With Lonzo taking top billing for sport’s glamour franchise, LeBron possibly on the way, and stars from virtually every team to be found on the streets and in SoulCycle classes, Los Angeles has become the mecca of the NBA offseason. In the second of four weeklong series leading up to the start of the 2017-18 season, we’re celebrating the people, teams, and everything in between that make up the most interesting scene in the league. Welcome to L.A. Week.
Lonzo Ball was polarizing long before people knew who his father was. So much of scouting is comparing prospects to players who came before them, and there has never been anyone quite like Lonzo. He’s an ultramodern point guard who played a hyperefficient style of basketball at UCLA that shattered statistical models, but he did it with a bizarre-looking jumper in an up-tempo system that doesn’t look like most NBA offenses. There’s no consensus on Lonzo. Some see Jason Kidd. Others see Kendall Marshall. The Lakers, after trading D’Angelo Russell and drafting Ball at no. 2 overall, are all in. Everyone will be watching to see how Luke Walton uses his rookie lightning rod.
Lonzo was one of a kind in college. Along with T.J. Leaf and Ike Anigbogu (the Pacers’ no. 18 and no. 47 picks), he was part of a freshman class that turned the UCLA program around. The Bruins were 15-17 the year before and missed the NCAA tournament, putting Steve Alford’s job in danger. With Lonzo running the show, they went 31-5 and reached the Sweet 16, finishing no. 1 in the country in offensive rating. As a point guard, he did three things that made him special: He created easy shots for his teammates without turning it over, he didn’t dominate the ball, and he made the shots he took at an astronomical rate.
Lonzo plays the game differently than most guys at his position. It’s easy to see how lottery picks like Markelle Fultz and Dennis Smith Jr. will fit in at the next level. They can score off the dribble, demand defensive attention, and create openings for their teammates. According to the tracking numbers at Synergy Sports, they created a much higher percentage of their shots in pick-and-roll and isolation plays than Ball did.
Rookie Point Guards: Percentage of Total Offense
|Dennis Smith Jr.||26.8||19.7||46.5|
Lonzo’s biggest source of offense was transition plays (29.6 percent). He pushed the limits of how fast you could play at Chino Hills, and that continued at UCLA. At 6-foot-6 and 190 pounds with a 6-foot-7 wingspan, Lonzo is bigger than most point guards, and he averaged six rebounds per game. As soon as he grabbed the defensive board, his teammates were sprinting. Either he would start the break himself, or he would fling full-court outlet passes, à la Kevin Love. Making the extra pass is contagious. The Bruins ran harder, cut more often, and moved the ball more because they knew they would get it back if they were open. They jumped from 71st in the country in assists (502) in 2016 all the way to first (771) last season.
The ball didn’t stick in Lonzo’s hands. He had a much lower usage rate (18.1) than any of the other NCAA point guards taken in the first round—Fultz (31.4), Smith (27.2), De’Aaron Fox (27.6), and Derrick White (25.3). He still threatened the defense. He just did it by spotting up (23.1 percent of his offense), cutting (7.3 percent), and running around screens (5.2 percent). Lonzo was a selective shooter who took only the most efficient shots in the game. His field goal distribution (via hoop-math.com) could bring a tear to Daryl Morey’s eye:
Rookie Point Guards: Percentage of Total Offense
|Player||Shots at rim||3-point shots||Total|
|Player||Shots at rim||3-point shots||Total|
|Dennis Smith Jr.||37.1||37.1||74.2|
Taking high-percentage shots is only half the battle. Lonzo also knocked them down, shooting 41.2 percent from 3 and 78.9 percent at the rim. The ball didn’t look pretty coming out of his hand, but it went in. Everything worked in concert. He routinely jacked up shots from 4 to 5 feet behind the NCAA 3-point line, and he took advantage of the space that created by cutting to the rim and finishing with authority. Lonzo catches lobs as easily as he throws them.
It’s unclear how Lonzo’s quirks will translate to the next level. He could struggle as a primary option. He passed out of the pick-and-roll 185 times at UCLA and took only 49 shots. NBA defenses punish one-dimensional players; they will take away those passes and force him to shoot. Lonzo has plenty of range on his jumper, but his sidewinder release makes it difficult for him to shoot off the dribble. That’s why he loves step-backs: They create more space to get into his windup without getting it blocked. He could use a midrange floater that allows him to pull up in one motion, but he took only six last season.
Lonzo may never be a big-time scorer in the NBA. Even in college, he struggled to get around more agile big men when they switched screens and guarded him one-on-one. He’s a better athlete vertically than laterally, so NBA defenders with elite speed may be able to crowd him while still cutting off his driving lanes. The worst-case scenario is what happened in UCLA’s loss to Kentucky in the Sweet 16, when Fox picked up Lonzo all over the floor and prevented him from getting into a rhythm. Without a dominant scorer whom they could turn to with Lonzo off his game, the Bruins offense fell apart.
The good news for the Lakers is they can copy what UCLA did with Lonzo while also giving him more help. The Bruins offense is similar to the one Luke Walton helped run in Golden State. According to the stats at NBA.com, the Warriors were first in the NBA in their percentage of field goal attempts from cuts (12.3 percent) and dead last shooting out of the pick-and-roll (10.9 percent). Like UCLA, Golden State pushed the pace, ran set plays featuring back screens and off-ball cuts, moved its point guard around the floor, and gave all five players on the floor the freedom to make decisions. That type of system requires intelligent players with a high basketball IQ. The Warriors and the Bruins had them, and after a flurry of moves this offseason, the Lakers do as well.
Brook Lopez is a bigger and better version of UCLA center Thomas Welsh. Lopez turned himself into one of the best-shooting 7-footers in the NBA last season. He shot 34.6 percent from 3 on 5.2 attempts per game, despite not playing with Jeremy Lin (the team’s best playmaker) for most of the year. Since Lonzo is not a big threat to drive hard off a screen, a pick-and-pop center is a better fit with his game than a rim-runner. Forcing the opposing center to guard on the perimeter creates more room to get into the lane, which is what a guard without elite foot speed like Lonzo needs. Welsh was a release valve for UCLA. Whenever a play broke down, Lonzo could draw his man and dump the ball off for an open 15-footer. Lopez would be great in that role, and the two should click in transition, with Lonzo pushing the ball up the floor and then finding Lopez for trailer 3s.
Lonzo also needs to play with wings who can attack the defense off the dribble and make plays for others. A point guard who is fourth on his team in field goal attempts, like he was at UCLA, is only effective when he’s giving the ball to guys who can pick up the slack. Lonzo is a better shooter than most pass-first point guards—guys like Ricky Rubio, Rajon Rondo, and T.J. McConnell—which makes him a better fit with star wings. His man can’t leave him open at the 3-point line, and defenders have to close out hard on him when the ball rotates. It’s hard to defend a team as interchangeable on the perimeter as the Bruins were last season. Their other perimeter players spotted up off Lonzo, and Lonzo spotted up off them. He’s the ultimate glue guy. He makes guys better just by being on the floor with them.
Lonzo could be the key to unlocking Brandon Ingram, the no. 2 pick in last year’s draft. The two showed chemistry in their one summer league game together, and a point guard who always looks to pass will give Ingram more opportunities. Lonzo will create easy shots for him in transition and open up the floor in the half court. Ingram’s struggles as a rookie shouldn’t have been a surprise. He was a rail-thin 19-year-old on one of the worst teams in the league. The potential he showed at Duke is still there. There aren’t many wings in the NBA with his scoring and passing ability, much less the length of a center (7-foot-3 wingspan). Ingram could thrive in a multiple-ball-handler offense where he could play on and off the ball and make quick decisions in space.
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, whom the Lakers signed to a one-year, $17.7 million contract in the offseason, should also improve next to Lonzo. KCP struggled with sharing a backcourt with Reggie Jackson, a ball-dominant guard, in Detroit. Lonzo’s more democratic approach means his teammates get more shots and chances to touch the ball over the course of the game. Caldwell-Pope isn’t just a 3-and-D specialist. He averaged 2.5 assists per game and only 1.1 turnovers last season, and he was in the 70th percentile in the league in scoring out of the pick-and-roll. He was better with Ish Smith than he was with Jackson. He can be a secondary playmaker in an offense where the ball moves freely from side to side.
Lonzo is a force multiplier. A guy with his skill set can be more effective in the NBA than in the NCAA because there is more talent around him. Since every NBA team has numerous guys who can create their own shot, field goal attempts are a zero-sum game. The more shots one player takes, the fewer for everyone else, which means the ones who can improve an offense without taking a lot of shots are incredibly valuable. The problem is most NBA players with a low usage rate either can’t shoot, don’t make good decisions, or are unhappy with their role. No one in the league played the way Lonzo did at UCLA. He would have been the only player in the NBA last season who took fewer than 10 field goal attempts per game, shot better than 40 percent from 3, and had an assist-to-turnover ratio greater than 3-to-1.
LaVar Ball talked about that dynamic with our own Danny Chau the summer before Lonzo started at UCLA. “I’ve always told my boys: Whatever team you play for [in high school] is going to be the worst team you’ve ever played for. Lonzo has always been able to make other players better around him. We were ranked no. 1 in the nation and we had Lonzo as the only senior. You take him to UCLA, and everybody at UCLA was at least the man at their high school, that’s why they’re there. You give him that type of talent—it’s about to [be] very easy.”
Reading his thoughts a year and a half later is fascinating. The Bruins didn’t win a national title, but pretty much everything else LaVar said ended up happening: “Nobody understands what I’m saying, but it’s about to be very easy for him. You know how you say you can’t have one guy that changed your whole team? I got that guy. The passing is good, the shooting is good, but Zo’s no. 1 thing that makes him talented is his winning.”
UCLA forced defenses to guard nearly every inch of the court last season, which was one of the reasons the team was so effective. The Lakers could do the same, depending on how Walton sets up his rotation. Lonzo, Ingram, Lopez, and Caldwell-Pope can all shoot 3s. The question is who plays at power forward. Julius Randle is in a make-or-break year. He could be an excellent secondary playmaker at the 4, except he can’t shoot to save his life. Putting Jordan Clarkson or rookie Josh Hart (the no. 30 pick) in the lineup and sliding Ingram to the 4 could work in certain matchups, but that can’t be a permanent solution until Ingram gets stronger. Luol Deng can play as a small-ball 4, but the 32-year-old looked cooked last year. Larry Nance Jr. is the best defender of the bunch, but his lack of a 3-point shot means he’d be better off as a small-ball 5 off the bench. Kyle Kuzma, the no. 27 pick, might be the best option if he can maintain his hot 3-point shooting from Las Vegas (24-of-50).
UCLA’s weakness last season was on defense, where it ranked 156th in the country. Lonzo didn’t have the lateral quickness to stay in front of elite athletes on the perimeter, and none of their starters could cover for him. Now he will likely cross-switch with Caldwell-Pope, one of the better defensive guards in the league, and guard 2s. Lonzo is better coming from the help side than he is on the ball. While he may never be a stopper, he knows how to put himself in the right position, and he’s versatile enough to not be a liability. He has length, instincts, and quick hands, and he racked up 1.8 steals and 0.8 blocks per game in college. Nevertheless, like the rest of the young players in Los Angeles, defense will be a challenge for him early in his NBA career. The Lakers should score a lot of points, but they won’t make a playoff run if they don’t improve a defense that was rated 30th in the league last season.
It’s not really about this season for the Lakers, anyway. Not when they have the cap space to sign LeBron James and Paul George next summer. Guys like that don’t come in free agency unless there’s a foundation already in place. For Los Angeles, the next nine months are more about its young guys living up to their billing. Lonzo Ball is a unique talent who can make everyone around him better if he’s used correctly. He was the best fourth option in the NCAA last season. If everything goes according to plan, that’s who he will be in the NBA.