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Lonzo Ball’s True Destiny

Is it with the Lakers, or elsewhere? The Ringer’s draftniks break down his fit in L.A., discuss what might happen if the Lakers pass on him, and agree on his perfect situation (hint: It isn’t in La La Land).

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

Kevin O’Connor: Lonzo Ball is no. 2 on The Ringer’s NBA Draft Guide mock draft — as well as every other website’s mock draft — but there certainly isn’t as much of a consensus in NBA circles. I’ve talked to a handful of executives, scouts, and video coordinators over the past few weeks about Ball, and not everyone is on the same page.

Now, the Lakers have wandering eyes. Jonathan Givony reported Wednesday the Lakers will take a "long hard look at De’Aaron Fox," and would like to schedule a workout between Ball and Fox. Lonzo to L.A. feels like destiny, but maybe it’s just LaVar’s beautiful, dark, twisted fantasy. Jonathan, why are the Lakers looking at other options?

Jonathan Tjarks: Fit is going to be really important for Ball, and I’m not sure the current Lakers nucleus makes the most sense for his game. A backcourt of D’Angelo Russell and Lonzo is going to get killed defensively, and the Lakers don’t really have much shot blocking up front to cover for them. If the Lakers are going to take Lonzo, they have to think long and hard about moving D’Angelo. What kind of trade value does he have around the league, and what kind of deal do you think would make sense for him?

O’Connor: I wrote earlier this week that point guards often take many years to reach their peak — only 12 active point guards have achieved All-NBA honors, and the average age the first time they received the honor was 24. Russell just turned 21 in February. If I were the Lakers and I felt compelled to move Russell, I’d seek a 2018 first-rounder from a team team likely to find itself in the lottery next year and other future picks to replenish my asset chamber. Those picks might come in handy for big trades down the line, and I don’t think they should deal him for any pick lower than no. 9 or no. 10 in this year’s draft.

Hanging onto Russell would be a good idea, though, regardless of the pick at no. 2, especially since he could always continue to make strides and further raise his value. To your point, though, D’Angelo’s fit with Lonzo isn’t ideal. If the Lakers pass on Ball, how far does he fall?

Tjarks: Not far at all. I think the perfect fit for Lonzo — at least when it comes to matters on the court — is actually no. 3 to Philly, where he could play off of Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. That team would be amazing. The great thing about using him in a complementary role in the offense is he can shoot the ball from way behind the 3-point line, really stretching out the defense. He also doesn’t need the ball in his hands much to significantly boost a team’s ball movement. He had a usage rate of only 18.1 at UCLA this season (Markelle Fultz, in comparison, had a usage rate of 31.4), and Ball really empowered secondary ball handlers like Bryce Alford and Aaron Holiday. The ball doesn’t stick with Lonzo — he was either taking the shot or moving it within a couple of seconds — and that had a contagious effect on the rest of the team. UCLA returned most of its players from 2016 (when the Bruins were the 117th-ranked offense in the nation), yet their team-wide assist numbers went through the roof, which the team largely attributed to Lonzo’s style of play. It becomes a lot easier to make the extra pass when you know it will come back to you. Long story short, I would be stunned if the 76ers didn’t take him if he’s there at no. 3.

O’Connor: I don’t see him sliding any further than that, unless the Ball camp does indeed withhold Lonzo from workouts with everyone other than the Lakers. That could end up being a major mistake because Philly is still a great basketball environment to land into. It’s funny when you think about it, but the team with a guy who shoots with the wrong hand (Simmons) might actually be an ideal match for the guy who looks like he’s never shot a basketball before (Ball).

I get the impression that a lot of people don’t believe Lonzo is the type of player you described, though. They say that Simmons will function as a point guard, so the Sixers don’t need another one. But the reality is, as you said, the rock doesn’t stick in Ball’s hands — and the Sixers run a system that values having multiple ball handlers, making him a good fit next to the ball-pounding Simmons. Drafting Lonzo might not be an easy sell for Sixers fans, which begs the question: Has his game been misconstrued?

Tjarks: I think the biggest problem with people’s view of Lonzo is they peg him as a ball-dominant guard in a spread pick-and-roll offense, and that’s not really his game. He’s not a great athlete in comparison to the classic drive-and-dish point guards and he wasn’t involved in that many ball screens at UCLA. Lonzo, to me, is more of a shooting guard who can stretch a defense out to 28-plus feet, grab boards, push the pace himself, and then take advantage of ball movement created by another point guard.

O’Connor: Exactly. Just watch:

Ball lacks shake as a ball handler, and his turbo button ain’t working. It looks like he’s about to blow by the defender, but he ends up going nowhere and flings out a pass instead of attempting what would’ve been an open layup for De’Aaron Fox. Breaking down a defender and getting a bucket isn’t Ball’s game.

Luke Walton’s system in Los Angeles takes some elements from Golden State — particularly the use of multiple ball handlers. But the Lakers run a lot more pick-and-roll than the Warriors do, and Fox is a better screen-game prospect — and the better defender, too.

Ball is often likened to Jason Kidd, and even Magic Johnson. Maybe he will be that player, because you can never say never with someone as talented as a passer as Ball is. But the comparison is too lofty. An executive I chatted with couldn’t take the Kidd comp seriously, and he wouldn’t go any further than the "Shaun Livingston with a 3-pointer" comp I tossed at him.

Tjarks: Shaun Livingston with a 3-pointer is a pretty awesome player!

O’Connor: He is! Jump-shooting Livingston isn’t a shot at Lonzo by any means. But NBA guys aren’t all infatuated with Lonzo in the same way as LaVar, who sees him as the second coming of Magic. I think it does speak to why the Lakers need to at least be thinking about other options. What’s the case for Fox?

Tjarks: De’Aaron is a better fit defensively with Russell because he has the athleticism to check the speed demons at the PG position these days, allowing D’Angelo to move off the ball on defense. If you play Lonzo and D’Angelo together, who is guarding someone like Kemba Walker? At the very least, you would need some great defensive players in the frontcourt to clean up some of the penetration, which the Lakers don’t have.

I agree with you that D’Angelo still has plenty of upside, and I actually think he would make most sense in a role similar to the one I laid out for Lonzo: as the bigger guard in a two-PG system, where he can spend a lot of time playing off the ball and checking 2 guards. The league has been trending toward bigger PGs for awhile — just look at how many have been taken in the lottery in the past five years — but I think the real value in a supersized ball handler isn’t playing big for the sake of being big, but using his size to allow another primary ball handler on the floor without sacrificing anything on defense. For instance, if C.J. McCollum were 6-foot-6, most of Portland’s defensive issues would be solved. A lot of Lonzo’s defensive struggles in college came against smaller players like Fox who could get around him; he was excellent against bigger guards who tried to bully him. He has the frame and IQ to become a good defender at the 2, especially as he puts on more weight with age.

I think the biggest argument for Fox is that Magic watched him give Lonzo the business in person at the NCAA tournament. Call me crazy, but I kind of doubt Magic was breaking down game film of these guys in mid-January. And if you hadn’t watched those two much before that game, you would have a tough time believing Fox wasn’t the better prospect. It’s hard not to let first impressions influence your decision-making.

O’Connor: You wrote a nice piece on how the Ball-Fox matchup didn’t go so well for Lonzo last time around. That game forced me to take a big step back and play devil’s advocate with myself. I think Lonzo is going to be good, but is Fox as far off as we might’ve thought? I wonder if Magic felt the same way. Fox is a better athlete. Fox is a better defender. Fox is faster. Fox is a better ball handler. Ball is a much better passer, but Fox isn’t a slouch in that regard. Ball is also a much better shooter, but even that advantage comes with a long list of concerns.

I understand why the Lakers want to bring these guys in for a one-on-one workout. We already saw them battle on national television, but a workout can reveal some new wrinkles in a player’s game that appear when you put them into situations they aren’t accustomed to. This might even be more about figuring out how good both of them are in relation to the draft class, not only how they compare to each other.

Tjarks: The other element with this discussion is how it impacts the Lakers’ free-agency hopes (which is what they are really banking on). This is a two-part question: What are the odds that the Lakers trade this pick? And if they are thinking about adding a star like Paul George in 2018, which prospect at no. 2 helps their chances of doing that most?

O’Connor: If the Pacers keep George through the 2018 trade deadline (which would be a terrible decision because they aren’t going anywhere), I don’t think it matters who the Lakers pick this year. George will be "hell-bent" on going to L.A regardless. But as we discussed on High Upside, I’m not convinced the George option would necessarily be there for the Lakers in 2018 unless they do a trade now.

Tjarks: Let’s assume, for the moment, that the George deal is off the table. If the Lakers don’t want to take Lonzo — which is a pretty big if, obviously — would they consider trying to get something out of the Sixers to move down one spot? If I was Philly, I’d be moving heaven and earth to acquire Lonzo because he’s a much better fit with the team’s core than anyone it could get at no. 3. Of course, that only works if I’m OK with how his father would react if Lonzo doesn’t wind up in L.A.

How big a concern do you think LaVar’s behavior is? The people I talked to at UCLA said that he wasn’t interfering with the team at all, and that all of his off-court stuff wasn’t much of a distraction. However, he has been increasingly reckless with his comments in the past few months, and the spotlight on him will be much bigger than it was in college.

O’Connor: Everyone I’ve talked to thinks LaVar is no big deal. The way I look at it is, if you’re drafting Lonzo Ball, you’re drafting him because you think he’s going to be a terrific player. And if he’s a terrific player, then anything LaVar says or does is irrelevant. With that said, what if — win or lose — LaVar undermines front offices or chastises Lonzo’s teammates? How would that not be a distraction? It has to be something teams are even a little, teeny tiny bit worried about, even if they’re not admitting it.

Regardless, the first order of business for all teams will be determining how his game fits on their rosters. You currently have Lonzo ranked second — Danny Chau also does. Do you expect that to change?

Tjarks: I’m pretty comfortable with Lonzo at no. 2, though I look at the draft more in tiers. To me, Fultz is far and away the best prospect available, and he’s in a tier of his own. He’s a guy you draft almost regardless of fit because he has the chance to be a superstar and his floor is that of a really good starter. I have Lonzo at the top of the second tier, but I don’t think there’s nearly as big of a difference between two and seven as there is between one and two.

O’Connor: Me too. I have Ball ranked third right now. I am pretty set with Fultz at no. 1 and Jayson Tatum at no. 2. But after that, it may change. To be totally candid, I’m currently going through the process of figuring out if I’m comfortable with Ball there. I believe he is a special prospect. In the right situation, he could be a cornerstone. There’s no denying how extraordinary his passing vision and accuracy are.

Ball is the type of player who can make good players great, and great players amazing. But he has pronounced flaws that could prevent him from ever becoming elite. I need to figure out the point at which I’m willing to pull the trigger. The Lakers do, too.

Tjarks: The problem for the Lakers is that none of the players available at no. 2 are really a great fit with their core. If I were in their shoes, I’d probably draft Lonzo, try to flip Russell for a big man (I’m not a big Julius Randle guy) and then look at getting someone like Oklahoma State point guard Jawun Evans at no. 28. Evans hasn’t gotten as much press because of his lack of size, but he was a dominant lead guard in college (he led a top-three offense in the nation without much NBA talent around him) who already excels in the screen-and-roll game and can get to the rim at will. Have those two guys pushing the pace with Brandon Ingram, Larry Nance Jr., and a big man and I think you have a really fun, young team with a ton of upside. What’s your plan for the Lakers?

O’Connor: Think big, but stay patient — attempt to build a roster ready to contend in 2018–19 knowing you still have time on your side, but don’t get desperate. The Lakers have a terrific young head coach, a fresh front office, and a roster with upside. But with that roster, they also have the option of building young and growing their talent internally. The Lakers should stay reactive and ready to pounce on any opportunities that present themselves, all with the goal of recapturing Showtime — but whether or not that plan involves Lonzo Ball remains to be seen.