The Los Angeles Lakers, a tent-pole franchise in professional sports, have been flat-out abysmal in recent years, with only the Philadelphia 76ers having a worse winning percentage over the past four seasons.
Following a dismal 26-56 campaign, Los Angeles landed the No. 2 overall pick in the 2017 draft, which the team used to select Lonzo Ball, an oversized point guard with court vision that drew Jason Kidd comparisons.
Ball led the nation in assists, the UCLA Bruins to a Sweet 16 appearance, and became just the fourth player since 1992 to average at least 14 points, seven assists and six rebounds per contest. Alongside Markelle Fultz, he was widely accepted as one of the top two prospects in college basketball. And when newly installed general manager Magic Johnson dealt point guard D’Angelo Russell to the Brooklyn Nets days before the draft, it was all but official: Ball, the hometown kid, would lead the Showtime Lakers.
Through 14 games, however, he largely has underwhelmed. Ball is shooting 31.3 percent from the field, 25 percent from behind the three-point circle and 50 percent from the free throw line, putting him on track for the worst shooting season by a rookie in the three-point era. He ranks no higher than the 20th percentile among players at his position group in field goal percentage at the rim and on three-point attempts. In total, Ball is scoring 76 points per 100 shot attempts, which ranks in the zero percentile among players at his position. He did become the youngest player in league history to produce a triple-double, but that didn’t stop Coach Luke Walton keeping him on the bench for the entire fourth quarter in Tuesday night’s win over the Phoenix Suns.
Ball’s tepid play, specifically on the offensive end, has opened the door for Kyle Kuzma, the first-year wing out of Utah. Although he didn’t begin the season in the starting rotation, Kuzma earned his way into playing the fourth-most minutes per game of any player on the roster and within a point of the team lead in scoring at 14.9 points per contest. The surprise play of the 27th overall pick is translating into wins. Among rookies, only Jayson Tatum, picked third overall by the Boston Celtics, and Ben Simmons, Philadelphia’s top overall selection in 2016, have accumulated more win shares than Kuzma. Ball is tied for 21st.
Kuzma is getting to the free throw line more consistently, grabbing a higher percentage of available rebounds, turning the ball over less frequently, sopping up a higher portion of offensive possessions and touting a superior Player Efficiency Rating.
|Player||Points Per 100 Shot Attempts||TOV%||FTr||TRB%||USG%||PER|
And Kuzma is scoring efficiently, too. Kuzma ranks second this season among rookies in true-shooting percentage (58.4) — and among rookies in the three-point era who took at least 11 shots per contest, he ranks 11th, ahead of players such as Tim Duncan, Stephen Curry and Kyrie Irving. Ball, conversely, has a true-shooting percentage of 37.7, 21 percentage points lower than his teammate. Plus, with Kuzma on the floor, the Lakers score 102.5 points per 100 possessions, up nearly six points from when he sits, the equivalent of jumping from the 29th overall offense in the league to the 22nd.
Moving forward, Kuzma will continue to have more utility for the Lakers.
Part of this is for purely physical reasons: Kuzma is 6-foot-9 with a 7-0 wingspan. He has the prototypical body of a modern-day stretch-4, and can play at least three positions; according to Basketball-Reference.com, he has even logged nine minutes at center. He leads the team in points in the paint (8.3) and has proven to be a capable scorer on the interior as well as along the perimeter. Ball may be 6-6, but he will only ever be a point guard; indeed, Basketball-Reference.com notes that he hasn’t logged a single minute anywhere else. His court vision is his calling card and his shooting is far too poor to make him a possibility along the wing, which fails to touch on the fact that he isn’t a physically capable enough defender to body-up wings. If point guard doesn’t pan out, Ball doesn’t have a position on the floor.
The second reason is: There never has been more of a premium placed on efficient shooting. Until Ball can improve into an average shooter, he’ll be a liability on the offensive end and teams will sag off him to guard other, more capable offensive threats. Defenders have already figured out that Ball cannot shoot unless he’s driving left, the direction from which he pulls the ball into his shooting arc. According to data provided by Synergy Sports, Ball has yet to drive right in isolation and pull up for a jump shot this season, and his four drives to the left have resulted in zero points off jumpers. Kuzma’s game features none of those hiccups; he’s shooting at a historic rate and can finish anywhere in the half court. Not only that, but Kuzma has been solid in transition, scoring 1.1 points per possession, almost double that of Ball (0.64).
Los Angeles surely isn’t heading to the postseason anytime soon; FiveThirtyEight gives the Lakers a 12 percent likelihood of reaching the playoffs. But the team’s late-round selection of Kuzma provides reason for optimism, even if Ball, the team’s lottery pick, isn’t panning out.
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