The Lakers are all-in on Lonzo Ball, and that could torpedo their latest rebuild
The Los Angeles Lakers are starting a new era — again — and it revolves around the No. 2 pick in Thursday night’s NBA Draft, guard Lonzo Ball.
The Lakers brass referred to Ball as their “top choice” after selecting him Thursday, and it wasn’t just lip service — earlier this week they traded away their previous “point guard of the future,” D’Angelo Russell, to the Nets as a part of a salary-dump deal. The Lakers have paved the way for Ball to take the team to new heights.
Spirits are high in Los Angeles. The Lakers will have upwards of $50 million in salary cap space next summer (if they stand pat this offseason), and they have a spellbinding talent at the most important position on the court. This languid franchise could turn around fast.
But it all hinges on Ball, and specifically, his jump shot. And that — sorry to be a buzzkill here — is something you don’t want to be betting on at the moment.
Ball had a stellar freshman season at UCLA — his incredible court vision and penchant for knocking down Steph Curry-style 3s made the Bruins arguably the most exciting team to watch in college basketball. In all, Ball made 70 percent of his 2-pointers and 40 percent of his 3-pointers — those are unimpeachable numbers that, if translated to the NBA level, would easily make Ball a top-10 player in the league.
But there’s a big difference between NCAA competition and the NBA — a huge difference — and that’s where concerns about Ball’s jump shot could show up.
Ball is a righty, but his shooting motion starts at his left hip, comes up his torso to the left side of his head and is released with a Joakim Noah sideswipe. The results are good, but the method is anything but textbook. It’s a long, unorthodox, and perhaps counterproductive motion, and that, paired with a hitch that can show up when Ball shoots off the dribble, shouldn’t inspire confidence that he’ll be able to be Curryesque at the pro level.
It certainly didn’t inspire confidence when Ball first arrived at UCLA. The first order of business for Bruins coach Steve Alford and his coaching staff was to try to fix Ball’s jump shot — to try to get him to gather, and perhaps even shoot from his dominant, right side.
The experiment was so unsuccessful that UCLA and Ball opted to scrap the idea after the team’s preseason tour of Australia, where Ball looked nothing like the player he would become for the Bruins.
Alford was right to try to change the shot, but ultimately the logic of “the ball goes in the basket” won out.
It did go in the basket, a lot, but, again, that was at UCLA, and you might notice a trend when Ball went up against the best on-ball defenders in the nation. (Hint: he didn’t do well.)
On Thursday night, ESPN analyst Jay Bilas aptly compared Ball’s shooting motion to golfer Jim Furyk’s swing — bizarre, unconventional but effective at the point of impact/release.
But Bilas forgot to mention that Furyk doesn’t have another golfer doing his best to disrupt his stroke every time he goes into his backswing. That might change things (and make golf eminently more watchable).
Ball’s shooting motion might be closer to Tim Tebow’s football throwing motion. Yes, the ball would get to receivers when Tebow was at the helm in Denver, but it would take so long the opposing pass rush would have time to get to the quarterback. By the end of Tebow’s career, teams weren’t looking to sack him — they were just trying to get their arms into the arc of his long motion to create a fumble. Tebow never shortened his stroke, and one of the greatest college quarterbacks of all time is broadcasting/playing minor league baseball right now because of it.
NBA defenders such as Klay Thompson, Patrick Beverley and Avery Bradley are likely to do the same thing to Ball at the NBA level — just put your hand at his belly button and wait for him to shoot the ball. The hitch in his gather will give you time.
Ball has counteracted this obvious defensive tactic at the college level with a prodigious shooting range and a beautiful stepback move.
That worked against Oregon State, but he’ll have to develop several more kinds of smoke to outwit NBA defenders. The book is out on him before his Big Baller Brand shoes have even stepped on NBA hardwood.
To start , Ball, at the moment, has shown no evidence that he can go right and get off a shot. It’s those kinds of tidbits that keep great on-ball defenders in business.
— Mike Zavagno (@MZavagno11) February 26, 2017
There are other players who really don’t want to go a certain direction and shoot the ball (James Harden, a lefty who really hates going right) and players who shoot across their face (Kevin Durant), but both of those players have prodigious physical gifts that more than compensate for the “deficiency.” Harden has a huge chest and the ability to control a defender on his hip in a way that perhaps no other point guard has, which allows him to make plays at the rim; Durant is seven feet tall, which makes his long shooting motion nearly unblockable on the perimeter.
Ball is 6-foot-6 and weight less than 200 pounds. He might have incredible balance and floor vision, but he is not an athletic outlier.
And yes, Ball’s shot will ripple nets if he’s wide open, but how often are point guards wide open? Isn’t it their job in a modern dribble-drive offense to command two defenders, opening up open shots for teammates?
Here’s a question: what happens to the Lakers’ plan for the future when “well, he makes shots” doesn’t apply anymore? Is Los Angeles really that attractive of a situation if it has a Ricky Rubio type as its point guard of the present and future?
Ball has said that he’s not going to tinker with his mechanics again — it knocks him off kilter and undercuts his confidence; he’s an instinct player. But as the Lakers head into a new era, it’s likely that he’s going to need to find a few more ways to fire off and make shots. If he can’t do that, the Purple and Gold hype train might never leave the station.