Learning the LeBron Lesson: Be More Than a Scorer
For a peek into LeBron James’ core values, you need only notice how he gives some of the same answers to different questions. For example, meaningful personal accomplishments get him reflecting on his hometown of Akron, Ohio, and how far he has come in life. A huge, happy net gets thrown over specific questions about his fresh experience as a Lakers player, with this quote offered Tuesday: “I love everything that’s going on with our ball club and this franchise since I got here.”
James’ most useful catch-all answer so far: “The best teacher in life is experience.” It has been especially applicable considering how much the younger Lakers players need NBA experience to operate at James’ championship level, with James acknowledging he has been “battling with since the season started” how much to take over games and how much to give those teammates opportunities to grow this team.
Along those lines, though, another common refrain has come out. It’s the one that truly speaks to what James holds dear in the spirit of the game.
“If you’re able to make an impact in the game and you’re not scoring the ball,” James said Friday, “then you’re a complete basketball player.”
James has long prided himself on being “not a scorer.” Even though he now stands at No. 5 on the all-time NBA scoring chart, he has said it countless times in his career, even clarifying how he as a kid never aspired just to score. The hashtag “#imnotevenascorer” was on one of his Instagram posts back in October.
LeBron hits a fadeaway jumper over LaMarcus Aldridge
James has always wanted to do more than the obvious, his siren song being that it’s superior to make plays for your team than to be just able to score for your team.
In this sense, there is synergy between James and Lakers coach Luke Walton. Both the 2003 NBA draftees established as players—albeit with dramatically disparate total production—that their contributions would not be just about scoring. And Walton’s thesis since becoming a coach has reflected that.
With James here, now the Lakers’ young players are getting that message from up high in two ways. Well, actually it might be more like from four directions with the additions this season also of Rajon Rondo and Tyson Chandler, neither of whom was ever much of a scorer, but both of whom are respected NBA champions.
Rondo has been practically the team oracle with how much wisdom he has imparted since before training camp. Then consider what Walton had to say, unsolicited, after the Lakers’ victory Wednesday over San Antonio:
“Tyson Chandler and his minutes tonight set a perfect example of who we want to be as a team,” Walton said. “He was plus-27, zero shot attempts, nine rebounds, and was all over the floor just competing with nothing in mind other than trying to win for his team.”
A guy with no shot attempts gets a shout-out from the coach, along with the guy who is a natural scorer (Kyle Kuzma) but wanted the challenge of guarding the opponent’s best player (DeMar DeRozan) down the stretch, even before Walton salutes the guy who just poured in 20 in the final period and currently averages a league-best 9.1 fourth-quarter points.
“LeBron was pretty good, as well,” Walton said, smiling.
James’ quote the other night about “a complete basketball player” wasn’t in reference to himself. It was about Lonzo Ball. And the part right after “a complete basketball player” was: “That he is.”
“He’s still getting guys the ball, still rebounding,” James said of Ball. “He’s still getting his steals, and he’s engaged in what’s going on on the floor.”
Ball’s activity on the less-celebrated side of the ball has improved to the point that Walton calls him “the head of our defense.” Ball’s full-court pressure has been a tempo- and intensity-changing weapon for these Lakers the way a young, steals-hunting Kobe Bryant was once unleashed by Phil Jackson from time to time. Brandon Ingram said it pumps him up to play defense behind a guy getting after it the way Ball does full court.
Before he sprained his ankle midway through the first quarter Wednesday, Ingram was having an impressive defensive impact with his length. Josh Hart, at 6-foot-5, is regarded as the team’s most physical defender overall, and his reply to a question about the key shots he, Ball and Kuzma made late against San Antonio was telling.
“We made shots,” Hart said. “We also got stops.”
Ever since he became the Lakers’ head coach in 2016, Walton has placed outsized emphasis on defense. That’s partly because young NBA players generally come in with a reward system linked to leading the team in scoring.
“Defense is one of the last things you do when you are a high draft pick,” Walton said.
Lonzo Ball locking up Dallas' Harrison Barnes on defense
At Walton’s first-ever practice with Ball last season, the coach delivered the exceedingly simplistic message that Ball needed to contest the shot every single time. Close out, hand up. Every single time.
Ball going from that rudimentary level to what he’s doing now, applying his brilliant court vision to disrupt the opposing offense and using that added upper-body strength to get over screens or fight in the post, is exciting progress for the coaching staff.
It’s not as exciting as fans seeing Ball throwing those gorgeous touch passes or converting his three-point shots, but it’s evident that Ball is taking immense pride in his defense.
[Kuzma's] not allowing anybody to just put a cap on him, just saying he’s a scorer. I think he wants to be more than that.LeBron James
“Now people are talking about it,” Ball said. “Not before.”
Ball’s basketball idol has always been James. It’s because Ball, like James, has always been pass-first. Yet now Ball is seeing how much more James believes in all-around play than mere unselfish basketball.
“Zo and Bron have been playing great together,” Walton said. “With their basketball instincts and the way that they feel the game, I think they’ve really started to build a nice connection out there together.”
And therein lies the seed to something truly special for the Lakers.
Much has been made this season already about how well Kuzma fits with James because Kuzma can play without the ball—and how Ingram and Ball must adjust to not having the ball as much because James has it a lot.
A better, broader question would be whether playing alongside James has crystallized in the minds of the Lakers’ young players the virtue in being the best all-around players they can be.
If they weren’t getting his message, however, there wouldn’t be the rave respect conveyed through the words James used to review Kuzma’s second NBA season so far.
“He’s not allowing anybody to just put a cap on him, just saying he’s a scorer,” James said. “I think he wants to be more than that. He’s been continuing to get better and better, not only offensively but defensively as well. Just playing all-around solid basketball. His ability to make plays. His ability to rebound as of late. Obviously we know how well he can score. But he wants to make more of an impact, for not only him individually but for this team.”
Walton has had to conduct fundamental coaching clinics with the team this season to remind them about basic box-outs in defensive rebounding. Walton can speak from experience how inglorious that sort of work is, as he used to box out his man diligently—only to leave Lakers teammate Lamar Odom fancy-free to glide from wherever he was and pad his rebounding stats.
That’s how deep this all-around game James preaches about can go. There’s a subterranean world even below the dirty-work stats far less acclaimed than scoring.
It’s exactly why James exuberantly referred to veteran Lakers newcomers JaVale McGee, Lance Stephenson, Michael Beasley and Rondo as M.U.D.: misunderstood, under-appreciated, determined. Mainstream basketball analysis is that James the passer needs shooters around him so that his passes aren’t wasted. It’s true, but there’s so much more to it than that—as Ball, Ingram and Kuzma are realizing more each day.
James needs teammates capable of scoring sometimes, but committed to doing dirty work all the time.
“It's whatever it takes to try to help our ball club be as great as we can be toward the end of the season,” James said. “And at the same time getting better every day.”
It might surprise you to learn that Kuzma, Ingram and Ball are scoring at higher rates this season than last season. Even at 28.4 points per game, James has not forced them to dial back their individual exploits; he has just helped make them into more efficient scorers.
It's whatever it takes to try to help our ball club be as great as we can be toward the end of the season. And at the same time getting better every day.LeBron James
Kuzma’s points per 36 minutes of action were 18.6 last season, and he’s at 19.5 this season—with a field-goal percentage increase from 45.0 to 46.7 despite a slow start from deep. Ingram’s points per 36 have gone from 17.3 to 17.8 with the same 47.0 field-goal percentage. Ball is scoring the same 10.7 points per 36 minutes, but his shooting has improved from 36.0 percent from the field to 39.7 percent.
James doesn’t have anything specifically against scoring. He was thrilled that Ball, Hart and Kuzma hit those key shots down the stretch Wednesday that prevented their other contributions from being wasted.
James is simply the ultimate all-around player.
And he likes to say that because he is an all-around player, he can play with anyone.
That leads naturally to the easiest way to play with James:
Be as all-around as you can be, too.
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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