The Los Angeles Lakers selected Lonzo Ball with the second selection of the 2017 NBA draft largely based on a one-and-done season at UCLA, where Ball averaged 14.6 points, 7.6 assists and 6.0 rebounds as a freshman while shooting 55.1 percent, earning him first-team all-America, first-team all-Pac-12 and PAC-12 Freshman of the Year honors. Yet his quirky shooting mechanics have limited his ability at the NBA level.
Ball’s setup starts at his right hip, with the ball brought up around his left ear where he releases his shot. According to ESPN’s Sports Science, this puts his shot angle about 50 degrees away from the “ideal” shot position, resulting in poor performances across the board.
His 30.9 percent from the field, if it doesn’t improve, would be the fifth-worst performance by a rookie since 1979, the year the NBA adopted the three-point line. As a spot-up shooter, he is below average, hitting 12 of 50 (24.0 percent) attempts; only Marcus Smart and T.J. Warren are worse on these possessions this season. In transition, Ball is producing 0.565 points per possession, placing him 65th out of 66 guards with at least 50 possessions in transition. And among the 35 players with at least 100 possessions as the ballhandler on the pick-and-roll, no one produces fewer points per possession than Ball does (0.577). To add insult to injury, no one has a higher turnover rate (23.1 percent), either.
Because of this, he is, according to Basketball Hall of Famer Charles Barkley, “only half of a player right now.” And since Magic Johnson has stated that the Lakers will not tweak Ball’s shot mechanics during the season, it will be up to his passing to narrow the gap between worst in the league and something more respectable.
Luckily for Los Angeles, his court vision is good enough to mitigate some of his shortcomings as a shooter. For example, with him as the ballhandler in the pick and roll, the Lakers score 1.0 points per possession off his passes — almost double what Ball does on his own — with fewer turnovers.
|Lonzo Ball||Points per possession||Turnover rate||Score%|
|Own offense in pick-and-roll||0.577||23.1%||26.0%|
|Team offense of his passes in pick-and-roll||1.000||10.5%||45.8%|
Ball also generates 13.1 potential assists, assists a player would have if all shots off his passes resulted in a score. Only eight other players have more this season, and that includes last year’s MVP, Russell Westbrook, runner-up James Harden and perennial candidate LeBron James, along with John Wall, Chris Paul and rookie-of-the-year favorite Ben Simmons.
But Ball doesn’t pass nearly enough to bridge the gap between his performance and what is produced by an average guard in the NBA.
His 0.108 points per touch is a league low among players with at least 80 touches per game. The rest of the NBA’s guards score 0.242 per touch, with half of them above 0.229. Based on the Lakers’ roster and his current shot volume, Ball would have to pass the ball 111.3 times per game just to make him an average guard producing .242 points per touch. He is currently making 63.7 passes per game. Since player tracking data is available, the highest mark was set by Kemba Walker in 2013-14 (77.9), making over a hundred passes per game considerably out of reach.
To be fair, the Lakers are an average shooting team (45.7 percent field goal percentage, 15th in the NBA), making Ball’s job more difficult than, say, if he were passing to members of the Golden State Warriors, the best shooting team in the NBA. But the difference in points per shot would still necessitate Ball passing almost 98 times per game. Again, that’s just to get him to average — to be one of the premier point guards in the league, it must be much higher.
Ball does have some defensive value. His 2.1 deflections and 7.5 contested shots per game rank second and fifth, respectively, on the team. But other than that, he is a non-factor: The Lakers’ defensive rating remains flat with Ball on (101.6) or off the court (101.7).
Could Ball improve his shooting with better mechanics so he isn’t as much of a liability? Sure, but right now we are in uncharted waters. Since 1983-84, the earliest data available, only two other guards in addition to Ball have shot 35 percent or worse from the floor on 200 or more attempts during their first 20 games in the NBA, Emmanuel Mudiay and Mark Macon. Mudiay finished his rookie season shooting 36.4 percent from the field, while Macon ended at 37.5 percent. They both improved slightly the following year, to 37.7 percent and 41.5 percent, respectively, which is still below average.
As for the Jason Kidd comparisons for Ball coming out of college, they are appropriate, with the two starting their careers similarly through their first 20 games in the NBA — with the exception of free throw percentage, which is heavily in Kidd’s favor. However, Kidd’s field goal percentage never got above 45 percent in any of his first five seasons in the league, and he ended his career as a 40 percent shooter from the field –not exactly a ringing endorsement for a player struggling with his shot.
|First 20 games in the NBA||MP||FG%||3P%||FT%||TRB||AST||STL||BLK||TOV||PF||PTS||Game score|