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Lonzo Ball and Jayson Tatum Are Young Players With Throwback Skills

Two of the NBA’s most popular youngsters are making waves in summer league with old-school skill sets, but to thrive during the regular season, they’ll need to learn some modern tricks

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

Much like the post player, the midrange-shooting wing and the pass-first point guard have become outdated NBA archetypes. Once pillars of the game, these types have been overcome by the more pliant big man, the 3-and-D wing, and the bigger, score-first ball handler — vanguards of the mathematically efficient style of basketball that’s come to thrill us in recent years.

But in this year’s incoming rookie class, we are starting to see the old becoming a part of the new. The midrange shooter is enjoying a comeback, the pass-first point guard is returning from the dead. Leading this mutiny are Jayson Tatum and Lonzo Ball, who showed glimpses of these forgotten roles in last week’s summer league games.

Jayson Tatum Has a Niche in the Midrange

In five summer league games between Utah and Las Vegas, Tatum has attempted a total of 77 field goals and made 35 of them. He’s shot the ball at a 45 percent clip from the field for an average of 19 points a game. In those five games, however, he’s taken only 10 3s, and made only three of them. In Vegas, his only 3 so far was a buzzer-beating bank shot at the end of a quarter. Inside the arc, however, he’s been nearly immaculate.

Tatum is the type of player who will frustrate opposing coaches and fans, as well as his own peers. Some of his more impressive shooting displays look more like glitches from an old game of NBA Live than intentional acts of scoring. He effortlessly pulls up from his dribble with a clear purpose: to get as high as possible, as quickly as possible. As he hangs in the air, Tatum’s 7-foot wingspan takes over, his long arms stretch to their extreme, slightly cocking back and then moving forward in a perfectly arched release. Though Tatum’s release is slightly slower than Markelle Fultz’s, his technique and length make up for it. Perhaps most importantly, the shot never really looks trained or rehearsed. It feels natural from the liftoff to the follow-through. Not to mention his devastating whiplash, don’t-blink-or-you’ll-miss-it spin move.

The play in the video above, much like most plays on which Tatum scored this weekend, was in isolation. The isolation play is the ultimate act of unabashed pride. It’s the supreme gesture that conveys superiority over opponents and teammates alike. It’s the play you draw up in your mind every night in the backyard alone. It’s also the least efficient type of scoring situation. That’s troubling when you think of Tatum’s preferred spot to score: the midrange, perpetually declared the least efficient area on the court. He often resorts to pull-ups, turnarounds, and fadeaways, by far the toughest types of shots to take. Add isolation, and you’ve got yourself a troublesome trio. Tatum is thriving off of his talent and shot-making in summer league. But right now, it still appears unlikely that he’s good enough to break the parameters of idealistic basketball during the regular season. The good news for Tatum is that his free throw percentage both during college (85 percent) and summer league (91 percent) suggests that his 3-point shot can develop and is just waiting to be unearthed.

Lonzo Ball Is Bringing the Pass-First Point Guard Back

Ball’s fingertips work like small trampolines. They spring the ball into action, and to his nearest teammate, at will. His vision allows him to find space where there seemingly is none, while his hands seem to automatically do the work and look for the outlet pass ahead, the open teammate behind his head, and even the empty air up there.

When watching Lonzo, it’s hard not to see Jason Kidd, Steve Nash, and even hints of Magic Johnson. His 11/11/11 triple-double on Saturday night felt like foreshadowing of stat lines to come. His "feel" for the game — that abstract description for the type of floor command we can’t seem to aptly describe — is evident from the get-go, but it’s not overly aggressive, just perfectly calculated. When running the floor, as the Lakers have been wont to do with him at point, Lonzo’s eyes dart ahead immediately and his passes always project the ball forward to the right spots. It’s a sight to behold.

Despite his funky motion, Lonzo can shoot. He’s streaky, but was good enough to take control when UCLA needed scoring throughout most of last season. But in two summer league games so far, he has made only two of his 16 3-point attempts. His field goal percentage from the field is a chilling 25 percent, while he has also yet to take a free throw. Lonzo is such an aggressive passer and natural floor commander — he has as many assists as total points, and just one less rebound — that it atones for most of his shooting transgressions.

A couple of times over the course of the broadcasts, commentators mentioned that Lonzo was almost too unselfish. He passed up plausible drives to the hoop, and even open shots in order to dish perfect passes to his teammates. It’s a good problem to have, especially when he’s racking up double-digit assists with a summer league team. Imagine what those numbers could be with even better shooters around him. But even if he has the perfect blueprint to be a throwback point guard who passes first and worries about shooting later, NBA defenses are far too advanced for his scoring aversion and streaky shooting not to become an issue. Lonzo can become the league’s best passing guard in a long time. He has all the makings. Add consistent shooting, and he has the chance to be both lethal and legendary.

Tatum and Ball are not the only pros trying to make careers out of old-fashioned tricks. But they are the most recent and prominent rookies to try to do so, and appear talented enough for those skills to remain their calling cards. Of course, if they want to become superstars, they’ll first have to evolve from one-trick ponies to complete players.

Even as they improve, grow, and thrive, NBA heads may remember how Tatum and Ball started in the summer league of 2017. Their games may evolve, but their styles will remain. And as the league continues to move toward a utopian state of ultimate efficiency and positional fluidity, they both have the potential to break the mold and turn their increasingly rare styles into advantages.