LOS ANGELES — Zion Williamson was working up a sweat. Wearing a sleeveless hoodie and a padded brace, on his surgically repaired right knee, Williamson took dribble handoffs, pulled up for midrange jumpers and drove for dunks.
As a small army of assistant coaches monitored Williamson’s pregame workout at Staples Center on Friday, Lonzo Ball, one of his teammates on the New Orleans Pelicans, emerged from a courtside tunnel and sat on the visiting bench. Dozens of early-arriving fans remained fixated on Williamson, capturing every dribble, every shot, every breath on their phones. Ball laced up his sneakers in relative obscurity, then joined Williamson on the court for some work of his own.
Not long ago, Ball was the future star, a gifted guard out of U.C.L.A. with vision and length, a fresh face for the N.B.A. — and for the Lakers, who selected him with the No. 2 pick in the 2017 draft. Three years later, at the crusty age of 22, far from the glare of Los Angeles, Ball is trying to assemble his game in a new city, with a new team.
“My body feels good, and my confidence is where it’s supposed to be,” said Ball, who scored a team-high 23 points on 10 of 16 shooting in the Pelicans’ 123-113 loss to the Lakers, his first game against his former team. He was out sick when the Lakers played in New Orleans earlier this season.
With the Pelicans, the spotlight on Ball is more of a mellow glow. He is playing big minutes in one of the league’s smallest markets, and most of the public attention has been on Williamson, the top overall pick in last year’s draft, even as Williamson continues to rehabilitate from the knee injury he sustained in the preseason.
Ball is one of few people who can probably relate to the various pressures on Williamson, especially now that Williamson is facing some adversity of his own. Ball knows about adversity, about expectations and injuries, about critics and cynics. He has learned to cope.
“I’m getting paid to play a game,” he said.
Ball could not stay healthy in his two seasons with the Lakers. He injured his knee as a rookie, then missed the second half of last season with a sprained ankle. “Terrible for me — and I know for the fans,” he said.
When Ball was healthy, he labored with his jump shot and his consistency. And in Los Angeles, not far from where he grew up, the pressure only mounted — in part because he was teammates with LeBron James, who was supportive of Ball’s development but wanted to win right away.
At the same time, Ball dealt with off-court issues. A loudmouth father. A business that went awry. He wound up suing Alan Foster, a family friend, for more than $2 million in damages, accusing Foster of embezzling money from Ball and Big Baller Brand, the sneaker company that Ball co-founded with his father, LaVar.
Ball’s tenure with the Lakers came to an end in June when they agreed to ship him to the Pelicans as a part of their blockbuster trade for Anthony Davis. Brandon Ingram and Josh Hart were also sent to New Orleans in the deal, and it signified a fresh start for all three players. But Ball needed it most.
“I think he did as well as anyone could,” Hart said of Ball’s time with the Lakers. “He didn’t let the outside noise affect his decision making or his play.”
The Pelicans did not get off to a dream start this season, which should not have been a huge surprise considering the loss of Williamson and an overhauled roster. It takes time for young players to form chemistry, and the players who came over from the Lakers are still young. Ingram and Ball are 22, and Hart is 24.
But before their game against the Lakers, the Pelicans had won five of their last six — and Ball was coming off his best game of the season. In a 15-point win over the Houston Rockets last weekend, he finished with 27 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists while shooting 7 of 12 from 3-point range.
“I always felt like when I took the job that he would be a good 3-point shooter for us,” said Lakers Coach Frank Vogel, who was hired about a month before the team agreed to trade Ball. “He’s just a terrific all-around player. His playmaking, his extra pass mind-set, the defense and steals and blocks — I’m not surprised that he’s having success.”
Pelicans Coach Alvin Gentry likes that Ball plays with pace, that he finds open teammates, that he has refined his shooting technique. Ball, who shot 31.5 percent from 3-point range with the Lakers, was making 35.8 percent of his 3-pointers for the Pelicans ahead of their game against the Sacramento Kings on Saturday. His mechanics remain a work in progress — no one is mistaking him for Ray Allen — but he has improved, and he praised the assistant coach Fred Vinson for helping him along.
“My jump shot wouldn’t be where it is today without him,” Ball said.
As for Williamson, he was dominant in four preseason games for the Pelicans, averaging 23.2 points while shooting 71.4 from the field. He recently practiced with the team for the first time since undergoing surgery on Oct. 21 to repair a torn meniscus in his right knee.
“When the right time comes,” Gentry said, “we’ll put him out there to play.”
After the Pelicans’ loss to the Lakers on Friday, Ball was fielding questions from reporters in his usual soft-spoken way when Williamson poked his head over the scrum.
“Hey, Lonzo,” Williamson said, “I have a request.”
“What you got, bro?” Ball asked.
“Can you please speak up?” Williamson asked.
It was a playful back-and-forth between teammates who will likely share the court soon. Maybe then, the future can finally begin.
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