Popular to contrary belief, I do not hate Lonzo Ball. The truth is I like Ball. I think he has the chance to become a very solid player who elevates the play of his teammates. While it still baffles people on whether Ball is a bust or not, it’s been clear to me since draft night.
It’s not hard to see why Ball was touted as the Los Angeles Lakers’ next superstar. The “out of this world” passing vision, the shooting stroke, the ability to make his teammates better. Let’s not forget his 6’ 6” 190 lbs frame, excellent size for a point guard. He was a scout’s dream, having all the tools to develop into a superstar. The comparisons to Jason Kidd, Magic Johnson were too obvious to miss.
But wait, I thought Lonzo had a terrible season? We’ll get to that later.
First, we rewind to 2016 where Ball first stepped onto the scene. The UCLA Bruins landed Ball and TJ Leaf, the #4 and #13 recruit respectively. Coach Steve Alford had reloaded their roster, UCLA looked poised for a strong season.
What happened that season was almost unprecedented. UCLA averaged an insane 90.4 points per game, easily tops in the NCAA. Lonzo Ball was the engine that kept them going, a hand in glove fit with UCLA’s high tempo offense. Ball made play after play, kept the defense off balance with his pristine passing ability. Ball ended up having a fantastic season, with great numbers all across the board.
Fast forward to March 24th, 2017, where UCLA was in the midst of a March Madness run which could have define Ball’s legacy. Going up against star guard De’Aaron Fox and the Kentucky Wildcats, one of the strongest teams in the nations, it was must-see TV.
UCLA lost the game 86-75 in heartbreaking fashion, coming to close what was a strong and resurgent season for the Bruins.
Soon after that Ball declared for the NBA draft. Ball presented a strong case for the #1 overall pick. Scouts could not decide who they liked better, Washington star Markelle Fultz or Lonzo Ball. The LA Lakers seemed like a dream fit for Ball and the Lakers. Coming from Chino Hills, LA to UCLA to the LA Lakers. The hype around Ball spread all across America, a wildfire that could not be stopped.
I, however, had a different stance on Ball. While everyone had him pegged as a star, I did not view Ball as a franchise-changing talent. I saw him as an extremely valuable role player, one who would make his teammates better.
But he was a superstar in college! So was Jimmer Fredette. It doesn’t always translate.
Despite Lonzo Ball converting 76% of his layups in college, he is not a good finisher. If you watch a game of his from UCLA, almost all the layups he attempted, were uncontested or had a high chance of converting. What does that mean? Ball is afraid of contact. There is simply no way to be an elite NBA point guard and be afraid of contact. Any and every elite point guard in the NBA loves contact and invites it, often finishing through contact and/or gets fouled. Even the 5’ 9” Isiah Thomas loves contact and finishes through it with regularity. This was the biggest concern for me, a player who is afraid of contact can never become an elite scorer or player for that matter.
Ball is very good at finding gaps in the defense. When he sees a gap he attacks and gets to the rim, or penetrates and hits a teammate for an easy basket. Those lapses in the defense seemed to be there for Ball almost every night in college. These lapses did not exist against the elite defense in the NBA. The nights he went against elite defenders in college, Ball struggled mightily. On that March 24th game vs Kentucky, elite defender De’Aaron Fox shut down Ball, limiting him to 10 points on 4-10 FG and 1-6 3PT. Ball does not hold up against good defense, something he saw almost every night in the NBA.
The lack of a mid-range shot was also destined to hurt Ball’s productivity. Doesn’t seem like a big deal, right? All the elite point guards have mastered the pull up mid range. John Wall, Russell Westbrook, Chris Paul, to name a few. Ball abused the pick and roll in college. Without a stable mid-range shot, the help defender would simply drop down to the roller, leaving Ball in limbo as there is no drive and no pass for him to make.
Much was made about Ball’s defense. Frankly, he was an awful defender in college. UCLA did a great job of disguising that with switches and zone defense. Once arriving in the NBA however, Ball tremendously improved his defense. He showed a good nose for the ball using his incredibly high IQ to average a healthy 1.7 SPG.
Ball’s unorthodox shooting form has come to become a meme of basketball players and fans everywhere. This form does not concern me however, if it goes in, it goes in. What does concern me is the limitations and constrictions of his form. The subsequent lack of pump fakes and dribble drives from it. Ball always seems to do the same move, the lefty stepback pull up 3. In the NBA he was not able to use his stepback as effectively, as he went against tougher and smarter defenders.
One of the biggest issues I saw with Ball was how reliant he was in the transition game. While being good in the fastbreak is not a bad thing by any standard, Ball would get a majority of his points/assists in transition. He never showed any real prowess in the half court.
Take a look at this play, a simple pick and roll with TJ Leaf setting a screen for Ball. This forced Pacific to get a big man switched onto Ball. UCLA got the result they wanted, or did they….
Turns out Pacific did their homework. Pacific immediately switched on the play, covering Ball’s two favorite things, the pull up 3 and the pass to the roller (keep in mind the lack of the mid range option). Any elite guard would be drooling after this switch, ready to toast the opposing big man. They would put their head down and take the ball straight to the rim. Instead, Ball can not create and gets rid of the ball. Why? He’s scared of contact.
June 22nd rolled around and the NBA draft was finally upon us. Like a perfectly orchestrated script, Ball was drafted by the LA Lakers. Ball went on to have a rough rookie season for the Lakers, to say the least. On the outside, the numbers don’t look too bad, the 10.2 PPG, 7.2 AST, 6.9 RPG, 2.6 TOV. But take a look to your left and you see the extreme inefficiency from Ball, shooting 36.0 FG% and 30.5 3PT%. A far cry from his 55.1 FG% and 41.2% 3PT% at UCLA.
Taking a look at the advanced stats, you can see just how disastrous this season was for Ball. Take a look at the comparisons between UCLA and the Lakers. His player efficiency rating came crashing down from an elite 24.7 to a tumultuous 12.5. His offensive win shares, the estimate of how many wins are contributed from a players offense fell from 4.8 to 2.5. Box plus minus is an estimate of how many points per 100 possessions a player contributed above a league average player, Lonzo Ball’s came crashing down from 12.2 to 1.7.
For all the negatives in Ball’s season, there were some solids. His passing vision was still A+ when opportunities presented themselves. He displayed fantastic ability to rebound the ball. He became a much better defender. He still excelled in transition. Unfortunately none of these things translated to wins for the Lakers.
Simply put, Ball tried to be a player he is not. It is not all his fault however, with the whole world expecting him to be this star, he is forced to try to play into that role. In his first game of the NBA season, Ball was shut down for 3 points, 4 assists, and 9 rebounds on 1-6 FG. The next game he went off for 29 points, 9 assists, and 11 rebounds on 12-27 FG. The difference? The first game was against the elite defense of Patrick Beverley, while the second was against the non-existent perimeter defense of the Phoenix Suns. Once again, Ball showed he cannot hold up against strong defense, while excelling against bad defense.
Lonzo Ball struggled with his shot mightily in the NBA, he not only couldn’t create space with his stepback, defenders would simply leave him wide open from the 3 point line and let him fire away. He responded with games like this.
Ball needs to understand when he is wide open it is not always a good shot. There is a reason he’s open. The 1-12 3PT type stat lines are concerning, not the misses, but the shot selection. The smart players who can’t shoot don’t try to shoot.
The element of not being able to shoot certainly harmed Ball’s numbers. But the reality is, even with a shot, Ball can never be a true star without an aggressive “want it” mentality. You can teach a player to shoot, you can’t teach him a mentality. Which brings me to my next point.
This is Rajon Rondo.
Just kidding, this is actually Rajon Rondo.
Rondo is currently the point guard for the New Orleans Pelicans. This past season Rondo averaged just 8.3 PPG and 8.2 APG in what I consider his best season. Huh? Sure Rondo has had multiple seasons averaging a double double, but to me, this was his most impressive work. Operating as the 3rd or 4th best player behind Jrue Holiday, Anthony Davis, and DeMarcus Cousins (before the injury), Rondo focused on making his teammates better. As a pass-first point guard, Rondo set up the offense, controlled the pace of the game, acted as a true floor general.
Rondo’s presence is what allowed Jrue Holiday and Anthony Davis to achieve career-best numbers across the board. All-world talent Anthony Davis had an MVP-caliber season, without Rondo, however, he would not have put up those same numbers.
You can see the obvious spike in PPG for Jrue Holiday, from 15.4 to 19.0. The FG percentage rose from 45.4% to 49.4%. He also set a career high in effective field goal percentage with 54.3%. Jrue Holiday had his best year, after switching to shooting guard for the first time in his career. He was playing much more without the ball, feeding off Rondo’s playmaking ability.
Now take a look at Anthony Davis’ production. While the bump in PPG doesn’t seem large (28.0 to 28.1), he boosted a career high in field goal percentage at 53.4%. He also set a career high in 3 point percentage with 34.0%. His effective field goal percentage has never been higher at 55.2%. AD was a huge beneficiary of Rondo’s presence, catching lobs, passes in transition, Rondo would get AD the ball in spots where he could succeed.
So why am I telling you all this? Let me explain.
For Lonzo Ball to succeed he must begin to play the way Rondo does. Playing as a strict pass-first point guard working as the 3rd or 4th best player on the team. Before you go saying, “but the Lakers suck,” take a look at their roster. Brandon Ingram is a budding star, Kyle Kuzma looked like the ROY to begin the year, Julius Randle just averaged 16.1 PPG in a career year. Lonzo is already the 4th best player on this team.
Kyle Kuzma benefitted greatly by Lonzo Ball’s presence. Kuzma’s game is built on catch and shoots and dribble drives, shots only made possible by the passing vision and unselfishness of Ball. Despite his struggles this season, Ball has already shown he can elevate other player’s game.
Rondo and Ball had different upbringings. Rondo played the first several years of his career with future hall of famers Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Ray Allen. Meanwhile, Ball was brought directly into the spotlight, expected to be the main focal point of the offense with a very young and inexperienced team around him.
After several years of grooming, Rondo was asked to become the focal point of the Boston Celtics. He averaged a double-double most seasons during that tenure, but it never really translated to the win column. Rondo then started to deal with injury concerns, locker room issues, leadership questions. As a result, the Boston Celtics traded him to the Dallas Mavericks in December 2014. Rondo couldn’t seem to last there either. He then bounced around the league for several years, battling off the court issues, inconsistency, other issues. Rondo couldn’t seem to find a home.
He has finally found his niche with the Pelicans. As a pass-first point guard, he elevates the play of his teammates, plays strong defense, helping his team rack up wins. Rondo only holds a 15.3 PER, but the impact on his team is more than evident in the win column.
Not every player is a star and that’s okay. Andre Iguodala, Al Horford, Nicolas Batum, to name a few. They’re not stars and likely never will be, but they contribute to their teams in many ways, all while being very efficient. Their #1 contribution to their team is in the W column.
Lonzo Ball’s rookie year has everyone scratching their head, it’s fair to question what type of player he will develop into. If Ball can take a page out of Rondo’s book, understand what it takes to win and sacrifice, Ball will develop into a very solid and efficient role player. A player who will make his team better, and subsequently help them win. He will be the type of player every team would love to have.