From even before the time the Lakers secured the #2 pick in the upcoming NBA draft, the Lonzo to the Lakers train was steamrolling down the tracks. Whether it was Lonzo’s father, Lavar, trying to “speak it into existence” or Lonzo himself stating outright his desire to play for the Lakers (and be mentored by Magic Johnson) while staying close to home in Los Angeles, the UCLA star becoming a Lakers’ one seemed like destiny.
Now that the Lakers actually have the pick, this all seems even more preordained. Even reports about Lonzo not being a lock are at least partially prefaced with him still being the favorite to land with the Lakers. Yes, other prospects are worth selecting #2 and the Lakers will do their due diligence. They reportedly really like Josh Jackson and De’Aaron Fox and will work both out in the coming weeks. But Lonzo is the name we keep coming back to; he is the default name.
There is good reason for this. Lost in some of the bluster about his father or other “distractions” we should always remebmer that Lonzo Ball is an excellent basketball player and, in my opinion, one of the more intriguing prospects to come into the league in some time. Note, I’m not saying he is the best one — after all, he’s not even the top player in this class. But his profile is a unique blend of basketball IQ, size, skill, and a strict adherence to playing to his strengths that doesn’t often come in any prospect, much less one who can play point guard and/or initiate your offense.
When you add it all up, it combines to make Ball the prospect who seems to almost perfectly align with how the Lakers want to play under Luke Walton and one who should not be defined by any of the noise that surrounds him or his game.
The first thing you notice about Ball when watching him play is his general feel for the game and how he prefers to operate as a lead guard prospect. Namely, Ball wants to play fast.
He thrives in transition, equally adept at throwing the ball ahead to a streaking teammate as pushing the ball himself to threaten defenses. He understands how defenses can be bent and tormented in the open court, recognizing how defenders instinctively retreat to certain areas of the court from years of repetitive training. Ball exploits those instincts, looking for shooters running predetermined lanes and big men streaking to the front of the rim to create open shots. When in the open court, Ball will also threaten defenses himself, willing to drive into the paint to either get his own shot or to collapse the defense further. He’s also very willing to pull up for open jumpers from range, capitalizing on defenders who have sunk too low or who are too set on playing him to pass.
Related to all this is how fast Ball thinks the game. Playing the style he does in the open court often means he’s thinking one or two sequences ahead, setting up defenses in ways that translate to open shots two or more passes after his initial read. Often times you’ll see Ball not only throw ahead, but throw a cross court pass ahead, tilting the defense to one side of the floor, only for that pass to lead to a quick ball reversal. With the defense then in scramble mode, the offense can either take a shot, swing the ball again, drive to score, or drive to dish to an open player in the “dunking” position around the rim. This pinball’ing action may not end with Ball getting a basket or an assist, but it was his initial read(s) which set the entire thing off.
This proclivity for seeing the game a step ahead translates to the half court as well. Ball’s not just a wonderful passer, but an expert ball mover in set plays. When delivering the ball to shooters off screens, the ball is on time and into his teammate’s shooting pocket. He’s great at throwing lob passes of all sorts, tossing perfectly timed parabolas over fronting defenders or more direct line pitches to his bigs or slashing wings for alley-oops. And then, of course, it’s all the simple swing passes and deliveries he makes as a secondary passer — the types of quick touch passes from corner to wing, wing to corner, or direct post entries that are the hallmark of good NBA offenses.
As a half-court scorer, Ball is more limited (more on this in a minute), but his strengths here are also meaningful. As a ball-handler, he can create for himself off the dribble by using straight-line drives to his right hand to finish at the rim. He’s also able to create his own looks as a jumpshooter, though those plays are almost exclusively going to his left while using an exaggerated step-back move.
Off ball, he was an excellent spot up shooter, able to set up well beyond the NBA three point line as an outlet option off quick swing passes or in drive and kick situations. He also showed an ability to operate off pin-down screens for his jumper and demonstrated a remarkable sense of timing and feel as a cutter. He’s a threat to finish lobs off backdoor cuts and showed wonderful relocation skills to set up his jumper, possessing an uncanny ability to dart into open space when his defender got caught up watching the ball.
When making a list of things you want from a perimeter player in Walton’s offense, Ball checks nearly every box. Incredibly smart, a passer/ball mover, shooter, cutter, and someone who can initiate the offense both when the game slows down or when playing in the open court.
So, nothing to worry about right? Well, if only things were that easy.
We’ve read ad-nauseum about Ball’s funky shooting mechanics and it’d be silly to simply ignore those. The fact that he brings the ball across the left side of his body as part of his motion makes shooting going right nearly impossible in closely guarded situations. Also, his handle is good, but not great and he offers little in the ways of “moves” that are often the hallmark of lead guards who have to create in isolation.
Regardless if Ball’s shot translates to the NBA level (and I think it will), the worry, then, is that at the NBA level defenses will get Ball’s tendencies down pretty quickly and respond accordingly. They will play him to drive going right, will play him to step-back for jumpers going left, and will always be aware of his preference to pass first. And because Ball doesn’t necessarily have the shake or an explosive first step, these types of tendencies aren’t something that can be masked or overcome just because we want them to.
Further these concerns bleed over into the P&R too. While some of his struggles here can be oversold, it remains a fact that Ball rarely turned the corner coming off ball screens looking to score. Again, some of this is context and scheme related, but we can only go off what we saw at UCLA and then try to project that out. At the NBA level, Ball will need to develop an effective floater, will need to up his driving rate (both in and outside of P&R actions), and will need to show more variance in how he attacks defenses overall. In order to keep defenses honest at the pro level, it’s important to unlock a certain amount versatility. We’ve seen this type of growth with D’Angelo Russell (started to drive more/get off more paint shots in the 2nd half of this past year and instantly saw his scoring punch go up) and, based on where he is now, we will need to see the same with Ball as a rookie (and, likely, beyond).
Defensively, I think Ball’s struggles are a bit oversold, but that does not mean criticism is unfounded. Due to his height and general upright style of play, quick guards who have a shifty handle give him problems. His size also makes him a bigger target for screeners and he’ll need to learn to navigate those better at the pro level, in both the P&R and when chasing shooters off the ball. These aren’t small things, either. Really good perimeter players who do not benefit from using screens to aid their offense don’t exist at this level. If Ball is going to guard them effectively, he needs to improve here.
The good thing is that Ball’s IQ does seem to translate to defense in several areas. He showed good instincts in the passing lanes and as a rotator from the weakside. He understands angles and has shown he can execute the game plan while showing good instincts for how players want to attack. Further, we cannot discount Ball’s combination of size and good enough length + athleticism and how that can translate to the NBA. He can be someone who switches onto bigger players, can challenge shots well, and, as he gets stronger, will be able to absorb contact from some of smaller players he’ll defend and still stay in position to bother shots in the paint.
When it’s all said and done, then, I simply see too many positives with Ball to not be excited should he be the pick at #2. People might harp on his low usage rate at UCLA or his lack of offensive creating as red flags for a point guard prospect in today’s NBA, but in the short term I actually see that as aiding in his transition to this specific Lakers’ team. In Russell, Julius Randle, and Brandon Ingram, the Lakers already have three players who project to have fairly high usage rates (to say nothing of Clarkson). Slotting Ball next to them allows those players (especially Russell) to continue as a shot creator in the P&R and in isolation, while utilizing Ball’s skills as a spot up shooter, cutter, and someone who can also operate as a secondary passer and shot creator against a tilted defense.
Further, Ball can be a primary initiator of the team’s sets, allowing Walton to further leverage Russell and Ingram’s off-ball instincts as scorers and cutters. Walton can also use Ball’s open court smarts to unlock strengths of Randle, Nance, and Clarkson which have not been utilized as much over the last couple of seasons.
In the long term, I expect Ball will be able to shore up some of his weaknesses. He’s smart enough to learn how teams will play him (on both ends) and, by all accounts, will work to then adapt and evolve. But, even if he doesn’t turn the corner entirely in some of these areas, the skills he brings to the table now are truly important ones to being a quality NBA rotation player. When you combine his smarts with his shooting and passing ability, he can have a long career as a plus starter.
Of course, the Lakers will want more than that from a 2nd overall pick and, honestly, I think they’ll get it should he be the choice.
Ball, within the context of this specific team at this specific time, just fits. People often refer to him as a “culture changer” and while I think that can be overblown a bit, the alignment between what Ball is naturally as a player — a hard worker who’s unselfish while playing a fun style — and what Walton wants out of his team is nearly identical. I think Ball can be the type of player who serves as a springboard and a jumping off point for what Walton wants. When combined with his talent level, I’d be happy to have him. We’ll see if the Lakers front office agrees.