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Rookie Status Update: The Lakers’ 2017 Draft Trio Could Be Their Ticket to the Future

Lonzo Ball is struggling badly, but with Kyle Kuzma ascending and Josh Hart a steadying presence off the bench, the team’s blueprint is starting to come together—they just need their point guard to hit some shots

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Lonzo Ball is making the wrong kind of history. He’s one of two starters in the NBA this season shooting less than 30 percent from the field. He currently has the second-lowest true shooting percentage (35.9) of any rookie since the ABA merger. There’s plenty of time for him to turn things around, but his early struggles have reinforced the doubts about him. Even Lonzo seems to have some. He has swung between not looking to score at all in some games and wildly throwing up shots in others. After shooting the ball twice in a loss to the Blazers last Thursday, he went 3-for-15 the following night against the Nets.

Lonzo’s shot has abandoned him. No coach wants a player swinging the ball across his chest as he goes up for a shot, but his college coaches didn’t try to change his motion because he shot so well from 3 (41.2 percent on 5.4 attempts per game). If it ain’t broke don’t fix it, and plenty of guys have succeeded with unorthodox mechanics. The problem is his shot has looked broken as a professional. He is shooting 11-for-47 (23.4 percent) from 3 in his first 10 games this season. Include summer league and the preseason and he is 22-for-89 (24.1 percent).

It seems unlikely that he’s struggling with the deeper range of the NBA 3-point line. He’s missing the same shots he made at UCLA, which regularly came from way beyond the NCAA line. According to the tracking numbers at Synergy Sports, Lonzo was in the 93rd percentile of players in the country last season as a spot-up shooter. He is 6-for-41 (14.6 percent) on those shots in the NBA. Not even the worst shooters in the league are that bad. Andre Roberson shot 22.7 percent on spot-ups last season. Tony Allen shot 25.4 percent. Those guys might as well be flinging the ball blindly at the rim, so Lonzo is unlikely to keep shooting this poorly. Luck alone means he should start making more.

The bigger issue is that Lonzo doesn’t have anything to fall back on when his shot isn’t falling. Ben Simmons doesn’t bother taking jumpers, but he’s still effective because of how well he can score in the paint. Lonzo is shooting only 16-of-44 (36.4 percent) at the rim, and he doesn’t get to the free throw line often (1.3 attempts per game). He’s not a particularly creative scorer, so he has trouble manufacturing good looks in traffic. He doesn’t have the strength to finish through the bodies of bigger defenders or the explosiveness to score over the top of them. He has great size for a point guard (6-foot-6 and 180 pounds), but he doesn’t know how to take advantage of it.

Lonzo needs to start making floaters. Using one hand would eliminate the complications he has getting into his shot. It would also allow him to score without challenging shot blockers at the front of the rim. He didn’t take the shot much in college, attempting only six all season, because it was so easy for him to dictate what he wanted to do. He has already taken nine in his first few weeks in the NBA. Lonzo is big enough to get this shot over almost any perimeter defender. He just has to start making it:

Until he finds a way to score inside, Lonzo has to become a better outside shooter. He took 56.5 percent of his shots at UCLA from beyond the arc. He was a pass-first player who did a good job of picking and choosing his spots in college. Lonzo almost never made the wrong decision: He averaged 14.6 points per game on 55.1 percent shooting and 7.6 assists and only 2.5 turnovers. His ability to clear the defensive glass, push the pace, and find guys powered one of the best offenses in the country.

Lonzo is often compared to Jason Kidd, but Kidd was a much better athlete when he came into the league. He was a perennial All-Defensive Team selection who could pressure opposing ball handlers and dictate tempo. Kidd didn’t start knocking down 3s at a league-average rate until he was in his 30s. He didn’t need to make those shots until he started losing his foot speed. Lonzo is already at that point at 19. A 6-foot-6 point guard doesn’t have to be a high-level athlete to succeed in the NBA, but he has to be a high-level shooter if he’s not. Lonzo was a less athletic Ricky Rubio with an elite 3-point shot in college. A less athletic Rubio who still can’t shoot isn’t much of a prospect.

If Lonzo starts shooting 3s like he did at UCLA, everything else will fall into place. There is no reason to give up on a guy with his elite NCAA shooting numbers so early in his NBA career, but it’s hard to give such a bizarre-looking shot the benefit of the doubt. Our own Kevin O’Connor passed along a fascinating theory about it last season:

An NBA front-office executive told 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.

I ran the idea by a member of UCLA’s coaching staff last season, and he thought the more likely explanation for Lonzo’s issues was that he liked to take a rhythm dribble before shooting, something which he hasn’t been able to do as often in the NBA. Whatever the reason is, Lonzo needs to figure out a solution.

He won’t lose his starting spot either way. Los Angeles will give the no. 2 overall pick every opportunity to shoot his way out of this slump, and his all-around game means he won’t be a huge liability even if he doesn’t. The Lakers offensive rating is only five points higher without him, which is incredible considering they are taking a primary ball handler shooting 29 percent from the field out of the game. Lonzo is doing reasonably well for a guy who is playing with both hands tied behind his back. We have already seen his floor in the NBA. Lonzo is a unique player with an unusual backstory, and his ceiling will be determined by his even more unusual looking shot. His fate is in his own hands.

What About Lonzo’s Defense?

There’s an easier fix for Ball’s problems on D: place him on shooting guards. He doesn’t have the speed to get down in a stance and stay in front of the speed demons who run the point in the NBA, and he struggles to navigate the endless number of ball screens defenders at the position have to deal with. Asking Lonzo to be the initial line of defense in the pick-and-roll isn’t doing him or his team any favors:

Most younger point guards struggle defending pick-and-rolls. What makes Lonzo different is that he can move off the ball and match up with shooting guards. Playing against guys his size eliminates some of the speed issues he has at the 1, and fewer 2s are comfortable handling the ball in the pick-and-roll. Lonzo has done better this season against bigger guards like D’Angelo Russell. Russell usually towers over opposing 1s, but Lonzo’s hand is right in his face on this shot:

Lonzo is a better team defender than he is as an individual. His strong hands and nose for the ball allow him to win scrums for the ball against bigger players, and his size and basketball IQ allow him to slide among multiple positions. The Lakers have the personnel to cover for him on defense. One of the strengths of Kentavious Caldwell-Pope’s game is his ability to defend smaller guards at 6-foot-6. Cross-switching him and Lonzo would make both of them better, while allowing Lonzo to save some of his energy for the offensive end of the floor.

Kyle Kuzma Is the Starter Now

The Lakers began the season with Larry Nance Jr. as the starting power forward, but it was only a matter of time before Kyle Kuzma got a chance. Kuzma was the no. 27 overall pick in this year’s draft, and he has looked like a steal since the moment he stepped on the floor in Las Vegas. When Nance fractured his hand last week, Kuzma was ready. In his first two games as a starter, the Utah product is averaging 17 points and 12.5 rebounds on 65 percent shooting.

At 6-foot-9 and 220 pounds with a 7-foot wingspan, Kuzma is a prototype small-ball power forward. The problem most bigger players have at the 4 is they can only take advantage of their size by posting up. Post-ups are typically less efficient than pick-and-rolls, and they close off driving lanes by allowing an additional defender to camp out in the paint. Since defenses want to encourage post-ups, teams around the league have been able to downsize at the 4 with impunity. Kuzma, on the other hand, operates almost entirely at the 3-point line and is very fluid with the ball in his hands. He uses his size to shoot over the top of smaller defenders on the perimeter, and he can finish from a variety of different angles once he puts the ball on the floor:

All Kuzma needs to do is make enough 3s to keep the defense honest. He’s hard to guard on a closeout, and he can read the floor and make plays on the move when the defense collapses:

Kuzma makes life easier for Lonzo. He’s a better shooter than Nance or Julius Randle, and starting him next to another 3-point shooter at center (Brook Lopez) spreads the defense out completely. Luke Walton can now run an equal-opportunity offense with all five players attacking, moving the ball, and shooting 3s, taking pressure off his point guard. As long as Kuzma competes on defense, which he has done so far, he won’t be heading back to the bench any time soon.

Josh Hart Fits the Mold

Hart, the no. 30 pick in this year’s draft, has a lot in common with Malcolm Brogdon, last season’s surprise Rookie of the Year. Like Brogdon, Hart was a senior who was the Player of the Year in his conference. Hart was a great shooter at Villanova (40.4 percent from 3 on 6.1 attempts per game) who distributed the ball (3.6 assists per game), played within himself, and guarded multiple positions. He’s an older rookie with the physically mature frame (6-foot-5 and 209 pounds with a 6-foot-9 wingspan) to contribute right away.

Hart is averaging 13.3 minutes per game off the bench, and he often guards the tougher defensive assignment in the opposing backcourt when he’s in. He is the type of rookie coaches love. He knows where he should be on defense, he gets his hands on balls (per-36-minute averages of 5.6 rebounds, 2.0 steals, and 0.9 blocks), and he doesn’t force bad shots. He’s taken only nine 3s so far this season, but if he can shoot like he did in college, Walton will start finding more playing time for him as the season progresses.

The interesting thing about the way the Lakers are set up is that they don’t need their 1 to be a primary ball handler. If Lonzo is playing at the 2 next to Brandon Ingram and Kyle Kuzma, they can put a bigger and more defensive-minded guard at the position. Hart could play the same role Brogdon does in Milwaukee next to Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton. There is a chance all three of the Lakers rookies could end up as long-term starters.