Less than a month away from one of the more unique, top-heavy, and star-studded NBA drafts in recent memory, only Markelle Fultz is considered a lock for his draft spot. The rest of the top lottery selections are far less certain, which makes the looming June 22 date that much more exciting. But two top players – Josh Jackson and Lonzo Ball – aren’t discussed just for their talents, but for off-the-court “issues.” If any armchair scout OR professional scout/GM honestly believes Jayson Tatum, De’Aaron Fox, Jonathan Isaac, or Dennis Smith Jr., etc., are better than Jackson or Ball on talent alone, that in itself is completely understandable and debatable. But these ‘issues’ are being bantered around as player defining events; this is unfair to both players, and I don’t agree that they by themselves should drop Jackson/Ball below others in their talent tiers.
First off, Josh Jackson. Nothing about what Jackson did in Lawrence that night was acceptable in any sense of the word, nor is it ignorable. Kicking someone’s car because they threw a drink in your teammate’s face is moronic, and he should pay for the damages and face the consequences of his actions. Should he lack the proper responses to team questions about it, he could lose money over it.
But throwing around “anger management class” as if it is a talent-breaking red flag? Learning to deal with improper emotional reactions is part of the adult transition, and I won’t be the first sinner to cast a stone. I’m glad he’s going to get this help early in his career, and as someone who has a family member AND a college friend who had to take such a class, I don’t think much less of Jackson for having to take the course. The event at the Kansas bar, absolutely. But not the course.
This was (to my knowledge), Jackson’s lone detrimental event in college. No one was physically hurt, nothing was permanently destroyed, and it was a one-time misdemeanor that won’t go on his permanent record. (EDIT - see the comments for further information on this event, which included Jackson threatening the woman in question. Completely inexcusable, and all one can hope is he learned his lesson. Another point mentioned in the comments was this wasn’t a lone issue - Jackson was also charged with a hit-and-run incident.) As one who watched a ton of Kansas games this season, I saw a fiery player who – for the vast majority of the time – kept his emotions in check and handled the spotlight very well on the court. Are we as a fanbase so jaded over the past seven years of DeMarcus that any emotional flags have become talent-defining issues?
Lonzo Ball is a different case. Lonzo is clearly about the big city life, the ‘big baller’ life, and as a 19 year old who has never known anything different than the sunny Los Angeles shores, he wants to continue his professional career (that just happens to be in basketball) in one place. This instinct isn’t quite as quotably noble as De’Aaron Fox knowing the starting lineup of every team in the lottery, how he’d fit into the roster, and ten reasons why it would be awesome to play there… but in a league with plenty of methods for teams to try and control player destinies and career paths, blaming a kid for wanting to play for the hometown team he grew up rooting for seems hollow. Is this story different if D.J. Wilson was a top tier talent and only agreed to work out for Sacramento? I can only imagine we would hail him as a hero.
But this story is different, and it’s for a reason outside of Lonzo. If Lonzo was just a kid who desperately wanted to only play for the Lakers, and let the other teams know it by refusing to work out for them, this story would have a 48-hour life cycle and then vanish into the historical ether of every other draft prospect that tried to control where they went. But where Lonzo goes, so goes the attention-seeking buffoon named LaVar who only exists in the basketball world because ESPN, FS1, and Twitter keep pumping him up with headlines and refusing to end his 15 minutes of fame.
Lonzo Ball is one of the most unique and debatable talents in recent memory. His outstanding floor vision and highly predictable offensive flaws are most certainly what teams talk about, and should be what armchair scouts debate. But the young man’s talent is swallowed up in that headline vacuum, because of course it is in the modern era.
If Ball ends up somewhere beyond Lakerland, the headlines won’t be great for that organization for a while. The modern sports media will LOVE highlighting every LaVar shade and snide remark. Big Ballers might even go so far as to threaten to not sign/not play until he gets traded. But this isn’t the NFL in 2004; this is the NBA in 2017, and the team will automatically own his basketball playing rights for four years. Ball will know that, and his team will know that. No trade will bring approximate value for Lonzo’s skills. And thus, a manufactured impasse that won’t really be an impasse.
Lonzo will play basketball in 2017, even if it isn’t for the Lakers. And even if he begins his career planning to jump ship to Los Angeles in 2021, he’ll also be facing an NBA reality where his teammates and opponents will mock daddy’s influence on him MERCILESSLY. The chances that LaVar Ball has this much sway on his son come season four is logically nil, and who knows how a 23 year old Lonzo will feel about his situation by then. If he’s on a winning team with a coach that put in the work with him and teammates that have adapted to playing with his unique style, why do we assume Ball won’t adapt and feel differently? No competent organization will pass on a player of Lonzo’s talent because of a media-fueled helicopter parent. That’s what PR departments are for. And as much as it might be bantered around on fanboards, it’s not a red flag in NBA offices.
These issues are worth discussing for both players, and if all else is equal in talent, it’s understandable for them to be tipping-points. But they are not talent-defining issues.