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We’re Looking at Lonzo Ball’s Weaknesses All Wrong

Lonzo Ball is the most unconventional prospect that I’ve ever seen, and it isn’t particularly close, a sentiment that Nate Duncan & Mike Schmitz echoed on recent episodes of the Laker Film Room Podcast. Rarely do you find such a well-regarded lead guard prospect with such a low Usage Rate (18.1%), who’s generally uninspiring in a “this guy can get me a bucket when I need it” sense.

He’s statistically staggering, on both ends of the spectrum. His 67.3% True Shooting Percentage is nearly unprecedented for a freshman PG in a major conference. He led the nation in assists, despite not dominating the ball the way that most PGs do. His Offensive Rating was a jaw-dropping 131.3.

Yet the extremity of his statistics can be as anxiety provoking as they are mind-blowing, a fact that is exacerbated by his bizarre shooting mechanics. He took 8 mid range jumpers all year. He turned the ball over on 32.7% of the possessions that he used in the Pick & Roll. The aforementioned Usage Rate. Why should we trust a guy that we can’t rely on as a scorer who also turns the ball over with frequency on the NBA’s most common play with the 2nd pick in the NBA Draft? Because those criticisms aren’t valid in the first place, and we’ve been looking at those perceived weaknesses through the lens of volume rather than effectiveness.

Mid Range Game

The notion that Lonzo Ball’s infrequency from mid range is evidence of his ineptitude needs to be turned on its head. The ability to avoid taking shots from an area that is well-established to have a low Points Per Possession return is a good thing. The goal of a defense is to surrender the longest, most well contested 2-point shots possible, preferably off of the dribble. Conversely, the best offenses in the NBA seek the Holy Trinity of shot attempts: free throws, layups/dunks, & open 3-pointers.

It’s no coincidence that UCLA’s historically productive offense was conducted by a player who eschewed mid range shots in exchange for those more efficient looks. This mentality contributed heavily to his low Usage Rate, as he consistently passed up a decent shot to get a great one for either himself or a teammate.

But the reality of the NBA is that sometimes the defense DOES win a possession, forcing a mid range shot with a respectable contest, and that happens more frequently than it does in college due in part to the shorter shot clock. So the question is…can Ball hit these shots if he needs to?

We don’t have a definitive answer to that question, but this is what we do know:

  • 4-8 on his mid range jumpers. (4-7 vs. Man Defense)
  • 6-12 (62.5 aFG%) on his pull up jumpers off of pick & rolls.
  • 3-3 on runners off of the pick & roll.
  • 56-122 (45.9%) on 3pt attempts that were between the college & NBA lines.

In most respects, the sample sizes are too small to draw any conclusions…and that’s the point. He’s anywhere from respectable to downright good from a percentage perspective, so the only basis for the notion that his mid range game is a weakness is due to his miniscule volume, in area where avoiding volume is a good thing.

Pick & Roll Play

Lonzo Ball’s pick & roll play is the most misinterpreted part of his game, as he’s often portrayed as an ineffectual scorer who can’t create off of ball screens. The reality is that his Points Per Possession data in pick & rolls looks like this:

UCLA’s pick & rolls were designed were to maximize shot attempts to spot up shooters and roll men, while minimizing shot attempts for the ball handler, whether it was Ball running the pick & roll or someone else. These are far more efficient shots than having the ball handler shoot off of a pick & roll, and Ball did well to maximize these attempts.

Ball can score when he needs to. He isn’t going to break down a hedging big with a devastating inside-out dribble, or split a trap with a low & tight crossover, but he’s very good at identifying and exploiting the mistakes in pick & roll coverages. He’s at his best in the pick & roll when the hedging big leaves before the screened guard has recovered. Watch as he attacks the defensive big right as that big starts to recover to his man.

The presence of TJ Leaf and Thomas Welsh reduced the necessity for Ball to pull-up from mid range off of pick & rolls to virtually nothing, due to their pick & pop ability. Regardless of whether or not the opposing big is hedging hard or dropping back into the paint, a popping big can exploit defensive pick & roll coverages in a way that makes the pull-up jumper a secondary option.

The circumstances with the Lakers are quite different, with no credible 3-point threat amongst their bigs and only decent mid range threats in Timofey Mozgov & Ivica Zubac. As a result, Ball will likely have to be more of a scorer in pick & roll situations if he ends up in Los Angeles. On this play, he snakes the pick & roll to rid himself of the back pressure from the trailing defensive guard, and knocks down the jumper.

Ball’s biggest weakness in the pick & roll is his propensity to settle for stepback 3’s when switched onto a big. He’d be well served to improve his inside-out dribble and hesitation moves as a counter to the stepback, which would allow him to attack the basket when the big applies ball pressure.

NCAA Division 1 analytics guru and Laker Film Room contributor Cranjis McBasketball has done a ton of great work on Ball’s pick & roll abilities that I highly recommend. The statistical case for his pick & roll ability is strong.

Quality in Quantity

Lonzo Ball’s basketball ethos is simple and devastatingly effective. He’s constantly seeking the most efficient shot, for either himself or his teammates, has a strong grasp on what those shots are, and knows how to get them. Despite arriving there in a different manner, his statistical profile is quite similar to Steve Nash’s, as a highly efficient scorer on low volume that maximizes the opportunities of the entire team. He can shoot from mid range…he just knows that should be the last resort. He can create quality looks on the pick & roll…but they’re usually for others.

And if you’re wondering why he doesn’t do those things more often, you’re missing the point.

Jayson Tatum Scouting Report

By: Mike Garcia

Source: http://www.draftexpress.com/profile/Jayson-Tatum-7249/ ©DraftExpress

Size comparison: Aaron Gordon.

Aaron Gordon was listed at 6’8.75” with shoes, 220 lbs, with a 6’11.75” wingspan and an 8’9” standing reach at the 2014 NBA draft combine. While Gordon was roughly 15 lbs. heavier at the time of measurement, they do have similar frames, wingspan, and standing reach.

General Athleticism: I like to breakdown athleticism into multiple categories: directional quickness (first step), lateral quickness, sprint speed, vertical ability, reflexes/timing, and strength.

In terms of athleticism, Jayson Tatum is a slightly above average athlete. He doesn’t have breakaway speed or quickness. When he attacks the basket off the dribble, the defender is right there at his hip. Whether it was a PF or SF matchup in the half court, he uses a skill move to gain an advantage on the defender, instead of relying on a great first step. In terms of explosiveness, it only shows in breakaway space, as Tatum is the classic “smooth” athlete in the open floor, but also quick in tight spaces when it comes to using jab steps or a combination of triple threat/isolation fundamentals.

Tatum does have good lateral agility, and it shows when he switches onto wings defensively. However, because his footwork and stance aren’t consistent, he is still prone to being beaten off the dribble by quicker wings.

His footwork and coordination are underrated aspects of his athleticism, and while that, unfortunately, doesn’t show on the defensive end, to his credit, he doesn’t trip over his own feet when using his best skill on offense: creating shots in isolation.

Tatum has solid speed in the open court. He is able to explode up for a dunk when he sets his mind to it and chops up his steps. When he uses longer strides, whether it’s in transition or the half court, he loses a lot of ability to generate explosiveness, but perhaps that could be helped with NBA training.

His strength is average at best. He does get pushed around a touch by NCAA power forwards, and that’ll be further exposed at the NBA level. Still, Tatum does have a frame that should be able to support added weight fairly easily.


 


Offensive Skill Set

Per Game Table
Season FG% 3P% FT% TRB AST STL BLK TOV PTS
2016-17 .452 .342 .849 7.3 2.1 1.3 1.1 2.6 16.8
Career .452 .342 .849 7.3 2.1 1.3 1.1 2.6 16.8

Painted Area: Despite Tatum’s lack of “elite” athletic ability, one-third of his total shots are at the rim, where he converts at a 62% rate. Only 29.3% of his shots at the rim are assisted, which gives an indication about his shot creating ability.

He tends to finesse shots at the rim, especially considering that his attacks come from different angles, not straight lines down the middle to the hoop.

Mid-range to Long 2: This is where Tatum excels. If there is one absolute NBA translatable skill in his arsenal, it’s his Isolation footwork to create a shot. 34.8% of his total shots are from 3’ to 21’. While it’s regarded as a low PPP shot, he shot better than fellow Duke guards Grayson Allen and Frank Jackson from this range, converting on 39.4%. Perhaps even more impressively, only 12% of these shots are assisted.

While those are good numbers to think about, what is even more impressive is how he creates those shots. These aren’t typical catch and shoot or pull-up shots off the dribble. Jayson Tatum finished in the top 99th percentile at the NCAA level for post scoring. His operating spaces on the floor are the exact same spaces where Kobe Bryant used to operate. The midrange areas along the baselines, the corners, and around the top of the key, all look like his go-to spots.

Two games stick out for me when it comes to Jayson Tatum. There’s his game against Florida, where we see a snippet of some great footwork with a midrange fadeaway jumper against Canyon Barry, and another shimmy, left-hand dribble, pull up shot from midrange. This is Tatum out of high school for a December 6, 2016 game.

 

Then, there’s his game against Virginia. Here he played a more modern style of basketball with more catch and shoot opportunities behind the arc. He hit 6 of 7. But, when Duke needed him to create shots behind the arc, he was their #1 option, and hit 2 dagger shots off of Iso creation.

 

 

3-point Range: Right now, he is a streaky shooter. For roughly about a month, from February into March, he was getting different looks at the hoop, especially in terms of catch and shoot volume. At one point, his 3-point percentage rocketed from 34% to 39% in a short string of games. Unfortunately, he finished at 34.1% for the season. Like I said, he’s streaky, but if free throw percentage is a future predictor of 3-point shooting, he has great potential. He has a high release point, a comfortable shot form, and shot 84.9% for the season.
Playmaking: Earlier in the season, Tatum played as if there were no other teammates on the floor. It was only Jayson Tatum and the hoop. As the season progressed, Tatum added subtle playmaking skills, usually in the form of 1-2 dribble drives to draw in the defense, and kick out to Luke Kennard or Grayson Allen.  In January, he averaged 1.75 assists on 3.375 turnovers per game. In February, it jumped up to 2.8 assists to 2.25 turnovers per game. While it’s not the most outstanding number, it is a reflection of how his style of play adapted midseason, and he showed tremendous improvement with it.

Advanced Table
Season School PER
TS% eFG% 3PAr FTr ORB% DRB% TRB% AST% STL% BLK% TOV% USG% OBPM DBPM BPM
2016-17 Duke 22.0 .566 .507 .321 .381 4.8 19.7 12.6 12.4 2.3 3.2 15.0 26.2 3.5 4.1 7.5


Defensive Skill Set

Right now, he’s getting by on physical tools and some fundamentals. Defending post players is a bit out of the question, especially at his listed 204lb. weight. Unlike Aaron Gordon, he doesn’t compensate with great footwork or defensive motor.

When Tatum switches onto other wings or guards, especially on pick and rolls, it seems like there’s a 50/50 chance he’ll be successful. He has the athleticism to contest shots, but that athleticism goes to waste if he doesn’t play as engaged, carries an upright stance, or properly moves his feet laterally.

What catches players off guard is his ability to contest jump shots. Down the line, he may be a bit more foul prone, as he is surprisingly adept at blocking a few shots from the perimeter, and in the paint. He’s not the most disciplined defender, and like most young basketball players plays defense with his wingspan and reach instead of position and footwork.

Considering his athletic tools, he is capable of being a solid team defender. He may surprise with the occasional steal or blocked shot, but it doesn’t come naturally to him. What is critical is the foot speed to keep up with small forwards and some strength to keep up with some power forwards, while maintaining the ability to switch defensively on pick and roll. That would be enough to keep him on the floor without being a total liability.


Rebounding: In terms of rebounding, he is solid at best. He’s not the type to chase down rebounds, however, much like Julius Randle, he has a solid defensive rebound rate (19.7% to 24.7%), and loves to push into early transition after a rebound. His offensive rebound rate is below average, at just 4.8%. Some of that has to do with his isolation shot creation, and some has to do with shot selection, with 1/3rd of his shots coming behind the arc, and another 1/3rd from midrange.


Conclusion

When I watch Jayson Tatum, I think of three words, “Paul George touches.” When I watch PG13 highlights against Tatum’s highlights, I can’t help but see the similarity in shot creation and shot selection. George is certainly smoother off the dribble and a better finisher at the hoop, while Tatum is just more advanced in terms of footwork. Ideally, he would become a legitimate scoring option, a go-to-guy, as he has shown for Duke throughout the season.

There are some issues that he’s a tweener, and that he lacks a degree of athleticism to play small forward. He’s still young, and while he lacks tremendous twitch, he is able to make plays on both ends of the floor. That’s a testament to his skill level and IQ. He’s certainly not a slouch, and frankly, I don’t see how his athleticism is too far different from Caron Butler in his heyday or Trevor Ariza now. The difference is, there’s still room to grow.

Some may think of him as Markieff Morris or Tobias Harris. These comparisons surprise me, but while I see some similarity in terms of athletic ability and size, I don’t recall either guy being a great shot creator. Markieff Morris shot insanely as a junior; 62.5% 2-point and 40.4% 3-point at Kansas. Tobias Harris, on the other hand, never really showed off-the-dribble Isolation shooting or step-back fadeaways during his tenure at the University of Tennessee. If anything, I think these are worst-case scenarios.

So, what is the best-case scenario? Tatum could be a 4/3 that could defend pick and roll solidly, provide a limited level of rim protection and defensive rebounding, but become an absolute nightmare on the offensive end. He can push into early offense off of a defensive rebound. He can spot up behind the arc off of guard creation. He can go to his corners and create a solid percentage look in isolation. His offensive abilities lean-to a guy that should be a 20-point per game scorer for his career. His most underrated ability is the guard-like skill of shooting off the dribble at a frontline position. The fact that he showed success in a modern NBA style while being a 2nd or even a 3rd option on offense behind Grayson Allen and Luke Kennard shows that his talent can be flexible into different styles as well.

There’s tremendous value in a 20 ppg player at a front-line position who can score at all three levels.