Editor’s Note: In this series, “The Next Step,” we are going to be taking a look at one specific thing each of the young Lakers needs to improve on over the summer. Next up is Lonzo Ball.
In 1997, the world was introduced to the life and times of whizkid, T.J. Henderson, in Disney Channel’s now nostalgic hit sitcom: “Smart Guy.”
The series, which centered around Henderson, followed the ten-year-old boy genius’ trek through High School life as he was tasked with learning the social nuances and pressures that come with being thrown in the world of teenage-hood.
And as normally happens in 90’s television, hilarity, hardships and lessons learned ensued along the way. It was Disney Channel after all.
For Lonzo Ball, or NBA’s real-life version of Henderson, his tumultuous first two seasons have proved two things thus far:
1) At only 21, he has the dazzling IQ for the game of a 15-year-vet and...
2) He is painfully behind in several critical aspects that basketball players typically need in order to find success. Namely, scoring at an average — if not efficient — clip.
When attempting to dissect Ball’s game, or more simply when trying to classify his strengths and weaknesses, the term “feel” often is the chief word that pops up in the analysis.
The word itself has proven polarizing when using it to critique players, mainly because it’s not measurable. You can’t quantify a player’s feel — it is not a sortable stat in Basketball-Reference, and it ultimately means something different for every analyst.
For Ball, whose arguably greatest strength is his “feel” (which in turn reveals why he is such a divisive prospect) it almost always presents itself in his passing. There is something inherently unique when the former lottery pick passes the rock. With every precise bullet of an outlet pass, there is also the wispiness of a curveball that enticingly floats over a herd of defenders’ heads with just the right amount of finesse for his teammate to catch and finish.
While difficult for around 80-90 percent of humans to pull off — or even have the instincts to recognize — Ball’s passes are calculated, and at the end of the day simply appear to come easy to him. Just like math was for Henderson.
But for as brilliant of a passer as Ball is, and as instinctually good as he seems to understand the game from a molecular level, Ball has been downright atrocious in multiple facets of offensive game. Thus, if he and the Lakers plan to take the “next step” in tandem, Ball reaching average levels of efficiency will need to be the primary area of focus this summer.
Ball’s offensive repertoire up until this point can be summed up in two categories: his 3-point shot and literally everything else. Of the 1,020 field goal attempts he has hoisted up as an NBA player thus far, over 51 percent of them have come from behind the arc.
Despite firing at will, the hotly dissected slingshot-like mechanics of his 3-ball have not come close to sniffing the flamethrower levels he flashed as a freshman at UCLA (41.3 percent on close to 200 attempts).
With a two-year sample now in the books (523 attempts), Ball has only converted a mere 31.5 percent clip to his name as a Laker, falling well short of his previous output. That’s obviously far from ideal, especially for a player who relies on the perimeter as much as Ball because of his lack of an especially good handle/shake, and who suddenly is playing off of the ultimate defender/kick-out magnet — LeBron James.
Although he was not alone in terms of rough shooting numbers this season, according to PBP stats, Ball shot only 29.1 percent from deep during his minutes with James this season, a tough mark for what may prove to have been an audition year next to the former league MVP.
But while it’s the easiest to pinpoint, Ball’s 3-point shot is far from his only weakness on offense. Like his teammate, Josh Hart, Ball’s in-between game also needs serious work going forward.
And due to Ball’s aforementioned reliance on his 3-point shot, defenders have quickly begun running him off the line with hard closeouts. They have also consistently gone over screens in their primary coverage of the point guard in an attempt to force him to the middle of the floor, and eventually towards the opposing rim protector in the paint.
That area is still a work in progress for the former lottery pick. Although flashing signs of improvement as a sophomore, Ball’s numbers in the midrange and right outside of the restricted area thus far have been spotty. Meaning, defenses will likely continue to scheme Ball in this manner.
He has yet to finish either of his first two seasons with a field-goal percentage better than 36 percent from the midrange, per the NBA’s tracking data, and has one of, if not the worst, runners in the league,
Through the combination of his inability to consistently change speeds, sloppy footwork (he often hops off of two feet) and an erratic “flick” motion at the point of his release, Ball looks painfully uncomfortable with these types of shot attempts.
According to Synergy, Ball attempted 20 runners this past season. He converted only three, which was ranked him worse than 98 percent of the entire league in this type of shot attempt. That makes it an aspect of his game that with a summer of work, could tremendously make a great deal of difference.
Still, despite how poor Ball has been on offense since becoming a professional, selling stock on the polarizing guard this early may not be the best course of action.
Despite having a few factors working against him heading into the season, namely the aforementioned inclusion of James in the lineup taking the ball out of his hands and once again having a short offseason to put work in, Ball’s efficiency numbers (per individual play type) saw the incremental improvements organizations want to see a rookie make in their sophomore year.
With the exception of his spot up attempts (he did shoot a better percentage from three overall though) and off screen scoring, Ball had better PPP (points per possession) in every other offensive play type this past season compared to his rookie numbers.
Besides the encouraging efficiency across his individual possessions, Ball’s biggest jump forward this season might have been his finishing at the rim. According to Cleaning the Glass, Ball jumped 10 percentage points in his attempts within four feet and jumped from the 6th percentile as rookie among “point” players to the 53rd as a sophomore.
That’s a potentially huge indicator that there is still plenty of development to be had for a player who is on track for his first ever healthy offseason as a Laker and also seems in the process of removing himself of negative external influences that could have been tying him down.
It is often easy to dismiss, or simply miss, the positives Ball has flashed during his short time in the NBA because of his aforementioned flaws and reputation. But, when simply comparing the types of numbers he has put up in comparison to the rest of his peers, it is evident there is still a hell of a player there just waiting to be unearthed.
According to ESPN’s defensive real-plus-minus metric, Ball has ranked in the top-eight in both of his first two seasons among point guards, and his boxscore tallies have also placed him in fine company.
In the last two seasons, there have been only 15 players in the league to encompass 600 rebounds, 600 assists, 150 steals and attempt at least 500 threes. Ball is the youngest of that group, and also racked up those numbers in the fewest games played:
As impressive as the list of names Ball has associated himself with this early into his career is, when sorted in terms of true-shooting percentage, it becomes as clear as day where Ball needs to improve.
Ball, like Henderson, is well-advanced in several areas for someone of his age. He could do tremendous things on the floor, drop jaws and genuinely provide valuable things that contribute to winning games right now.
But in order for him to reach the status many envisioned he would when he was drafted second overall by his hometown team, all he may simply need to do is be average.
All stats and video per NBA.com. You can follow Alex on Twitter at @AlexmRegla. For more Lakers talk, subscribe to the Silver Screen and Roll podcast feed on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or Google Podcasts, or listen to Alex talk about what each of the young Lakers need to work on in the episode below: