Five Questions About Lonzo Ball's NBA Future
- If Markelle Fultz is the prototype for a superstar guard, Lonzo Ball is what the NBA hasn't thought to ask for yet. That's why the UCLA guard is the draft's most interesting prospect.
After the past few weeks, it's perfectly understandable if basketball fans have Lonzo Ball fatigue. I get it. Somewhere along the line we hit a critical mass of takes, and every new opinion just added to the noise and made everyone a little more exhausted. So, for the record: this has nothing to do with Michael Jordan, Steph Curry, Big Baller Brand, power struggles surrounding the Chino Hills high school basketball team, or LaVar Ball's numbers at Washington State. I want to talk about the NBA.
Lonzo Ball was very close to perfect as a college basketball player, but he'll even more interesting in the NBA. He's got certain strengths that fit perfectly with the direction of the league, and other weaknesses that could limit him more than anyone realizes. I'm still not sure what I expect, but he's been the most interesting prospect in the country all year long. Now that his run with UCLA is over—and he's officially declared for the draft—I have some questions.
1. How much did the Kentucky game tell us?
As soon as tournament games end, dozens of draft articles emerge full of anonymous scouts cautioning fans on reading too much into what we just saw on national television. Even before UCLA played Kentucky, I spoke to an NBA scout who echoed that line. "Different teams will value it differently," he said last week, "but will any teams be worried about a Sweet 16 game when it's time to make a decision in June? No."
So it's safe to say that what happened against Kentucky won't change the bottom line all that much. Lonzo Ball was a consensus top–three pick beforehand, and he still is. He lost to a Kentucky team that played lights out through the second half—it happens. In his last game at Texas, Kevin Durant had 30 points and nine rebounds, but lost by 19 to Taj Gibson (17 points and 14 rebounds) and Nick Young (22 points, 7 rebounds) and USC.
Still, until Friday night, watching Lonzo tear through college basketball made him seem like a force of nature. Whether he was picking apart the entire Pac-12, or taking over the second half against Cincinnati two weeks ago, he made everything look easy. At his best, Lonzo makes anything seem possible. He seems like a player who can at once speed the game up and see everything in slow motion. As the scout described it, "He's seeing three moves ahead on every play." Given his size at 6'7", it's hard to watch him dominate a college game without immediately jumping to wild fantasies about what's possible in the NBA.
Kentucky was a reality check. For the second time this season, De'Aaron Fox locked him up on defense. He had 14 points, seven assists, and six turnovers in Lexington this past December; this past weekend he had 10 points, eight assists, and four turnovers. On offense, Kentucky's guards got wherever they wanted and Lonzo offered very little resistance. As the game got out of hand down the stretch, Ball looked exhausted, and UCLA's best weapon was Bryce Alford.
When scouts wonder how his average athleticism might fare against relentless NBA athletes, they're talking about players like Fox. When scouts wonder whether his offense can work in the halfcourt in close games, they're talking about the last 10 minutes against Kentucky. UCLA's final tournament game doesn't offer any definitive answers about Lonzo in the NBA, but it was a good reminder that there are real, valid questions about how his game will translate at the next level.
2. Put Markelle Fultz on UCLA instead of Ball: how does that change their seasons?
If you put Lonzo Ball on Washington and Markelle Fultz on UCLA, how many games do those teams win?— Jeremy Woo (@JeremyWoo) March 14, 2017
At first glance, this question from SI Draft Expert Jeremy Woo seems like a good way to explain why Washington's struggles with Markelle Fultz are overblown. Give Fultz the surrounding talent Ball had at UCLA, and obviously he takes them to the Sweet 16. Right? That's how I answered it initially.
But that doesn't give enough credit to Ball. UCLA underachieved with many of the same pieces in place last season, and if you put Fultz on the roster, there's a chance that some of those problems would have persisted. It was Ball who arrived in LA and made everything click. The whole team eventually took off playing a style that was tailored to his strengths. "Look at T.J. Leaf's field goal percentage this year," the scout told me last week. "T.J. Leaf is good, but he's not that good. Same with Bryce Alford. That whole team is getting great shots." That's the Lonzo effect.
In the Fultz/Ball hypothetical trade, whatever scoring we're adding with Fultz would come at a cost to the rest of the offense. And if the Kentucky game highlighted the Lonzo question marks, thinking through this hypothetical underscores everything that makes Ball special.
It doesn't matter that he can't always generate his own offense in the halfcourt, or that he'll struggle on defense until he gets stronger. Lonzo is the type of player who makes life easier for an entire team. Just by showing up at UCLA, he provided the Bruins with fast breaks and ball movement that became infectious. He's a single player that provides an identity to an entire team. That's a superstar, just like Fultz.
3. Is he Jason Kidd, or Steve Nash, or Ricky Rubio?
I asked our scout about the Jason Kidd comparison. "On offense they have a similar impact," he said. "It depends on how much you value defense in evaluating players. If defense is, say, one-third of how you grade player, well, Jason Kidd was an A+. He was an incredible athlete, and he was always going to be great on D. So that's where that comparison falls apart [with Lonzo]." Ball's defense is a work in progress, and it'll be complicated by his lack of strength early on. In the best–case scenario, he'll eventually be a net-zero on that end.
That's not necessarily a fatal flaw, though. Look at the three most valuable guards in the league—Russell Westbrook, James Harden, Steph Curry—and all of them struggle to varying degrees on defense. If Ball can merely hold his own, there's plenty of room for him to be great.
The real question is his jumper. He shot 41% from three on more than five attempts for game at UCLA this year, and if that translates to the NBA, he could be dangerous. While we're here, read this Kevin O'Connor investigation into NBA concerns over basketballs UCLA uses and how that could be skewing his shooting numbers. It's a front–office conspiracy that is bizarre and ridiculous and paranoid and maybe, potentially meaningful? It's everything that I love about the draft.
In any case, the jumper: Nobody knows for sure how effective it will be as his career unfolds. Maybe his wonky release doesn't matter (like Kevin Martin), maybe he will develop as he gets older (like Jason Kidd, or Kyle Lowry), or maybe he'll be a streaky shooter his entire career (like John Wall or Russell Westbrook). Teams will just have to bet, and hope.
If he can be a real scoring threat, it puts him in a different category of superstar. It will open up his game in the halfcourt and make him twice as dangerous on the break. And if we acknowledge that he probably won't be Jason Kidd in any scenario—Kidd was a LeBron-level freak of nature athletically jumper could be the key to Lonzo Ball becoming a new-age version of Steve Nash. If the shooting is more of a struggle, maybe he'll be closer to the second coming of Ricky Rubio.
4. Put Lonzo Ball on the Lakers: Can it work with D'Angelo Russell?
I'm reluctant to think too hard about Lakers hypotheticals, because Lonzo in LA would be so crazy and so entertaining that it'll never actually happen. It's too good to be true. But if somehow the universe aligns and we get an NBA future co-sponsored by Jeanie Buss and Big Baller Brand ... I think Lonzo and D'Angelo Russell can work.
They have strengths that play off each other well in theory—Russell's shooting could be deadly off the ball when Ball initiates the offense, and if Russell works in the pick-and-roll, he could kick to Lonzo waiting on the wing to spot up from three, or slice up defenses on secondary cuts to the rim. They may never guard anyone, but they might be so much fun on offense that it never matters. As far as the broader draft conversation, the Lakers hypothetical is relevant as a reminder that Lonzo's future depends on where he lands.
In LA with Luke Walton and Russell and a team that wants to play as fast as possible, there's a chance this could be phenomenal. He could work nearly as well in Phoenix next to Devin Booker. Boston with Brad Stevens and ball-dominant Isaiah Thomas could be tricky, but I'd bet on them finding a way to make it work. In other situations—let's say he's asked to carry a lifeless Orlando Magic offense in Frank Vogel's system, or maybe he's sent to Philly to share the ball with Ben Simmons and feed Joel Embiid in the post—the future could get more complicated than expected.
Almost like a college quarterback, Lonzo's future will depend on finding the right coach, and the right system. In a good situation, he could be a revelation in a league that's now dominated by spacing and pace and ball movement. Or he could go to a team that asks him to do too much, and all the superstar hype could look ridiculous a few years from now.
5. What's the ceiling?
Superstar hype aside, the floor with Ball is fairly high regardless. "He could help a team next year," our scout said. "His instincts are so good and he's such a good passer, and he's got that size... He could come in next year and put up 9 and 8, maybe 11 and 8, and run your team."
In any scenario, Ball should be good enough to be a starting point guard for the next decade and beyond. If he's merely the second coming of Ricky Rubio, that may not be what you'd want from a top–three pick, but that's still a player who will win hearts and minds all over the League Pass universe.
It's the upside that makes this fun. As the NBA gets overtaken by shooters and scoring point guards, Ball doesn't have many analogs. He's more like Nikola Jokic than Steph Curry or Russell Westbrook. His passing was infectious among all his UCLA teammates, and he spent all season opening up scoring lanes out of thin air. He gave his team an identity overnight.
At his best he's thinking three moves ahead, and he's got range that can change the geometry of an offense. He can bend the pace of the game to his own whims, and he makes the game easier for everyone else on the floor. If Markelle Fultz is the prototype for everything the NBA wants from a superstar guard in 2017, then Lonzo Ball could be what the NBA hasn't thought to ask for yet. That's why Ball is the most interesting player in the draft. The questions are real, and the potential is, too.
The ceiling is a superstar that the NBA has never really seen before. I don't know whether he'll ever get there, but as the story unfolds over the next few months and years, it will be fascinating to watch him try.