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Lakers Analysis: Why do we argue about Lonzo Ball?

Zooming out on the complicated rookie season of Lakers guard Lonzo Ball.

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Los Angeles Lakers v Atlanta Hawks Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

It’s become almost cliche at this point to argue that Lonzo Ball was better than the numbers from his rookie season suggest.

There are a few reasons for this. For one, Ball’s rookie season efficiency numbers were harder to look at than one of his wayward jump shots. He had a few stretches of the season in which he shot effectively, but on the whole Ball made just 36 percent shots overall, while going a clanktastic 30.5 percent on threes.

When you combine those stats with the fact that Ball managed just 10.2 points per game on the season, he simply didn’t produce in the way the majority of fans expect from a player taken with the second overall pick.

But Ball not producing in the way people expect doesn’t mean he didn’t produce, however. Ball still averaged 7.2 assists and 6.9 rebounds, and while Rob Pelinka was being charitable to describe that as almost averaging a triple-double at his exit interview, it’s still solid box score production for any point guard, much less a rookie one.

Throw in Ball’s 1.8 steals and 0.9 blocks, and all of a sudden his counting stats look a bit better, with those two averages probably still understating his impact defensively in his debut campain.

The Lakers’ defensive rating was a full 2.7 points per 100 possessions better when Ball was on the court (104.1 vs. 106.8). Ball also ranked third among point guards — not just rookie point guards, all point guards — in defensive real plus minus (2.27), which measures a “player’s estimated on-court impact on team defensive performance, measured in points allowed per 100 defensive possessions.”

Ball’s advanced numbers also make his ability to impact an offense look more positive as well, as the Lakers posted their second highest percentage of assisted baskets with Ball on the floor (60.6 percent), and never assisted less than when he sat (56.5 percent).

All of those numbers are why Ball — despite his horrific shooting — still made a bigger impact on the team than any other Laker this year, with the Lakers’ net rating (their point differential per 100 possessions) a full 1.4 points per 100 possessions better when Ball plays, the highest swing on the team.

Yes, net rating misses context and might be a tad inflated by Ball not playing during the team’s end-of-season stretch stretch of eye-gougingly bad basketball, but it was true for most of the season, and it’s still meaningful that a rookie point guard who was thought to be a transformative offensive force was able to make such a positive impact on his team despite shooting like those kids from the viral “Jeopardy” intro think a basketball player shoots.

But if you’re reading this on a Lakers blog a month into the offseason — first of all thank you, but second of all, you probably already know all of this about Lonzo. So why are you still having to explain to your friends that Lonzo isn’t a Big Baller Bust, and why are so many dubious that he’ll ever figure it out?

A large part of it probably has to do with the way our culture watches and consumes basketball. Shooting, or shooting percentages, are easy to see for the box score watchers that walk among us who simply watch and discuss the game as a pseudo soap opera. It’s less easy to catch a strong defensive possession, or impact on a team’s passing attack using only simple box score metrics or casual viewing.

This isn’t to say there is anything wrong with watching the game casually. This isn’t everyone’s actual job, after all. People have other things to do.

But this type of consumption. the sports talk radio-ification of our sports discourse and the hyper-polarizing effect of social media can start to lead to these narratives becoming more solidly formed. This is doubly true when they’re trumpeted by hot take spewing national media talking heads who simply don’t have time to watch every game but are nonetheless seen as experts by many casual fans.

And even for those that actually watch the games, Ball isn’t like any high-usage stars we’ve seen before. So while the same people that criticize Ball are often the same types of narrative-addicts who also call-out shoot first point guards, in basketball, the players who get the most attention win awards and get the most endorsements. Your Russell Westbrooks or Kobe Bryants, etc.

Ball, for better or worse, isn’t like those players. He moves the ball along quickly, with an effortlessness that can even seem careless at times. He isn’t brash, or brazen, nothing like his father. Ball just plays, and because his game and personality are so different from what’s come before, it’s hard for some fans to see “star” in a player unlike any of his predecessors.

But that doesn’t mean “star” potential isn’t there, visible for anyone to see, if they care to look beyond Ball’s wayward jumper.

So don’t give up on Lonzo. His game is complicated, and greatness is far from a guarantee, but his rookie season was more promising than most seem to think. If he can make some small improvements around the margins (his finishing at the basket, his decision-making off the dribble) to supplement his already stellar defense and the other things he does well, then he could still easily be one of the best players in the league at some point. Maybe sooner than you think.

You can follow Harrison on Twitter at @hmfaigen, or support his work via Venmo here or Patreon here.

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