Through his first 23 NBA games, Lonzo Ball looks more like a bust than a Big Baller. That’s not a total shock. Rookie point guards typically struggle because of the time it takes to develop a feel for the pro game’s speed and physicality. It was clear at UCLA that Ball needed to improve his body and ballhandling skills, and the concerns about his slingshot jumper are not new. If there’s an issue, it’s that the hype generated by LaVar Ball and Magic Johnson set the bar too high.
With that said, Ball is not good right now. The 20-year-old is shooting 36.5 percent from 2, 25 percent from 3, and 50 percent from the free throw line. There’s no doubt Lonzo can pass at a high level; he’d be averaging far more assists than seven if his teammates were better. But for Ball to become a superstar — or “better than Steph Curry” — he needs to be able to score. Jason Kidd, Steve Nash, John Stockton, and Chris Paul all enhanced their playmaking by scoring because it gave them an additional tool for which the defense had to account. If Lonzo doesn’t put up points, it will limit his passing.
Not every executive and scout had Ball ranked first or second leading up to June’s draft. I’ve talked to a handful that had him in the nos. 5-8 range. They’re looking smart now. I have to admit, I’m questioning myself for even ranking him third overall behind Markelle Fultz and Jayson Tatum.
I tracked all of Ball’s shots this season to find out what’s working and what’s not. There are reasons for optimism — but also reasons to worry.
Are Lonzo’s Shooting Woes for Real?
This isn’t the first time Ball has struggled to shoot. He made 24 percent of 50 attempts from 3s in summer league and the preseason, 29.3 percent on 92 attempts from 2014 through 2016 at Adidas and McDonald’s high school competitions, and 36 percent on 224 attempts as a senior at Chino Hills High School. His 41.2 3-point percentage at UCLA is an anomaly — one that may have to do with a ball more than Ball himself.
An NBA executive passed along a theory to me that Lonzo shot better in college with Wilson brand balls since they have a softer grip with deeper ridges and thus mitigate the effects of his funky form. As I detailed this March, the numbers checked out: Ball shot 43.3 percent on 150 attempts using Wilson balls in college, compared with 34.1 percent on 44 attempts using Nike balls. All told, Ball has shot only 32 percent on 469 3-point attempts over the past three years of competition using non-Wilson balls. The NBA uses a Spalding ball, which is leather and widely considered the best on the planet. But what if Ball is struggling to adjust?
Whether it’s a result of ball preference or not, the data thus far shows reasons for concern. Ball has hit only 15 of his 66 catch-and-shoot jumpers (22.7 percent), which is odd because one of his strengths was his ability to space the floor, even without the ball. It’s not like he’s simply missing jumpers short or long, either. They’re all over the place. Of his 51 missed catch-and-shoot jumpers, four are air balls, five clanked off the backboard, and nine missed to the left or right side of the rim. Both the quality and quantity of Ball’s shooting is disastrous.
Ball rushed his shot early in the season. He recently began holding his follow through, which is a positive sign. But the rookie still needs to work on his footwork. He’s inconsistent, both with the way he sets his feet and the way he lands. Finding a steady rhythm should help him develop better confidence, which could lead to better results (unless his broken mechanics are more of a problem than his lone season at UCLA led us to believe).
A One-Trick Shooter?
It’s not like we didn’t already know Ball was more of a specialist when it came to shooting. Despite the exhilarating highlights, Ball attempted 61 jump shots off the dribble at UCLA, and none of them were shot going toward his right. Zero! A total of 28 of his dribble-jumpers were step-backs toward his left, and he made 46.5 percent of them. They looked like this:
By comparison, he made only 28 percent of his straightaway pull-ups. It was clear at the time that Lonzo would have to expand his shooting repertoire or defenders would eat him alive because of his predictability. Ball has begun to change, which is both encouraging and concerning.
Lonzo Ball’s Off-the-Dribble Shooting
|Step-back to Left||38.5%||13|
|Pull-up to Left||31%||29|
|Pull-up to Right||19.2%||26|
Statistics tracked manually, as of December 6.
In the NBA, Ball is shooting 38.5 percent (5-for-13) on step-back jumpers to the left, which is quite good for such a tough shot. On step-backs, it’s easier for him to transfer the ball from a dribble to his shot because of the unorthodox angle of his form. It’s not as easy on what should be clean pull-up jumpers. He’s shooting only 31 percent (9-for-29) on dribble-jumpers to his left. But to his right? Only five of his 26 attempts, or 19.2 percent, have gone down.
Lonzo’s shot doesn’t look bad when he’s pulling up toward his right. These shots didn’t exist in college, so it’s promising to see him take them now. It’s also not abnormal for some players to be better shooting or driving in one direction than the other, especially when they’re young. The ball needs to start going through the net, but this is a step forward.
Ball is also releasing the ball quicker than he did in college, which is important given that NBA defenders are more athletic. Once he finds a rhythm and develops more consistent footwork, it could come more naturally. There are legitimate concerns about his jumper, but it’s also not a lost cause.
Adding a Floater
The midrange wasn’t part of Lonzo’s arsenal in college; he attempted only 6.4 percent of his field goals from that area at UCLA, as noted in The Ringer’s 2017 NBA Draft Guide. The number has almost tripled in the NBA, to 18.5 percent, because of his increased use of a floater. Ball has hit only seven of his 23 floaters, which is very bad. Then again, it’s a new part of his game. As with his jumper, he’s superior going left. Ball has gone 1-for-4 of his floaters to the right, 1-for-7 moving straight ahead, and 5-for-12 to his left. The shot also never looks good. (Fundamentals clearly weren’t high on LaVar’s priority list.)
This is long ways away from Mike Conley Jr.’s picturesque form. Lonzo is never set and his momentum makes it look like he’s heaving the ball at the backboard. Still, it’s good that he’s experimenting. The midrange may be dying, but Lonzo has to be able to score from anywhere if he wants to be effective in end-of-clock situations.
Layups Haven’t Been Gimmes
Finishing inside has been a hurdle for Lonzo. He’s shooting a dismal 33.8 percent on layups (excluding lobs, cuts, and tip-ins). For Ball to be a more effective finisher, he needs to take a page from Curry, who added crafty finishes to compensate for his lack of an elite vertical. For now, it sure seems like Lonzo is spooked when he enters the paint. In the clip below, he shows the ball on the right and reverses left, even though it’s completely unnecessary.
If he’s worried about a potential shot-blocker sneaking up on him, it’s because he’s been there before. Thus far, Ball has been blocked on 18 of his 91 attempts inside the restricted area. As with his shooting game away from the basket, he might also have a natural preference for finishing on the left side. Ball has hit 43.3 percent of his left-handed layups and only 25.7 percent of his right-handed layups — though both numbers are derived from small samples and he displayed good ambidexterity at UCLA.
The bigger issue that needs solving is, once again, his footwork:
Notice how far away from the rim Lonzo takes off. Gravity is pulling him to the ground by the time he’s ready to let go of the ball. That has happened time and time and time again this season, to the point where I labeled one-third of Lonzo’s layups as “took off too early.” Too many of his leaps also come off the wrong foot, putting him at an immediate disadvantage. The ability to finish wrong-footed layups is important, but Lonzo’s footwork is just plain sloppy.
He plays way too fast, which, as I mentioned, is typical of a rookie. As he gains experience, he should accordingly develop better body control on drives. But he’ll need to focus closely on footwork, angles, and finishing.
A front-office executive told me this summer that, in his opinion, this season is Lonzo’s audition for LeBron James. Lakers executives Rob Pelinka and Magic Johnson likely wouldn’t hesitate to accommodate any of LeBron’s wishes if he decides to join their team next summer, and if that means finding another point guard, so be it.
But some perspective is also needed here. Lonzo is just a rookie. If Lonzo weren’t Lonzo Ball, it’s unlikely we’d look at him the same way. It’s also worth considering his role. Lakers coach Luke Walton is asking Ball to be a scorer, which isn’t what Ball would be if the Lakers build a winner around LeBron or another star free agent. In that scenario, Lonzo would pivot back into being a passing savant who scraps on defense and scores when needed.
Lonzo’s start has been tougher than many expected. Old concerns have been renewed. New issues have arisen. But let’s stay patient with all rookies — even the ones that may be hyped as if they’re already superstars.