- In some ways, Lonzo Ball has already validated the hype. In others (see: shooting), he's got a long way to go. If the Lakers rookie can't figure out his jumper, he won't be able to reach his potential.
There's more interest in Lonzo Ball than any NBA rookie since LeBron James, but of course, you know this. He's basketball Tebow.
In some ways, Lonzo has validated the hype. Even in the first month of his career, he looks like he belongs, and he also looks special. He can pass, obviously, but his passes look different. They're more crisp. They're cleaner. And there's a strange kind of kinetic energy that emerges when he's on the floor. The game moves faster, even as it's clear it's moving slower for Lonzo. In every Lakers game he'll make two or three plays that will convince you that you're watching the beginning of a superstar. But in D.C. on Thursday night, I also watched Ball miss jumper after jumper after jumper—long, short, and I'm pretty sure there was one that was two feet left of the rim. It eventually got so uncomfortable that it felt like the entire stadium was rooting for him to hit one. Watching Lonzo shoot threes is like watching DeAndre Jordan shoot free throws. This is not a good sign.
It's dangerous to discuss Lonzo on the internet. There are so many voices talking at once, and almost all of them are responding to each other. This is how it works with any athlete who approaches Tebow territory. The rhetoric on all sides becomes so overheated that eventually everyone sounds psychotic.
In Lonzo's case, the people setting the psychotic edges of the conversation are 1) Lakers fans and LaVar disciples who think he's going to be Kobe, Magic, or Jason Kidd, 2) Lakers and LaVar haters demanding accountability for the 20-year-old kid who's not immediately living up to completely unreasonable expectations in the first month of his career; and, weirdly, 3) the people who are lecturing everyone about patience as if anyone trying to discuss Lonzo's future is being unreasonable. The first two reactions are currently ridiculous, and the third one is a smarmy kind of cop-out that adds nothing to the conversation. And the patience lectures are actually doubly obnoxious, because honestly, we don't need to be patient with the Lonzo conversation.
Watching the Lakers through one month, it's already pretty clear: Lonzo Ball will be a superstar if he can find a way to shoot 35-40% from three and finish at the rim. He does so many other things well—he's active as a rebounder, moves well off the ball, he can get to the rim when he wants, and he generates great looks for anyone the Lakers surround him with—that adding a reliable jumpshot as he gets older and stronger will pretty clearly make him one of the best point guards in the league.
But if he can't shoot, it's hard to see how he succeeds. He will help teams regardless, but because of how effectively his father has marketed him and because of where he was drafted by the Lakers, turning into some variation of Evan Turner or Ricky Rubio will be an ugly outcome for everyone involved. And the shooting has been scary enough to make you wonder about all those scenarios.
Lonzo is not Ben Simmons or Giannis Antetokounmpo. He's not going to bully his way into great looks in the lane, and he doesn't give you the speed and transition terror of John Wall or Russell Westbrook. Ball's passing and pace-setting is clearly great, but it isn't valuable enough to justify building an offense around him. For example, this season he's leading the Lakers in minutes per game, but there have been extended stretches when the offense has looked much better with Jordan Clarkson, Josh Hart and the second unit. That's fine for now, in the middle of another Lakers rebuilding season, but what happens when they are actually trying to win? And how do they sell Lonzo's presence to free agents like Paul George?
As of Friday, Ball is shooting 29% from the field, 23% from three-point range, and 53% from the line. He's shooting 36.8% at the rim (within five feet), which is worst on the Lakers, and also makes him the only player in the NBA to shoot less than 50% at the rim with more than 50 attempts. His finishing should improve as he gets more comfortable and gets stronger. His shooting is a tougher question, and it's one that doesn't seem likely to go away. Does he re-work the jumper this summer? Will he ever be able to create space consistently? And as the Lakers and his father market him as a transcendent superstar, how will the noise around him affect his ability to refine his game and find a way to make this work? Does everyone realize how impossible this situation looks?
I like Lonzo more than I ever expected to. His dad's made him an almost sympathetic figure over the past year, and through everything, Lonzo's been unflappable to a hilarious extent. It sometimes feels like he's been on TV for 12 months straight, but through wins, losses, draft night, and the death rattle of Patrick Beverley trash talk, I still don't think I've ever seen him show any emotion. He's like this strange, silent basketball savant, and his actual game is distinctive enough so that everyone should be rooting for him to succeed. Lonzo as a superstar makes the entire NBA more interesting.
But beyond all the hype and backlash and lectures about patience, I just think the basketball story is really simple. Lonzo's passing and vision have been exactly as fun and dangerous as everyone expected. He's clearly special. He can hold up athletically. As he gets stronger he'll figure it out at the rim, too. But the jumper is a very real problem, and it's probably what will decide whether we're able to appreciate everything else.