James shook hands with several of the young Lakers one by one before searching through the crowd for Lonzo Ball. Once James found the rookie, he talked to Ball while covering his mouth with his jersey as cameras focused in on the two. Ball listened intently.
In their first game against each other, James not only got a triple-double and handed Ball and the Lakers a 121-112 loss against his Cleveland Cavaliers, but he gave Ball perhaps something even more invaluable with that moment at the end of the game. Ball grew up idolizing James, and here was the best player on the planet taking time to talk to the rookie and sharing something that Ball already was holding on to dearly.
"None of y'all business," James said when asked what he said.
Not even the polite Ball would reveal the conversation, saying, "He didn't tell me anything."
LeBron says he can relate to Lonzo's hype
Following their first career matchup, LeBron James calls Lonzo Ball a "really good player" and says he was "humbled" by being Lonzo's favorite player.
One thing is clear: James likes Ball. He took the time to watch Ball and the Lakers play in the summer league in Las Vegas, tweeted the rookie happy birthday in October and has repeatedly praised Ball. And he says Ball is "someone that you want to play with."
In his first game against Ball and the Lakers this season, James tied Larry Bird at sixth on the all-time triple-doubles list with 25 points, 12 rebounds and 12 assists. Kevin Love had a game-high 28 points and 11 rebounds.
But in the loss, the Lakers may have come away with something that could be much more valuable than a win -- Ball and the young Lakers gave James a glimpse of the future in Los Angeles. Ball flirted with his own triple-double with 13 points, 11 assists and 8 rebounds with 6 turnovers. Brandon Ingram was impressive with 26 points, 6 assists and 6 rebounds while knocking down three 3-pointers. Rookie Josh Hart, in his first start for Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (not with the team due to personal reasons), posted a career-high 11 points and 10 rebounds. Kyle Kuzma had 20 points and seven rebounds.
This was James' first up-close look at the young Lakers and their developing pair of No. 2 overall picks from the past two drafts in Ingram and Ball. There has been plenty of speculation over James' future, since he's expected to become a free agent this summer.
The Lakers want to pursue two star free agents this summer, with James at the top of their wish list. Until James makes a decision on his future, the Lakers will be one of the potential destinations linked to the best player in the world, whose agent, Rich Paul, also represents Caldwell-Pope, who is signed to a one-year, $18-million deal.
Obviously, the Lakers (10-17) want to win. But team president Magic Johnson and general manager Rob Pelinka had to love what they saw on Thursday. Their young talent showcased their potential in front of James and didn't back down against a team that has won 16 of its last 17.
Ingram put his developing game on display and rebounded in a big way from his worst game of the season in New York where he went 2-for-12 with five points. In Cleveland, he made nine of his first 10 shots and had 23 points in his first 25 minutes. He did his usual attacking of the rim, but also hit a couple of 3s and stop-and-pop midrange jumpers.
And on one impressive play, Ball grabbed a defensive rebound and immediately flicked a rainbow bomb up the court to a streaking Ingram for a layup.
Ball was even hitting some of his shots from the perimeter, knocking down 3 of 8 3-pointers. During one stretch in the third quarter, he hit a 3, Ingram knocked down a 3, and then Ball buried another trey.
Kuzma wouldn't stop going at the Cavs, scoring 12 of his points in the fourth quarter even as the Cavs had the game under control. Julius Randle and Jordan Clarkson continued to be impressive off the bench and Hart made the most of his first start. Six Lakers scored in double-figures, and they kept playing hard all the way down to the end like they surprisingly have for most of this season, something James surely can appreciate. The Lakers just seem to make enough mistakes or fail to make enough shots or secure enough rebounds in the crucial moments to lose several of these close games -- something a superstar can help correct.
"They get the ball up the floor," James said. "No matter on makes and misses. I said that before we played our last game, that if you don't get back in transition, they're going to make you pay because they look up the floor, and they've got a lot of guys, young guys too, that get up and run up and down. They exploited that at some points of the game tonight."
The normally low-key Ball perked up in the morning shootaround when asked about James and finally meeting him in person. Although James sat front row for one of Ball's and the Lakers' summer league games in Las Vegas in July -- which caused a stir -- Ball had not met James prior to tonight.
The point guard grew up with posters of James, Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant on his bedroom walls. He also had James' Heat and Cavaliers jerseys.
But watching James and playing against him are two different things. Rookies such as Kuzma were taken aback by just how easy James makes things look and how in control he always seems to be.
"Watching him doesn't do him justice," Ball said. "It's very hard to stop him with that size, that speed. That's why I say he's the best player in the world right now, and it's hard to deal with."
But Ball has made an impression on James, from the way he likes to push the ball upcourt quickly off misses and keep the ball moving, to his pass-first mentality and desire to set teammates up for easy baskets. Ball plays the type of heady and selfless game that James likes.
And he also can relate to the immense pressure and attention that surrounds Ball. Johnson has said that no rookie has come in with such hype around him since James.
"I know everything that he's going through," James said. "Of course I can relate."
James has taken notice of Ball saying repeatedly how he tried to pattern himself and the way he approaches the game after James. He said he tweeted happy birthday to the rookie because Ball has been so open about how he holds James in such high regard.
"I do it because he's said over and over since he was growing up who he modeled his game after," James said. "Who was his favorite player. It was me. I was humbled by that. Me wishing him happy birthday was kind of the salute back to him."
While all of this has only fueled the speculation of what could happen this summer, James said he removes himself from what people are saying about his future.
"I see all the stupid noise that happens," James said. "I can't buy a place in L.A. I can't live in L.A. It's funny noise. But I don't get involved in it. When I post things I don't look at comments. I'm so far removed from the white noise, and the noise, it doesn't matter."
Of course, the Lakers would love to make some noise this summer and add James and another star, perhaps Paul George, to the roster next season.
Whatever happens, the Lakers brass hope the team's young core made an early pitch to James by how it played Thursday.
"We have the capability of being really good in the future," Kuzma said when asked what he thinks the young Lakers showed Thursday. "It's a national TV game and everybody saw us play, especially the young guys.
"We weren't afraid of the moment, playing against LeBron James. We are pretty close I feel like."