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What’s up with Lonzo’s airballs?

Despite shooting better overall, Lonzo Ball has been air-balling his misses more than usual. Why? I came up with one theory.

NBA: San Antonio Spurs at Los Angeles Lakers Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Lakers point guard Lonzo Ball has started the season shooting pretty dang well — knocking down nearly 41 percent of his 3-pointers. However when he does miss from distance, the optics can be pretty bad:

Through six games, Ball has had five such airballs. Either he’s really taken to the idea of “no half measures” to heart, or there’s something else going on. I’m here to explain what that something might be, specifically two different factors that independently will alter a jumper but combined can really lead to some erratic moments.

The first factor is something many have noticed with Lonzo during these bad misses — hesitation when he shoots. Hesitation can really screw with a jump shot. Intuitively, that makes sense because pausing physically interferes with the natural rhythm and fluidity of a jumper and mentally you can start overthinking rather trusting the shot and preparation.

This intuition is backed up by the neuroscience on motor (movement) control. Whenever Lonzo sets up for his jumper and then shoots, there’s a specific sequence of signals that are sent from his brain to his body through specific pathways (called motor pathways). These specific pathways are first pruned through initial trial and error learning, and then reinforced through repetition.

NeuroscienceNews

However, when you’re an expert at a certain movement, thinking about the mechanics rather than just letting the shot go actually interferes with those pathways and screws up the movement. That’s why you have sayings like “you can see the gears turning out there” or “he’s overthinking it” to describe a hesitant shooter; their thoughts are literally interfering with their established movement signals.

The example I always think about is a free throw shooter in a clutch situation. Stopping to think about the free throw form and lining up the mechanics rather than just trusting the shot and focusing on the rim will mess up the free throw. Just ask Nick Anderson.

The second factor has to do with Lonzo tweaking his jumper form.

He’s not loading as much on the left hip, the ball is coming up centrally, and his release point is high and more centralized. It’s still on the left side of his face and right eye dominant shot but that’s ok — a prime example of a similar release point is KD (he’s pretty good).

Here’s a great breakdown, as always, from LakerFilmRoom.

But here’s the thing, Lonzo is currently in the beginning/middle stages of tweaking his mechanics. It may seem like these little adjustments are easy to integrate into his shot, but that’s not how motor learning works.

Here’s a good summary of the stages:

Lonzo’s previous form is something he ingrained into himself over years and years, and thousands and thousands of reps. It’s an extremely old habit and even slight changes are going to take time for him to master.

Integrating those new adjustments is an up and down process. That’s why you’ll often see players who are trying to change their shot go through roller-coasters of their form/mechanics and hot/cold shooting spells before it normalizes (these changes and “mistakes” are critical for learning). That’s especially the case when you introduce higher levels of stress, so don’t be surprised if Lonzo has some swings in his form as the games start to matter more.

Even if Lonzo wasn’t hesitating on some of his shots (which we’ve seen regardless of this year’s form or last year’s, so I don’t consider it a unique variable), I’d still expect him to go through this “two steps forward, one step back” type of progress with his form, and miss some shots really badly. But when you combine the two - the hesitation and the naturally bumpy process of motor learning — the extremes on those misses are amplified, resulting in multiple airballs.

Basically, the extreme misses don’t really concern me. When you combine the two factors mentioned above, I would expect some of that high variance. However, the true objective indicator of change is Lonzo’s trendline of progress, and boy is that looking pretty dang positive. As long as he’s shooting this well overall, a few bad misses aren’t too much to worry about.