LOS ANGELES – Zion Williamson has worked up a sweat. Williamson wore a sleeveless hoodie and padded orthosis on his operated right knee, took dribble handoffs, pulled himself up for midrange speakers, and drove for dunks.
While a small army of assistant coaches oversaw Williamson's training before the game at the Staples Center on Friday, Lonzo Ball, one of his teammates with the New Orleans Pelicans, stepped out of a court tunnel and sat on the visiting bench. Dozens of fans arriving early remained fixed on Williamson and held every dribble, every shot, every breath on their cell phones. Ball tied up his sneakers in relative darkness and then went to Williamson on the pitch to do his own work.
Not too long ago, Ball was the future star, a talented guardian of U.C.L.A. with a vision and length a fresh face for the N.B.A. – and for the Lakers, who selected it with the number 2 in the 2017 draft. Three years later, at the crisp age of 22, far from Los Angeles, Ball tries to put his game together in a new city with a new team.
"My body feels good and my self-confidence is where it should be," said Ball, who scored 23 team-level points in 10 of 16 goals in the pelicans' defeat by the Lakers (123-113) in 10 of 16 goals. He was sick when the Lakers played in New Orleans earlier this season.
For the pelicans, the spotlight on the ball is more of a soft glow. He plays big minutes in one of the smallest markets in the league Most of the public attention has been focused on Williamson, who was the top choice last year, even though Williamson continues to rehabilitate after his knee injury in the preseason.
Ball is one of the few people likely to have pressure on Williamson, especially now that Williamson is facing some of its own adversity. Ball knows about adversity, about expectations and violations, about critics and cynics. He learned to deal with it.
"I'm 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 newcomer and 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 worked with his jump shot and his constancy. And in Los Angeles, not far from where he was born, pressure only increased because he was a teammate of LeBron James, who helped Ball develop but wanted to win right away.
At the same time, Ball dealt with extrajudicial questions. A grandfather. A business that went wrong. He sued Alan Foster, a friend of his family, for more than $ 2 million in damages and accused Foster of embezzling money from Ball and Big Baller Brand, the sneaker company that Ball founded with his father LaVar.
Ball's tenure with the Lakers ended in June when they agreed to send him to the Pelicans as part of their blockbuster deal for Anthony Davis. Brandon Ingram and Josh Hart were also sent to New Orleans, which meant a new start for all three players. But Ball needed it the most.
"I think he did just about everyone else," said Hart about Ball's time with the Lakers. "He didn't let the outside noise influence his decisions or his game."
The pelicans didn't have a dream start this season, which shouldn't come as a big surprise given Williamson's loss and a revised lineup. Young players need time to learn chemistry and the players who came 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 his best game of the season. In a 15-point win over the Houston Rockets last weekend, he finished the race with 27 points, 10 rebounds, and 10 assists while shooting 7 out of 12 from a 3-point range.
"I always felt when I took the job that he would be a good 3-point shooter for us," said Lakers coach Frank Vogel, who hired about a month before the team agreed to trade in ball had been. "He's just a great all-round player. His playing style, extra pass attitude, defense, and theft and blockages – I'm not surprised he succeeds."
Pelican coach Alvin Gentry likes that ball plays with speed, that he finds open teammates, that he has refined his shooting technique. Ball, who shot 31.5 percent out of 3 points with the Lakers, made 35.8 percent of his 3 points for the pelicans before their game against the Sacramento Kings on Saturday. His mechanics are still in the works – no one confuses him with Ray Allen – but he has improved and praised assistant coach Fred Vinson for his help.
"Without him, my jump shot would not be where it is today," said Ball.
Williamson dominated in four prep games for the Pelicans with an average of 23.2 points and 71.4 points from the field. He recently practiced with the team for the first time since his surgery on October 21 to repair a meniscus tear in his right knee.
"When the time is right," said Gentry, "we'll use him to play."
After the pelicans' defeat against the Lakers on Friday, Ball asked questions from reporters in his usual quiet manner when Williamson stuck his head over the crowd.
"Hey, Lonzo," said Williamson, "I have a request."
"What do you have, brother?" Ball asked.
"Can you speak out loud, please?" Williamson asked.
It was a playful back and forth between teammates who are likely to share the pitch soon. Maybe then the future can finally begin.