LOS ANGELES (AFP) – Shortly after being unveiled by the Los Angeles Lakers, Lonzo Ball was left under no illusions about the great expectations that are being loaded on to his fledgling professional basketball career.
Glancing up at the wall of the team’s practice facility in El Segundo, Lakers chief of basketball operations Earvin “Magic” Johnson pointed out the retired jerseys of iconic names from the past.
Wilt Chamberlain. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Shaquille O’Neal. James Worthy.
Johnson, whose retired jersey also adorns the same wall of fame, had a straightforward message for the 19-year-old number two NBA Draft pick: “We expect a Ball jersey hanging up there one day.”
Johnson, a five-time NBA champion synonymous with the “Showtime” Lakers’ 1980s decade of dominance, is unapologetic about piling pressure on the shoulders of a player yet to make his league debut.
“He has greatness written all over him,” Johnson told reporters. “He’s the new face of the Lakers, the guy who I think will lead us back to where we want to get to.
“We want to start building a successful team, and you have to have a great leader and somebody that can make their teammates better, somebody who has incredible basketball IQ – his IQ is off the charts – and somebody who can get their teammates to follow them … We feel like we have that person right here in Lonzo Ball.”
Johnson, however, is realistic. For all of Ball’s precocity, the Lakers’ journey back to the summit of the NBA will be long.
The Lakers missed the playoffs last season for the fourth straight year, the worst run in the team’s history.
A 26-56 record was only fractionally better than their dismal 2015-2016 campaign, a 17-65 horror show that was the team’s worst-ever season.
“I’m not crazy,” says Johnson, who was brought back to oversee the Lakers rebuilding in February.
“I know it’s going to take time to build and we’re building, but when we get the right people in here, we’re going to win.”
Ball, the most prominent part of that rebuilding project, is unfazed at being seen as the Lakers saviour.
“I’m playing the game of basketball, which I’ve been playing all of my life,” he told reporters.
“It’s fun to me and I know it’s going to be fun here. I’m not really worried about all that.”
So far, Ball has given every indication that he is ready to live up to his billing.
In the NBA’s Las Vegas summer league, an 11-day event featuring 24 NBA teams, Ball was named Most Valuable Player after averaging 16.3 points, 9.3 assists, and 7.7 rebounds. That haul included two triple-doubles, the first since 2008.
While his every move in the NBA will be magnified as never before, Ball is also more than used to living in the spotlight.
He has featured regularly in the pages of major US newspapers and magazines ever since a stellar high school career in Chino Hills, in the eastern suburbs of Los Angeles.
Alongside his younger brothers LiAngelo and LaMelo, Ball led his school team on an undefeated 35-0 record in 2016 to see them ranked number one in the nation.
He then revitalised UCLA in his only season in college basketball, helping the Bruins become one of the best scoring offenses in the country in 2016-2017, when he averaged 14.6 points in 36 games.
The prominent role played by Ball’s father, LaVar, in shaping his son’s career has raised concerns amongst some observers, however.
LaVar Ball has made a habit of increasingly grandiose claims about his children’s talents, which often invite ridicule.
In February, LaVar claimed Lonzo was a better player than Golden State Warriors’ star Stephen Curry.
He followed up that outlandish statement a few weeks later by suggesting that he had the talent to surpass four-time MVP LeBron James and reigning MVP Russell Westbrook.
LaVar has also developed a sports shoe company – Big Baller Brand – that will aim to see him maintain control over sponsorship. An eye-watering $495 price tag for the company’s first pair of sneakers was widely criticised.
Unsurprisingly, LaVar Ball is predicting a dazzling first NBA season for his son, envisaging the sort of immediate turnaround that few are betting on.
“I don’t think the Lakers are going to make the playoffs,” he said in July. “I know they’re going to make the playoffs.”