Bonds Between Young Lakers: Real and Refreshing
In the Lakers’ nearly empty gym after practice one day last month, the Dodgers had come calling to ask a favor. The request was to contribute to the Dodgers’ Kirk Gibson Opening Day tribute video and celebrate his famous double-arm pump from 1988.
It might’ve been more generationally fitting for Magic Johnson, James Worthy and Byron Scott to squeeze into some short shorts and handle the Lakers’ video contribution (and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar did have a cameo in a Jackie Robinson jersey), but 1990s babies Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram and Kyle Kuzma were still glad to help. Given a brief history lesson and general instructions, the three current Lakers proceeded to execute a pretty slick sequence:
Ingram passes from one side of the lane to Kuzma on the other, and Kuzma throws a behind-the-back pass off the far left frame of the backboard for the ball to ricochet in front of the rim as a perfect alley-oop to Ball, barreling down the lane to catch and dunk in one motion. All three turn back to the camera and launch into their own Gibson-esque arm pumps.
Ingram does so stiffly, though he is still recovering from a groin strain at the time. Kuzma hams it up with that mischievous grin, a little over the top as he glances over at the director. Ball absolutely owns it while adding a personal touch–waiting to have the camera frame all to himself and leaping in the air to double-pump with stone-faced confidence. Ball and Kuzma do it all with their practice jerseys slung around their necks so they flap behind them like superhero capes as they move.
It’s a snapshot of their three respective personalities, which we came to know well and embrace fully this season because these players were so willing to share of themselves with each other and their fans.
The young Lakers loved to compete on the court and showed uncanny comfort in their own skin in this league that is supposed to be more than they’re ready for. In so doing, the players were the visible embodiment of the “Lakers 2.0” concept introduced last year by Tim Harris, Lakers President, Business Operations–a 2.0 update meant to restart the fabled franchise with fresh openness, honesty and joy.
Luke Walton’s relationship-based coaching has lifted that spirit immeasurably, and first-year Lakers president Johnson flat-out said Friday that the Lakers will always be transparent on his watch.
It’s funny, but this is the same franchise that had Walton as a rookie in 2003-04 and Johnson a rookie in 1979-80. Fans got to know them well because they were also uncommonly comfortable in their own skin as rookies…and their first teams were veteran-laden ones that went all the way to the NBA Finals.
This season of the baby Lakers was far different, which is why Johnson has put out the conservative goal of making the playoffs next season. Yet whether these young Lakers wind up with playing careers solid like Walton’s or as glorious as Johnson’s, it always starts somewhere.
And if they wind up being stars, as they certainly are planning, this was the prelude to the kiss.
There’s something uniquely honest about being there at that beginning, getting to know a boy before he is king. That’s what this season was.
Ball’s chill no matter all the heat on him, Kuzma’s unshakable confidence, and Ingram in his second season staying truer than ever to his head-down, lead-by-example nature…these qualities will remain and grow even stronger as the years go by.
However, everyone retains some child at heart, and we’ll be able to recognize when these guys stay young because we’ve seen Ingram’s shyness, Kuzma’s impetuousness, and Ball so desirous of living in the moment.
Asked who is better at social media, Ingram took a long time to ponder before thinking out loud about the respective fun-loving styles of Ball and Kuzma.
“I always see Lonzo dancing on social media. And I always see Kuz post a picture like five minutes after games,” Ingram said. “I’ll just go with Kyle.”
The open bromance between Ball and Kuzma was a big part of that youthful spirit.
We got to share that youthful spirit with these guys in all these different ways, and it was infectious…because in the same way that they say the journey is more important than the destination, the start is indisputably more innocent and ingenuous than the finish.
The only way these guys reach their chosen destination, though, is if they get more than support. They need guidance, including the sort of tough love Walton gave Julius Randle to help him blossom this season.
That’s why it was uplifting on its own to see how Johnson and Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka approached their exit meetings with the players Thursday. The visual books Pelinka prepared made clear the immediate physical growth required if the young players want to become true stars in this league, and that sort of creative motivation is crucial in keeping them thinking about what they must choose to become as opposed to any solid starts.
Kyle Kuzma guards Pau Gasol of the Spurs
“Let’s show you what the greatest players in the world have done and the commitment they’ve made,” Pelinka said, “and let’s educate you and inform you–and see what your decision is going to be.”
It also helps if you happen to idolize Johnson, fundamentally, which Ball does. As someone who is used to his father laying out plans for him to achieve, Ball got similar treatment from Johnson in the orders to transform his body this offseason, refine his shot and prepare a score-first mentality as a viable option.
“When you have to talk direct to a player about what they have to improve on, that can be tough,” Johnson said, “because we like him so much, because we want him to be great.”
It is a lot like parenting for Johnson, Pelinka and Walton in trying to celebrate the ambition of these young men with unwavering support while mandating the guys have to strive for improvement that is both immediate and epic.
“When you grow up with a lot of attention and you’re kind of a phenom,” Pelinka said, recounting his advice for Ball, “outside of a select few people in your life, people will start to tell you what you want to hear.
That’s just the nature of the world we grow up in. But then there will be a few select people who will tell you what you need to hear.”
This is one of the gaps that oftentimes can’t be filled by fellow young players. Rarely do they have the maturity for frank conversation, which is why Johnson also told Ball and Ingram bluntly that they need to develop leadership voices on the court to hold teammates accountable.
As wonderful as it was to see these players’ core personalities, especially interacting with each other, who they are is fluid. Ball, Ingram and Thomas Bryant are 20; Ivica Zubac is 21; Kuzma is 22; Randle and Josh Hart are 23.
It’s unequivocally true to say that it will never be like it was in 2017-18, whether star free agents come this summer or not.
The goal is for it to be sort of the same sweetness…just way, way better.
Told after the filming of that Dodgers video that he looks a lot more comfortable in front of the camera than Ingram and Kuzma, Ball allowed that he has a lot more practice…while unable to resist a dig at Ingram for being nearly mute.
Asked Thursday about being the guy most open about projecting what this team should aspire to accomplish, Kuzma replied: “I kind of have to, because Lonzo is 14 and B.I. has said 10 words all year.”
Yet Kuzma, who earned his sociology degree at Utah in three years, continued to speak with some of his deeper truth: “I’m the most vocal out there of everybody, so I feel like I can start helping them develop being talkative, being loud, and really talking about things.”
It’s always better for a team to be governed by principled peer pressure. No matter how famous the team president is, how sharp the general manager is or how caring the coach is, the greatest guidance comes through it being cool amongst the players to do the right things.
When you’re talking to a fellow rookie going through the same struggles you are, you kind of understand it—and you grow together like that.Kyle Kuzma
And when you hear Kuzma break from the jokes and you see how easily Ball’s little brother, LaMelo, has taken to Kuzma, you begin to understand the nuance of the Zo-Kuz bond includes Kuzma’s experience being the big brother in his own family.
Count Kuzma, rookie or not, among the select few who will tell his more famous friend what he needs to hear about improving his attack mentality this offseason.
“That’s one thing that he needs to do for us to be great,” Kuzma said of Lonzo. “No matter who comes here, everything is going to fall on his head–no matter if it’s a superstar that comes or not. That’s just the reality we live in. For him and us, we all know he has to bring it next year, and he will for sure.”
In a central way, it has been easier for these guys to get along because so many of them are young. As such, it might be easy to write off their relationships as shallow. Social media, video games, fashion, food, whatever.
But when there is this kind of shared work ethic, there is inherent mutual respect.
“Man, these dudes are workers more than anything,” Randle said. “And you see throughout the course of the season how everybody has grown as a player, how we grew as a group through the ups and downs, all the adversity.”
The relationships have felt real, because they have been real.
“It’s one thing to talk to a vet about something,” Kuzma said, “but when you’re talking to a fellow rookie going through the same struggles you are, you kind of understand it–and you grow together like that.”
Wherever they go from here...we knew them when.
Kevin Ding is an independent sports writer and the statements and views expressed by him do not necessarily represent the views of the Los Angeles Lakers.
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