NBA Position: PG
General Information: 19 year old freshman, played at UCLA. From Chino Hills, CA.
Measurables: 6'6", 190 lbs, 6’7" wingspan, 8'4.5" standing reach.
2016-17 Season Statistics: 14.6 PPG, 7.6 APG, 6.0 RPG, 1.8 SPG, 0.8 BPG, 2.5 TOPG (36 games played, 35.0 minutes a contest) – 55.1% FG, 67.3% FT, 41% 3P
The most unique and exciting player in a class stocked full of both, Ball combines elite passing skills, court vision, and highlight-identifying instincts. He was the maestro of the NCAA’s best offense and offers instincts beyond his collegiate peers. But aside from his unpredictable passing, so much of his game—from his half-court play to his off-the-hip shot—is dangerously predictable and can be more easily handled by faster, stronger defenses. Ball’s floor and ceiling have both been inflated by both his easy-to-love passing skills and UCLA’s “screw it, we’re gunning” offense, and there a legitimate concerns about how he’ll transition. The generational talent label has been misaligned— he’s not a tier one talent to rival Markelle Fultz, but he’s arguably the BPA against anyone else.
In a league that prizes playmaking above nearly anything else, Ball’s passing skills, full court vision, and command of the offense are impossible to oversell in the modern NBA. He was a dynamic threat in transition and had such a gravity on defenses that UCLA’s other weapons got a ton of open looks. At the beginning of the year, he often looked like he was just highlight seeking, looking for the homerun pass… but that faded later in the year as he got more comfortable with the scorers at his disposal.
According to Synergy, 35.7% of Ball’s possessions ended in an assist (with 8.7 assists per 40 minutes and a 3/1 assist/turnover ratio), and according to the eye test, I’d swear that should be higher. What really made UCLA’s offense work was his ability to impact that game to the degree he did (31.8% assist rate) while also sharing the ball with other lead guards. His 18.7% usage rate is MIND BOGGLING for a player with his numbers.
He was better as a floor general in transition than he was in the half court, especially later in the year when teams learned to pressure him; his turnover rate jumps from 15% in transition to 20% in the half-court. This didn’t affect his own shot-creation though; against collegiate defenders wary of his passing skills, he was afforded a decent amount of space as a shooter to cork his unconventional shot.
The issue with Ball starts when that spacing he saw in college is shrunk by bigger NBA defenses. He’s certainly not a slow or an unathletic player, and his 6’6 frame will give him a height advantage in the league, but he won’t beat out the opposing guard in physical tools on most nights. You’d hope that a passer like Ball would be a pick-and-roll monster, but that was only 10% of his offense in college… and a whopping 93% of his shots were either at the rim or a three pointer. To add to that, he’s got a terribly uneven game depending on which direction he moves; according to Synergy, if he drives right (60% of his drives), he’s going to attack the basket 2/3 of the time. If he goes left, over 2/3 of the time he’s pulling up for a jumper. Defenses will learn to compensate for that predictability. And smart coaches he faced later in the year showed they were learning that; his worst games came against faster, NBA athletic defenders who pressured him whenever he got the ball (see Fox, Da’Aaron.)
And then comes the draft classes’ most complicated puzzle piece; Ball’s shot-creation ability at the NBA level. Words can’t describe his shot, so take a look.
It’s hard to argue with the collegiate success; 41.2% from three is impressive, and the form is, albeit ugly and worrying, remarkably consistent. He has a consistency in motion that so many prospects lack and that dooms NBA careers. But so much of his form invites interruption, from the cross-body motion to the hand-in-the-cookie-jar pop… that’s a predictability that’s just inviting an NBA defender, with longer limbs and faster reflexes than Ball had to deal with on most nights at UCLA, to take advantage of. Ball depends on the fadeaway to create extra space against pressure defenses; again, that won’t work as well against NBA defenders.
Ball’s ceiling is tied to his shot transitioning. If he’s truly going to become the generational talent that utilizes those passing skills, he can’t just be a passer. Defenses will always have to stay mostly honest when Ball’s running the floor, or they’ll end up on the receiving end of a highlight reel when Ball threads the pass over them to their man. But how effectively his offense transitions depends on how the NBA learns to guard him one-on-one, how they can disrupt his shot in ways most collegiate players couldn’t… and how Ball learns how to recover from the tougher, more physical NBA defense. As an individual scorer, Ball’s per 40 number (16.6 PPG, 10.9 FGA) are well below the guards in the class (besides Ntilikina). Even though that wasn’t his role in college, that can’t continue at the NBA level.
For more on Ball’s shot, Kevin O’Connor did an amazingly detailed piece (major props to the entire Draft coverage at the Ringer). It’s a must-read for any armchair scout. My favorite part of the piece was a scout’s call out to Kevin Martin being the only “cross-ball, low-release shooter that got decent results in the NBA”.
Ball is an instinctual defender with ideal length for the position, but he’s bothered just as much by playing tough physical defense as he is when defenders play physical on him; it’s just not in his DNA. UCLA as a whole was full of players who only were only fired up on offense, and Ball was just as big a culprit of lackadaisical defense as any. His length will only help so much with that skinny frame, so hopefully he can seriously bulk up.
As he’s a highlight-reel born into flesh, he’s got hawkish instincts just waiting to pounce for a steal, but this will be much more dangerous in the NBA when he doesn’t have the twitch-reaction speed to recover. I’ve had one friend tell me Ball’s floor is another Ricky Rubio, but Rubio plays defense with an intensity and physicality that Ball just hasn’t to this point. Maybe that’ll change at the NBA, but given his year in college, he projects as a slight negative on defense.
Ball is a capable rebounder who snagged 6.8 per 40 minutes with a defensive rebounding rate (14.3%) that some small forwards as jealous of. He plays his most physical when he rushes to the rim; maybe this is because he wants to press the attack as quickly as possible, but the results were impressive.
Ball had help—two freshman/first round locks (T.J. Leaf and Ike Anigbogu), a top 20 NCAA player (Bryce Alford), and a NBA bench player (Justin Holiday)—but he DID successfully turned a 15-17 mess from 2015-16 into an Elite 8 squad that won 31 games. He’s got a feel for the game to rival any collegiate player, and his red-hot offensive motor and uptempo, passing/secondary passing game will be great in the modern era of pace-and-space. Much like we’ll remember the 2015-16 season for Buddy Hield, we’ll remember the 2016-17 season in 20 years as the Lonzo Ball year.
His father doesn’t matter. Seriously. Stop feeding the troll, and stop letting him work his way into Lonzo’s zeitgeist. If Lonzo was just a kid who desperately wanted to only play for the Lakers, and let the other teams know it by refusing to work out for them, this story would have a 48-hour life cycle and then vanish into the historical ether of every other draft prospect that tried to control where they went. But LaVar only exists as this forced entrant into Ball’s narrative because ESPN, FS1, and Twitter keep pumping him up with headlines and refusing to end his 15 minutes of fame.
Lonzo is a unique kid and a hell of a basketball player, and one who will fit—in some way—into any basketball situation he’s placed into. Lonzo will play basketball in 2017, even if it isn’t for the Lakers. And even if he begins his career planning to jump ship to Los Angeles in 2021, he’ll also be facing an NBA reality where his teammates and opponents will mock daddy’s influence on him MERCILESSLY. The chances that LaVar Ball has this much sway on his son come season four is logically nil, and who knows how a 23 year old Lonzo will feel about his situation by then. If he’s on a winning team with a coach that put in the work with him and teammates that have adapted to playing with his unique style, why do we assume Ball won’t adapt and feel differently?
I know the Kings can ill-afford any more drama than they already have, but only fans are making any argument against Ball that starts with “But his father…”. Sacramento, drama concerns be damned, won’t ever get out of the cellar without true talent. No competent organization will pass on a player of Lonzo’s talent because of a media-fueled helicopter parent. That’s what PR departments are for. And as much as it might be bantered around on fanboards, it’s not a red flag in NBA offices.
Fit with Sacramento:
Ball could be the catalyst that jumpstarts the Kings offense and removes “potential” from “exciting potential on offense.” The Kings need a floor leader… something all of the lottery points tantalize in one way or another, but none can match Ball in court vision or transition success.
I think Ball will benefit in the NBA from having a dangerous, preferably big co-guard next to him. NBA defenses will be able to stick bigger defender’s on him unless they can’t hide their own point guard on defense. The Kings offer a large number of multi-talented shooting guards who could mesh well with Ball, although it would leave them without a high-potential defensive prospect at the guard spot. Ball, paired with guys like Buddy Hield, Skal Labissiere, and Willie Cauley-Stein who love to move off the ball… that’s an extremely exciting prospect, however successfully Ball’s shot transitions. For all my worries about Ball, he’d almost certainly be the BPA if he’s falling in the Kings’ range.