Lonzo Ball practiced fully, without limitations, on Monday and it was a welcomed sight to all. After missing the final four games of the preseason, he was back on the court with his teammates for all activities — including the team’s scrimmage which concluded the team’s work. After finally getting through an entire session, Ball cleared himself for Thursday’s season opener pretty definitively:
This, of course, is great news. Lonzo is going to be a driving force behind what the Lakers want to do offensively this year. While the team can still function and will try to replicate the style Lonzo embodies even when he’s not playing (as reflected in some of the team’s preseason stats), there really isn’t a substitute for him.
Lonzo being back, however, doesn’t instantly make everything that woes this team better. And it especially doesn’t do that when we really shouldn’t be expecting Lonzo to play that well right out of the gate.
We can always get into the “adjust your expectations for rookies downward” advice, but this isn’t really about that. It’s more that Lonzo hasn’t really played NBA basketball yet and is coming off an injury which sidelined him for nearly two weeks.
The first part of that may not seem like a big deal. After all, Lonzo’s an NBA level athlete! He’s played the same way his entire life! He should be able to get right back on the court and be ready to go at the pace the team wants to play at. But…
This wouldn’t be the first time Lonzo’s experienced some conditioning issues, either.
The first game of summer league, it was only minutes into the game that Lonzo could be seen walking with his hands on his hips and winded. The same was true of the Lakers first preseason game. Let’s not mis-characterize this as Lonzo being out of shape. But I’d argue it takes him some time to get adjusted to NBA pace against NBA athletes and we shouldn’t expect things to be different on Thursday, regardless of how much practicing and scrimmage work he gets in before that.
Also, Lonzo’s game is predicated on a preternatural feel for timing, angles, and an overall ability to see the floor. This helps him play “slow” which really means he’s playing a beat ahead of most other players. Well, guess what, when you miss time one of the first things to suffer is that timing and understanding of game speed. Call it rust or whatever else you want to, but the likelihood Lonzo will deal with some of that on Thursday is real. His head coach already saw some of it in Monday’s scrimmage.
Lastly, and this ties into everything above, Lonzo’s individual matchup will be one of the more difficult ones he’ll face all season. Patrick Beverley is an All-NBA level defender and is going to pressure Lonzo’s every action on the floor. Beverley will pick up full court, he’ll get into Lonzo’s body when defending in the half court, he’ll pressure his handle, he’ll be physical off the ball. Beverley has already made it clear he’s looking forward to this matchup, too.
None of this is to say that Lonzo can’t or won’t play well on Thursday. He’s a wonderful talent and I remain all-in on him as a player both in the short and long term. He’s going to move the ball well, he’s going to attack the paint offensively, and he’s going to take open jumpers. He’ll pass ahead, find teammates who are only open for a split second, and will wow the crowd at least once or twice. This is who he is and we should be happy he’s back in the lineup. The Lakers need him severely.
But it’s also important to understand the circumstances he’ll play under on Thursday. He will not have been in an NBA game (and a preseason one, at that) for 15 days when Thursday rolls around and his timing and conditioning will suffer for it. He’ll be facing one of the top individual defenders at his position — a player who calls himself “Mr. 94 feet” who is looking forward to putting a dent in the Lonzo hype-train. And, you know, he’s a rookie.
I’m looking forward to years and years of Lonzo Ball in a Lakers uniform and I’m ecstatic he’s healthy and ready to play in the season opener. I’m also ready for Thursday to not be the best Lonzo has to offer. Which is perfectly fine, too.