There has been a lot of fawning over Lonzo Ball lately and…I’m going to keep the trend alive today. Ball’s summer league wasn’t just impressive because he put up good numbers or that he ended up winning the MVP. It’s not even that the team won the Vegas championship. Of course those things matter, but it being the summer, what was more important to me was the process of how those things came about, not necessarily that they came about at all.
Which brings us back to Lonzo and the small things he was doing on multiple possessions a game which ended up helping his team.
A quick tangent, I don’t watch much soccer anymore, but I was a junkie when I was a kid. I played all the time and watched the game a ton. Soccer helped me understand basketball better, especially the concepts of counter attacks and creating advantage by passing into space. While soccer helped me with hoops in other ways too (angles, understanding foot work and quick ball movement), it was these ideas of taking advantage of spacing with passing and countering your opponent which stuck with me for a long time.
This brings me back to Lonzo and his summer league play. My podcast partner Pete Zayas of Laker Film Room fame recently made a video that he describes as a compilation of “any pass that Lonzo Ball made in summer league which gave the Lakers an advantage”. Pete adds that the pass did not need to lead to an assist directly, but was just a pass which looked like it gave the Lakers an edge on any given play. You should watch it:
First of, that thing is 12 and a half minutes! That’s a lot of passing which, in Pete’s view, gave the Lakers an advantage. I agree almost fully with all the plays he included, but even if you don’t the video speaks to something that I’ve had some trouble verbalizing since Lonzo really started to find his stride in Vegas (around game 2).
One of themes of Lonzo’s play while at UCLA and what made him such a good prospect heading into the draft is his ability to capitalize on teams’ defensive mistakes. Take a wrong angle? Mess up your P&R coverage? Over-help in the paint? Stray too far in any direction on the weakside? Lose discipline in transition? Yeah, you’re toast because Lonzo’s ability to read the floor and his skill as a passer allow him to pounce almost instantaneously.
But, what this video also shows is how Lonzo helps create mistakes by the defense; how his throwing the ball into space to teammates who have an ability to make a move in the open court puts the onus on the defense to then make the right decisions consistently. What makes this difficult is how easy it is to panic or get caught off-guard by an offensive player running full speed at you when you’re not set defensively. Decisions need to be made in an instant and, when that’s the case, it is easier to falter.
Further, it’s hard to overstate how easy it is to lose discipline in transition and semi-transition defensively. Often teams are a bit relaxed (especially after they’ve scored) and it takes them a moment to find their man, read where the ball is, and then act accordingly. This moment of letting your guard down, however, is when Ball throws the ball ahead and suddenly defenders are put in compromised positions. This can lead to both mental and physical breakdowns which allow the offense to make a positive play.
How all of this translates to the regular season can’t be known now, but I’d argue these things are still going to work. Remember, not many teams in the league will play this style. The Warriors and the Rockets (and maybe the Nuggets) will play with this type of pace, but that’s a fraction of the teams in the league. Opponents are going to play the Lakers and experience a fairly large difference in style from the team they saw the night before. That takes some adjusting and, in some cases, I’d bet teams won’t really find their stride quickly. That doesn’t mean the Lakers are going to win a ton of games they shouldn’t, but I do believe it will help their competitiveness from night to night.
To be honest, even after watching a ton of tape on Ball, I didn’t really get a great feel for how his relentlessness as a passer played over the course of a game. Seeing it in Vegas, though, offered more perspective. And seeing him consistently put defenses in disadvantageous positions by not only capitalizing on their mistakes, but leading them to the point of making them, was a sight to see. And it’s something I can’t wait to see more of.