MILWAUKEE - When I saw Lonzo Ball play on TV for the first time last spring, I immediately bought into the hype. A UCLA Bruin back then, playing in the crucible of the NCAA's March Madness, the scrawny 6-foot-3, 190-pound point guard had two traits you want a leader to have - selfless and uplifting.
A few months later I saw him play in person in Las Vegas. But because it was just the Summer League, a tournament participated in mostly by hopefuls trying to win an NBA roster spot, I deemed it not the proper venue to gauge whether Ball kid can hang with the best of the best..
That opportunity arrived last Saturday when Lonzo Ball and the Lakers faced Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks for a regular season game that actually counted in the standings. I couldn't drive to Milwaukee fast enough.
According to basketballreference.com, the Bucks ranked 27th in the NBA in attendance last season, drawing a total of 648,952 fans or 15,828 in each of their 41 home games at the BMO Harris Bradley Center. But when tip-off arrived shortly after 7:30 p.m., the arena was sold-out, 18,717 strong.
Once upon a time, NBA rookies like Lonzo would be allowed to just blend quietly in the background where they can learn their trade, find a niche in the league and then go on their merry way. But we live in a different time where social media provides a platform for everyone to voice their opinion one tweet or SnapChat message at a time.
And because of this demand for instant gratification, Lonzo Ball is in a game-to-game referendum, induced to please his supporters and placate his doubters. Forget the fact that the NBA is an 82-game marathon, hoops nation wants to know if the No. 2 pick overall in last June's draft is a gem or a cheap trinket. And they want the answers now, microwaved instead of a slow roast.
Well, here's my two cents. Lonzo Ball will be just fine.
Besides the intangibles - the noble gaze, the fiery hair, and the awesome name - the young man can really play. He is fast on the break, relentless and enthusiastic. He runs the set offense with the economy of time and dribble. And he reads defenses well enough to find the small, tight openings.
In time, he will be an All-Star, but unless his shooting improves, becoming a league MVP is a bridge too far.
Despite losing to the Bucks, 98-80, Lonzo, at 20 years and 15 days old, rewrote NBA history as the youngest ever to notch a triple-double with 19 points, 12 rebounds and 13 assists. He eclipsed LeBron James' previous mark by five days, Lonzo also had three steals and four blocks in 39 minutes of play.
Although he shot well in Milwaukee (7-of-12 from the field and 3-for-5 from long distance), that impressive display of marksmanship was the exception not the rule. Through 14 games this seasons, Lonzo has converted only 52 of 166 from the field (31.3 percent), 17 of 68 from 3-point range (25 percent) and 12 of 24 from the free throw line (50 percent).
In 36 games at UCLA, Lonzo shot 55.3 percent from the field, 41.2 percent from distance and 67.3 percent from the charity stripe.
So he wasn't a dull knife coming in.
Obviously, something went wrong on the trip from Chino Hills to Staples Center.
His shooting form has been mocked as awkward and hideous. Maybe the mechanics need to be changed. The speed of the NBA game is way faster than the amateurs ranks, maybe he just needs time to adapt and get his shot off quickly and before the defense converges.
Unlike the NCAA where the games are spaced conveniently and played only at 40 minutes per, the NBA is a 48-minute brawl where teams routinely play four times a week, including back-to-back nights. Maybe the physical and mental grind is taking a toll on his body, thus affecting his energy.
Whatever it is that's bothering Lonzo Ball, the Lakers are not overly concerned. The great ones always find their way.
ALL THINGS LAKERS. Lonzo Ball once acknowledged his Filipino fans in a Facebook post, so I asked him if he had any plans of visiting the Philippines, the world's worst-kept secret as a basketball hotbed.
"I'd like to go but I'm not sure when," he said before disappearing in the double doors leading to the Lakers team bus.
After the Spurs and the Warriors staged their versions of the Filipino Heritage Night recently, I asked the amiable Alison Bogli, the head of Lakers PR, if plans were afoot for the purple-and-gold franchise to honor their loyal Pinoy fans at the Staples Center. She said she would get back to me about it soon.
My first interview with Jordan Clarkson happened in the Draft Combine at Attack Athletics in Chicago in the summer of 2014. He has since proven himself as an NBA player and has a $50 million contract to show for it. But the fame and fortune has done little to change him.
Every time I visit him while covering a Lakers game, he remains gracious with his time. Such was the case again last Saturday when we caught up and chatted about, among other things, his desire to play for Gilas. Although he felt a little down after LA absorbed its third loss in a row, he made sure to thank the Filipino community for continuing to support his journey.
Mabuhay ka Jordan Clarkson!