LOS ANGELES — LeBron James is on a mission to boost second-year point guard Lonzo Ball‘s confidence, and it appears to be paying off for the Lakers.
“I think Zo, I think he just sometimes he doesn’t realize how great he is,” James said after a 90-83 win over the Utah Jazz on Friday. “The things that he possesses out on the floor, when Zo realizes how good he is on the floor, it makes him a very dynamic player and it makes us even better. And he’s been doing that as of late, his aggressiveness.”
Ball finished with nine points, 10 rebounds and two assists against the Jazz, but it was his decision-making in the fourth quarter that made the difference as he played all 12 minutes, made his only shot from the field, picked up two assists and two rebounds, played active defense and was instrumental in L.A. outscoring Utah 26-20 in the final frame to close out the win.
“Even when he’s not making, just his attack as you’ve seen earlier in the game, just him getting to the rim (is important),” James said of Ball, who went 4-for-10 from the field. “He missed a couple of ’em, that’s absolutely fine. He had a couple charges, that’s absolutely fine. When he’s aggressive it just changes our dynamic of the team, and he’s been doing it of late and we need him to continue to do that because he’s very good.”
ESPN’s Ohm Youngmisuk first reported that James, along with members of the Lakers’ coaching staff, encouraged Ball to take more control of the action on the court after he struggled in a back-to-back through Orlando and Miami last weekend, scoring two points on 1-for-11 shooting in the two games.
Ball responded with a season-high 15 points on 7-for-11 shooting in a win in Cleveland on Wednesday and a similarly aggressive game against Utah.
“I just play better like that,” Ball said, also crediting Rajon Rondo for coaching him up. “… I have a great coaching staff, great teammates pushing me every day. So I just keep hearing them in my ear, trying to do the right things on the court.”
Ball helped L.A. pick up its 9th win in its last 11 tries with a cutting left-hand layup with 3:57 remaining in the fourth quarter to put the Lakers up by six and then a drive-and-dish to JaVale McGee for a dunk with 2:11 left to increase their lead to nine.
“Well, they decided to blitz LeBron off the ball screen,” Ball explained. “So that leaves me pretty much in the open floor and I can do what I want with it. It’s tough. You got me coming down the lane or you got JaVale for the lob. So you got to pretty much pick one.”
If the former No. 2 pick is still finding his confidence as a 21-year-old, he’s certainly not lacking it when it comes to evaluating his acceleration.
“I’m just faster than a lot of people out there,” he said. “So I can get to the spots. It’s just about finishing.”
Of course, playing fast can be problematic if a team doesn’t take care of the ball. The Lakers got the win Friday in spite of committing a season-high 24 turnovers. And their assist-to-turnover ratio made the miscues even worse as they distributed a season-low 10 assists.
“It was horrible. Horrible. Horrible, man,” James said. “You look at the stats man (it was bad), but offensively, we just found a way late in the game. But we just defended. The best thing about it, when we was turning the ball over. But we still held them in the halfcourt. We did a number on them in the half court defensively. But we’re not going to win many games like that, when you turn the ball over 24 times and just have 10 assists.”
The Lakers had just three assists at halftime — all belonging to James — and coach Luke Walton brought it up, while adding a measure of motivation: telling his team if they managed to win the game he would cancel Saturday’s practice and give them the day off.
While the Lakers earned the time off, Walton made sure to pound the point home again in his postgame speech.
“It’s something that we will get to as a team and when we get there we will be a much better team,” Walton said. “So even if we’re winning games we’re not going to slack off on the coaching of making the right pass and the extra pass and I truly believe we’ll become that type of team.”
Ironically, Walton said that the one player who always makes the extra pass, sometimes so much that the team encourages him to hold onto the ball longer so he can do something with it and make a play, is Ball.
Meaning Ball’s journey to unearth the greatness James sees in him could very well mirror the fate of this Lakers team’s potential.
“He doesn’t (even) have 82 games under his belt yet,” James said of Ball. “So I think every game is another teaching point for him and experience will continue to happen more and more and he’s going to know what he does extremely well to help us but more importantly help him be successful on the floor. I can see it, but sometimes for you personally, you have to continue to figure it out. He hasn’t even put a full regular season into his books yet.”