In sports, there are certain athletes that people simply love to hate, and in turn want to see fail. It could be due to the manner in which the individual presents him or her self, the style in which they play their sport, or simply because of the attention they receive. With only a small number of professional games under his belt, and the entire circus of expectations and myth behind him, Lonzo Ball has swiftly become one of these athletes, and this is not likely going to change anytime soon.
Ball, as a prospect, and a person, is polarizing to say the least. Most notably this is due to the words of mouth of other. This began even before he stepped onto a professional court, as everyone who followed the sport knew his, and more surprisingly, his family's story. It was documented every day on ESPN leading up to the draft, talked about on sports radio, and jeered about on various corners of the Internet. The notoriety was led by his outspoken father Lavar Ball, who went on one of the most infamous campaigns by a sport’s parent in recent memory, claiming his son while donning the family BBB gear, was not only going to be a Laker come draft night, but lead the team back to glory. The attention only magnified in Ball’s introductory press conference, when Magic Johnson declared Lonzo Ball the “New Face of the Lakers,” and a future jersey to be one day retired in the rafters, all while asking the prized rookie not to break all of his records.
Compared to names such as the aforementioned Magic Johnson, and most recently Jason Kidd, Ball entered the league with a stirring amount of buzz and anticipation in watching his soap opera live on national televised games. This whirlwind of hype, the constant media coverage, and the polarizing attention, have all helped to create one of the biggest targets a 20-year-old rookie entering the league has had on his back in recent sport’s history.
For the Lonzo detractors, the early NBA season has been a blissful rejoice with the rookie point guard’s dismal shooting performances. Coming into the season, one of the main criticisms of Ball’s game was his shooting form and it’s effectiveness in the professional level. So far, the unorthodox shooting release has conjured unsettling results, as Ball is currently only shooting 30 percent from the field, 22 percent from behind the arc, and 46 percent from the charity stripe.
The immediate media and fan reaction to the weary percentages are that Ball’s form simply does not work against NBA caliber defenses, and his lack of polish on his mid-range game, coupled with his erratic attempts at the rim, make it entirely too difficult to fathom him ever scoring at an efficient clip in the NBA.
Ball’s early struggles serve an important reminder to reiterate and understand patience when it comes to young players. There is a yearly tradition among NBA blogosphere and Twitter to throw out absolutes when analyzing rookies and sophomores. These absolutes, and predictions, typically consist of opposing binaries. Today Lonzo Ball is the next Jason Kidd, tomorrow he is the next Kendall Marshall, and so on. A 20-year-old simply should not be expected to translate right away to NBA stardom, and those that do are the oddities of the sport.
Of course, even with patience kept in mind, one must evaluate what is displayed on the court. In doing so, one can not argue how historically awful Ball has been in scoring early in his NBA infancy. Yet, for those many who are quick to bring out the label that is synonymous with failure, “Bust,” one must recognize the manners in which Ball has done well, if not great, compared to his rookie class and the upper echelon point-guards in this league.
Coming into the league, Ball’s greatest attribute and most tantalizing skill was undoubtedly his court vision. So far, this has been one aspect of his game that has translated well. As of this article, Ball is tied for seventh-best in the entire league in assists per game among qualified point guards, and is in rather fine company:
Ball, the youngest player of the top-10, has impressively the fourth-best assist-to-turnover ratio of the group, and is the second-best among all rookies in his class. Considering Ball’s current inability to score, defenses are rightfully overplaying him for the pass. Meaning, although his opponent is told to expect the pass, it is still arriving to his target more often than not, a positive sign he is making the right reads against the top talent in the world.
The so called “Lonzo effect” many expected may have been overstated out of the gates, but as a team, the Lakers have played more of a style synonymous of Ball-led teams. Last season the Lakers ranked sixth in overall pace and 26th in assists per game. This season, the team has jumped into the top-3 in pace and is currently tied with the Boston Celtics at 19th best in the league in team assists per contest. Not all of this is indicative of Ball at the helm, but head coach Luke Walton believes he deserves credit for helping shape the unselfish culture on the team:
"The way he passes the ball, the way he plays the game, is contagious, Other guys on the team are starting to play like that. You can see the team taking joy in making the extra pass now, and that's how we wanna play,” Walton said.
Another area where Ball thrived coming into the league was rebounding at his position. Compared to his numbers at UCLA, Ball has actually improved slightly in this area as a professional, an impressive feat considering the competition and size the NBA offers. In his only collegiate season, Ball averaged six rebounds. In his rookie season, Ball is nearly averaging seven. Rebounding is a crucial part of his game as the second he gathers possession, his eyes shoot up the court looking to get his teammates in advantageous transition opportunities as seen here:
Among all NBA point guards, Ball is currently slotted third-best in the league in rebounds per game, only trailing fellow rookie Ben Simmons and last year’s Most Valuable Player Russell Westbrook. Ball’s rebounding not only jump starts the team’s offense, but has helped end defensive possessions, an area where the Lakers have made a jaw-dropping leap from last season.
In 2016, The Lakers registered a defensive rating of 110.6 which ranked dead last in the league. This season, the Lakers have a defensive rating of 100.3, fourth-best, slotted right above last season’s champions. Again, Ball is not directly credited for this jump considering the team also acquired both Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Brook Lopez in the summer to help sure up the defense, but he has undoubtedly played surprisingly well on the defensive side of the floor as a rookie.
Ball currently is 16th among all point guards in DRPM (defensive real plus-minus). When compared to other point guards who average 30-or-more minutes, he ranks seventh. Ball’s impact on the defensive side of the floor is sometimes subtle, as he does a rather well job using his 6’6” frame when contesting shot attempts and avoiding fouling. Early into this season he has already displayed impressive defensive instincts using his quick hands and timely deflections that have resulted in a number of steals.
As the steals leaderboard above indicates, Ball is tied for eight-best in the league among point guards, and is only three swipes behind current leader, Westbrook. Ball has also been especially effective as the help defender in the post, which has allowed him to collect a number of blocks.
The rate at which Ball is blocking shots at his position has been a positive sight for a team who has struggled mightily on the defensive end in recent years. Ball currently ranks second-best in the entire league among point-guards in blocks per game, and has more total blocks thus far than the likes of centers : Robin Lopez, Jusuf Nurkic, Nikola Jokic, Nerlens Noel, and Tyson Chandler.
These defensive numbers should make fans optimistic not only for his early solid rankings on leaderboards, but the fact that he has played against top-tier guards and has held his own. With that an already difficult task on it’s own, and the known added incentive for the opposition to go at the golden boy every night, he has certainly stepped up to the challenge.
Only a portion of his way into his first NBA season, Lonzo Ball has experienced the life that comes with being a professional athlete. For whenever he has a bad game, wears a certain shoe, or simply gets a haircut, Lonzo Ball has become one of those athletes that people simply will continue to get their media dose of, for better or for worse.
The game of basketball is plainly founded on the concept of putting the ball through the rim, and when a player is not doing that, the game seems to pass them by. But for Lonzo Ball, his game has never been about scoring, but rather, winning. A small sample of a rookie season is not the time to make declarations on either spectrum, there are too many variables and more importantly, too much time left in these player’s careers left to analyze.
Ultimately, an individual can either love or hate Lonzo Ball, but now is not the time to pigeonhole him, or any 20-year-old.
*All statistics and tables provided by: NBA.com, ESPN.com