It can be a hard negotiation with yourself, summer league.
You see the numbers, but you also want to discredit them. I mean, I was listening to the Basketball Analogy Podcast and ESPN’s Tom Haberstroh rattled off the top scorers from the Vegas league dating back to 2005. The list had some impressive names (including Damian Lillard and Kawhi Leonard), but also a bunch of other random dudes who carved out fine enough careers, but never turned into franchise altering players.
Lonzo Ball isn’t on the list of Vegas’ top bucket getters, but he’s putting up other types of numbers. He’s leading all of Vegas in assists. He’s rung up two triple-doubles in his last three games and had a 36 point, 11 assist contest sandwiched in the middle of them. Even though his outside shot isn’t falling, the numbers pop. I so badly want them to matter, but understand any weight I want them to carry comes with a caveat of this being Las Vegas in July, not STAPLES Center in May or June.
The eye test can be funny, too, because the human brain can be funny. It has a way of attaching value to things to create a lasting memory; a way of ascribing importance to things that verify what you already want to believe while diminishing the things which don’t quite fit into your pre-established outlook.
As I negotiate that in my head, though, a realization starts to seep in. I don’t care if it’s only summer league, Lonzo Ball is special.
I see a kid who is, without exaggeration, changing the approach his team takes on the floor. He is the patient zero in the outbreak of unselfish summer league basketball. Guys are running harder because he’s willing to give up the ball in the backcourt by throwing ahead to them. I see guys making the extra pass, not necessarily because they know it’s the right play, but because it’s how this team now plays. I see guys who are typically gunners, getting hockey assists. And I credit this kid, this rookie.
I also see a player who, despite his experience level and an age still in the teens, being someone who is smarter than most of his peers in how he’s thinking out scenarios in front of him. I see someone who is manipulating angles, taking a screen in one direction only to set up a re-screen in the other. I see a player taking as many extra dribbles as is needed to freeze the help defender so the pass he makes is going to a wide open teammate. I see someone who pauses a beat, waiting until the exact moment when a teammate’s crease into open space develops, to deliver the ball.
And he does this stuff naturally. As if it’s instinct. But not many players have these instincts. At least not from what I can tell. Because if they did, we’d see more people play like this, right?
None of this makes a perfect player, of course. To this point in Vegas, the shot making has been low and the turnover count high. Fatigue has led to forced passes, some suspect shot selection, and some defensive effort issues which can (and have) hurt the team. On one possession, I saw him jog back on defense, see his man out of the corner of his eye start to cut behind him, and then him just stand there above the shoulder of the three point line guarding no one. On another I saw him dribble the ball up and launch a three pointer when his defender went under a screen. Yeah, he was tired and on many levels it’s excusable. But I point it out to say that improvement will be needed.
But he’s 19 years old. Do you think he’s going to find a way to improve? That he’ll get stronger? That he’ll find the range on his jumper? Gain experience and become smarter? Become more in tune with what his limits are? What his teammates’ limits are? Learn where he can take risks? When he can force shots?
I believe the answer to these questions are yes. To all of them. Time is on his side. And so are smarts and, at least to me, what looks like an innate and acute understanding of how to play basketball within the team concept. No, that’s wrong. An innate and acute ability to foster and contribute to an environment where team play thrives.
I don’t care if it’s summer league. Lonzo Ball is special. This, I am pretty much sure of.