Lonzo Ball has been in the news this week for the same reason that Lonzo Ball has been in the news every week for the past two months: LaVar Ball said something crazy.
After months in the spotlight, this week Lonzo’s father responded to a few critics directly, saying “Jason Whitlock can’t comment on anything but snacks” (funny!) and telling Kristine Leahy she needs to “stay in her lane” (ehh…). All of this is uncomfortable. It’s been this way for a while. It will probably continue this way at least through the draft, and maybe beyond. But with that throat clearing out of the way, here is a take: if the Lakers keep this pick, they shouldn’t draft Lonzo Ball—and it has nothing to do with his dad.
If the Lakers think Ball is the second-best player in the draft, or a future franchise cornerstone, or the point guard to bring them to the next level, they should take him. But I don’t think he fits any of those criteria.
If anything, the noise surrounding Lonzo’s dad has helped distract people from valid questions about the UCLA star’s game. As a prospect he’s got a high floor—bigger Ricky Rubio—but there are reasons to be skeptical about his ceiling. We never really saw him score in the halfcourt at UCLA. It’s not clear that he can create his own shot against NBA athletes. While he’s incredible in transition, pushing the pace will be tougher in the NBA than it was against, say, Utah in the Pac-12.
His shooting numbers are good, but they begin to look a little more questionable upon closer investigation. His work in the pick-and-roll is underwhelming. Defensively he’s long enough to potentially hold his own, but he doesn’t have the athleticism to ever excel on that end.
The Lakers should take De’Aaron Fox. He is worlds better on defense. His jumper remains a work in progress, but his speed will allow him to drive defenses crazy in the meantime. He plays incredibly hard, and with his athleticism, it feels like he’s only scratching the surface of what he’ll be in five years.
I won't lean too heavily on the two UCLA-Kentucky games this year with respect to Ball, but if nothing else they said a lot about what Fox can do. He got the better of Lonzo in the first matchup, and he flat out roasted him in the second.
Fox also fits with the other pieces L.A. already has in place. He’s not a pure scorer, but the plan is to get that scoring from D’Angelo Russell, Brandon Ingram, and/or a max free agent that comes later. In the meantime, while Russell has shown real promise as an off-ball scorer, defense is still very much an issue—and Fox can help mitigate the damage.
Playing Lonzo and D’Angelo in the backcourt would do the opposite. They’re both a step slow, and neither player seems particularly invested in locking anyone down. It’d be like a Hollywood answer to the most depressing Blazers games from this past season.
The Lakers have been a mess on defense for several years now—they were 28th in defensive efficiency in 2014, 29th in 2015, and 30th in 2016 and 2017. Is it even possible to get worse than that? Is it worth it to draft Lonzo and find out?
It’s totally fine to answer that question in the affirmative. If the Lakers think Lonzo is a future superstar, defensive matchups shouldn’t matter, and they can always trade D’Angelo.
The case for taking Lonzo means arguing that his passing will be infectious for everyone on the floor, and his shooting will gradually improve and make him even more dangerous. To believers, Lonzo is a 6’6″ version of Suns Steve Nash. He’s someone who will make the All-NBA Team every year, supercharge the offense, and change the landscape of the league.
It’s also true that finding that kind of player should be the goal for any team drafting in the top three. Fit shouldn’t be a major factor when you’re looking for someone to anchor the team for 15 years. But here’s the thing: I’m just not sure Lonzo is that good. Outside of Markelle Fultz at the top, I don’t see anyone available who is all that convincing as a franchise cornerstone. There are potential All-Stars in this draft, but not many potential MVPs. And if you’re choosing between All-Stars, fit should matter.
Who in this class is likely to make life easier for the lottery picks the Lakers already have? Who can help solve the Lakers’ problems without creating others? And of everyone from 2–10 in this draft, who’s the safest bet to turn into a very good NBA player? We’re pretty early in the draft process, but my gut feeling answer to all those questions is Fox. He fits well now, and he’s got the potential to get much, much more dangerous in a few years.
I can definitely appreciate the entertainment factor that would come with Lonzo in L.A. LaVar wedged in between Magic Johnson and Jeannie Buss could be a full-blown catastrophe. Every game would be worth watching to see how Lonzo responds, and every loss would be interesting to see how his dad responds. It’d be great.
But I also want the Lakers to stop being a catastrophe. And if they can’t actually be good next year, at least give me a Lakers roster that has a coherent vision of how they might get there.
The league is more interesting when the Lakers are dominant—when they’re good enough to remind you that this is how it’s always been, and convince you that this is how it will always be, because the world is unfair. Before 2014, they’d made the playoffs in 35 of 37 seasons. They stole superstars. They nailed draft picks. They pulled off wildly lopsided trades. Their fans injected themselves into every basketball argument to remind you that they have more titles than anyone outside of Boston. It’s awful, but I kind of miss it.
The Evil Lakers are an NBA institution. They’re a landmark. The Clueless Lakers are a Twitter joke that’s already kind of played out. I'm good. We don’t need two versions of the Knicks.
In that case, think of the No. 2 pick this way: The clueless move would be lunging at the point guard who has been overhyped all year long, starred in L.A., and probably doesn’t have the skills to live up to the ridiculous expectations he’s inheriting. The evil move is Fox.