Ball makes Denver debut as Lakers visit Nuggets

For 20 years the Los Angeles Lakers coming to Denver brought out fans excited to see Kobe Bryant. His Nos. 8 and 24 jerseys were all over the Pepsi Center, as the cheers tried to drown out boos from the Pepsi Center crowd.

Bryant is gone but there is another star in the making sure to replace Bryant in the heart of Lakers fans living in Denver. Lonzo Ball, the heralded rookie guard, is making his Pepsi Center debut Saturday night when L.A. visits Denver for the first time this season.

Ball, the second-overall pick in last June’s NBA Draft, has lived up to the hype in the first 21 games. He is averaging 9.0 points, 7.2 assists and 7.0 rebounds a game and has five double-doubles. He also has two triple-doubles, the last coming in a 127-109 win over Denver on Nov. 19.

Ball has faced enormous pressure since coming out of UCLA after his freshman year, but he has handled it well. The Lakers (8-13) benefit when Ball is aggressive, like he was in the overtime loss to Golden State on Wednesday with 15 points and 10 assists.

“The difference when he’s out there pushing the ball, whether he’s shooting it or just he’s creating that pace for us by throwing the ball ahead, is everything for our team’s success,” Lakers coach Luke Walton told The Los Angeles Times. “And when he’s doing that and he’s getting in the paint and getting us into our offense early we’re just such a better team.”

The Nuggets (12-9) feel the same about their young star, Nikola Jokic, who will miss Saturday’s game with a sprained left ankle suffered in the 111-110 over Chicago on Thursday night. Jokic went down after stepping Jerian Grant’s foot on a drive to the basket with 44 seconds left in the second quarter and didn’t return.

Denver didn’t practice Friday but Jokic underwent and was ruled out for Saturday’s game against L.A. That means the Nuggets are without two of their top big men and two of their top three scorers.

Paul Millsap had surgery Sunday to repair ligament damage in his left wrist and will be out an extended time, and Wilson Chandler has missed two straight games with low back soreness. If Chandler can’t go the Nuggets will be without their entire starting frontcourt against the Lakers.

Mason Plumlee would likely start in place of Jokic.

Without Millsap, the team’s third-leading scorer at 15.3 points a game, and the top scorer and rebounder in Jokic (15.9 points, 11 rebounds a game), Denver needed somebody to step up to overcome the lowly Bulls on Thursday. Will Barton did the trick, scoring a career-high 37 points, including a reverse layup with 3.2 seconds left that gave the Nuggets the win.

Barton, averaging 15.4 points a game, has been Denver’s most consistent player this season and took on the late-game pressure against Chicago.

“My team trusts me all the time with big moments and big shots and big plays, throughout practice, games or whatever,” Barton said after the win. “The coaches feel the same way and always encourage me to get the ball. They know I have the confidence.”

The Lakers might be down a player, too. Rookie Kyle Kuzma missed Wednesday’s game with back spasms that flared up during that morning’s shootaround and is questionable for Saturday. He had a precautionary MRI on Thursday that was negative and is considered day to day.

Despite missing the last game of November, Kuzma took home Western Conference Rookie of the Month honors — including games in October — after averaging 16.7 points and 6.1 rebounds a game. Kuzma has been able to stay relatively anonymous compared to Ball despite leading the team in scoring.

So far, Ball has handled the pressure well. Now he gets to experience the same love in Denver that Bryant did for 20 years.