When JaVale McGee saw how aggressive Lonzo Ball was as the Los Angeles Lakers beat the Cleveland Cavaliers in LeBron James’ return to Ohio, he felt vindicated.
“That’s what we’ve been telling him,” McGee told reporters on Spectrum Sportsnet after the game, before repeating the advice he’s been giving Ball. “Just be aggressive, man!”
Ball’s aggressiveness was a theme of the postgame remarks from Lakers’ players and coaches, and in addition to creating buzz in the locker room, Ball’s efforts resulted in one of his better stat lines of the year: 15 points, 7 rebounds, 6 assists and a team-high plus-minus of +16 in the Lakers’ 109-105 win.
Ball accomplished most of that production by making more decisive forays to the basket and looking to score, displays that have been too much of a rarity for the second-year guard so far while he’s tried to find how he fits in with the Lakers with James now on the team.
Against the Cavaliers, Ball started to find his footing, using his trademark quick decision making to go right to the basket instead of always trying to move the ball immediately along to the next spot in the offense.
This is the type of decisive, probing aggressiveness the Lakers need more of from Lonzo pic.twitter.com/pyWuSA3Ilm— Harrison Faigen (@hmfaigen) November 22, 2018
One more before I go do some writing: Lonzo's first shot of the second half was a nice tone-setter (at least until the team slowed down again) pic.twitter.com/8KhuW5cfzk— Harrison Faigen (@hmfaigen) November 22, 2018
“I’m just trying to get to the basket. I haven’t been shooting the ball too well,” Ball told Mike Trudell in his walk-off interview on Spectrum Sportsnet. “To combat that (I wanted to) get to the rim and draw some fouls.”
Ball getting to the basket more is also good because that’s where he’s shot best from. Ball is finishing 57.9 percent of his looks within five feet of the basket, according to NBA.com, which is far and away his best percentage from anywhere on the floor.
So whether Ball hits his shots or not, Lakers head coach Luke Walton knows the math is better for the Lakers when Ball goes to the cup, so he was happy to see his point guard’s renewed relentlessness at the rim.
“I loved it,” Walton told reporters. “That was one of my favorite parts of the game was how much he was attacking. Even the ones he didn’t finish, I didn’t care. Just seeing him be physical and get downhill and play-make, he’s so gifted with that.”
“To see him take that next step was really a positive for us.”
Ball’s strides forward weren’t just in getting to the basket off of the dribble, either. He was also running out in transition to finally deliver upon the prodigious outlet-passing potential that his pairing with James had seemed to guarantee when James joined the Lakers this summer.
I expected to see more of these transition connections from LeBron and Lonzo this season than we've gotten, but it was fun to watch them start to develop that chemistry tonight. pic.twitter.com/yJGKbQJVTk— Harrison Faigen (@hmfaigen) November 22, 2018
Lakers forward Brandon Ingram said that when Ball is that aggressive at setting the tone, other players want to follow.
“When he pushes the pace for us, it makes everyone want to run down the basketball floor, because if he does that he definitely has the IQ to pass the basketball,” Ingram said. “That just makes us a better team.”
Other than seemingly not always playing in attack mode, the other biggest flaw with Ball’s game so far over his short NBA career has been his reticence to punish defenses for sagging off of him. Even now that he’s shooting an acceptable 34.7 percent from 3-point range this season, Ball too often pauses before firing when his man backs off of him.
One shot doesn’t indicate a lasting change, but all trends have to start somewhere, so maybe this was the start of something.
This is a different sort of play, obviously, but he also needs to just shoot these when defenders sag off more often. Tonight he got rewarded for it. pic.twitter.com/woaKM2qACT— Harrison Faigen (@hmfaigen) November 22, 2018
“We always talk about him being aggressive because ‘Zo is so passive — because (he is) an unselfish point guard — but we need him to just come in and score,” said Lakers forward Kyle Kuzma. “Him just getting downhill in transition really helped us a lot in this game.”
One game is just one game, and if there is anything Ball has been consistent at in his NBA career so far, it’s being inconsistent. He’ll flash a strong game where he puts it all together, and then follow it with five where he seems to float. Ball will have to reverse that tendency eventually, but at 21 years old and barely in the middle of his second NBA season, Ball also has plenty of time to figure things out.
In the meantime, the Lakers are taking progress where they can get it.
“He’s come a long way, and I think he took a really big step tonight,” Walton said.
Now Ball just has to take the next step after that. With his renewed aggressiveness, maybe he can.
All quotes transcribed via Spectrum Sportsnet. All stats per NBA.com and Basketball-Reference.com. You can follow Harrison on Twitter at @hmfaigen.