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MikeCheck on NBA: Looming first look at Lonzo – and LaVar – prompts rookie flashbacks for Grizz guards

By Michael Wallace
Grind City Media

MEMPHIS – There’s the high-profile father whose presence is capable of casting a large – and, at times, overwhelming – shadow.

There was the inspiring one season in college, capped by a solid run in the NCAA Tournament that cemented his status as a top NBA lottery prospect.

Then, the transition to the NBA brought relentless scrutiny, wide-ranging responsibilities and some levels of scorn that few 19-year-old professionals thrust into the spotlight are truly ever prepared to face.

Yet the even-keeled demeanor and unflappable resolve are also there on and off the court as essential characteristics that help keep everything together and in proper perspective.

Patrick Beverley defends Lonzo Ball, who has had very little breathing room on or off the court as the high-profile Lakers rookie point guard. Photo Credit: Adam Pantozzi/NBAE/Getty Image

No wonder Mike Conley sees some similarities between rookie Lonzo Ball’s first month in the NBA and his own point guard transition from college to the league a decade ago.

“Between us two, I think if you read between the lines of being young guys coming into the league to run teams, and having dads in the spotlight – it’s as close as it gets,” Conley said. “I know my situation is a little different. I wasn’t as highly touted as Lonzo. But I can definitely look at him and see it, look at his situation, how good he is now, how much room he has to grow and how much better he’s going to be.”

The Grizzlies play the first of their four matchups against Ball and the Lakers on Sunday in the second game of a five-game trip that starts Saturday in Los Angeles against the Clippers. Ball, the second overall pick in last June’s NBA draft, turned 20 last month and entered November averaging 10 points, 7.7 assists and 7.5 rebounds, but has shot just 31.1 percent from the field.

His tantalizing upside contrasts with his mild-mannered approach to life both on and off the court. One would hardly notice the storm of expectations and larger-than-life figures charting his course.

First, there’s LaVar Ball, Lonzo’s bombastic father who is equal parts Don King, Earl Woods and Richard Williams in the promotion, devotion and commotion that have defined their journey to hoops stardom. Then there’s NBA Hall of Famer Magic Johnson, the Lakers’ executive banking on Lonzo’s young nucleus and significant cap space next summer to concoct the Showtime era of the new millennium.

That makes Lonzo Ball both a generational talent and a clearly defined target.

Already this season, Lonzo made headlines in a game against Houston when he was hounded and shut down by All-NBA defender Patrick Beverley. Ball hit the news cycle again – to no fault of his own – when his dad trash-talked Wizards center Marcin Gortat for a social media post about how John Wall would torture Lonzo when the teams met. The Lakers beat the Wizards, and Lavar had the last laugh.

Grizzlies guard Tyreke Evans, who is likely to spend time defending Lonzo on Sunday, suggested LaVar is contributing to the pressure that already comes with trying to play through growing pains in the NBA. Like both Conley and Lonzo, Evans was drafted in the lottery after one season of college at Memphis.

Tyreke Evans: 2010 rookie of year press conference. Photo Credit: Rocky Widner/NBAE/Getty Images

Evans was named NBA Rookie of the Year after the 2009-2010 season, when he joined LeBron James, Michael Jordan and Oscar Robertson as the only rookies in NBA history to average at least 20 points, five rebounds and five assists. LaVar has publicly predicted Lonzo would win the award after this season.

“He’s doing a good job of staying focused,” Evans said of Lonzo. “Have fun with this thing, because it goes by fast. Everybody is saying his dad puts a lot of pressure on him. But at the end of the day, his dad is not the one playing. So he’s got to know that he’s a rookie and everybody is coming for him, so be ready to play. I think he’s handling it really well. A lot of people might be hyping him up and other people might be downing him, but at the end of the day, he’s just about his team. That’s the most important thing.”

Lonzo has routinely shown the poise to dismiss the noise.

“I don’t pay no mind to it,” Ball recently told reporters. “I already know my teammates have my back.”

Conley, who sat out of Wednesday’s loss to Orlando with a sore Achilles but hopes to return this weekend, has the utmost respect for how the Lakers' young catalyst has handled his business so far.

“He’s a guy that just seems like he only cares about playing ball,” Conley said. “I was the same way. I don’t care about what’s going on off the court and what people might say about me. I’m sure he gets a lot of hate and negative things thrown at him all the time. And you can tell just by the way he plays that it doesn’t affect him. He just goes right back to hooping and doing what he does.”

Conley also recalled when he first came into the league and was criticized in the media about his early shooting struggles and erratic play. Picked fourth overall by Memphis in 2007, Conley started 46 of 53 games as a rookie and averaged 9.4 points and 4.2 assists but shot 42 percent from the field.

His numbers gradually improved every year, and he’s guided the Grizzlies to the playoffs seven consecutive seasons, which is the third-longest active streak in the league. Conley also landed what was then the richest contract in NBA history last summer when he signed a five-year, $153 million deal. Ball plays in the age of social media, which is a challenge Conley didn’t have when he entered the NBA.

After last week’s loss to Utah, Ball told reporters to place the blame on his shoulders. He then took to Twitter to post: “If you not with us now, don’t be with us later … we gone (sic) figure it out.”

Mike Conley: Rookie-Sophomore game at 2008 All-Star weekend. Photo Credit: Garrett Ellwood/NBAE/Getty Images

“I’ve taken shots throughout my career, but it’s something you try not to worry about,” Conley said. “It’s tough to say how I would have been (on social media) back then. With the way people can touch you from so many different points in the world, it’s a lot different nowadays than when I came in. But I don’t think it would have affected me differently. I would have tried to find a way to distance myself from it.”

Eventually, Conley also emerged from the shadow of his famous father, Mike Conley Sr., a 1992 Olympic Gold Medalist who was inducted into the National Track and Field Hall of Fame in 2004. The elder Conley has been every bit as supportive of his son, but nowhere near as publicly vocal and visible as LaVar Ball.

Conley said most on the outside looking in would never understand the unique dynamic of the relationships both sets of fathers and sons have established.

“For me, it’s normal,” Conley said before the Grizzlies departed for Los Angeles. “When you look around and get to know people and the different dynamics they have in their families, you know how lucky we are to have dads like ours. I have a guy like my dad to show me the way and pave it for me, showed me this is the way to be a pro. Eventually, people weren’t as much going, ‘Oh, you’re Mike Conley’s son.’ It was like people eventually started going up to him and were like, ‘Hey, aren’t you Mike Conley’s dad?’”

Grind City’s NBA Power Index

  1. Boston Celtics
  2. After a disheartening start to the season, the Celtics are in good spirits with Gordon Hayward back around teammates post-surgery just in time to see Boston riding a six-game win streak. LW: NR

  3. Los Angeles Clippers
  4. A blowout loss to the Warriors on the eve of Halloween spooked some humility into the Clippers and reminded them there’s still work ahead. But Blake Griffin simply continues to thrive. LW: 3

  5. Orlando Magic
  6. Orlando might be the league’s biggest surprise team so far after netting impressive road wins over the Cavaliers and Grizzlies. Start Aaron Gordon’s campaign for NBA’s most improved player. LW: 6

  7. Minnesota Timberwolves
  8. When Minnesota can win on a night when former No. 1 overall pick Karl Anthony Towns scores two points, it underscores the Timberwolves’ vastly improved depth and balance. LW: NR

  9. Memphis Grizzlies
  10. Consecutive home losses after squandering double-digit leads put a damper on Memphis’ 5-1 start. On top of that, Mike Conley and Marc Gasol are on sore wheels as a five-game trip looms. LW: 2

  11. Houston Rockets
  12. This season has already been an emotional rollercoaster for the Rockets, who remain without Chris Paul and have had to change their starting lineup five times through nine games. LW: 4

  13. Golden State Warriors
  14. Steve Kerr and Kevin Durant acknowledged that playing well into June to win last season’s title and then traveling to China for the preseason are legit factors in Golden State’s skittish start. LW: 5

  15. Charlotte Hornets
  16. Dwight Howard clearly isn’t the dominant star he once was, but there’s something to this resurrection in Charlotte, where he’s averaging an NBA and career-best 14.5 rebounds a game. LW: NR

  17. Indiana Pacers
  18. Among a growing list of teams that can hang a blowout win in Cleveland on their early-season resumes. Former Indiana college star Victor Oladipo may have finally found a fit with the Pacers. LW: NR

  19. Utah Jazz
  20. Gordon Hayward departed and injuries continue to ravage Utah’s depth, but the Jazz are still one of the toughest teams to play at home, as evidenced by an NBA-best 5-0 start to the season. LW: NR

The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Memphis Grizzlies. All opinions expressed by Michael Wallace are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Memphis Grizzlies or its Basketball Operations staff, owners, parent companies, partners or sponsors. His sources are not known to the Memphis Grizzlies and he has no special access to information beyond the access and privileges that go along with being an NBA accredited member of the media.