Coming into the season, not many knew exactly what to make of Lonzo Ball. One of the more divisive high school prospects of the last decade, some believed Ball to be the best player of the 2016 graduating class, whereas others thought he would struggle to transition to the college game. They wondered if he was too slow, or if the shot wouldn’t translate, or if he’d defend after coming from a system that would be charitably described as gimmicky.
Overall, some of those concerns ended up being proven right, but the good far outweighed the bad. Ball led UCLA to a complete turnaround season, fostering a culture of unselfishness as he led the Bruins to a 31-5 record and became an All-American. For his part, Ball led the country in assists per game (7.6), averaged 14.6 points and 6.0 rebounds for good measure and put up staggering efficiency numbers that make him the favorite of nearly every analytics system.
Still, questions remain about his overall fit in the NBA. Here’s a quick breakdown of Ball, and what NBA teams can expect from him.
Ball’s strengths genuinely have a chance to be organization-changing. At 6-6 with relative length for the point guard position, he has enough size to play at the 1 through 3 in today’s NBA. He’s the best distributor to enter the draft in a long time, a high-level decision-maker that gets his teammates in the right situations for success. His basketball IQ is off the charts. He doesn’t pound the ball to get it where he wants on the floor; rather, he uses the pass, particularly in outlet situations in transition, to get it to where he believes is the best spot. UCLA had the No. 2 offense in the country this season a year after having the No. 51 offense in the country.
That unselfishness leads him to being a tremendous off-ball offensive player. He was one of the most effective players in the country off cuts last season, using his elite recognition and sense to time his break toward the rim, and his terrific leaping ability off two feet in space to finish well above it.
He’s also a tremendous shooter, particularly off the catch and from the left side of the floor. Despite funky mechanics that we’ll get into later, Ball finished in the 93rd percentile off the catch, and the 99th percentile off the dribble this season. He brings the ball up on the left side of his body, keeps it there through his leap, re-aligns himself in mid-air and follows through out in front of his face. It’s funky, but it works.
Ball’s right-to-left crossover step-back jumper is a lethal weapon all the way out to around 30 feet. Ball was the first player in the last quarter century to take at least 300 field goal attempts and finish with over a 70-percent 2-point percentage and 40-percent 3-point percentage, speaking to his incredible efficiency as a scorer.
Defensively, Ball’s size allows him to switch onto bigger players, where he was actually more effective this season than he was on smaller point guards. For instance, look at the game against Oregon where he shut down Dillon Brooks down the stretch versus his games against Kentucky and De’Aaron Fox. He also has strong instincts going up for chasedown blocks and getting into passing lanes.
The questions that followed Ball in high school will continue to be there until he shows it in the NBA. First, does he have the burst to consistently get into the teeth of the defense as a point guard? Possessing an average first step, rudimentary ball-handling ability and not a ton of shake in his dribble, Ball could have some problems breaking down defenses in the half-court. Can he get consistent separation?
In that vein, he might be better off played next to a consistent backcourt mate that can get his own shot against opposing defenses. The key will be tightening his handle. Turnovers were occasionally an issue for him against athletic guards, as his 18.6 percent turnover rate should be a small worry.
The utility of his jump shot is also up for debate at this stage. In college, defenders were not able to force Ball out of his comfort zone as consistently as NBA defenders will be able to. The UCLA star only took one jumper going to his right in half-court settings this year, and the book on him will be to force him that direction. Can he adjust, or can he just consistently get it back to his left hand on that side of the floor? It’ll be tough, but it’s possible. Also in terms of his scoring, Ball is not much of a leaper when crowded, and can struggle to finish on slashes to the rim against athletic defenses when forced to jump off of one foot.
Defensively, there are also some worries here. Ball was poor at the point of attack this season, struggling at times to contain dribble penetration due to average lateral quickness. Opposing offenses are getti