MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Lonzo Ball, UCLA’s wunderkind point guard and the potential first overall pick in the NBA Draft, has built his gleaming profile with an unattractive jump shot. He might be the best player on the court when the No. 3 Bruins face No. 2 Kentucky in a marvel of a South Region semifinal. It would be difficult to discern from only watching him shoot, aside from the end result.
Ball, a right-handed shooter, begins his jumper with the ball on the left side of his body, like he is reaching into an invisible messenger bag slung over his right shoulder and strapped across his chest. The ball crosses his face and starts its arc to the rim with a flick, wrist and elbow jutting in opposing directions. The only appealing visual the form provides is the usual conclusion: the ball rippling through the net.
Ball’s unorthodox form, dissected by opposing coaches and debated among NBA evaluators, has not prevented him from being one of the best long-range shooters in the country. He shot more than five three-pointers per game, many of them from well beyond the arc, and made 42 percent. Despite the adventurous route the ball traverses before he releases it, Ball rarely gets his shot blocked. How can such strange mechanics yield such an effective shooter?
“It’s kind of a mystery,” UCLA center Thomas Welsh said.
“I learned from my dad how to shoot and what the right way to shoot is,” said Bryce Alford, the son of UCLA Coach Steve Alford said. “His form is much different than mine and what I’ve been taught. But it goes in, and he works at it really hard.”
The efficacy of Ball’s shot starts with his height. At 6-foot-6, most guards are not tall enough to block his shot, especially in college. And while it may seem easier to block, opponents unaccustomed to the form have difficulty adjusting. Trying to swat his shot can lead to fouls.
“It’s difficult to time, and then he comes across,” said Kentucky point De’Aaron Fox, who will defend Ball. “So if you have your hand straight up, you can hit his wrist of something like that. It’s hard to contest a shot like that.”
“He’s been playing like for so long, he knows how to get it off, and he knows that he can make it,” UCLA assistant coach Tyus Edny said. “There’s been a lot of guys who have played this game with different types of shots that are really good shooters. I think he’s just one of them. He knows how to get his shot off. And then he just has such range with it, he can step out further.”
Getting it off is one thing. Getting it to go in is another. Ball’s shot looks funky because of the wind-up, and in real time it seems like a disjointed series of movements. If you pause video of him shooting at the very last moment before the ball leaves his hand, his form appears as if it could come out of an instruction manual.
“If you watch it, the release is fine,” Edny said. “It’s just kind of how he starts it. If you watch him finish it — the rotation, the release — it’s like a normal shot. It’s actually kind of interesting how he gets it back to center. But it finishes the right way.”
Ball’s form, with all its moving parts, requires more maintenance than others. For him, that is not a problem. Ball’s boisterous father, LaVar, famously trained him for long hours at their Chino Hills, Calif., home. Teammates say Ball is tireless.
“It works because of the reps he gets in,” Alford said. “He’s one of the first in the gym and one of the last out every single day, on our days off. That’s what I’ve been impressed about him — with the hype that surrounds him and how he’s already set up for success in his future, he still works like he’s not. He works like he’s got something to prove. That’s why he makes shots: He gets in the gym, and he shoots. I don’t care how you shoot.”
Shooters can find success in varying ways. Reggie Miller, another UCLA product, used to cross his hands on his release, so his left hand would slap the back of his right. Malik Monk, Kentucky’s sharp-shooting freshman, revealed he once employed a similar form to Ball. “I used to shoot like that, too,” Monk said. “Not all the way over, but I used to cross my face. Whatever works for him.”
The form contains one subtle, significant flaw. Because his shot requires momentum from left to right, Ball never pulls up to shoot off the dribble going to his right. “It’s physically impossible for him,” one evaluator in Memphis said. He relies on his step-back jumper not only because it works, but because he has no choice: The move allows him to reset himself if he had been going right, a necessity given his mechanics.
Ball can counteract the flaw, though, with other skills. Maybe he can’t shoot going right, but if a defender forced him that direction, he is more than quick and crafty enough to blow by them with his strong hand. Ball is a dynamite finisher — he made more than 70 percent of his two-point shots this year. He also possesses genius vision. Once he beats his man and the defense collapses, he showcases his passing, his best attribute.
The biggest question Ball faces, and one that may not be answerable yet, is whether the shot can work in the NBA. Edny expressed no doubt the form would translate, even against bigger, faster guards. “I think he’ll be fine,” Edny said. “He’s so quick and fast. He knows how to get it off.” He may need to rely on his step-back and his range. “He likes the step-back, and when he steps back, it’s almost impossible to block it,” Fox said.
If Ball decides to change his form, it would not be the first time. This summer, the Bruins traveled on a team trip to Australia. While there, Ball tinkered with his form and acquired, instead of a new jumper, a lesson.
“He was kind of tweaking it, messing with it,” Edny said. “It didn’t really go well in Australia, so then he went back to it. I know I was happy he went back to it. He’s been shooting like that for so long. Just keep shooting like that. Because he makes it.”