Like sushi at a hole in a wall restaurant, movies with subtitles and pineapple as the primary topping on a pizza, Lonzo Ball’s game is an acquired taste.
Ball — the lanky Chino Hills raised point guard who spent his summers running hills and leading transition opportunities at local recreational gyms at a breakneck speed — has almost always been identified as a unique talent, especially when compared to his peers.
The current historic era of point guard play has seen the likes of Chris Paul masterfully putting defenders in jail out of the pick and roll and Russell Westbrook demonstrating devastating force around the rim, but the methods Ball uses to impact the game are far more subtle.
Despite posting hyper-efficient offensive numbers as a freshman at UCLA, Ball is not really a scorer in any way.
Ball prefers to make the extra pass over the extra shot attempt, and has notoriously opted to put his teammates ahead of his own individual numbers thus far as a professional, maybe even to a fault.
Like in college, the former Bruin’s on-the-ball numbers continue to be staggering low compared to what is commonly expected from a modern NBA point guard.
Ball has posted a minuscule usage rate of 18.3 percent this season (down from last season’s 20.3 number) which is only in the 23rd percentile among classified point guards.
Put simply, Ball just does not soak up possessions:
His elite vision and the selflessness he displays has had an almost incalculable impact/influence (“Lonzo effect”) on his teammates at nearly every level of competition he has participated in, making him one of the most dazzling passers in recent memory.
Yet, like nearly every other 21-year-old in history, he is still very much a work in progress.
Now a sophomore on a Lakers team with LeBron James and genuine playoff aspirations, Ball and the rest of the young core have struggled early on to find their footing next to the supernova that is James.
Ball has had a rough go again this season in finding consistency on the offensive end (25th percentile or lower in every area of the floor except within four feet), and instead has had to rely on his innate non-scoring abilities to impact games, which despite poor box score data, he continues to do.
“Lonzo, I think what he’s been doing throughout the year (is impressive),” Tyson Chandler told reporters recently. “Especially of late on this run, picking up full court, getting steals, getting us extra buckets.”
“With him, he’s one of those guys where scoring doesn’t matter because he impacts the game in so many different ways with his passing, with his defense and just the creativity out there.”
As Chandler, an 18-year veteran and NBA champion, pointed out, unlike most players in the league, Ball’s impact on the floor is not dictated by how many points he scores, but rather how many areas he can influence.
Ball has been downright awful in terms of individual scoring, only shooting 33.9 percent from the field and 25 percent from three in his last five games. Yet despite this, he continues to provide genuinely positive contributions in other ways.
After a slow start on the defensive end and seemingly working himself back into game shape after offseason surgery, Ball has been noticeably more engaged of late and — along with Chandler — has been a key component of the team’s recent turnaround on defense.
Currently 11th among point guards in ESPN’s defensive real-plus minus metric, Ball also currently leads the Lakers in deflections and is only one off the lead for total number of steals despite being only fourth in minutes played per game.
Ball’s combination of impressive size for his position and excellent anticipatory reads has made him one of, if not the most versatile defenders on the Lakers.
There is possibly no better visual representation of the full scope of Ball’s defensive tools than during a recent game against the Orlando Magic, in which Ball put together what may have been the most impressive defensive sequence of his young career.
Ball defended or helped out on nearly every Magic player single-handedly in this possession, switching, swiping, stymieing and ultimately digging down for the blindside steal which eventually led to a LeBron finish on the other end. Wow.
Although Ball’s aforementioned shortcomings from the perimeter have hurt his individual stats and the team’s numbers on offense, he still has been able to jumpstart the Lakers’ running game in superb fashion.
With Ball on the floor, the Lakers’ transition frequency is nearly two percentage points higher, and they’re a plus-eight in transition efficiency (number of points a team scores per 100 transition plays) compared to when he is off, according to Cleaning the Glass.
Ball continues to flash an almost incomparable feel for getting his teammates the rock in opportune times to run.
As the possession below exemplifies, there is little wasted motion/time in Ball’s outlet passes. He soars for a rebound and finds James at the point of his leak out before his feet hit the floor. The result is James being able to attack downhill against a backpedaling Rudy Gay, which is an unfortunate and helpless task for any human being.
Like Chandler, James himself has even had glowing words for Ball’s ability to impact a game without consistently scoring.
“Zo is a unique basketball player where him putting the ball in the hole doesn’t define what he does out on the floor or the impact that he makes,” James told reporters last month.
“If you’re able to see him make an impact without scoring the ball then you’re a complete basketball player, and that’s what he is. He’s still getting guys involved, he’s still rebounding, he’s still getting steals, and he’s still engaged in what’s going on on the floor.”
Ball and James have begun to create an impressive chemistry in recent weeks, most noticeably in the duo’ screen game. Ball has been utilized more as a screener in the team's half-court sets lately, giving him a chance to display his natural knack for freeing up teammates.
Like in other areas, Ball has showed good instincts in his off-ball screening. In the team’s earlier matchup against the Hawks, Ball had this stellar possession:
First attempting to brush screen Brandon Ingram’s defender in an attempt to open up a driving lane, Ball then turns and screens for James.
Properly reading what looks to be a trap coverage, Ball slips this screen and once Chandler’s man slides over to help he immediately takes advantage. This is just one of countless subtle instances per game in which Ball almost invisibly makes an impact.
These subtleties are difficult to quantify or rationalize without actual viewing. Which is why the discussion of Ball’s game almost always leads to some level of a polarizing argument.
But while Ball will likely never be the type of dynamic, three-level scoring point guard that is so desirable in the modern game, there is a genuine artful and refreshing joy in watching Ball’s portrayal of point guard that can win on the margins.
Ball is a superstar at subtleties, and his impact isn’t always easy to see, but it should be appreciated. Or at the very least we should try to understand it beyond the box score.