They were dead long before they hit the ground, maybe even before they realized they were going to die. As soon as it became clear that the Lakers would make a run at Anthony Davis, their young core—Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma, and Josh Hart—became expendable. Landing Davis would require parting with some, if not all, of this promising group. But by the time Davis signed with Klutch Sports, and LeBron James made it clear that pursuing him at last season’s trade deadline was his top priority, Ingram, Ball, Kuzma, and Hart were practically undead.
When the Lakers’ long-awaited trade for Davis finally happened, it was almost a relief to see Ingram, Ball, and Hart sent to the Pelicans. In addition to the past year’s indignities, these youngsters (plus Julius Randle, maybe the best of the bunch) had been in an impossible position for their first few seasons in the league. Trusting a collection of greenhorns to rebuild a franchise without any veteran leadership of note is a tall order. Expecting them to skillfully negotiate all the challenges that come with doing it for a storied team like the Lakers, in the high-stakes context of Los Angeles, raises the degree of difficulty further. Factor in the dysfunction that’s reigned supreme in that organization as of late and it’s hard to wonder if Ingram et al. ever really had a chance.
It’s also been extremely hard to make any sense of these four as players. They’re at once overrated—it’s not looking like any of them will be the kind of perennial All-Star that would’ve been necessary to jumpstart the Lakers’ fortunes—and underrated in that they’ve been held to an unreasonable standard since their respective rookie seasons. This may seem like the most parochial narratives, and yet Ingram and Ball in particular have been cursed with “great potential,” thereby creating an unholy alliance between Lakers fans who were needlessly bullish on the future; take-mongers steeped in schadenfreude; and too-smart-for-their-own-good NBA observers smitten with Ingram’s Kevin Durant-esque frame and Ball’s feel for the game. Holding them to an unreasonable standard reeked of bad faith. But it also provided a framework for consuming the Lakers that worked for everybody—one that, unfortunately, very nearly turned these players’ careers into collateral.
Sports narratives, artificial as they maybe, can be reified into a real-life conundrum for the athletes caught in the crosshairs. In a very real, on-court sense, though, the Lakers doomed these four by pegging their development to the development of the team. In the years since Kobe Bryant’s retirement, and the restoration of oxygen to the environment, the Lakers have struggled to find any on-court equilibrium, to say nothing of the chaos that has consumed the front office. These players were expected to catalyze, and provide direction for, the entire rebuild, which is ludicrous considering how (tantalizingly) unformed, or unfinished, these prospects were at first. Not only were they expected to flourish without a strong foundation. They were, by default, asked to furnish that foundation. And the more apparent it became that no one, not even James, would help them make sense of themselves, the more it was put on them to figure it, and the franchise’s trajectory out for themselves.
If this sounds ludicrous, it’s because Ingram, Ball, and Hart going to the Pelicans feels like a fever breaking or a mania dwindling down. They are, even after all of this, still just kids. There’s also a distinct possibility that they’re development was slowed down, even stunted, by their experience with the Lakers (see, for example, D’Angelo Russell). It’s also comforting to no longer be plagued by questions about James’s leadership (he was supposed to mentor them) and possible on-court decline (he didn’t elevate those around him). The former Baby Lakers are free at last and we have been freed along with them. With the Pelicans, these three not only get a fresh start, but whatever they do subsequently can erase the collective embarrassment that will, or at least should, come with an honest assessment of how they’ve been construed for the past few seasons. It’s a chance for everyone to not only make amends with themselves but give them the fair shake they’ve deserved all along. (Oh, and don’t cry for Kuzma, who now gets to feast on soft defenses preoccupied with James and Davis on a team that should be in the mix for a title.)
But there’s been another twist to this saga, one that makes you wonder if these three, who have somehow stayed perfectly intrepid throughout, have a curse hanging over them. Zion Williamson’s knee injury, which reportedly required arthroscopic surgery and will sideline him for at least the next few weeks, has knocked the Pelicans down a peg. However prematurely, he was expected to be the lynchpin of their offense and figure prominently in their defense in an as-of-yet-undetermined way. Williamson’s absence is pronounced but it also leaves lingering the idea that the Pelicans still be something. They were thought to have such an embarrassment of riches before that even without their putative most important player, the Pelicans could still make some noise in the interim.
The fact remains, though, that at the end of the day, Ingram, Ball, and Hart just may not be that special. They’ve been viewed as that way, or potentially that way, for their entire careers when maybe they’re more ordinary than had been previously assumed. What if everything that’s been projected onto them is little more than a manifestation of our need to see them as capable of, or potentially capable of, great things? After all, the last thing we want from players thrust into the spotlight is for them to be ordinary.
Originally Appeared on GQ