For three straight minutes, Lonzo Ball had the Knicks eating out of the palm of his hand.
The score was tied at the midpoint of the third quarter. Ball was having a quiet performance to that point of the game, but a turnover by Jarrett Jack ignited a personal 7-0 scoring run. It began with Ball running the full length of the court and throwing down a one-handed alley-oop from Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. He then made Jack pay for going under a Brook Lopez screen by draining a deep 3-pointer, only to follow it up by making Jack pay for going over a Lopez screen by attacking the basket and weaving his way around Enes Kanter for a smooth layup.
The fact that Ball didn’t score another point in the quarter didn’t prevent his fingerprints from being all over the game. Terrified of him getting open again, the Knicks sent two defenders at him on the next offensive possession, paving the way for Ball to set Lopez up perfectly for a 3-pointer when he popped to the perimeter. The Lakers ran another pick-and-pop between Ball and Lopez, although this time the Knicks had Courtney Lee leave Caldwell-Pope on the opposite wing to help out. Lopez drew both Kanter and Lee out to the perimeter with a pump fake and set Caldwell-Pope up with a wide open 3-pointer that he ended up missing.
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The score was still tied at the end of those three minutes, but it served as a reminder of what Ball, the No. 2 pick in the 2017 NBA Draft, is capable of when he puts it all together. Ball had experienced more downs than ups in the 25 games leading up to the Lakers’ nationally televised game against the Knicks at Madison Square Garden, so much so that some were already wondering if he was a bust. While those conversations were premature — Ball has been a different player in the 10 games since and has plenty more room to grow — it goes to show how much of a roller coaster his rookie season has been thus far.
With that in mind, let’s take a closer look at what Ball has displayed on both ends of the floor with the Lakers to get a better understanding of his long-term potential in the NBA.
An inconsistent scorer
Ball is currently averaging 10.2 points per game on 35.6 percent shooting from the field and 30.3 percent shooting from the perimeter. Of the 161 players who are averaging at least 10.0 points per game this season, nobody has converted their overall shot attempts at a lower rate than Ball. He is near the bottom of that list in 3-point percentage as well, but most of the players below him — such as Julius Randle, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Jusuf Nurkic — spend little to no time on the perimeter.
All of this is to say that Ball has struggled to score with any sort of consistency this season, which shouldn’t come as a huge surprise to anyone who followed him at UCLA. (Two of the biggest concerns about Ball’s game heading into the 2017 NBA Draft centered around his jump shot and his ability to create for himself in the half court.)
While Ball has incredible size for a point guard, he’s not the type of athlete who can blow by defenders off the dribble and plow through rim protectors in the paint. Throw a streaky jump shot into the mix, and it’s no wonder why he has spent most of this season in the record books for the wrong reasons.
You can see how it impacts him on plays like this:
Lopez creates a driving lane for Ball by setting a great screen on his defender, but Ball doesn’t have the burst to take advantage when Mike James gets caught up in Lopez’s screen. James recovers before Ball is able to get into the paint and forces the Lakers rookie to adjust his shot by swiping at the ball, delaying him long enough for Dragan Bender, a 7-footer averaging 0.6 blocks per game this season, to slide over from the weak side and block his floater.
Bender’s block highlights another one of Ball’s limitations: He can finish above the rim when given space to gather, but he’s not as explosive of a leaper in traffic. It explains why Ball has had his shot blocked 28 times in the restricted area this season, an incredibly high number considering he’s only attempted 134 shots at the rim. It doesn’t help that Ball avoids contact on drives to the basket. To go along with getting his shot blocked frequently in the restricted area, he’s averaging only 1.4 free throw attempts per game this season, and he’s made 48.0 percent of those opportunities.
Being able to pull-up from midrange and the perimeter would go a long way in unlocking Ball’s offense, but he’s made only 31.0 percent of those attempts this season. Until he proves he can make a higher portion of those shots, teams will continue to go under every screen he’s involved in and dare him to beat them from distance.
The same goes for when he doesn’t have the ball in his hands. Ball has been slightly more efficient on catch-and-shoot 3-point attempts this season, and yet teams still don’t show him much respect from distance. It allows his defender to help off him and clog the lane whenever one of his teammates put the ball on the floor, as Kris Dunn does here:
The good news is Ball has shown signs of improvement as a shooter this season. Whereas he shot 30.8 percent from the field and 23.0 percent from the perimeter in his first 18 games of his NBA career, he has made 40.8 percent of his field goal attempts and 36.1 percent of his 3-point attempts in the 18 games since. He has looked more confident shooting 3-pointers on the catch and off the dribble as the season has progressed, and he’s even flashed some creativity as a shooter…
… and as a finisher in the paint.
Until he’s more comfortable attacking shot blockers, Ball would be wise to develop an in-between game. He’s made only 26.9 percent of his floaters thus far, but it’s not a shot that was in his arsenal in college. Much like the rest of his offensive game, Ball has the potential to develop into a capable midrange scorer, but the transformation isn’t going to happen overnight.
An unselfish player
If you thought Ball’s inconsistencies as a scorer would prevent him from making an impact on offense, you’d be wrong.
Ball’s vision was one of his greatest strengths coming into the 2017 NBA Draft, and it has translated well to the NBA. He is currently one of 10 players averaging at least 7.0 assists per game, and he’s one of eight players averaging at least 13.0 potential assists per game. Ball has done a decent job of taking care of the ball, too, with an average of 2.6 assists per turnover. It’s not as high as someone like Chris Paul, who has an assist-to-turnover ratio of 3.6, but it puts him on the same page as Draymond Green, Kemba Walker, Jimmy Butler and John Wall.
Ball is unique in today’s NBA in that he’s a pass-first point guard, not a score-first point guard. He’s constantly looking for his teammates, and he’s proven that he can set them up with high-percentage looks in a variety of ways.
Send multiple defenders at him in transition, where he generates 21.3 percent of his own offense, and he’ll rifle a one-handed pass off the dribble to an open shooter in the corner. Crash on his drives in the halfcourt, and he’ll make the right read, whether it’s to the big man rolling to the basket, the cutter camping out in the dunker spot or the shooter hanging out on the wing.
The best part about Ball’s passing? The ball doesn’t stick in his hands. According to NBA.com, he averages 3.98 seconds per touch and 3.37 dribbles per touch, both of which are low marks for someone who generates as many assists as he does. It makes him an easy player to build around — especially if he continues to trend upwards as a spot-up shooter — because he’s a point guard who doesn’t need to dominate the ball to get the most out of his teammates.
Ball’s go-ahead passes are a perfect example of that. To go along with his 7.1 assists per game, Ball has already established himself as a walking triple-double with an average of 7.1 rebounds per game. (The only guards pulling down a greater number of rebounds per game this season are Russell Westbrook and Ben Simmons, and Ball doesn’t possess Westbrook’s athleticism or Simmons’ size.) Ball has struggled to turn those rebounds into scoring opportunities for himself, but it didn’t take long for his teammates to learn that he will reward them with easy baskets if they take off as soon as he secures a defensive rebound.
There simply aren’t many players in the league who look to make this pass consistently:
Those go-ahead passes have made up a large portion of his turnovers this season, though. According to NBA.com, Ball has turned the ball over on 26.4 percent of his transition opportunities, the eighth-highest mark among players with at least 50 transition possessions. He has the vision and touch to pull off those passes, but he’ll sometimes throw it to a teammate who is covered by a defender or put too much heat on it, leading to a careless turnover.
Overall, Ball’s passing will become an even greater weapon for the Lakers as he improves as a scorer. He doesn’t have to be a dominant scorer to reach his full potential as an offensive player in the NBA. He just needs to be a good enough scorer for teams to respect him when he is open. Otherwise, teams will be able to contain him by taking away passing angles and forcing him to become a scorer whenever he makes a move toward the basket.
Rudy Gobert, who is one of the best defensive big men in the NBA, forced the turnover, but Ball had his mind set on passing it to Caldwell-Pope in the corner as soon as he picked up the ball. When he’s more confident in his ability to finish around the basket in those situations, he’ll take more of those shots. And when he takes more of those shots, defenders will start to respect his ability to score. And when they start to respect his ability to score, those types of passes will become much easier for him to make.
A switchy defender
Standing at 6-6 with a 6-9 wingspan, Ball is a menace as an off-ball defender.
The only rookies currently averaging more blocks per game than Ball (0.9) are Jonathan Isaac, Jordan Bell and John Collins. He is also second among rookies in deflections per game (2.5) and steals per game (1.5), trailing only Simmons, who is in a dead heat with Donovan Mitchell for Rookie of the Year, in those categories. Ball hasn’t lucked into those numbers, either. He has a good sense of where to be when he isn’t defending the ball, and he can pick errant passes out of the air with his long arms.
Just look at what he does on this possession:
Not only does Ball do the right thing initially by helping off Gary Harris to tag Mason Plumlee on the roll, he reads the play perfectly by anticipating Jamal Murray’s pass to Harris and picking it off mid-flight. It shows that he understands where he needs to be as a help defender and how he can use his physical tools to create transition opportunities for himself and his teammates.
Those same tools help Ball make plays around the basket. The only point guards to have blocked more shots than Ball this season are Simmons, Wall, Jrue Holiday and James Harden, and they have each played in more games than Ball. Being able to block shots isn’t as important for backcourt players as it is for frontcourt players, but it adds to his value as a help defender because he can make the occasional play at the rim when the defense collapses.
Ball is more limited as an on-ball defender — quicker guards have exposed him at times this season — but he has the length to make up for some of the speed advantage his assignment might have on him and the motor to make up for some of his physical weaknesses. You can see it when he has to defend Kristaps Porzingis in the post, Kevin Durant in isolation and even Giannis Antetokounmpo in transition. Ball can’t be expected to single-handedly stop those players on a regular basis, but he usually puts up a fight by crowding their dribble and funneling them toward the nearest help defender.
The combination means Ball can switch onto three positions against most teams. It gives the Lakers the flexibility to move him around on defense depending on the matchups, putting Ball in more positions to thrive off-ball. Caldwell-Pope, for example, can guard the opposing team’s point guard while Ball defends a shooting guard or small forward. Ball might not have the strength to defend every shooting guard and small forward in the league, but he can use his length to force them into taking tough shots.
The advanced numbers already paint Ball as an impact defender, which is unusual for a 20-year-old rookie. The Lakers’ defense improves by 5.4 points per 100 possessions when he’s on the court, and he’s currently ranked third among point guards in ESPN’s Defensive Real Plus-Minus (plus-1.93). There can be some noise with those stats, so it’ll be interesting to see how sustainable they are.
What to watch for next
It’s easy to see why players around the league have praised Ball for being “someone that you want to play with.” Putting his scoring problems aside, he’s always looking to push the pace, he keeps the ball moving on offense, he’s constantly looking to set up his teammates in their sweet spots and he has all the makings of an above average defender. That type of player can fit in most systems because they don’t have to be the center of attention to shine.
Those scoring problems are a big issue, however. Ball is ahead of the curve as a passer and a defender, but his long-term potential hinges on him developing into a scoring threat, starting with his 3-point shot and extending to his finishing around the basket. Even if he only becomes an average scorer in those areas, it would make his future much brighter.
For that reason, all eyes should be on how Ball improves as a scorer for the remainder of this season. His play since the Knicks game on Dec. 12 has been a step in the right direction, but being sidelined since Jan. 15 with an MCL sprain could impact some of the momentum he’s built up when he returns to the lineup. It’ll also be worth monitoring his on-ball defense when he returns, particularly when it comes to how he matches up with the best point guards in the NBA. As valuable as his switchability is to a team like the Lakers, he has to prove that he can match up with his own position in order to reach his full potential as a defender.