USA TODAY Sports’ Jeff Zillgitt discusses the biggest story lines to come out of the NBA draft, including Markelle Fultz, Lonzo Ball and the Timberwolves’ big trade for Jimmy Butler.
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It was tough enough when the Lakers had to play catch-up with the rest of the NBA.
But now there’s a turf war in Los Angeles again, what with all these rumblings that LeBron James might be headed for Tinsel Town in the summer of 2018 and the Lakers and Clippers doing all they can to get their houses in order before that. Whether it’s James or Paul George or any of the other big-name stars who might be able to take each team to the next level, the last thing you want is to have one of those movie sets where it’s all a façade once you get past the front door.
Now is the time to build something real, from the inside out.
So Lakers owner Jeanie Buss added Magic Johnson to run the basketball operations department and serve as chief recruiter to the stars. Then she partnered him with Rob Pelinka, the longtime agent of Kobe Bryant, as general manager. The Clippers bolstered their front office by promoting the widely-respected Lawrence Frank to work with coach/president of basketball operations Doc Rivers, then added Lakers Legend Jerry West as a consultant for good measure.
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But it’s the once-mighty Lakers who spent the past few seasons getting lapped, and who still have so much work to do if there’s any hope of a return to prominence. To that end, with the reality facing them that there was a 41-game gap between their win total and that of the champion Golden State Warriors last season, they did all they could do in Thursday night’s draft.
Lonzo Ball shouldn’t be seen as some sort of Lakers savior, no more than past Lakers picks like Julius Randle, the recently traded D’Angelo Russell or incumbent Brandon Ingram were ever worthy of playing that role. But the UCLA product who was taken No. 2 overall by the Lakers is the kind of building block that keeps their momentum going, a point guard who has all the potential to be nothing short of special.
Never mind the comparisons to Magic. Just focus on the pass-first mentality, the ability to elevate his teammates, the up-tempo style that UCLA fans loved and which will surely delight the Lakers faithful. Not to mention the grounded personality that is so much more different than the boisterous father, LaVar, who sparked the deafening buzz around his oldest son for so many months now.
USA TODAY Sports tracks every pick in the 2017 NBA draft.
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“I told you, from the words of Zeus, Jesus, everybody said he’s going to be a Laker,” LaVar boomed in an interview with ESPN in the minutes before the picks started rolling in, with Lonzo laughing as he listened nearby. “They told me before they told y’all.”
But the theatrics overshadowed the reality of the situation, that Lonzo is yet another immensely talented prospect who will now have to work to make the most of a promising situation. He is a wise choice for the Lakers, a prudent pick, and it’s up to second-year Lakers head coach Luke Walton and his staff to let the molding begin. This is the kind of decision that has been lacking in Laker Land for quite some time now.
The Lakers’ enormous challenge was front and center this week, when Johnson and Pelinka decided to use the underwhelming Russell as a means to a crucial financial end: They traded the 21-year-old guard and center Timofey Mozgov to the Brooklyn Nets for center Brook Lopez and the 27th pick. Mozgov and his four-year, $64 million contract was a monumental obstacle to the Lakers’ plans, and it spoke to the heart of how far they had fallen.
As ousted Lakers executive Jim Buss used to say, the summer of 2016 was supposed to be the summer when Kevin Durant came their way. Instead, the salary cap room that was needed for the stars was given to a player who you hardly knew was ever there.
But now, there’s light at the end of the tunnel again. The stars who could come to the purple and gold are watching closely, from James to George to DeMarcus Cousins and all the rest. There’s a plan here now, and Ball’s arrival is the latest part of it.
The Lakers, little by little, are gaining ground.
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Sam Amick on Twitter @Sam_Amick
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