Many Laker fans have clamored for D’Angelo Russell to move to SG since he was drafted, where he can tap into his natural scoring ability without the burden of running the offense. To that end, Lonzo Ball represents the “pure PG” who can facilitate this change, capable of orchestrating the action just as he did at UCLA, and thereby establishing the natural order of the Laker backcourt for the next decade.
Not so fast.
Ball is a remarkable facilitator in transition, whipping advance passes up court that are as effective as they are simple. He has unparalleled spatial intelligence for a 19 year old, and punishes the transgressions of cheating defenders with swift adjudications that put his teammates in the advantageous position of attacking opponents whose feet are not set.
Yet the requirements of the PG position go beyond the gifts that court vision and unselfishness can bestow upon others, and Ball is lacking in two critical areas: the pick & roll, and making reads out of organized sets.
The latter concerns me less than the former does. Few college offenses are nearly as sophisticated as their NBA equivalents, a fact that is exacerbated by the prevalence of zone defenses and the talent discrepancies between respective NCAA programs. College PGs get relatively little experience making the type of reads against high caliber man defenses that they need to make in the pros, so there is an inevitable learning curve that all of them experience as they transition to the NBA. Despite his considerable talents, I don’t expect Lonzo Ball to be any different in this respect. UCLA’s offense is relatively basic, and the lion’s share of his half court responsibility involves delivering the ball to shooters as they come off of pin-down screens.
The half court decisions that he is required to make don’t extend far beyond this and a couple of other simple actions. Teams have also taken to running a good deal of zone against the Bruins, which require a different set of reads from Ball which are not as directly translatable to the next level. I have little doubt that he will be able to adapt, as many less talented players have before him, but to expect him to be capable of immediately navigating NBA defenses while orchestrating an NBA offenses is unrealistic.
My pick & roll concerns have deeper roots. Prior to UCLA, he took the basketball world by storm at Chino Hills High School, with an unconventional style of play that included 70-foot outlet passes, 30-foot three point attempts, blistering pace…and very few ball screens, which is a phenomenon that has persisted during his time in Westwood. In the 5 games that I charted, he was involved in just 18 ball screens or handoffs, a remarkably low number relative to his position, generating just 13 points (0.72 PPP). The NBA game is far more pick & roll intensive than college is, and he will need to add this to his repertoire in order to fulfill his potential as a PG.
This is where Ball’s unusual shooting form will likely hurt him the most.
Ball is notoriously reticent to shoot mid range jumpers, which on its surface demonstrates an understanding of what constitutes a good shot, but the reality of the NBA is that sometimes the defense is going to succeed in protecting both the basket and the 3-point line over the course of 24 seconds. Quite often, that mid range look is all that is available, especially if a team is incapable of spacing the floor out to the 3-point line at 4 or 5 different positions. One of the means by which NBA defenses accomplish this is by soft hedging/corralling pick & rolls, with the defensive guard fighting over the screen and the big hanging back in the paint.
If Lonzo Ball has taken this type of shot in an organized game, I haven’t seen it. While there is danger in speculating about something that player doesn’t do, the individual components of his shot don’t translate toward this part of his game developing particularly well. He typically uses a step-back move to create space on his pull-up 3-point attempts, but that is not available against a soft hedge due to the back pressure from the defensive guard. Furthermore, the additional space is necessary for him due to his shooting stroke, which crosses both his body and his head on the way up, and can be bothered throughout that process as a result by the hedging/corralling big.
Ball’s workaround for this is a teardrop off of one foot. These shots are typically very low percentage, with few exceptions.
His ability to attack switches is questionable as well, as he possesses an average first step and good-but-not-great moves off of the dribble. This was the most common coverage that he faced in the games that I charted, where he was usually only capable of attacking opposing 5’s with a stepback jumper. One of the most significant differences between NCAA and NBA level talent is the mobility of the big men, so if he’s struggling to get a decent shot off against switches at UCLA, it could be very problematic in the pros.
Lonzo Ball’s difficulty against soft hedges and switches both point toward the same conclusion: the NBA is going to make him prove that he can score on them when he has the ball in his hands.
I am more bullish on him as a spot up shooter than most, and believe that the negative effects of his shooting stroke are mostly counteracted by his excellent footwork and tremendous range. His ability to hit from 30+ feet compromises the defense regardless of how they decide to defend him. If they help off of him, he’s quick to get the shot up, capable of converting at a high rate, and the defender won’t be close enough for his shooting stroke to be disadvantageous. If they stay at home on him, he has now effectively spaced the floor for teammates by taking a help defender much farther away from the basket than they would usually be.
He has some catch & shoot ability coming off of screens as well, where he uses quality footwork to quickly get into his shot, and often leans back a bit to mitigate against the contestability of his shooting stroke. Despite that fact, his success at the NBA level will likely be determined by how much space he’s able to create prior to the catch.
As counterintuitive as it may seem, Lonzo Ball’s limitations in the pick & roll, inexperience running a pro-style offense, and spot up shooting ability may lead him to begin his career as a PG in transition, but a SG in half court situations.
The Lakers are an ideal fit to mask his offensive deficiencies and accentuate his positive attributes. Ball isn’t nearly as ball dominant as you might expect from a player who is amongst the NCAA leaders in assists per game, and has a great feel for back cuts and counters off of the ball. If Luke Walton wants to go further down the path of the Golden State Warriors, who run more off-ball screens and fewer on-ball screens than nearly every other team in the league, a D’Angelo Russell/Lonzo Ball backcourt would go a long way toward achieving that. Russell’s immersive education in pick & roll play and offensive organization over the last 6 months minimizes Ball’s weaknesses and inexperience, Ball impacts the game in transition in a way that Russell never will, and both can spot up and work as a cutter while the other runs the show. Their biggest collective weakness is the ability to get to the basket off of the dribble, which certainly matters, but isn’t a fatal flaw within a Laker offense that presumably seeks to emulate the ball and player movement of the Warriors more than it’s been capable of with their existing talent.
Lonzo Ball’s effectiveness in the NBA may largely hinge on who drafts him. Much of his success at UCLA is predicated on simply making the “right play” over and over again, and getting the ball to excellent NCAA-level finishers (Leaf, Holiday, Alford, etc.) in advantageous positions, where they can exploit a closeout or mismatch through the force of their own talents. In many ways, Ball’s value is proportional to the talent that he’s surrounded by, so a team like Brooklyn, with limited talented that could desperately use a sun for their planets to orbit, could be disastrous for his career. Conversely, he could fit in seamlessly with a talented older team (Boston), which is unusual for a player his age, or become a foundational piece for a young team with a collection of weapons surrounding him. (Lakers, Phoenix, Minnesota)
But make no mistake…Ball is a genius, and I do no throw that term around lightly.
His court vision, spatial awareness, intelligence, and unselfishness draw rightful comparisons to NBA greats like Magic Johnson & Jason Kidd. He has almost single-handedly changed the culture of UCLA basketball, turning them from a group of mismatched individual talent into a cohesive and historically effective offense. Even his ability to make open 3’s from NBA range have an application in the modern game, despite his unique delivery. Yet his inexperience in running the most common of NBA plays is worrisome, and the aforementioned shooting form may very well prevent him from growing significantly in this area. This enormous polarization within his skill set makes him one of the more fascinating prospects in years, with the potential to make both his supporters and skeptics look spectacularly wrong in retrospect.
Ultimately, an NBA team will have to ask itself two questions before they draft Lonzo Ball:
- Can he fit into what we do, or do we need to adopt an entirely different style of play that is built around him?
- Can a PG be a star player if he can’t score effectively on the pick & roll?
I’m glad that my job doesn’t depend on being able to answer either of them correctly.
Coming Soon: Lonzo Ball Scouting Report – Defense