OAKLAND, Calif. — Lonzo Ball began to revere LeBron James when James was a first-year forward with the Cleveland Cavaliers, which would have made Ball about 6 years old at the time. But Ball, as he put it himself in an interview last week, “idolized” James so much, even then, that he had a youth-size replica of one of his jerseys.
All these years later, Ball belongs to the cast of characters — otherwise known as the Los Angeles Lakers — who work alongside James and labor for victories in his mammoth shadow. It still feels a little surreal to Ball, who sits not far from James in the home locker room at Staples Center and absorbs all he can.
“I’ve looked up to him my whole life,” Ball said.
Ball, of course, is no stranger to the spotlight, which has followed him around — often at his father’s invitation — since he was a McDonald’s All-American at Chino Hills High School, about 35 miles east of Los Angeles. It shined on him last season, too, for better but mostly for worse, as he struggled with injuries and growing pains as a first-year point guard in the N.B.A.
But the addition of James this season has brought its own brand of pressure, and it was mounting on Ball, 21, ahead of the Lakers’ annual Christmas Day game, this one against the Golden State Warriors on Tuesday night.
He was coming off one of his lumpiest games of the season, a 107-99 loss to the Memphis Grizzlies on Sunday in which he collected all of 4 points, 3 rebounds and 2 assists while shooting just 2 of 10 from the field. He missed all seven of his 3-point attempts.
Lakers Coach Luke Walton thought that Ball had let his shooting woes, which are nothing particularly new, affect the rest of his game.
“He’s too good of a player, and he’s too important to us, to let that happen,” Walton said.
Ball was a standout player in one season with the U.C.L.A. men’s basketball team, averaging 7.6 assists per game.CreditJamie Squire/Getty Images
Ball, though, has been just as capable of offsetting his clunkers with solid efforts that would appear to validate the Lakers’ investment in him as the No. 2 pick in the 2017 draft.
He is as tantalizing as he is maddening.
He had, for example, a couple of memorable games this month, starting with the third triple-double of his career — 16 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists — in a blowout win against the Charlotte Hornets. James, who also finished that game with a triple-double (his 75th), later used his Instagram account to post a photo of himself embracing Ball.
“We’re one and the same when it comes to our playmaking ability,” James told reporters after the game.
Three days later, Ball scored 23 points while shooting 9 of 16 from the field and 5 of 9 from 3-point range in a loss to the Brooklyn Nets.
Taken together (and ignoring the microscopic sample size for now), those performances seemed to support the notion that he could be a worthy point guard to pair with James. Ball is an exceptional passer, the product of court vision reminiscent of a certain Lakers great who is now the team’s president of basketball operations.
But Ball continues to struggle with consistency and his jump shot. Entering Tuesday’s game, he was averaging 9 points, 5.2 rebounds and 4.8 assists a game while shooting 39.7 percent from the field and 30.9 percent from 3-point range.
And so, the questions trail him: Can he put it all together? And if so, can he do it quickly enough to match the accelerated timeline James’s addition has created for the Lakers?
“Everybody’s watching him,” Ball said of James, “and expecting him to pretty much bring us a championship and all these great things. But he needs a supporting cast.”
For his part, Ball has maintained an extraordinary level of confidence.
“Obviously, I want to be an All-Star,” he said. “I want to be M.V.P. one day. But for me, it’s all about championships. When I play the game, I play to win.”
And Ball, who spent one year at U.C.L.A. before turning pro, said he understands the stakes, too: “I’m from here, so I know how it is playing in L.A. If you’re winning, they love you. If not, they’ll find someone else to do the job.”
Ball is wired differently. He said that criticism fuels him because he likes proving people wrong. (In the modern parlance of the game, these people might be described as “haters.”) When Rajon Rondo, the veteran point guard, started trash-talking him at practice earlier this season, Ball encouraged him to keep doing it — not that Rondo needed to be told twice.
“It gets me going,” Ball said. “I grew up with my dad coaching me, yelling at me. So people talking trash — that’s how I’ve played my whole life.”
Ah, yes — his father. It is worth noting that LaVar Ball has been much less of a vocal presence this season. Lonzo has a younger brother, LaMelo, who is playing high school basketball for a private academy in Ohio, and LaVar has been spending most of his time with him. He has only occasionally criticized Walton this season.
“I think he’s just focused on my little brother,” Lonzo Ball said. “I’m doing what I’m supposed to do, and he can’t really take me any further with basketball. I got to the league, and that was that. I accomplished what I wanted to do, and now the rest is on me.”
After undergoing knee surgery over the summer, Ball has had to work himself into playing shape through the early weeks of the season, and he might not be there yet. It is difficult to know just how much room he has for growth.
“It was tough because I thought it was going to be a big summer for me,” Ball said. “I had potential my first year, but I felt like I could’ve done a lot better, and I was going to use the summer to tune everything up. But I couldn’t do anything.”
Well, he could do three things: eat, watch film and lift weights. He added about 20 pounds of muscle to his upper body — he has been listed at 6 feet 6 inches and 190 pounds — which was a silver lining to an otherwise bleak off-season.
“I think he really enjoyed the process of getting bigger and stronger,” the assistant coach Miles Simon said. “You could tell, because he was always walking around without a shirt on.”
The added bulk has made Ball better on defense this season, Simon said, which is an underrated part of his game. But not having a full, healthy summer was a setback.
“In the N.B.A., there’s a lot of stuff you can do in the off-season where you really get better,” Miles said, “and he hasn’t had that yet.”
Still, the Lakers, who were 19-14 going into the Warriors game, are not necessarily in the long-term growth business, not when James is about to turn 34, in the thick of his prime, and wants to vie for championships soon-ish. Look no further than his comments last week about how much he would love to play with the likes of Anthony Davis, the New Orleans Pelicans’ All-Star center.
As for Ball, James has been supportive of him, full of praise for the young guard in his interactions with the news media and on social media — and that means something, for now.
“LeBron’s one of the best players ever to play the game, so I don’t think he’d lie just because I’m his teammate,” Ball said. “I think he really sees something in me.”