This story appears in the December 4, 2017, issue of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED. To subscribe, click here.
Lonzo Ball’s first six weeks on the job as Lakers point guard have come with some serious variance. He has triple-doubled twice, becoming, at 20 years and 23 days, the youngest player ever to do that. But he's also shooting a miserable 30.9% from the field, 24.5% from beyond the arc and 42.9% from the foul line. He's averaging just 8.7 points, and the Lakers are 8–12. “Is Lonzo already a bust?” has quickly become a popular talking point on cable screamathons.
Sure, Ball hasn’t been the instant success Los Angeles had hoped for after drafting him No. 2, but the argument on behalf of his play could be as simple as this: He is a rookie playmaker logging heavy minutes. “I don’t really care [about the criticism]. I’ve got to just keep shooting and improve every game,” Ball said recently. “It’s amplified because it’s the NBA.”
Not exactly; it’s amplified because the bluster coming from his father-turned-celebrity has left him ripe for ridicule. While LaVar has been happily gaming the hot-take media, he has also sown an undeniable distaste for Lonzo among a chunk of the public. And though he has tried to downplay his father’s absurdity, laughing off comments and refusing to answer for everything LaVar says, Lonzo has become an easy target by proxy—even before his dad’s feud with the President.
The truth is, anyone able to separate Lonzo from LaVar, baller from brand, could have easily predicted the point guard’s struggles. The flaws in Lonzo’s game were apparent even when he was running UCLA’s souped-up offense last season, as a freshman. He has struggled to find his own shot in the half-court; he’s prone to inconsistency because of his unorthodox jumper; he resorts to a predictable step-back when forced to put the ball on the floor. Many around the league believed Ball would only thrive if surrounded by elite talent—something the Lakers noticeably lack.
Still, Ball has impressively racked up rebounds (7.3 per game) and assists (7.1) while limiting turnovers (2.7). There’s little question about his playmaking chops, though he has looked uncomfortable under ball pressure. To be fair, he has often received defenders’ best efforts. Look no further than the baptism Ball received from the Clippers’ Patrick Beverley in his debut, after which the All-NBA defender cited the “riff-raff his dad brings.” Adjusting on the fly is a challenge for any rookie, especially one shouldering 33.3 minutes a game.
Just consider Ball’s playmaking classmates, fellow lottery picks Markelle Fultz, De’Aaron Fox, Frank Ntilikina and Dennis Smith Jr. None have had it easy. In fact how many one-and-done point guards have ever enjoyed immediate success? Before the loaded class of ’17, the list of those selected in the top 10 was as follows: D’Angelo Russell, Kyrie Irving, Brandon Knight, John Wall, Tyreke Evans, Derrick Rose and Mike Conley. While Ball’s shooting stats would rank at the bottom of this group, his assist-to-turnover ratio through 19 games is near the top.
Based on his otherworldy efficiency at UCLA—where he connected on 55.1% from the floor, 41.2% from deep and 67.3% from the line—Ball’s offensive output will only go up. He has shown flashes of his impressive instincts, making slick passes and tipping rebounds to teammates, rare for a point guard. And the development of Brandon Ingram and Kyle Kuzma suggests he will get support.
Ball isn’t Jason Kidd or Magic Johnson; he’s also not his father. But he need not be any of them to evolve into a great player. The problem lies not in his play but in the rush, after some 20 games, to anoint or deride him.