Lonzo Ball skeptics can point to his traditional box score line from Friday night’s Los Angeles Lakers win over the Dallas Mavericks and levy the same criticisms we’ve heard repeatedly throughout Ball’s year-plus stint with the organization: He was 4-9 from the field (including just 1-5 from three), committed five turnovers, and was a -6 in box plus-minus during his time on the floor despite the team’s 11-point victory.
All of that is true. Ball clearly needs to improve as a shooter — and especially as a finisher around the rim — and generally has been too carefree with the ball in his hands. He’s also ended up on the wrong side of the shaky but reasonable plus-minus stat after too many games. Fine.
For those who believe in Ball’s prospects as the Lakers’ point guard of the present and future (it won’t take you long to figure out what side I’m on), though, Ball’s performance Friday night showed exactly why the Lakers would be wise to display patience with their young prodigy — and why he deserves to be playing the lion’s share of point guard minutes this season.
For this exercise, I’m going to briefly break down two of Ball’s most impressive plays against the Mavs — one on offense, and one on defense — which make me believe it might be worth it to gloss over some of Ball’s worst stat lines in favor of believing he can reach his potential as a truly game-changing player long-term because of his one undeniably elite skill: His instincts.
Man, does Lonzo Ball have a feel for the game of basketball. Let’s start on defense, where he has emerged as the team’s most active and dangerous off-ball defender. Look at the read Lonzo makes here off of Harrison Barnes in the middle of the third quarter:
This is a master class in anticipation and healthy defensive risk-taking from Ball. Guarding Dennis Smith Jr. (who is inexplicably on the wing — not spaced to the corner, — standing straight up and down) in the weak-side pick-and-roll spot, Ball knows he can afford to take a chance because his man is two passes away from the ballhandler. When Brandon Ingram jumps over to help LeBron James defend the drive of Barnes — who rejected DeAndre Jordan’s ball screen on the play’s initial action — Ball senses an opportunity very few defenders even recognize, much less take advantage of. He knows Barnes’ primary read is to swing to the nearest man, the ostensibly now-wide-open Doncic.
Because Smith isn’t properly spaced in the corner, though, Ball is close enough to react in time; in an instant, he springs into action, cutting off Barnes’ only available passing lane like a shark closing in on its kill, to knock the ball away and create a breakaway dunk for himself on the other end.
Ball’s defensive instincts here are one thing; this play never gets made without his prescient mind leading the way. His athleticism, though, seals the deal. Watch Ball’s starting position right before Barnes releases his doomed pass:
How in the world does he get to Doncic in time given his starting coordinates? The amount of information Ball processes here, and how rapidly he’s able to react to each player’s movement on the court, is astounding. No one, least of all Barnes, expects anyone to hop into that passing lane so quickly. That’s exactly what makes Ball (who had five steals on the night) so promising — and dangerous — as a defender.
Almost no young players — or veterans, for that matter — display this level of off-ball hyperactivity consistently. To really appreciate this, watch Ball on defense for a few consecutive possessions the next time you tune into a Laker game and compare his performance to that of nearly any other player off the ball. The UCLA product is almost always engaged on D, and he has the physical tools to complement his innate basketball awareness.
Ball has been more maligned for his offensive performance, and that’s been fair a lot of the time. When he’s not actively in attack mode (which he has been in over the last five games or so), Ball has a tendency to float through games offensively — literally the least optimal way to utilize his unique offensive skill set. How many people in the world, though, can make this pass?
Maybe this absolute dime to JaVale McGee on the fastbreak didn’t impress you. But try to picture any other player put in the same position making this exact pass so precisely. How many can you place in that situation replicating that outcome? It’s not more than a handful.
Ball’s combination of vision and skill at such high speeds here are special. From the moment he sees James’ full-court pass soaring in his direction, Ball’s head starts swiveling like an owl’s, and he activates his spidey senses. Knowing McGee has (wisely) been sprinting the length of the court in a race against the Mavs’ transition defense, Ball doesn’t bother putting his second hand on the rock. He doesn’t bother letting his feet touch the ground, either, for that matter.
Corralling a speeding LeBron James chest pass traveling 50-plus feet with two hands is no easy task; doing it with one, in midair, with the presence of mind (and physical strength) to whip that pass perfectly in front of a streaking big man for a fastbreak dunk? Mind-blowing. Lonzo Ball can do absolutely insane stuff on a basketball court.
And, yea, that logic extends to some of his iller-fated decisions, shot selection and energy swings, too. Sure, these are two hand-selected positive plays from a random late November game against a likely non-playoff opponent that happened to stand out. He had some really bad ones, too. No one hates extrapolations based off of small sample sizes more than I do, and I believe that a player’s median performance — not his most spectacular or horrific — is almost always the true indicator of that player’s value.
But when someone as young as Ball (who turned 21 in October) displays flashes of brilliance this bright, it would be foolish to lump them into a category filled with average young players putting up suboptimal stat lines.
The potential that these flashes become more than just single possessions — that he can someday turn them into strings of games, months and seasons — warrants patience from fans, coaches, teammates, and, maybe most importantly, the Lakers front office, which must be tempted to throw out names of its young players (Ball included) in trade talks as it searches for an immediate superstar. Such a trade might be worth making. But seller beware.
Ball is going to be bad sometimes. He’s going to make really dumb mistakes, and it’s going to be really, really frustrating to watch for stretches, but it’s possible we look back at these moments someday and realize that they were more than just flashes in the pan; they were the moments in which we realized Lonzo Ball was a bet worth making.
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