EL SEGUNDO >> When the Lakers gathered this week for their first official meeting as a team, Luke Walton and the coaching staff stressed playing with a certain mentality. A Lakers mentality.
“Basically,” Lonzo Ball said, “they said it starts with defense. Defensive grit. Challenge one another and then go on the court and make people fear you.”
Defense? The Lakers are a team built on young offensive talents. Ball has been billed as a transcendent playmaker with shades of Magic Johnson, while Brandon Ingram is supposedly poised to take a leap into scoring stardom.
On its face, “grit” is the antithesis of the “Showtime” brand the Lakers are trying to resurrect. But with the focus of a new season centered squarely on Ball and his ability to help attract a certain Eastern Conference immortal to L.A., it might be easy to forget how grueling and unglamorous incremental growth can actually be.
The Lakers have ranked in the bottom three in defensive efficiency for the past four seasons. Last year, the 110.6 points per game they allowed per 100 possessions were 30th in the league – the second straight year they ranked dead last in the category.
Given that, there was really only one place for Walton and the Lakers to start with Tuesday’s practice.
“Two hours of defense,” Ball said.
The supersonic offense, with highlight-worthy lobs and a cloudburst of 3-pointers, comes later.
“The focuses of today’s practice were individual defense first, team defense second, then transition defense and finishing rebounds,” Walton said. “You’ve got to end every possession by finishing it off.”
Tuesday marked the first of three days of two-a-day practices. Walton said the evening session would focus on conditioning or, as he put it, “fun running.”
In the offseason, the Lakers added shooting guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who immediately became the best perimeter defender on a team desperate for help. The organization is hoping some of that will rub off on second-year forward Ingram, whose 7-foot wingspan gives him the appearance of a disruptive defender, if not yet the game to match.
Ingram struggled defensively as a rookie, which he chalked up to still learning opposing players and their tendencies.
“You’ve got to watch film on all these guys,” Ingram said, “and find out some of their weak spots or some of the things they don’t do well – and of course how to stop them in some ways.”
Walton believes Ingram has the makings of a great defensive player.
“It will happen during his career,” Walton said. “The guy covers six feet with every slide he takes. He’s low, he’s balanced and he wants it.”
Even Ball, not hailed as a defensive difference-maker, seems to be buying in.
“You can’t win without defense,” he said. “That’s proven. Got to come out here, got to get it done.”
Walton has less time to implement some of his principles than he would have in past seasons. The Lakers have just four days of practice before Saturday’s preseason opener, opposed to seven last year.
“I’ve already made the decision we’re just going to sacrifice some of what we would put in before our first game as opposed to try and get everything in,” Walton said. “There’s a list of things we want to get in before we play a game and we’re just not going to get to it all. We’re fine with that.”
Ball enjoys ‘physical’ first practice
The story goes that Lonzo Ball has been told since he was little that he would one day play for the Lakers. That day officially came Tuesday, but if Ball was affected by the weight of the moment, he didn’t show it.
It began with his customary breakfast of waffles and eggs – sunny side up. By the time he entered the UCLA Health Training Center there was only the faintest note that Tuesday was different from the dozens of optional workouts he and most of his teammates participated in over the summer.
“Everybody was anxious to get out there and get it all started,” he said, “so that’s probably the only difference. Guys were still working hard.”
Ball said his first practice with the Lakers was “a lot more physical” than what he experienced at UCLA.
Among the 20 players on the Lakers’ training camp roster, Ball said, the excitement was palpable.
“You could see the smiles,” Ball said. “Everybody was ready to get after it. Even after the stretch from this morning, everybody was ready to go.”
With an early emphasis on defense, Ball said he still needs to better understand rotations and learn Coach Luke Walton’s terminology. But as far as his teammates learning to play at his pace and to look for his passes, that might already have been taken care of.
“I think the workouts in the summer kind of put the foundation there,” Ball said. “Obviously you can get better and work on stuff, but definitely (already) got a feel for each other.”
Much of the style Walton wants the Lakers to play is intrinsic to Ball’s personal pizzazz, although Walton stressed that the young Lakers “need to be led and shown what to do as far as giving freedom, but having a format behind it.”
“Players are naturally going to play a certain style like we saw in summer league, with Lonzo playing and how much he moves the ball,” Walton said. Still, he added, “a lot of it has to be taught by us.”
New body, new nickname for Zubac
A sobriquet has been bestowed upon second-year center Ivica Zubac around the practice facility: 8-Percent.
“They took his body fat today,” Walton said. “He’s down to 8 percent, so that’s his new nickname.”
A year ago, Zubac checked in at 19 percent body fat, Walton said. When Zubac reminded his coach of that, Walton responded, “I know. I was making fun of you for that.”
Zubac is likely to back up Brook Lopez at the start of the season, although Lopez is dealing with back spasms that for now are limiting him to non-contract drills. Veteran center Andrew Bogut, the native Australian who signed last week, did not practice Tuesday due to issues relating to his visa.
The Lakers drafted Zubac with the 32nd overall pick in 2016. As a rookie he averaged 7.5 points and 4.2 rebounds in 38 appearances, including 11 starts.