonzo’s first action as a Laker was an alley-oop pass to human tapeworm Brandon Ingram that elicited a roar from the Thomas & Mack Center. The Lakers were playing the Clippers, and the arena was packed with fans bedecked in purple and gold, white Lakers home alternates, and Kobe jerseys of every variety. 19,000-plus Laker fans screamed themselves hoarse when Lonzo threw the pass. He casually turned down court and jogged back on defense.

Lonzo’s ankle injury will likely hold him out for the remainder of the preseason. His father, and the hot air and hype surrounding his brothers and the Big Baller Brand, will distort the way we see him. But it’s clear that he’s his own man.

What will Lonzo become? Is he the next Jason Kidd, a visionary passer whose very presence can alter the culture of a team? Or is he a bust whose shortcomings—middling handle, average athleticism, and weird shot—can’t be overcome? Whatever the answer is, it will be fascinating.