As he did for 13 NBA seasons, Magic Johnson basked in the spotlight. In New York City, the freshly minted head honcho of the Los Angeles Lakers saw his team land the second overall pick in the 2017 NBA Draft. He let out a sigh of relief and flashed his signature pearly white teeth.
Now comes the hard part.
Since defeating the Boston Celtics in the NBA Finals back in 2010, the Lakers have slowly regressed. The team is on its fourth permanent head coach since Phil Jackson’s departure, hasn’t won a playoff series since 2012 and hasn’t qualified for the playoffs since 2014. With Kobe Bryant’s retirement, the questions as to who the next great one to rise from the rubble of the once proud franchise would be.
D’Angelo Russell? Julius Randle? Paul George?
With many more questions than answers, Johnson has vowed to turn all of it around. Officially, his quest will actually begin in just a few short weeks. And what we have come to learn over the past few days, via multiple media reports, is that Ball is actually no slam dunk.
For as long as we can recall, Ball has been the one that has seemed to have been mentioned as the probable second pick for the Lakers, as it’s been assumed that the Boston Celtics would select Markelle Fultz first overall. Of course, it’s easy enough to understand why Johnson would appear to be leaning toward Ball. It is Johnson, after all, who said that the only young player on the roster that he would deem somewhat untouchable is Brandon Ingram. With Ingram still trying to find himself as an NBA pro, it would be difficult to imagine Johnson drafting other wing players like Josh Jackson or Jayson Tatum with the second overall pick.
Conveniently, though, conjecture surrounding De’Aaron Fox has grown louder. Fox, who famously lit Ball and his UCLA Bruins up for 39 points, four assists and three rebounds during last spring’s NCAA tournament, apparently, is endangering Ball’s long-held dream.
Could the Lakers buck the trend and opt for Fox over the hometown kid?
Of course they could, but it’s just as likely that Magic Johnson wants to do something else by giving everyone that impression: motivate Lonzo Ball to prove himself.
Anyone that knows Magic knows that he’s a competitor and has long been a fighter. From the days of his playing career to his successes as an astute business man, Johnson’s reputation is one of being a tough guy who gets tougher as the stakes get higher. Without a doubt, he would look for similar characteristics in the player to whom he will entrust his franchise.
Ball, a Los Angeles native, is a youngster whose name has been making the rounds in the Los Angeles County area for a great many years. From Chino Hills to UCLA, he is the Los Angeles (light) version of LeBron James. Though nobody expects Ball to become a consensus All-Time Top-10 player the way James has, Ball’s story of being drafted to his hometown team in an attempt to rescue a now lost franchise is a tale truly made for Hollywood. You can bet that Lonzo wants nothing more than to author such a story.
The best thing for everybody, including Lonzo Ball himself, is for Magic Johnson to threaten to take that all away. Fox, the young man who ended Ball’s collegiate career, now, apparently, is contending to end his storybook Lakers career before it even begins.
Oh, to be a fly on the wall when Magic Johnson gets Lonzo Ball in a room on Wednesday…
Make no mistake about it: if you want to be the franchise player for the Lakers, your heart has to pump a different type of blood. And of all people, Magic knows that well.
Lakers fans are rabid. In Los Angeles, nothing less than winning is acceptable and winners rarely get things handed to them.
For that reason, Johnson should do exactly what he’s doing—put pressure on Lonzo Ball to prove that he is capable of carrying the mighty burden of being the franchise player. And the best way to give Lonzo that opportunity is to threaten him.
In the end, the Lakers will probably select Ball with the second overall pick. His rare combination of instinct and timing is what many of the great point guards are made of. That he stands tall with incredible size only cements his credibility as a promising NBA prospect. There’s no way to know whether or not he will end up as a better pro than De’Aaron Fox. But how he conducts himself, performs and responds to the rejection of the long-held notion that he’s sure to be handed his dream scenario—that’s what’ll likely resonate.
Nothing was ever handed to Magic. It’s fitting that he make whoever ends up being his first lottery selection earn it.
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