Just two seasons ago, UCLA star point guard Lonzo Ball was taken with the No. 2 overall pick in the 2017 Draft by the Los Angeles Lakers, ahead of Jayson Tatum, Josh Jackson and De’Aaron Fox, as well as Donovan Mitchell, Jarrett Allen, John Collins and Lauri Markannen.
Ball was the Lakers’ third consecutive No. 2 overall pick and fourth Top-7 pick since 2015. The first two of those picks — Julius Randle and D’Angelo Russell — are already out of the Lakers organization for nothing in return, while Brandon Ingram and Ball were offered in trade when the Lakers famously went after Anthony Davis of the Pelicans.
Even now, Ball is still the subject of rumors. The Lakers front office is in disarray after Magic Johnson, the man who drafted Ball, walked away so he could have more freedom to tweet. This summer is key for the Lakers as they try to make the most of the 34-year-old LeBron James’ last productive seasons. They could swap someone like Ball either for a veteran or high draft pick that they can flip in a separate deal for a veteran.
One flimsy rumor had the Suns and Bulls offering their lottery picks, No. 6 and No. 7 respectively, for Ball, but the Suns side was quickly shot down by local radio host John Gambadoro, who cites sources within the organization as having no interest in swapping Ball for the the No. 6 pick.
Why would the Lakers, who already have the No. 4 pick, want to add the No. 6 pick for Ball when they really want to get older and not younger? There’s no way the Lakers would actually start a rebuild before LeBron retires.
The Lakers are more likely to trade the No. 4 pick for a veteran star, so why not add the No. 6 pick too, right?
Is it possible the Lakers think the No. 6 pick is a better “big star” trade chip than Ball himself?
And, if the Lakers believe that, is it possible the Suns would rather keep the No. 6 pick than trade it for a young, starting-caliber point guard who can post a triple-double on any given night?
To the Suns, Ball would bring defense and incredible passing to a team in desperate need of those skills next to franchise star Devin Booker. Ball’s poor shooting could theoretically be hidden in a good offense while he’s setting up easy shots for Booker, T.J. Warren, Kelly Oubre Jr. and Deandre Ayton, much in the same way Jason Kidd had a Hall of Fame career without having any kind of shooting touch. Those are the reasons Ball went No. 2 overall two seasons ago.
As a 20-year-old rookie, Ball averaged 7.2 assists and 6.9 rebounds per game along with 10 points, leading the super-young Lakers to a 24-28 record when he played (versus 13-19 without him), despite being surrounded by a rookie coach in Luke Walton and fellow rookies and second year players like Kyle Kuzma, Josh Hart, Ivica Zubac and Brandon Ingram, among others. Their best veteran was Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. In year two, the Lakers went 24-23 with Ball in the lineup, including a three week stretch without LeBron James, versus 13-22 after Ball got injured.
But on the downside, Ball can’t shoot well, can’t finish at the rim and he’s lost so much confidence he doesn’t even want to take shots unless they’re wide open. He only shot 36 percent from the field as a rookie and improved only to 40 percent in year two. And, when he wasn’t the primary ball handler — as often happens with LBJ taking the reins — Ball’s lack of shooting ability really hurt his team.
Even worse, he keeps getting injured. Ball has played only 60 percent of the Lakers’ games over two seasons. His injury history rivals that of Warren — smallish injuries that seem to linger and too-often result in second-half shutdowns. Ball was shut down for the last 30-plus games this year with a left ankle injury. When he went down, the Lakers were still in the playoff picture, but Ball never came close to returning and soon the Lakers’ playoff hopes were over.
In a similar way to Ben Simmons in Philadelphia, any Ball-led team will need to be able to cover for his complete lack of threat as a shooter. Philly has won 50-plus games with Simmons as a triple-double threat who can defend multiple positions well, but get exposed come playoff time when teams bait the Sixers into making Simmons shoot.
Kidd had a very impactful career as a can’t-shoot point guard (40 percent for his entire career), including 12 All-Star games, an NBA Championship and two other Finals appearances.
I’m not saying Ball is the next Kidd or is as impactful as Simmons, but the skillsets are similar and they fit what the Suns need. If you think a 21-year old triple-double threat at point guard could help the Suns next season, now it’s time to figure out what he really is worth.
This year’s No. 6 pick rivals the value of the No. 4 and No. 8 picks in the 2016 Draft — a total crap shoot and just as likely to fail as succeed in producing an NBA rotation player.
Would you rather point guards Darius Garland or Coby White over Ball?
Or, if you’re a fan of trading the pick for a veteran point guard, would you rather swap the pick for Mike Conley — who also has dramatic injury history being 10 years older than Ball and is owed more than $30 million per year the next two years?
Or would you rather clear the decks, let Kelly Oubre Jr. go, and offer their max slot to restricted free agent D’Angelo Russell — whose game more resembles C.J. McCollum than Kidd or Simmons?
That’s the opportunity cost.
Now, let’s talk about Ball’s father, the primary reason I didn’t want Ball in Phoenix in recent years. I assumed that LaVar Ball would eat Ryan McDonough alive and hurt the Suns with his constant sniping at the roster and underdeveloped coaches like Earl Watson and Igor Kokoskov.
But can you imagine Lavar Ball ever getting under the skin of James Jones or Monty Williams? Me neither. I actually think that the Suns are in better shape to “manage” LaVar now more than they’ve been in a long time.
Personally, I would trade the No. 6 pick. Ball has more talent than anyone the Suns could draft at that pick.
I’d be much happier, though, simply swapping 2017 draft picks, giving them Josh Jackson for Ball. I don’t think the Lakers would take Jackson, though, considering they already have Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma and Josh Hart in that rotation and Jackson is no sure thing in case one of them falters.
If they want to get older to support LeBron, I’d give them T.J. Warren instead of Josh Jackson. Warren is 1000% times more predictable than Jackson, assuming he can stay healthy. Warren makes only a little more than Ball, and would be a consistent scoring sniper in a bench role or starting role for the “just in case” that Kuzma regresses or Ingram can’t come back from blood clots.
Now, that Monty Williams and James Jones have brought maturity and depth of character to the Suns organization, I have changed my mind on Ball and would love to see him playing next to Devin Booker next season.
To recap, in my opinion:
- Ball > this year’s No. 6 pick
- Ball > Jackson
- Ball > Warren for the 2019-20 Suns