Lonzo Ball’s incredible season finished with a whimper, as the star point guard had just 10 points on 4-10 shooting with four turnovers in UCLA’s Sweet Sixteen game against Kentucky. It was a sad ending to an entertaining season filled with no-look passes and deep threes for Ball, and immediately after the game the freshman point guard declared for the NBA draft.
Ball is certain to be at least a top three pick, but should he go number one overall? Let’s cover that.
1. Ball has the top-flight talent. He’s a special player. You can see it in his stats: 14.6 PPG, 6 RPG, 7.6 APG, 55% FG, 41% 3PFG. Even as impressive as those numbers are (he led the nation in assists per game), his play transcends the statistics.
Ball is 6-6 and a dynamic athlete. He’s got a clean handle and an accurate shot out to thirty feet from the basket. His physical tools and size give him the ability to defend one-on-one, rebound, jump passing lanes, and finish at the rim. He can dominate in every area of the game if he develops.
But his best skill is definitely his passing. He’s a distributor in the mold of Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Steve Nash, and Jason Kidd. Ball sees angles that no one else does. He puts lob passes just above the defense where only his teammate can catch and finish. He sees cutters before they even start moving. Every pass he makes is precise, on time, and puts his teammate in position to score or create for others.
When you have a player with Ball’s ability and willingness to pass, it becomes contagious to everyone around him. Whatever team drafts Ball will set a standard of unselfishness in their organization. Last season, UCLA was a low-ranked offense based around Bryce Alford’s scoring ability. This season, the ball was pinging around from player to player in search of the best shot. That team influence could be Ball’s most important contribution at the next level.
2. He’s well-equipped for the modern NBA. The league’s current status places the highest value on versatility, athleticism, shooting, and ball movement. Ball has all of that. If he puts on a few more pounds of muscle, his 6-6 frame and athletic ability will allow him to guard every position from point guard to power forward and hold his own, a very important trait to have in today’s switch-happy NBA. He’s best with the ball in his hands, but his shooting ability and basketball I.Q. could make him effective off-ball as well.
Ball can just fit in wherever he goes. He doesn’t need very many shots to dominate a game. He does that with his control of the pace, his cerebral passing ability, and well-timed outbursts of scoring and defensive prowess. In a league filled with great point guards, in which it’s almost impossible to compete without an elite playmaker/creator, Ball’s strengths have to entice a lot of teams.
3. Ball has the It-Factor. Setting aside the lackluster performance against Kentucky in the tournament, Ball has a track record of responding well to the moment. When his team needs it most, he’ll jump a passing lane and fly down for a two-handed slam. Multiple times this year he has hit huge shots at the end of the first half or late in a tight game, most notably against Oregon at Pauley Pavilion.
Ball seems destined to continue the tradition of great point guards who get their teammates involved for the first 42 minutes, then take over the final six. Simply put, Ball has the tools to be an all-timer, and the team that drafts him could alter the entire course of their franchise.
A lot of organizations have a ton at stake in this year’s stacked lottery. According to MyTopSportsBooks.com, the Pelicans have the highest odds of any team to relocate at 12/1. “The Pelicans are wasting Anthony Davis’ prime, and the talented big-man is the only thing keeping a team in New Orleans right now.” That could all change if they nab Ball with a top-two pick. If the Lakers take Lonzo, he could kick-start the next great Los Angeles super team. Not only could Ball change the fortunes of one franchise, he could shift the entire balance of the NBA.
1. As his game is currently constructed, he’ll have a definite scoring ceiling. Ball’s funky shooting form, while accurate, keeps him from being able to effectively and creatively shoot off the dribble. The hitch and the low starting point in his shot mean that the only move he has to shoot off the dribble is the step-back going to his left.
This inability to launch off the bounce is a problem in today’s NBA; when Lonzo runs the pick-and-roll, he needs to be able to do everything or the defense will take away the pass and step-back. To be a legitimate star, Ball will most likely have to change his form so that it is more fluid and harder to defend.
Along the same lines, Ball doesn’t have an in-between game. He doesn’t have a consistent floater and he definitely doesn’t shoot in the mid-range. If he can’t shoot a three or get right to the rim, he has to pass it.
2. When you draft Lonzo, you also draft LaVar Ball. Lonzo’s dad has made headlines in the last month with some crazy statements. Among the most outlandish are that he was seeking a $1 billion shoe deal for his son once he hit the NBA, that Lonzo is better than two-time reigning MVP Stephen Curry, and that he himself would have “killed” Michael Jordan one-on-one in his prime (The worst part of that story? LaVar said he would win by backing Jordan under the basket, up-faking, and calling fouls when he didn’t score. That is absolutely lame and petty.)
The elder Ball has made additional statements that would suggest he isn’t afraid of getting involved with the management of his son’s eventual team. He said he wanted Lonzo to be drafted by the Lakers, and refused to wear UCLA gear to his son’s games, opting instead for clothes from his own “Big Baller Brand” with Bruins colors.
I don’t think LaVar Ball is a reason not to draft a possible franchise player. I also don’t think everyone should take what he says as seriously as they do. But he is a distraction, and I don’t see the fathers of other draft picks making waves in the media. If a team takes Lonzo, they have to plan for his father as well.
3. He needs to work on his defense. De’Aaron Fox absolutely crushed him on Friday, and Fox had similar success in their earlier match-up this season. Ball doesn’t have the technique to properly channel his athleticism on the defensive end, and it shows. He consistently gets beaten to the basket and has a hard time getting around and through screens. At the next level, with all the great guards he’ll have to go against, he will get exposed if he doesn’t pick it up, especially with the target he has on his back because of his father’s comments.
So there you have it. Lonzo Ball is one of the most interesting prospects to ever come out of the draft. For every question there is about his game there is a strength to compensate, or the potential to improve. He will undoubtedly be at least an effective player in the NBA, but when it comes to his potential stardom and deciding if he should be the top pick or not, teams have a lot of factors to take into account.