By Matthew Geagan, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — The hype machine is going full speed for Wednesday night’s Celtics-Lakers showdown in Boston.
The nationally televised game between the NBA’s greatest rivals is being promoted around an exciting rookie. Just not the rookie you would think, based on how he’s been playing to start his NBA career.
No, it’s not all about Jayson Tatum, the 19-year-old averaging 14.3 points per game for the 9-2 Celtics. He was, after all, only the third-overall pick last June. And with Kyrie Irving doing some wizardry in green, Tatum has been somewhat of an afterthought on the national level.
Instead, ESPN is promoting Wednesday night’s game as “Lonzo Wednesday,” pumping up the struggling Lakers rookie.
It’s no surprise, really, as Lonzo Ball has been ESPN’s darling since he first stepped on the court at UCLA last November. Whether it’s his virtuoso passing or crazy father without a filter, they’ve fixated their spotlight to Lonzo. Once he was drafted by the Lakers with the second-overall pick, their Lonzo love reached absurd new heights. It’s shocking they haven’t put out a 30 for 30 about his Summer League MVP.
None of this is really Lonzo’s fault. He’s just gone out and played basketball, which he did extremely well in his one season at UCLA. You can blame his father, Lavar, who is a marketing genius that has played the media like a golden fiddle. But the glorified shoe salesman’s antics have also put a target on his son’s back now that he’s playing with the big boys, and opposing point guards have been salivating at the chance to shut Lonzo down when they face the Lakers. They really haven’t had much trouble doing so, either.
The Lakers are a surprising 5-5 on the season, and Ball is averaging an impressive 6.9 assists and 6.4 rebounds over his first 10 games. But the rookie’s offense has been atrocious to start his NBA career, as he’s struggled to find the bottom of the net with all that defensive focus (his ugly jumper probably doesn’t help either). He’s shooting less than 30 percent from the floor and a dreadful 23 percent from downtown, missing 11 of his last 12 three-point attempts. The Lakers have won two straight, but Ball is just six of 28 from the floor in those victories.
Those struggles will likely continue Wednesday night, when the defensively gifted Celtics become the latest team to try and stomp out the Ball hype. Kyrie Irving is coming off of his best offensive game and will likely flirt with a 40-point game again with the rookie guarding him, and Marcus Smart will be there to make everything difficult when Ball looks to create some offense. His first taste of the Celtics-Lakers rivalry will probably end up being a sour one.
That’s not to say Ball won’t figure it out this season, because you can’t determine a bust or a hit just 10 games into a draft pick’s career. The kid is uber talented and is currently playing for a Lakers team that is giving him and fellow rookie Kyle Kuzma the green light to do whatever they want. It’s unfair to compare his struggles to Tatum’s success, but it’s a comparison worth making given all the attention the Lakers rookie receives.
Tatum is starting for an extremely good team and playing like he belongs in the NBA even as a teenager. His offense is living up to its pre-draft hype, and his defense has been nothing short of amazing. He has been given an opportunity to contribute to a contender, and the kid is not disappointing. Celtics fans know this extremely well, and maybe some day, that four-lettered network will figure it out too.
Just don’t expect the Lonzo love to die down, even if the rookie continues to stumble.