He’s a transition playmaker, but he’s not an entirely reliable ball hander. He’s improving in the mid-range, but don’t hold your breath for a newfound pull-up 3. It remains to be seen if he’ll be on the move, but as Lonzo Ball enters restricted free agency, Jackson Frank gives us the current state of his game on both sides of the – well – ball.
Lonzo Ball’s game can be like that of a solitary boulder perched atop a hill. Spur it into motion and momentum snowballs. A steal, a pull-up jumper, igniting the tempo to beat the defense down the floor and spawn scoring chances.
But just as a boulder requires an impetus to barrel downward, he needs a catalyzing event to channel this aggression.
And that’s the tricky part for Ball. Banking on the initial play, whatever it may be, is unreliable. Often, it seems to just occur out of happenstance; its absence can breed stagnation and an unthreatening presence. Extended stretches as a spot-up shooter and onlooker, and failure to spook the defense in pick-and-roll.
In a suitable role and context, these inconsistencies, while a limiter of his impact, are acceptable workarounds. Recognize and acknowledge the tendencies. Station players around him who amplify his strengths and mitigate his shortcomings. Accomplishing the second half of that means allocating the requisite funds toward him and not overindulging on him, which is particularly salient as he prepares for restricted free agency.
He is a good player and one imminently due for a lucrative pay raise. He’s also a misunderstood player with conspicuous features and bugs to his arsenal. Chiefly, he is not, at this stage, a ball-handler through which to sustainably conduct offense. The gaudy assist totals and slippery transition playmaking tend to misconstrue his ideal role offensively, which should be that of a play-linking, floor-spacing wing.
A current inability to pioneer possessions does not mean he lacks offensive value. A smart, 6-foot-6 wing who nets a ton of 3s and serves as connective tissue carries prominent utility amid the proper circumstances. As a half-court cog, he excels at capitalizing on previously manufactured advantages.
He leverages his vision and shrewd decision-making to puncture titled defenses, primarily identifying cutters, attacking closeouts to maintain a string of rotations and snappily seizing openings, particularly on the interior. In fact, among 117 players with at least 150 assists this past year, he ranked second in percentage of assists at the rim (53.8%). He’s not the one kickstarting power plays, but he’s quite adept at ending them in the form of highly efficient shots.
This is an equitable skill. Various teams would benefit from a play-linker with eagle-eyed vision. But notice how he is largely a conduit for the development of these plays rather than the engine propelling them into action. Somebody else has to generate the advantage for Ball, and that player is both more strenuous to unearth and more important to team building. The latter archetype does not necessitate Ball’s presence, but the maximization of Ball demands its presence.
Rarely will he pressure the defense on the ball. As a pick-and-roll initiator, he regularly fails to bend the defense or turn the corner downhill. So many ball-screen actions involving him conclude in a reset of the possession that leave his peers scrambling for a late-clock bucket.
Further inhibiting his self-creation ceiling are physical and skill deficiencies that primarily rear their head on driving and finishing reps. He does not tout the burst to cook defenders off the bounce and is a poor one-foot leaper – meaning he can’t amass considerable gusto when he elevates around the cup. He shies away from contact and is a rigid athlete, preventing him from routinely contorting around guys to convert inside. His shots at the rim are overwhelmingly arduous to a suboptimal degree.
All of these flaws curb his finishing prowess (56.2% in 2020-21) and rim frequency (18%, 20th percentile, per Cleaning The Glass). His handle is also high and loose, and his poor core strength invites defenders to dislodge him from the ball. Individual scoring or creation against structured defenses is simply not his calling card. In conjunction with his pick-and-roll timidity, it significantly complicates and dampens his on-ball allure.
Any synopsis of Ball’s repertoire must highlight his transition playmaking. He’s one of the league’s preeminent open-court facilitators, brandishing deft touch on his signature hit-ahead outlets and the omnipresent mindset to spark fast-break opportunities.
Playing alongside Zion Williamson over the past year and a half, these traits were amplified. While Zion may not be his running mate next season, Ball is wired to effectively fashion an abundance of transition offense regardless of the surrounding personnel. Transition offense can be more fruitful than half-court offense, meaning this faculty is a grand feather in his cap.
Although he does not yet holster much on-ball viability, there’s absolutely a path to warranting secondary on-ball usage if he continues to expand his comfort as a mid-range shooter off the dribble. Opponents typically deploy drop coverage to combat his pick-and-rolls because they’re cognizant of his finishing warts, discordance with floaters and fickle off-the-bounce jumper.
But he’s exhibited fluency in the mid-range to exploit drop coverage, and the next step is implementing consistency. He shot a career-best 37.9% on pull-up 2s on a career-high 14.8% frequency this past season, albeit both minor high watermarks (36.7% as a rookie and 13.5% in 2019-20).
Many young players achieve growth by merely improving as shot-makers. Ball doing so in the intermediate region feels entirely plausible, especially given the flashes of competency. It seems dubious to count on the emergence of a floater because he’s never been comfortable taking those shots and awaiting a pull-up 3 revolution is a lofty standard. The mid-range, though, is an attainable haven to supply complementary creation and broaden his offensive toolbox.
To his credit, he’s leaped every season offensively, seeing his relative true shooting (how far above or below league average a player’s true shooting percentage is) go from minus-11.2 percent as a rookie to minus-2.1 in Year 4. Further refinement as he approaches his prime – he’s still just 23 – should be the baseline, and it could surface in the mid-range.
His most replicable scoring avenue is off-ball shooting beyond the arc. After reshaping his mechanics upon being dealt to New Orleans, he’s cashed 37.6% (320 of 850) of his long balls and sports a voluminous .613 3-point rate. He’s become an excellent off-ball shooter with versatility and intelligence.
If defenders duck under screens, he’ll bury them. Late arriving or encroaching closeouts do not phase him. Stunting off of him from the strong-side against is ill-advised. Let him exit your stream of consciousness defensively and he’ll migrate along the arc to conjure passing angles or elongate recovery closeouts.
He holsters a quick trigger, can shoot on the move in a pinch and knows when to relocate. He slots in expediently for lineups that meet a creation quota and elevates their offensive ceiling with his long-range expertise.
Just as his offense warrants a specific role to embolden him, Ball’s defense is of a similar ilk. Over the past two seasons, the Pelicans were short on high-level perimeter stoppers. Their roster construction pigeonholed him into an unfavorable position as a point-of-attack defender tasked with containing a gamut of prolific creators, while inadequate rim protectors further exacerbated the problem.
The byproduct of his inflexibility and underdeveloped strength is detrimental screen navigation, and that leaves him trailing plays in no-man’s land. The same contact aversion handcuffing him around the rim manifests defensively. Rarely does he physically confront assignments, which enables them to maneuver as they wish. He’s both weak and passive on the ball. Despite sound positional awareness, those blemishes, along with his uneconomical handling of screens, converge to make him optimized in an off-ball role and unfit for such burdensome on-ball expectations.
Separate from his constraints at the point of attack, Ball is best utilized inducing chaos as an off-ball roamer. Exceptional anticipation and instincts, and pinball flipper hands illuminate why he’s ranked in the 74th percentile or better in steal rate every season.
He’s a menace in the passing lanes, completing timely rotations to dart in front of the ball; he can raise hell in stunt-and-recover situations; he sniffs out events as they commence to throw a wrench in those plans. When he’s not required to cover for a severely compromised defensive roster and play out of position, he’s a damn good defender, even if confined versatility still must be priced into the evaluation of his résumé.
Amid the rumors of the Pelicans pursuing Kyle Lowry, if Ball and New Orleans agree to extend their partnership, acquiring better on-ball defenders that empower him to embody his ideal archetype is paramount in raising the ceiling of both parties. And, really, wherever he lands, it’s critical to recognize who he is defensively and how to best tap into that repertoire.
Avoid overloading him with on-ball duties. Don’t force him to set the tone against opposing superstars. Let him meddle as a playmaker. Ensure he’s flanked by at least one perimeter defender better equipped to tackle on-ball chores. If he is involved in pick-and-rolls, employing Ice or Push coverage to let him overwhelm initiators with his size and not have to wiggle around screens is preferable.
A similar criteria applies offensively. Right now, he should not be commandeering many possessions. Multiple proven ball-handlers who yield advantages and get downhill are essential. He will not commonly pressure the rim or jolt the defense into rotation. What he can do, however, is maintain an advantage and build it into a positive result via perceptive decision-making.
Splash a spot-up 3. Thread a dime to a cutter or big man when attacking a closeout. Loft a skip pass to an open shooter amid a ball-movement sequence against a disorganized opponent. He’ll take a small crack in the defense and compound it. Just don’t ask him to pilot the opening breakdown.
For the Pelicans and every other potential suitor, the question becomes how much is this package of skills worth monetarily? He’s functional offensively as an off-ball shooter, tertiary passer and transition blitzer. His defensive playmaking is concretely practical. But he’s not a pull-up shooter, he doesn’t get to or finish at the rim, his rudimentary handle hinders him from traversing tight quarters and his on-ball defense can be troubling.
There absolutely should be a robust market for him. Teams such as the Chicago Bulls, Dallas Mavericks (a bit light on creation) and Atlanta Hawks are enticing destinations. Although the former two seem to be missing the defensive core — the offensive fit is appealing still — while the Hawks might just have better options in-house.
Meanwhile, New Orleans, a franchise still trying to clarify its long-term vision around Zion, should be careful in investing too much money into a guy who seems best in a place with established infrastructure that magnifies all of his sought-after qualities. Its stable of young guards/wings, Kira Lewis (transition play, defense, passing), Naji Marshall (defense, connective passing) and Nickeil Alexander-Walker (spot-up shooting, secondary handling), all strike me as guys with some overlapping skillsets to Ball.
They could provide greater flexibility in team building by not commanding such large deals (which Ball has earned, to be clear, not advocating for a player to receive less money) and allowing the Pelicans to address more pressing holes. That threshold feels about, roughly, $18-20 million before the contract might impede on their optionality moving forward.
Maybe, newfound stability accelerates his trajectory, too. He’s played for three coaches in four seasons (about to be four in five) and four different team contexts. That sort of choppiness has to interfere to some degree. A secure situation, both in personnel and coaching staff, could be a boon and morph some of his weaknesses into non-problems.
Next month, Ball will enter restricted free agency. He will pique the interest of teams and rightfully so, because he is good. Good is vague, though. Whichever team signs him must know the intricacies behind the label, and everything it encompasses.
A failure to parse that out would be a disservice to him, his game and the organization that signed him.
Design by Matt Sisneros.
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