Williams: James’ absence is a crucial time for Ball

Lonzo Ball hand gestureLonzo Ball is back in the spotlight with LeBron James out. How will he fare back in that element?

The Ball era in Los Angeles began the moment Lonzo Ball was drafted by the Lakers last year. It took an even larger leap with the help of his father, LaVar, who made one bold statement after the other on what seemed like a daily basis prior to and after the draft. It was then cemented by president of basketball operations Magic Johnson at his introductory press conference when he prayed that Ball not break all of his records.

It then came to a screeching halt on July 1, 2018.

That was the day LeBron James ditched the cold of Cleveland for the warm and bright lights of LA. The unassuming announcement of a press release via his Klutch Sports Group agency was enough to highlight the entire NBA offseason, and spark a typically dry preseason with basketball talk much sooner than normal.

For Ball, this meant a different path than even Johnson himself had envisioned. No longer would this be “Lonzo’s” team. The Chino Hills legend immediately took a back seat to the King of Akron in both headlines and within the Lakers organization.

Now, with James out because of a groin strain, it is paramount that Ball take full advantage of every minute he has as the primary ball handler — which has been rare playing alongside James.

His moment almost came on Christmas against the Golden State Warriors. With James exiting with 7:51 in the third quarter and the Lakers holding a 15-point lead, it was up to Ball and the young Lakers to sustain it with their general watching from the locker room.

It was Ball’s time. A moment he surely dreamed of to play in a primetime matchup on Christmas with millions watching. You could see the extra pep in his step as he immediately found Kyle Kuzma off a curl for a layup. He then grabbed a defensive rebound and performed his signature hit-ahead pass to Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who found Kuzma wide open in the corner. The shot was missed, but the hockey assist attempt was what scouts raved about when analyzing Ball’s strengths pre-draft. From there, he sprinted up the floor in light speed and drew a foul on Draymond Green (his fourth), causing him to head to the bench.

The highlight in all of this came after an Andre Iguodala made shot in which Ball executed a perfect pick-and-roll, where Klay Thompson went under the screen and he and Iguodala both dared him to shoot. The result was a knockdown jumper and a Steve Kerr timeout.

With 6:19 to play, the Lakers were still up 14, and the absence of James was not immediately felt as it appeared the Ball-led Lakers were in control.

However, after a Warriors run that cut the lead to eight, Ball was subbed for Rajon Rondo at the 4:15 mark — and any hope of being a Christmas Day hero was over as he did not return until 1:50 remained.

With the way Rondo, a former champion with the Boston Celtics, was playing, it was a tough decision for Luke Walton to pull him with rumors swirling all season about a possible coaching change taking place at some point — being the team just lost four of its last six games.

Tonight in Sacramento is more than just another game for Ball. It’s an opportunity to remind Johnson and the entire Lakers organization why they coveted him so much. A chance to hush the critics who seized every opportunity to demean and take a shot at him for words spoken by his father.

Ball will again be the focal point of talk-show banter until James returns. His play can determine if it’s in his favor — or not.