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The Key to Understanding Lonzo Ball’s Funky Jumper

The UCLA freshman is the most fascinating player in college basketball. But to unlock his greatness at the NBA level, he’ll have to address a few key issues with his jumper — some less obvious than others.

(AP Images/Ringer illustration)
(AP Images/Ringer illustration)

The most fascinating shooting form in the nation starts with a gather from the left hip and travels up to the left side of the forehead; with the right arm stretched across the torso at a 45-degree angle, the ball is slung toward the rim. From behind the college 3-point line, the shot is 41 percent accurate. The form belongs to Lonzo Ball, leader of no. 3 seed UCLA. “It’s a big baller backyard shot,” Ball’s proud father, LaVar Ball, said in a recent interview. Lonzo’s bizarre mechanics are befitting of his quirky, offbeat style, and the results are positive. The freshman point guard is the second-most prolific 3-point shooter on the most prolific offense in the country.

“He’s going to be better than Steph Curry,” LaVar Ball told TMZ. “Steph Curry’s really good, but my son is young, he’s got time to go.” LaVar’s got a point: Lonzo is just 19. He’s better now than Curry was at the same age. He’s 6-foot-6. His height naturally enables him to access passing lanes that smaller point guards can’t. Ball’s upside is immense. There’s a chance he becomes the best player from the 2017 draft class and one of the best point guards in the NBA. As draft analyst Dean Damakis put it: Ball is a basketball genius.

Maybe it’s best to place Ball in a lineage: John Stockton, who mastered the pick-and-roll in the 1990s, begets Steve Nash, who used the pick-and-roll as the fulcrum of a breakneck offensive attack, begets Stephen Curry, who has pushed the boundaries of scoring in the pick-and-roll. Is Ball next? “He’s trying to be the best player in the world,” LaVar Ball told Undisputed. But the path to greatness requires a clear road map, and as things stand, there are a few obstructions in the way.

What made Nash or Stockton — or Chris Paul or Jason Kidd — transcendent passers was not just their passing vision or accuracy, but their elite shot-creation ability, an area Ball is lacking in. Those aforementioned point guards could use their dribble to manipulate their way to any spot they wanted and make a play as a passer or shooter.

Ball has no issues passing, but the scoring is a question mark. While Nash or Paul can jack up a shot at will, it’s not quite as easy for Ball.

The results at the college level are terrific, but the way in which Ball creates his shots is questionable. The margin between success and failure is razor thin in the NBA. Ball won’t struggle to shoot in the NBA (he’s not Ben Simmons), but his mechanics may keep him from reaching his ultimate potential.

I watched all 178 of Ball’s 3-pointers this season (actually 177 after omitting the one half-court heave he took in the March 10 game against Arizona) to analyze his form — which, in the grand scheme of things, is a small sample size. He’s shooting 40.3 percent on 124 catch-and-shoot 3-pointers, but for now, that is not our focus. Our attention is now on his 53 attempts off the dribble, which he shoots at a 43.4 percent clip. Here’s what they usually look like:

Beautiful. The step-back jumper is an aesthetically beautiful shot, especially this dagger against Oregon. But he doesn’t have many other shots off the dribble in his arsenal. Of his 53 attempts, 26 of them were step-backs, 17 were dribbling going toward his left, and 10 were straight pull-ups. None came going toward his right. He shoots a combined 46.5 percent on 43 attempts to his left, and only 30 percent on straightaway pull-ups. Ball is constantly trying to go left. It’s not unusual for right-handed players to want to go left, but the best shooters — like Curry — are potent going both ways, and have live-dribble combinations like a boxer has punch combos. Watch how Curry counters against the defender overplaying his step-back with a step-through:

Ball doesn’t have this counter-move yet, and that’s been an issue for longer than just his one season at UCLA. “When I had him shooting at first, he had the ball on the right side,” LaVar Ball said on Undisputed. “As we were playing older players, he started dribbling to the left because everyone was fading him to the right … so when he would go to the left hard, the only way he could get it off was this.”

“This,” meaning the funky mechanics. Ball’s unconventional form works better shooting off the dribble going to his left. Because he’s moving left, it’s easier for him to transition the ball into his shot pocket from the left hip rather than bringing it back to his right. It’s possible his release is actually a product of his upbringing: Ball (and his brothers) have been shooting 30-footers their entire lives, and to muster the strength required to hit such a shot, children usually need to push the ball from their chest area, which meant a “proper” shooting form was never developed. While Ball has made himself into an elite prospect with a raggedy form, there’s a dark side: He’ll need to show he can be a threat going right at some point.

He’s already teetering on being one-dimensional. “The best guards are unpredictable,” an Eastern Conference scout told The Ringer. “Ball will be good, but his pull-up needs to improve to be a regular All-Star.” In terms of guards projected to go in the lottery, this scout prefers Markelle Fultz and Dennis Smith over Ball, largely because of their ability to score in a greater variety of ways.

Ball’s best weapon is devastatingly effective, but it can be neutralized by smarter, experienced defenders. What separates the Nash and Curry types from most point guards is that they can fire straight out of their dribble without a pause. Curry can pull up from anywhere, at any time, at any angle, with any defender breathing down his neck. Ball might someday have that ability, too. Curry at age 19 did not have the same bag of tricks he did at 29. But he did have pure mechanics to set the foundation for his burgeoning shot-making ability. Ball does not.

I asked NBA skills trainer Drew Hanlen if he had any thoughts on Ball’s shooting form. “Kevin Martin is the only cross-ball, low-release shooter that got decent results in the NBA,” Hanlen texted me. I brought up Shawn Marion, and was quickly shut down: Hanlen brought up the fact that Marion shot only 33.1 percent from 3 over his career and never had a single season over 40 percent. Touché. Martin was a career 38.4 percent shooter from 3 and scored over 20 points per game for five consecutive seasons. But Martin was the exception to the rule with his side-winding mechanics. He was also a different player than Ball — Martin was a wing, while Ball is a pure point — but it is curious how there’s no other modern example of a knockdown shooter with quirky mechanics.

A shooter’s “hitch” is usually seen at the top of the release: For instance, Blake Griffin occasionally releases the ball on the way down; Tony Allen pulls the ball behind his head and flings it forward. Ball sometimes has a hitch at the bottom of his release as he gathers. Watch closely:

There’s a subtle pause that occurs as he stops his dribble and steps back into his shot. It’s like when a pitcher moves his hand within his glove to get the right grip on the baseball before unleashing a curveball or a fastball; Ball takes a beat to search for the right grip with the basketball. This could be the key to understanding Lonzo’s shot.

An NBA front-office executive passed a theory along to me that the Wilson basketballs that UCLA uses may have a positive impact on Ball’s shooting.

Wilson balls have more grip than the balls of other brands like Nike or Adidas. Every NBA game uses the same regulation Spalding ball, but the NCAA lacks that kind of uniformity for regular-season games. “That used to really affect me as a shooter,” Villanova head coach Jay Wright told The New York Times in 2012. Wright played guard at Bucknell. “Shooters are like pitchers or golfers. It’s feel. If they don’t have a good feel with the ball, it can affect them mentally.”

The NCAA rulebook specifies the requirements for size, color, bounciness, and weight, but teams can use a wide range of variants. Nike is by far the most popular ball, with other teams using brands like Wilson, Adidas, or Under Armour. Few teams use a Spalding.

“You don’t go to the Clippers’ stadium and play with a Nike and then go to Golden State and play with a Rawlings,” Wisconsin forward Nigel Hayes told the Los Angeles Times. I talked to various scouts, executives, trainers, and players about college balls, and the feedback is generally that Adidas and Under Armour balls are slippery, while Nike and Wilson balls have more grip. “At OSU, we had batches of balls for every team we were playing,” The Ringer’s Mark Titus, who played four years at Ohio State, told me. “So if we had a game coming up at Wisconsin, we’d bust out their shitty Sterling balls and use those throughout the entire practice. There is unquestionably an adjustment period, though, for all the reasons you’d think.”

Ball might’ve experienced that adjustment this season: He’s played 26 games with a Wilson ball (17 games at home, six games at a neutral site, and three on the road). In those matches, he shot 43.6 percent on 133 3-point attempts. In seven games playing with a Nike ball (all road games), he shot only 34.1 percent on 44 attempts. Here’s how those splits look comparing catch-and-shoot jumpers versus dribble jumpers:

Let’s reiterate that we’re working with a small, possibly insignificant sample size — for all college players, not just Ball. It’s possible that Ball shoots better with the Wilson ball because he plays more games with it, practices more with it, and therefore is more adjusted to it. (Wilson is also the ball of choice in Ball family photo shoots with Slam, Los Angeles Magazine, and ESPN.) But it’s also possible that his percentages with the Nike ball are more true to his actual shooting ability. Ball shot 30.3 percent on 89 3-point attempts using an Adidas ball at Adidas Nations, per Draft Express. He shot 36 percent on 224 triples as a senior at Chino Hills, per MaxPreps. Despite his reputation, Ball’s production at UCLA is actually the outlier of the samples we have access to.

Considering Ball’s odd mechanics that have made him a one-trick pony off the dribble and his hitch at the bottom of his release, it’s plausible that the grippy feel of a Wilson ball helps him over any other ball. He might not be the only one. UCLA switched from Adidas to Wilson in 2014, when Raptors guard Norman Powell was starting his senior year at the school. Powell shot 42.6 percent from 3 at home with the Wilson ball, versus 20.7 percent at away or neutral sites. Powell felt the difference. “The Adidas basketball was a lot more harder, firmer. The Wilson [was] a lot more smoother, had deeper ridges where you can line up the groove to get your shot,” Powell told The Ringer. “You get a little bit more control. You can feel the ball a little bit more.”

Ball’s teammates shoot roughly the same from 3 with Nike balls as they do Wilson balls, but for individuals — like Ball and Powell — the brand might make a difference. The NCAA uses Wilson for March Madness, so the ball shouldn’t be a factor this month. But not all Wilson balls are equal. “They always use brand new balls that have branding on them. They’re never broken in at all,” a former international basketball player told me via text. “Tourney balls are always tough to shoot, in my opinion.”

Time is ticking on Ball’s college career. In about three months, he’ll be in the NBA as a top-3 selection and — if UCLA manages an inspiring tournament run — maybe even the no. 1 pick. Sometime over the next month, it’ll be Ball’s last time using a Wilson ball.

I asked the same pool of people which college ball compares to the Spalding. Everyone said the same thing. “None,” said a D-League assistant coach, adding that most players he works with like the Spalding ball best. “None of them,” Hanlen said. “The college balls are all padded, whereas the NBA ball is leather.” He added that changing equipment can be an adjustment but, “Great shooters don’t let a ball or anything else affect their results. … Decent shooters worry about the ball, the backdrop, the crowd, etc.”

There are endless variables from the ball to mechanics, and they’ll all play a role in Lonzo Ball’s success as a pro. Ultimately, it may come down to Ball finding the grip of the basketball to prove his father has a grip on reality.