First of all, a disclosure: I am a lifelong UCLA Bruins fan and season ticket holder for their men’s basketball team. I am not an unbiased party here; however, does not mean that I am wrong. Here's my impassioned case for Lonzo Ball, Laker.
As with any run-up to the NBA draft, there’s been a ton of conflicting press coverage and ample time to overthink what the Lakers should do with their lottery pick.
Should they go with the obvious local kid from UCLA? Should they pick up the tantalizingly athletic forward from KU? How about trading down? Or maybe up? My two cents? Stop overthinking it and take the most logical course of action: select Lonzo Ball.
Before we get any further, I want to address the LaVar-sized elephant in the room. Whatever you think of the man (and anyone that can shout down Stephen A. Smith is obnoxious), Lonzo’s father will NOT be playing for the Los Angeles Lakers. As someone who saw nearly every UCLA game at Pauley Pavilion this year, he was not a distraction on or off-the-court.
UCLA laid down some clear ground rules – stay out of the locker room, don’t come to practice, and don’t talk to the coach. LaVar followed suit respectfully and attended games without disrupting the experience or yelling at his son. There wasn’t a single issue all season. He’s been an everpresent branding machine since the season ended, but Lonzo has handled his dad maturely, and with good humor. I’m not worried about him affecting the team, and neither should you. The best talent should win here.
I want to break Lonzo down in more depth, but I also want to acknowledge that there are some pretty great point guards to choose from in this year’s draft.
Markelle Fultz has been described as a 6’3” Tracy McGrady, but his team also won 9 games last season and he didn’t try on defense all year – not even at the beginning of the season. De’Aaron Fox is an elite competitor and defensive menace, but his complete lack of shooting makes him as likely to be Elfrid Payton 2.0 as it does anything else.
Lonzo is the most balanced player of the bunch and his skills fit Luke’s system. He is also a transcendent generational talent when it comes to passing, with an elite skill that will 100% transfer over to the NBA game on Day One.
You may have noticed that Ball’s highlight reel is lacking when it comes to jaw dropping plays relative to his peers. The reason why is, despite being perfectly suited for Showtime, he focuses on winning plays more than flashy ones. He’s had a few clutch game winners, but mostly he turned the Bruins from a 15-17 joke into 31-5 title contender by moving the ball and simply making the right play over and over again.
On offense, Lonzo was a statistical monster in his National Freshman of the Year campaign. He averaged 14.6 points, 6.0 boards, and 7.6 assists per game. A quintessential lay-ups and threes prospect, he shot 73.2% from inside the arc and an impressive 41.2% from 3, with many of those at an NBA distance.
Ball also took care of the ball, averaging a 3.11 assist-to-turnover ratio. This season, UCLA went from a clogged-up offense to leading the NCAA in assists. Although a clear point guard, Ball was not a ballstopper and his willingness to immediately move the rock was infectious, transforming the team’s offense overnight.
While Ball does have some funky shot mechanics and may struggle to get off threes in man-to-man coverage, he is still an elite marksman that would provide spacing by punishing any defense that dared sag off of him.
Ball also showed an ability to shoot threes off the dribble, opening up possibilities against teams that go under the screener in the roll game. He can even pull up effectively for the long ball in transition, a la Chef Curry.
Ball’s exploits in transition are well-documented, as his incredible passing ability enabled him to hit teammates for outlet passes or alley-oops from long distance. With every rebound or steal, he looked to run with his teammates and set them up for easy baskets, which was the engine of the Bruins’ offense last season.
Ball does has room to improve in the half-court game. While his size and prodigious basketball IQ enable him to make every read in the book, he will struggle to break down defenders off the dribble in the NBA. Ball will have to improve his crossover and bag of tricks to create penetration at the next level.
While not a bad athlete, Ball isn’t explosive and struggled to get to the line relative to more explosive peers. Lonzo is a great cutter off the ball – with an ability to sneak in an easy layup or set up his teammates with a touch pass after penetrating the defense. If he can bolster his game by adding a floater and a mid-range arsenal, he’ll be a much improved scoring threat when the defense has a chance to settle.
How would it work in LA? Clarkson would become the sixth man and Russell would have to slide over to the two, where he had some of his best games last season. In terms of scoring, Russell does have the shot making ability to play either guard position. In today’s NBA, it doesn’t hurt to have two playmakers on the court either. This could be an elite offensive backcourt fairly quickly.
On defense, Lonzo is not exactly an elite prospect, but he has the tools to be effective defender in the NBA. At 6’6” and 190 lbs with a 6’8.5” wing span, Ball has the length to bother opposing guards by playing angles. In college, he showed great anticipation and the ability to disrupt on defense, averaging an impressive 2.6 steals / blocks per game. His athleticism is above average, but lateral quickness is not his biggest strength, which could leave him open to dribble penetration.
Watching over the course of the season, Lonzo made huge strides in both his defensive consistency and impact. To start the season, he was getting steals, but also suffered defensive lapses from time to time. As UCLA started to roll, those lapses stopped and he became more and more consistent. By the end of the year, he was routinely guarding bigger players in big moments, including locking down 6’8” Dillon Brooks for extended stretches during UCLA’s signature win at Oregon.
The biggest knock on Ball is that he’s not a very physical defender, often struggling to fight through screens, which he will need to change at the next level as he puts on some muscle.
How would it work in LA? This is the biggest risk to bringing Ball to the purple and gold. The most uncharitable comparisons of a potential Ball/Russell backcourt pairing have invoked Lillard and McCollum’s infamous defensive struggles. I think that this is overblown, as Lonzo projects to be a much better defender than both Blazers and the book is not yet closed on Russell, who showed much better effort last season than in his freshman campaign. Remember that Nick Young played good defense last year for Luke – it can be taught!
If Russell can simply hold his own against shooting guards, the Lakers should be in much better shape than most would expect. Defense is still important, but better offense wins in the NBA and there are many ways to create a good team defense without All-Star caliber individual defenders.
In the end, Ball is the kind of prospect that makes having a lottery pick so exciting. He has the ability to make his teammates better, fits the offense like a glove, and can bring Showtime basketball back to LA.
If the Lakers want to unselfishly swing the ball around the perimeter for open shots and run the ball at every opportunity, he is your point guard of the future, plain and simple. Over the next few years, Magic and Jeanie will have to make some difficult decisions about the future. This shouldn’t be one of them.