MEMPHIS, Tenn.— UCLA freshmen Lonzo Ball and T.J. Leaf gave each other a look of resigned amusement when I asked the question. They knew it was coming, even though there were 13 different subjects addressed beforehand.
And yes, I apologized in advance for asking.
“Lonzo, your father has made a lot of statements about your ability and I just wonder: Is it a challenge for you to keep focused on the game at hand when your father makes as many headlines as he has?”
What is a journalist supposed to do, though? Ignore that LaVar Ball has, in various media interviews during the past month:
—Declared his son to be a better player today than All-NBA guard Steph Curry, that the Warriors would be better with Lonzo in their lineup than Steph?
— That Lonzo is superior to Magic Johnson because he is a more dynamic athlete and is“Magic with a jump shot”?
— That Lonzo was “better than what Michael Jordan was going in high school, and he’s better than what Michael Jordan was doing in college"?"He’s only 19. He’s got to get past Jordan’s six titles and get to seven to be the greatest player ever, and I think he can do it,” LaVar said.
—Said he will seek a $1 billion athletic apparel endorsement contract for his three sons?Two of them, LiAngelo and LaMelo, still are in high school.
Since he encountered the microphone that broadcast the Curry statements, the elder Ball’s penchant for bombast has turned him into a media addiction. Why are we so fascinated by what he says? Many of us aren’t. But many in our audience are.
The amazing thing is how little impact all of the commotion has had on Lonzo Ball’s performances for the Bruins. Since his father launched his media assault on basketball reality in a Feb. 15 interview with TMZ, Lonzo has averaged 12.7 points, 7.6 assists, 6.2 rebounds and 38 percent 3-point shooting. UCLA has won eight of nine games, with six of the victories against opponents that appeared in the NCAA Tournament.
He has helped advance the third-seeded Bruins to the NCAA Tournament South Region semifinals, where they will play No. 2 seed Kentucky on Friday night at FedEx Forum.
Lonzo said it is not a challenge “at all” to remain focused on performing well and winning with the Bruins amid this circus.
“It’s pretty normal for me,” Lonzo said. “He’s been talking like this since I’ve been born, so it’s nothing new for me. Y’all get to see it for the first time, and he’s always on TV. That’s the only difference.”
Lonzo Ball’s approach is the direct opposite of his father’s. He uses as few words as possible to answer a question. He does not lack for confidence, either in front of a camera or on a basketball court, but his loudest statements are made with 30-foot 3-pointers and impossible passes. He is a 6-6 point guard with elite athleticism who can play at a high speed or maneuver patiently through a challenging halfcourt defense.
UCLA coach Steve Alford said Ball has a “phenomenal skill set” and a “great feel” for how the game should be played.
“I’ve had very few times in a 26-year career where I’ve actually taken a pause ingames and said, ‘What do you think?’ ” Alford said. “Because I trust him that much … It’s like, what do you want? What do you want to do defensively here? What do you want to do offensively?
“It goes all the way back to the McDonald’s All-American Game. You had guys, Josh Jackson; you had several guys after that that was interviewed saying, 'Who wouldn’t want to play with that guy?' And our guys, top to bottom, would tell you the same thing.”
A year ago, with many of the same players, UCLA compiled a 15-17 record and won only a half-dozen games in the Pacific-12 Conference. The Bruins added Ball and Leaf, who average a combined 30.9 points, and they’re 31-4 entering the Kentucky game. Could Ball have known the two freshmen would have such a profound impact on their team?
“Well, I know what I can do on the court and quickly found out what T.J. can do on the court,” Ball said. “We played in high school and I think he averaged like 40 and 20. … When you mix the young guys with the old guys you make something great. And that’s what we have.”
It’s obviously not that simple. Leaf is an inordinately skilled forward who does a beautiful job reading defensive action and reaction to the opportunities that are presented. And Ball is a point guard with rare passing ability and a gift for finding the right moment to crush an opponent. Trailing Cincinnati 47-46 with 13:44 left in their second-round game, Ball delivered two 3-pointers, two assists, a layup and two rebounds in an 18-5 run that turned around the game.
“He’s just a tremendous teammate to play with because he thinks teammate-first,” Alford said. “And there are a lot of point guards out there that think teammate-first, but they can’t think teammate-first and then make that teammate look really good next. He can do that. His passes are on point. His passes are timely. And he hits shots that he takes, he’s got a really good feel on when to go to his 3-ball and when to go to the rim.”
That’s a pretty fair description of what makes Lonzo Ball an exceptional basketball player, a first-team All-American as a freshman. But it’s not something that will end up in a headline. LaVar Ball, working on building his family’s brand, is better at that. At times it may seem he is too good at it, but apparently not too good for his son’s good.