"The new face of the Lakers" — LA Lakers president of basketball operations Earvin "Magic" Johnson bestowed the title upon newly drafted Lonzo Ball during an introductory press conference, which was held in El Segundo fewer than 24 hours after the Ball put on a purple hat and walked on stage in Brooklyn, New York.
"The guy who I think will lead us back to where we want to get to," Johnson continued. "We want to start building a successful team, and you have to have a great leader and somebody that can make their teammates better, somebody who has incredible basketball IQ — the IQ is off the charts — somebody who can get their teammates to follow them."
To say that Johnson has high hopes for the No. 2 pick in the 2017 NBA Draft is a gross understatement, and the five-time NBA champion and arguably the best player in the history of the storied franchise did not hesitate to place an extra pound of pressure on the first draft pick made under his spell.
"Lonzo, just leave me one or two records, okay?" Johnson begged comically before Ball could even get in his first words at the press conference. "Don't break all my records."
During his opening remarks, Johnson challenged the 19-year-old: "There's [sic] some jerseys hanging on that wall. We expect a 'Ball' jersey hanging up there, alright?"
Of course, Johnson owns one of those coveted jerseys, so, what did Ball think about Johnson's challenge?
"I think it's a good goal to set, so I'll definitely be chasing that," Ball stated succinctly.
The 19-year-old answered questions with speed and pin-point accuracy, which is what the Lakers expect from Ball's passing when he finally takes the court. If he moves the ball with the same level of efficiency that he answers questions, the Lakers' pick may turn out to be even better than projected.
He's not shy, he doesn't mumble and he doesn't come off as timid. He's naturally confident, which doesn't seem to require using extra words or dragging out answers unnecessarily.
Ball smiled and didn't seem at all overwhelmed by the extra cameras and coverage, "I'm used to all the media, and it's nice talking to you guys."
Ball became the unquestioned face of the Lakers when Johnson and the Lakers traded away D'Angelo Russell and effectively cleared the runway for Ball to land on shore and take over the team.
"D'Angelo is an excellent player," Johnson explained the trade that shipped out Russell and Timofey Mozgov's handcuffing contract. "He has the talent to be an all-star, and we want to thank him for what he did for us, but what I needed was a leader. I needed somebody that can also make the other players better...that players want to play with."
Hardly shying away from the topic, Johnson made it clear that Russell's leadership qualities led to the trade more than any lack of faith in the 21-year-old's ability to play in the NBA.
For Johnson, research made it clear that Ball can be that next great Lakers' leader.
"I went to the high school," Johnson explained his research. "I talked to the principal. I talked to — I think it was — four teachers. They all said, at different times, 'This guy, everybody's attracted to this guy.' Okay, that's all I needed to hear. He was a leader. He treated people the right way. I said, 'Okay, we got our man now.'"
Johnson also said he talked to Ball's teammate at UCLA, T.J. Leaf, and the entire UCLA coaching staff, and the Lakers' executive said that each and every person he spoke with offered an endorsement of Ball's character and leadership ability.
"What sealed the deal was to go to Chino Hills," Johnson said.
Both Pelinka and Johnson told the tale of the day they went to Chino Hills and witnessed how the Ball family lives and the manner in which the patriarch of the family, Lavar Ball, interacts with his sons, his wife and the neighborhood kids. Both Johnson and Pelinka cited the trip as the final handshake to seal the deal.
"We're used to great leaders. That's why we win, right?" the nine-time NBA Finals participant continued to hold court in front of an amoeba like mass of reporters. "You think about, 'Derek Fisher was a great leader.' So, it's not just [Ball's] passing, but it's his leadership is what sold me, too. And then, last but not least, going to Chino Hills, getting to know the family, getting to know Lavar—forget all the other stuff—him and I man-to-man, it was a really great moment."
Johnson added almost as an afterthought, "And then, visiting with Lonzo was special."
If anyone, the Lakers' executive understood pressure of coming in to be the face of the Los Angeles Lakers, and Johnson displayed confidence in the 19-year-old's handling of the attention thus far. Just as Lavar Ball had added pressure by promising that Lonzo would lead the Lakers to the playoffs in his first season a day earlier, Johnson piled on pressure asking for a jersey on the wall and reminding everyone that he led the Lakers to a championship in his rookie season. In Johnson's eyes, Ball had not slipped yet, so he was built for this unique type of pressure.
Regardless of the questions posed, Ball answered with confidence, without hesitation and devoid of superfluous language. The prince had been groomed for this moment, and now, the young king looked at home on the throne.
After the press coronation in El Segundo, the "new face of the Lakers" took his victory procession to the center of the city, where he threw out a ceremonial first pitch at Dodger Stadium. The teenage king was greeted by an adoring public, effectively ratifying the start of his reign.
Magic Johnson's response when asked if making a move to free up salary cap space is effectively a bet on himself to draw in top free agents, where the previous regime had struggled:
"Look at my face. Do you see that smile? Do you see it? Ok, then…I've always bet on myself, right? I'm fine where we are. I'm happy. I'm excited. Lakers fans should be excited. We're back. This draft is outstanding—not just Lonzo; Kyle (Kuzma); Josh (Hart); Thomas (Bryant). We're really happy about this class that we drafted. When you have that much cap space, we're going to be major players next summer. The tide has turned. People want to play here again. It's an exciting time."
Johnson concluded and laughed, "I wouldn't have made that move if I didn't think I could use that money."