There is so much about the Lonzo Ball game that I love, which may seem strange to those who know my basketball best and can therefore testify to my extreme bias for shooting. If you can’t shoot, I’m usually not a fan of your game. Lonzo, of course, can shoot. After laying bricks for two years in Los Angeles, he was making 39% of his 3 pointers, by Cleaning the Glass, for pelicans when the season was suspended in March.
Its shape is better.
His confidence is higher.
That said, Ball is still not a shooter in the sense that the teams fear him going up, and once inside the 3-point line, his percentages drop precipitously. He’s horrible on the free throw line. It is arguably worse in the very important short midrange, a virtual non-factor in terms of finishing the floats and intermediate pulls – two shots that would greatly improve its effectiveness as a pick-and-roll marker, where it ranks in the 12th percentile only, by synergy.
Still, I love Lonzo’s game. Always have. In November 2016, seven games in Ball’s collegiate career at UCLA, I wrote that heafter watching him play once. It was love at first sight. Lonzo’s game was so fluid. His natural instincts, ready for the game, his sense of court, the features towards which I tend to gravitate almost as much as shooting, were effortless.
And you could see how easy it was to play with. How everyone was involved and moving at their own pace, seeing and reacting to the game with them. He wasn’t afraid to drop the ball – forward passes in transition, simple swings in the half court – and that made his teammates responsible. I firmly believed that Jason Kidd’s comparisons were fair.
Certainly, I sold a good part of my Lonzo stock during the Laker years. The shot was just too great. Much worse than I had let believe.
But I was secretly hoping, because as long as he was struggling next to LeBron James, his game, once lit, remained wildly charismatic. His fast but unhurried rhythm always had a flow of galvanizing symphonic conductor. He flew everywhere on the defensive. If he could just fix this stupid blow.
And then he did it.
Again, Ball is still not a professional shooter, but he is more than passable from the 3-point line, especially (as seen above) in catch-and-shoot situations, where it ranks in the 78th percentile this season, by Synergy. Last season, he ranked 13th percentile. This is one of the biggest areas of growth for any player in the league, and it reflects a player who, at all levels, feels like he is coming out of his shell.
And now I’m trying to buy back all of my Lonzo stock. Here, I want to believe, again, that he can be and will be an All-Star. And I can’t help but wonder: am I again ahead of myself? Do I have to lower my Lonzo expectations so that I can fully enjoy what it is without constantly lamenting what it is not?
Expectations, after all, are the source of frustration, and since the day he entered the NBA, no player has been more tied to unrealistic expectations and unfounded perceptions than Lonzo. His high-mouthed father did it, saddling him with the arrogant kid etiquette when he almost never said a word himself, turning him into a target before setting foot on NBA court.
Magic Johnson did this by saying that he expected a Ball jersey to hang from the Staples Center rafters someday.
It was never going to be good enough for Lonzo to be just good. He must have been great.
And all of that is to say, maybe it will never be great. I say that with full understanding that Lonzo still has a long way to go before he reaches his proverbial ceiling, wherever he is. He didn’t even get through his third NBA season for shouting out loud. He is 22 years old. When this season ended, Ball was one of five players in the league with an average of at least 12 points, seven assists, six rebounds and one flight per game. The other four are LeBron James, James Harden, Ben Simmons and Luka Doncic. Not really a bad business.
That said, neither the eye test nor the numbers suggest that Lonzo is anywhere in the Doncic or Simmons category, two players of similar experience, and if you look at the Western Conference guards, is it honestly realistic to think it has legitimate All-Star potential? Maybe playing at an All-Star level and forming the team are two different things. The Pels would be delighted if Ball became Mike Conley, who has never been on a star team but who has been a star player for years.
Even for this to happen, there are clear holes in the game of Ball that need to be resolved, at least to some extent. Again, his 56% free throw is a problem. You might think it’s mostly in his head, but the truth is, it’s the range in which Ball struggles at all levels. By cleaning the glass, it ranks at the 11th percentile on short mid-range shots. According to NBA.com, he has only made 20% of his shots (11 for 54) from 5 to 14 feet this season.
As a general rule, the closer he gets to the basket with his sweater, the worse he gets.
Lonzo is already much more than a “3 and D” player, but this inability to bring anything together in the short mid-range prevents him from being a threat of a truly rounded score. The fact that he almost never shoots going right – his old clockwise shape forced him to bring the ball to his left, and therefore into the back defender, and his instinct to avoid that shot continued even with the new form – making him a highly predictable player, effectively allowing the defense to clear 50% of the field as a scoring threat.
Generally, if Lonzo is fine, he will pass or try to make it to the cup. So you are yielding ground. Have him pull up or pull on a float, which he doesn’t want to do. This is how you end up at the 18th percentile, by Synergy, as a half-court marker, when the defenders know what you’re going to do. Or, more precisely, what is your incomplete arsenal forces that you do.
These are all necessary qualifications when we start talking about where Lonzo is and where he could go. He’s a good player. But he’s not great. Even with his ability to improve, it is fair to wonder if he ever will be. And for people like me, there has to be a certain level of acceptance. He could be perfect as a super actor playing in the shadow of Zion Williamson and Brandon Ingram.
Heck, he could end up trading again and continue on the path to being a versatile and valuable player without ever becoming the real focal point of a team. And there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s just not what we, or I, waited. It is perception against reality, and perhaps the moment is coming – not now, but soon – when it will be fair to wonder if supporters of Lonzo really lived in it.