Expectations for Lonzo Ball are high. Comments from Magic Johnson and LaVar Ball aren’t doing anything to lower those expectations, and those comments makes me cringe just a little. Rookie guards often struggle to adjust to the NBA. We know this. But we also know that Lonzo has an amazing passing skills, and just Lonzo Ball pass-ahead outlets alone can alter possessions and enough of them can change games.
But what impact does this really have? How valuable are these passes, and how frequent are they? One highlight pass a game is a lot different from a consistent barrage of outlet passes generating transition looks. We’ll look to the first couple games of the year to see how great this impact has been.
Lonzo also leads fast breaks as the ball handler or may score in transition as a player trailing or on the wing, but we won’t look at those. We’ll only be looking at pass aheads, like this one he makes to Corey Brewer.
Lonzo has had 21 pass-aheads over the first three games that have led to transition possessions. 7 of these per game in his 34 minutes a game is a substantial frequency, not just occasional highlight material.
Every four minutes and 51 seconds Lonzo is on the floor he’s making one of these great passes. But how valuable is that?
When Lonzo is executing these outlet passes he’s not giving the team an extra possession. What he is doing is turning a half court possession into a transition possession, and we can quantify the value added there.
A Laker half court possession through three games has scored 0.873 points per possession. A Laker transition possession scores more than that.
But a Lonzo initiated transition possession is not like any other Laker transition possession, or so you’d think. Lonzo pass-ahead transition possessions have resulted in an efficiency of 1.167 points per possession (21 points in 18 possessions), which isn’t much more valuable than the 1.121 points per possession scored on the rest of the Laker transition possessions (65 points in 58 possessions).
At 1.167 points per possession, Lonzo initiated transition possessions would be fourth most efficient of any team that was in transition last season. That’s impressive.
Due to the small sample size there will be some noise in this data, but so far it’s not looking like Lonzo’s pass-aheads are adding much more value to the transition possessions themselves as much as he’s just increasing the team’s transition opportunities, which is itself valuable.
Passes like these add so much value to the offense by turning a routine defensive rebound into a transition possession
So if we’re looking at the points added so far by Lonzo’s pass aheads, the calculation would be the volume of pass aheads multiplied by the value added by a transition possession (transition PPP minus half court PPP), so:
18 pass aheads * (1.167 – 0.873) = 5.292 points gained over three games
Just from these pass aheads alone, Lonzo is adding 1.764 points per game to the Laker point total. And we’re a couple botched layups being made away from this being even higher.
But with the good there also comes some bad. Lonzo has turned the ball over three times over three games so far when attempting to complete these outlet passes.
The opportunity cost in these instances of the Lonzo turnovers are the half court possession the Lakers would have otherwise had if Ball would’ve held onto the ball instead of attempting a pass.
The math for this is the number of turnovers multiplied by the value of a Laker half court possession, so:
3 * 0.873 = 2.619 points lost over three games, so 0.873 points lost per game due to these turnovers.
Totalling Up the Math
So from these 21 total pass aheads (including the three turnovers) we’ve had a gain of 5.292 points and a loss of 2.619 points. Overall that’s plus 2.673 points in three games, or 0.891 points per game.
0.891 points per game isn’t much of an impact at all. This isn’t to say that’s the only value added by Zo’s passing, since we’re not at all looking at his half court passing or even his passing as the transition ball handler. From pass-aheads alone, Ball is adding a little less than a made free throw to the Lakers score a game so far.
If we want to be creative with math and say that the turnover on Lonzo’s pass to Brewer was Brewer’s fault (which Pete points out that Brewer acknowledged) and we don’t want to count it against Lonzo, that impact goes up to 1.182 points per game. If we also say Clarkson and Ingram each convert the easy missed layups they missed on Lonzo’s pass-aheads, the impact goes up to 2.514 points per game.
Those last two hypotheticals didn’t actually happen, but should show how just 3 total changed outcomes can have a profound impact on the value we’re saying Lonzo is having due to the small sample. It also shows how if the team executes well, the impact of Ball’s passing can have a much more substantial impact than the data is saying it’s having right now.
Lonzo Ball Pass-Ahead Overall Impact
So are these passes having a significant impact? Not yet, but they probably will. It’ll take some time to get a solid sample of data together and for this Lakers team to build chemistry.
Over time, Lonzo will also likely sharpen his decision making skills and avoid throwing as many turnovers on these possessions. He already doesn’t have many, but minimizing those will add substantial value since the value gained by a successful one is just the difference between a half court possession and a transition possession, while the value lost by a turnover is an entire possession.
We already see the value Lonzo’s passing has on the court just purely looking at transition. As his execution and the team’s execution gets better and improved chemistry takes hold, I believe this impact will grow.
I believe over time this value will increase and stabilize around 2-3 points per game. That will depend on if the team can have around 24%-25% of their offensive possessions be from transition. LA did for the first two games of the season, but the team was held to 15% against New Orleans. In that game Lonzo only had 3 pass-aheads, compared to 9 a game in games one and two. If he can stay around 9 a game, a 3 point per game impact is very feasible.