clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

2017 Phoenix Suns Draft Profile: Can Lonzo Ball translate game to the NBA?

New, comments

Comparisons to Jason Kidd, Kendall Marshall highlight division around Ball’s potential

If you buy something from an SB Nation link, Vox Media may earn a commission. See our ethics statement.

NCAA Basketball: Washington State at UCLA Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports

Lonzo Ball.

Anyone who has followed college basketball or mock drafts even a little this year knows that name. He helped turn around a struggling UCLA Bruins program this year, leading them to the Sweet 16 in the 2017 NCAA Tournament. He was a first-team All-American as a freshman. He is a virtual consensus top 5 pick in the upcoming NBA Draft. He has been called a better player presently than Stephen Curry (well, by one guy anyway).

There is no denying that Ball has a unique set of skills, but the concern going into June 22 is whether those skills will translate as well to the NBA game. Some say yes, some say no, and one guy just says whatever pops into his head. That’s the Lonzo Ball situation in a nutshell.

Playmaking

First, watch this recent breakdown on Ball’s strengths by the great Mike Schmitz of Draftexpress.com

Nowhere does Ball set himself apart more from the rest of the 2017 class than with his ability and willingness to facilitate offense, posting 7.6 assists per game to lead the nation. He sees plays develop with an uncanny prescience and hits teammates with passes that maximize their ability to exploit the look at the basket. He is ambidextrous with his passing and accurate with one hand or two, with a 3-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio to show for it. And since he makes such quick decisions, defenses rarely have time to read the pass before it’s made.

On the fastbreak, Ball is a wizard. If he doesn’t kick it ahead with a pinpoint outlet pass, he will push the ball with gusto and find the best target out of those who ran with him, whether that means kicking it out to a shooter along the 3-point line or threading the needle to a cutter. On fastbreaks, his assist-to-turnover ratio improves to 4.1-to-1 according to DraftExpress.com and Synergy Sports Technology.

Ball’s wizardry begins to flounder, though, when the game slows down and he must operate out of half court sets. He became passive here at times with UCLA, simply standing on the weak side of the floor while teammates operated within the offense. The reason is because he struggles to create anything from a dead stop. He does not possess a killer first step to get past defenders on the perimeter and therefore cannot easily break down an opposing defense by himself.

Making matters worse is that he does not show the same aptitude for working around screens as other point guards in this draft class. According to DraftExpress, the pick and roll accounted for only 10.2 percent of Ball’s offense last season, and he turned it over on pick-and-roll possessions 32.7 percent of the time. His pick-and-roll fundamentals are lacking as well, with him loosely brushing by the screener and failing to turn a sharp corner — seemingly a by-product of a desire to operate in space (this will be a theme). He still does a passable job of facilitating in pick-and-roll sets, but he has not mastered any one element within it.

Ball can look brilliant on the court with his passing, ranking up there with the likes of Magic Johnson, Jason Kidd, and Steve Nash as innate playmakers. Put him in a half court offense, though, and his gifts become less special. He can still find players for good looks and might be one of the few players left who understands how to make quality entry passes to big men, but he makes system passes when not in transition and isn’t a good option to salvage a possession on his own. Even more alarming is how ill-equipped he seems at running the pick and roll, which is a staple of NBA offenses. Can he learn? Sure, but his aversion to contact will always be a limiting factor in how effective he can ultimately be navigating an NBA defense.

Here’s a good breakdown from Schmitz on Ball’s weaknesses in creating offense.

Check out youtube.com on Schmitz’ series on Ball to see a number of other weakness videos, including defensive physicality and streaky shooting.

Offense

When looking at Ball’s offensive game, one aspect immediately jumps out at any observer — his shooting stroke. It is simply abhorrent and an affront to Dr. James Naismith himself. Yet somehow that stroke, which despite being shot right-handed is released from the left side of his head, goes in. Although on the slow side, he shot 55.1 percent from the field with it (including 73.2 percent from 2-point range) and 41.2 percent from behind the 3-point line while displaying range out to around 30 feet. Science has vowed not to let this slap to the face of Isaac Newton and his laws of motion go unanswered.*

Moving past his shot (for now), Ball also scores well at the rim, where his height (6’6) and above average leaping ability allow him to take advantage of smaller point guards. This ability to score at and above the rim is especially pronounced in transition, but he also is adept at moving without the ball and was the recipient of a number of alley-oop passes in UCLA’s offense that came off backdoor cuts.

As a spot-up shooter, he proved dangerous as well. He wasn’t utilized like a Rajon Rondo playmaker and spent a fair amount of time off the ball for the Bruins. When defenders would sag off him to help, he connected on 44.6 percent of his catch-and-shoot opportunities according to DraftExpress and Synergy Sports.

But despite averaging 14.6 points last season for the top offensive team in the country, Ball is not a gifted scorer. To begin, he has no midrange to speak of, and this is said almost literally. Only eight of his shots in the half court (or three percent) were inside the arc jumpers as per DraftExpress. Basically, his offense is limited to 3-point shots and layups, and both of those options come with caveats, too.

When he attacks the basket, he does so in a straight line and tends to prefer playing north-south rather than east-west. When he does play east-west, he has a strong preference for going to his left that defenders can sit on. His ball-handling is a couple notches above rudimentary, and what dribble moves he does possess do little to help him get places on the court. Pick and rolls aren’t of much use to him, either, since he rarely looks for his own offense when coming off. And the biggest issue of all for him is a struggle to finish through contact. As such, he avoids contact on drives like a plague rat, as his 2.7 free throw attempts per game attest — which might not be the worst thing since he shot 67.3 percent from the free throw line.

His distaste for contact is not limited to his drives, though. Ball has an aversion to being crowded in general. When ball pressure is applied, he seeks a release in the form of a teammate instead of fighting through. And when taking a shot, he will almost never pull up with a man on him. Instead, he will look to create as much space as possible by losing his defender on screens or utilizing exaggerated step-back maneuvers that give him a wide birth to start his shot before the close out arrives. Obviously, any offensive player wants to create as much space as possible for a shot, but a complete unwillingness to shoot — or even operate offensively — when crowded is a detriment. Those 30-foot 3s he is so fond of are a result of his need for space, and as a result are a necessity of his game, not a luxury like they are for Stephen Curry.

It is fair to question how effective Ball will be as a scorer at the next level. He can develop some of what he lacks, but his own offense will always be a weakness when compared to his playmaking. Ball can blend seamlessly into a team with the right pieces and system already in place, but relying too heavily on his offensive game will only bring disappointment. Understanding that he isn’t wired to be a 20-point-per-game scorer is a start.

*This has not been confirmed by the spokesperson for science.

Defense

Ball averaged 1.8 steals and 0.8 blocks over his 36 games with UCLA. Those numbers aren’t gaudy, but they aren’t bad, either.

He uses his size (6’6 with a 6’8.5 wingspan) well against opponents, and his combination of sneaky athleticism and precision timing helps him block more shots than he seems capable of. That same anticipation leads him to getting steals or, at a minimum, deflections by darting into passing lanes or ambushing a ball-handler who has dropped his guard. His defensive instincts are likely a carryover from his ability to read and react to plays as they develop offensively.

He also wasn’t shy about venturing into the paint for rebounds last season (6.0 per game), but these were usually more of the opportunistic variety than the bully-ball variety.

Despite the positives, Ball has many of the same defensive issues that crop up with other guards at the top of the mock drafts. Ball can make the highlight defensive play, but his ability to dig in on that end of the court is suspect. He doesn’t fight through screens particularly well nor does he seem too concerned about keeping his man in front of him, content to chase from behind for a chance at another highlight-reel block rather than move his feet laterally and go chest to chest with his man. He can also lose focus when not guarding the ball and let his man burn him on cuts for easy opportunities. These moments arise when he doesn’t lock in on the defensive end of the court, almost like he’s waiting for the defensive stand to be over so he can run back on offense.

How much potential Ball has as a defender remains up for debate, too. His frame suggests he will profile more as a rangy defender, but while fast over distance, he doesn’t possess great burst speed or quickness, which will limit him at the NBA level against top-flight athletes. He could atone for this through tenacity, but as has already been established, Ball is not much for physicality and crowds. He already has a bad habit of allowing his man too much space, and based on trends in the rest of his game, it seems unlikely he will undergo a revelation in this regard once he reaches the pros.

Defense is the weakest part of Ball’s game, and it only gets worse when he allows mental lapses to compound his existing limitations. His best case scenario is probably as a slightly above-average defender, but it’s more likely teams will be hiding him on someone.

The elephant in the room

You all knew this section was coming. You know, the section about LaVar Ball and the Big Baller Brand. It’s a package deal with Lonzo.

Lonzo’s rather opinionated — and often bloviating — father, LaVar, made more than his share of headlines while his son attended UCLA. There was the time he said Lonzo could lead the Golden State Warriors to the NBA championship in place of Stephen Curry at that very moment. There was the time he said he’d “kill Michael Jordan one-on-one.” There was the time he strongly suggested Lonzo would only play for the Los Angeles Lakers. There was the time he started a beef with LeBron James about James’ kids.

And who can forget the billion-dollar demand LaVar was seeking from a shoe company to license his Big Baller Brand? Apparently everyone, since Nike, adidas, and Under Armour all decided to walk rather than negotiate. Nike’s George Raveling even said LaVar was “the worst thing to happen to basketball in the last hundred years.” LaVar responded the only way he knew — by comparing his brand to Uber. When giant corporations all pass on an opportunity to profit because of you, there might be a problem.

But for all the headlines his comments produce, it’s mostly noise. What could be of more concern is how LaVar reportedly insinuated himself into the Chino Hills High School team his two younger sons play for. Despite the team’s 30-3 record last season, tension simmered between the head coach and LaVar, who apparently undermined the coach on multiple occasions. The coach was fired in late April.

That is a problem. If Lonzo struggles out of the gate in the NBA, there is nothing stopping LaVar from hitting the media circuit and blaming Lonzo’s team (in his own, special way) for not using him correctly. Or from threatening contract holdouts down the line. Or from demanding trades. He’s already proven he’s not above garnering headlines whether his children want him to or not. Strong teams with established hierarchies would probably brush it all aside, but teams with young coaches and vulnerable GMs might not survive the firestorm unscathed.

It remains unlikely LaVar could exert anything close to the same influence in the NBA he could on a high school team, but a headache is a headache is a headache. LaVar’s presence probably won’t sway teams from drafting Lonzo, especially teams that are high on him, but it certainly does nothing to help.

Final Analysis

Upon entering the NBA, Lonzo Ball will immediately be one of the top visionaries in the league, and that has teams salivating over what effect he might have on the rest of a roster. But questions about how the remainder of Ball’s game will translate to the NBA are not without validity. He has gaping holes in his game that will be exposed at the next level, and it is unclear whether he can mitigate those shortcomings enough to prevent them from outweighing his clear strengths.

Even if Ball were never to improve his game, he would still likely never be a complete bust the same way other washouts have been. But when picking from a pool of very talented players at the top of a draft like this one, no one selecting Ball will be satisfied with a solid role player. Teams are going to expect Jason Kidd 2.0. The question every team will wrestle with until Draft Night is whether the reality will ever match the hype.

Advice: temper expectations.