Los Angeles Lakers guard Lonzo Ball is one of the more polarizing players in the NBA today. It seems like most observers either think he’ll be really good or bust-level terrible, with very little in-between.
That’s probably unfair to Ball — there is room for nuance here, and his actual worth likely lies somewhere in the middle of those two extremes — but there is no doubt that he can be hard to watch when his shot is clanking all over the place and it seems like he can’t finish at the rim in games like his 4-point-on-10-shot showing against the Sacramento Kings on Sunday night.
But the Lakers still won the game, and afterwards LeBron James took some time to tell reporters that he thinks Ball’s worth can’t be fully encapsulated by looking at his shooting numbers (via Spectrum Sportsnet):
“At the end of the day, Zo is one year into this league, and 12 games (into this season). He didn’t play the whole season last year because of injuries, every game is another opportunity for him to get better.
“He didn’t shoot the ball like he would like tonight, he had some good looks, but at the end of the day he still made an impact while he was on the floor. That’s what a really good player is, a player who never gets down when he can’t make shots. He still passes, he’s still defending, he’s still rebounding and he’s still pushing the pace for our ball club.”
While it must be noted that Ball posted both the worst plus-minus (-2) and net rating (-2.3) of any Laker to play non-garbage-time minutes in their win over the Kings, James is still correct in a vacuum.
What box score watchers miss when looking at Ball’s field goal percentage and making sweeping judgements are all the context James mentions. Ball is only just over a year into his NBA career, and he does impact the game defensively, on the glass and by pushing pace. Those were all areas he excelled during his rookie season no matter how he was shooting, and in general they can continue to make Ball a valuable NBA player. It’s not nearly at the same level, but those are some of the same ways* James has made an impact on off nights, so it’s no wonder he notices when Ball does similar things
*(Again, at a MUCH lower level than James. I am not writing that Lonzo is LeBron)
James’ context noted, Ball does need to improve as a scorer, or at least get more confident letting shots fly when he’s open consistently. If he doesn’t, teams will be able to play off of him too freely and clog up the Lakers’ spacing, which can spell doom on a team that is already lacking in the shooting department.
Ball is also sometimes hurt by his hardwired drive to play “the right way” in the sense of running the Lakers’ offense no matter what. It’s great in theory that he wants to set up the team’s sets and do what head coach Luke Walton is asking, but bringing the ball down and feeding James to initiate on the wing is very different than doing the same with Lance Stephenson. All due respect to Stephenson, but he ain’t LeBron, and running the offense the same way for both is insanity. In the latter scenario, Ball may be better served by getting a bit more aggressive and being willing to probe.
But feeling out when to run plays and when to break with the playbook takes time, and expecting a sophomore guard as young as Ball to have totally mastered it isn’t totally fair. Until then, James is right that Ball can impact games anyway. He could just make a bigger impact if he shot a little better — or at least more willingly — and he’d probably play more as a result, too.