Los Angeles — Before Lonzo Ball dropped 12 points, 9 rebounds and 4 assists in the Lakers’ 121-107 loss to the Toronto Raptors, the man who has been helping him develop since last season was already defending the progress Ball has made as a player since his up-and-down rookie campaign.
”One of the hardest things in our league to do is the consistency part. For young players, you play 82 games, and it’s bringing it every single night. I think Lonzo has made some really big strides as far as where he is as a player,” said Lakers head coach Luke Walton. “When he’s on and flowing, he’s just a game-changing, game-winning player.”
Ball showed flashes of such potential over the final three periods against Toronto, with his back-to-back threes and lockdown defense in the fourth quarter helping fuel a run that helped the Lakers’ trim the Raptors’ lead to as little as 10 points, the closest they had been since the early minutes of the game.
However, Walton noted that there have been other games (Ball’s last three before Sunday, for example) where he doesn’t have it going like he did against the Raptors.
“There’s still other times where the game isn’t coming to him, and that’s something that he’ll keep getting better at,” Walton said before the game. “But we have all the confidence in the world that every night he’s going to go out there and help us win.”
To do that, Walton and everyone else around Ball think the key is for him to continue to be aggressive. In games where “the game isn’t coming to him,” Ball has demonstrated a tendency to float or fade into the background.
Yes, Ball can affect the game without scoring. And sure, he can affect it without really touching the ball much too, just by always making the right pass and keeping the offense humming while playing staunch defense.
But on nights when the Lakers’ offense is bogging down even when Ball makes the extra pass, he needs to demonstrate a bit more willingness to force his way to the basket to create a shot for himself of someone else. His tendency to just keep the offense moving has made Ball’s value almost entirely contingent on the teammates he’s playing with, which is partially why the only Laker with a worse net rating when they’re on the court is Michael Beasley (-16.7 compared to Ball’s -8.1), and why the Lakers, by net rating, are never better than when Ball sits (outscoring opponents by 8.4 points per 100 possessions in those minutes).
Now, net rating can’t be the only stat one looks at when determining value — LeBron James is right behind Ball with the Lakers outscoring opponents by 7.2 points per 100 possessions when he sits, and no one is going to argue he’s a bad player — but Ball’s massive value swings expose how reliant he is right now on having teammates who can capitalize on the advantages he creates.
Keeping the ball moving is great if everyone else is continuing to decisively seek advantages, but if the next pass is just to Lance Stephenson to jab step for 10-15 seconds, how much benefit is really gained versus if Ball tried to make something happen himself?
Walton wants Ball to start doing so a little more.
”We want him to be aggressive all the time, but we don’t want him shooting just to take shots. He’s a brilliant playmaker and we want him getting in the other team’s lane and collapsing the defense,” Walton said.
“When he’s aggressive wherever he is on the court, whether it’s defense, steals, strips, rebounds, that’s the type of player that helps us win games and that’s what we want him to do night in and night out,” Walton continued. “Whether it’s shooting or anything on the defensive end, just be aggressive.”
Those (justified) critiques about Ball’s game aside, though, he’s still shown plenty of promise for a player just 10 games into his second NBA season. Second-year guards as young as Ball are take time to develop, and Walton is happy with the direction he’s headed.
”We’re totally fine with where he is as a player, and we’re glad he’s on our team,” Walton said.
All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. All stats per NBA.com and Basketball-Reference.com. You can follow Harrison on Twitter at @hmfaigen.