CLEVELAND — LeBron James sat in front of his locker Tuesday night following the Cavaliers‘ 123-114 win over the Atlanta Hawks, a game in which he tied his career high in assists with 17, but he wasn’t ready to talk about his team’s 15th victory in its past 16 games.
A television stationed across the locker room from James showed the Los Angeles Lakers battling the New York Knicks in overtime. James was going to watch the finish to the Knicks’ 113-109 win over the Cavs’ next opponent — the Lakers and their lightning rod rookie Lonzo Ball — before he would comment on the Cavs’ night.
After wrapping up his thoughts on the Hawks, James looked ahead to Thursday’s showdown with Ball and the Lakers and spoke to ESPN about the parallels between the start of his career and Ball’s opening to the 2017-18 season in the spotlight.
“The kid hasn’t said anything,” James told ESPN when asked about the hype surrounding Ball. “It’s been everybody else. So, I love his humility. He goes out, every time someone asks him a question, he says, ‘This is not about me, man. I just want to win. I don’t care about what I did.’ I seen he had a triple-double one game and they lost. He was like, ‘I don’t care. We lost.’
“So, can I draw any parallel to my experience? I mean, of course. I guess when you’re drafted to a franchise, they want you to kind of be the savior. And it takes a while. I mean, listen, man, this guy is 20-something games into his pro career. S— doesn’t happen [that fast]. Here it goes again, it goes back to my instant oatmeal [quote]: Everybody wants it right away. Can he play ball? Absolutely. The kid can play ball. Do guys want to play with him? Absolutely, because it’s a guy who is not about him. It’s about the success of the team. And he gives the ball up and he passes the ball and there’s energy behind the ball.”
The Lakers are 10-16. For reference’s sake, James’ Cavaliers team in his rookie season in 2003-04 was 7-19 through the first 26 games. While Ball has been picked apart because of his shooting numbers — 32.1 percent from the field, 24.6 percent from 3 and 47.1 percent from the line — he’s also averaging more assists (7.1 compared to 5.9) and rebounds (6.8 compared to 5.5) per game than James averaged as a rookie.
James believes that coming into a team like the Lakers, with 16 championships in their franchise history, has only added to the expectation level. The Cavs, by comparison, had never even been to the NBA Finals before James was drafted to the team. And he didn’t deliver a ring to Cleveland until his 13th season in the league and during his second stint with the franchise.
“I don’t know what he’s personally going through. I can’t comment on anyone’s situation because I’m not a part of it,” James said. “From the outside looking in, yeah, there’s a lot around him. I mean, he’s the No. 2 pick. He’s drafted to a team that’s not been very good the last few years — who’s built off winning championships. That’s what the Lakers are about. That’s what the Patriots are about. That’s what the San Antonio Spurs are about, the Red Sox and the Yankees. So, when you become a part of that, you become a part of a franchise that’s accustomed to winning.”
While James did not want to speak to Ball’s mentality, he was more than willing to say what Ball’s early stats mean when it comes to his ultimate destiny in the NBA: next to nothing.
“No one knows what he’s going to become,” James told ESPN. “No one knows with anybody when you’re drafted. I don’t care if you’re drafted 60 or you’re drafted first. Did anybody imagine that Isaiah Thomas would be the player that he is today? Being the ‘Mr. Irrelevant’ that they call it? Did anybody know that I would be the player I am? Everybody can think and say and do these things and say, ‘Oh, he has this [attribute] and that [attribute].'”
James’ larger point was that Ball will control how far he gets in the game through his own work ethic and desire.
“Well, I mean, I knew [the player I would grow into],” James said. “So you got to ask Zo. I mean, I knew what I was going to become. I just had that drive. I got a drive about me that I’m not going to let nothing stop me from being as great as I can be. Because, I just knew I had the tools.”
James also had the wherewithal, he said, to put the game of basketball above all else when the hype surrounding him threatened to swallow him whole.
“That s— is tough,” James said, “and if you can’t focus in on the job at hand … You got to have no distractions. You can’t have no distractions when you’re trying to be great. You can block out a lot of s—, but you can’t have no distractions.
“There’s no such thing as a distraction on the road to greatness. There’s going to be so many people that try to throw you off kilter and try to throw your train off the rails. You just got to be like Seabiscuit. You know Seabiscuit? … Blinders.”
Ball, speaking to reporters in New York, shared a glowing opinion of James, whom he used to have a poster of in his childhood bedroom and owned both Miami Heat and Cavs jerseys of the guy he considered his favorite player.
“In my opinion, he is the best player in the world,” Ball said. “I just feel like he plays the game the right way. He probably can easily go out for 50 every night but focuses on his team, getting triple-doubles and [getting] guys involved. It is my first time playing him, I am looking forward to it, should be a lot of fun.”
The rookie was humbled by James’ presence at one of his summer league games in Las Vegas and when James tweeted at Ball for his 20th birthday in October.
Ball also was inspired when James said the No. 2 overall pick can be a “really, really good point guard in our league” after the rookie passed James in November as the youngest NBA player to register a triple-double.
Ball was asked if he ever tried to mold his game after James while growing up.
“Maybe when I was younger,” Ball said. “But I didn’t really get as strong as him, so I had to switch it up a little bit.”
ESPN’s Ohm Youngmisuk contributed to this report.