If you listen to the internet, scroll social media or turn on your TV or radio, it would be easy to come to a simple conclusion: Lonzo Ball is a bust and the Los Angeles Lakers made the wrong pick in the 2017 NBA Draft.
It’s obviously way too early to know whether or not that’s the case, but it hasn’t stopped the a large portion of the sports media landscape from jumping to conclusions or throwing out stats about Ball is shooting the worst percentage (29.2 percent) of any player to ever be attempting more than 10 shots per game.
After the Lakers’ loss to the Washington Wizards, Ball told reporters he’s more than aware of the scrutiny he’s under, and why there is so much attention on him.
“I don’t really care, to be honest. I know I got to just keep shooting and improve it every game,” Ball told reporters on Spectrum Sportsnet. “It’s amplified because it’s the NBA. UCLA was UCLA, but it’s global now, so a lot more eyes.”
The criticism Ball is receiving is also amplified because of how much more poorly he’s shooting than he did during his lone season in college, where he shot 55.1 percent overall and 41.2 percent on threes.
His head coach thinks the critiques and blasts across Ball’s bow have been far more frequent than warranted.
“He’s an incredible player and he’s 20 years old. He almost had a triple-double tonight, but anytime you turn on any sports show all they talk about is his shot. He’s already playing for the Lakers so he’s already got a lot more pressure on him than I think anyone has in a long time that’s come out from college,” said Lakers Head Coach Luke Walton after the loss to Washington (via the team’s official Twitter account).
Walton then illuminated why he’s not worried about Ball’s wayward jumper.
“He just makes our team so much better when he’s on the floor, even when that shot is not going in. The way he can push the ball, the way he can make plays on the defensive end, the way he rebounds from the guard position is incredible,” Walton said.
“So is it extra pressure? 100 percent. But he’s a rookie that gets dissected by everybody. That is what it is, it’s not going to change, we’re just going to keep working with him to make plays and get better and he will,” Walton continued. “I’m excited to be a part of that and have him as a part of our group.”
The reality so far this season, despite Walton’s assertion, is that the Lakers have not been better while Ball is on the floor.
The Lakers’ offensive and defensive efficiency have been worse during Ball’s minutes, and the team has been better when Ball sits (outscoring opponents by 1.4 points per 100 possessions with Ball on the bench) than when any other player comes out of the game, according to NBA.com. They also haven’t played significantly faster with him on the floor.
Criticizing Ball for all of that is shortsighted. The 19-year-old rookie has clearly shown positive attributes during his time on the floor, and it’s important to remember he’s still contributing to a Lakers team that has been far better than most expected and has helped them in a few ways.
For one, the Lakers are only turning the ball over on 15.6 percent of their possessions when Ball plays, a huge reduction from the 19.6 percent of the time they turn it over when he sits, and they’ve done so even with Ball obviously forcing passes at times due to a lack of confidence in his shot.
The Lakers cough up the rock on 16.8 percent of their possessions overall, which ranks 27th in the league, but the rate they turn it over during Ball’s minutes would rank 19th in the NBA. While that’s still not great, it is a big difference.
The rest of the Ball’s on-off numbers are still about what one would expect from such a young rookie, and all of the criticism over him begs the question: have people learned anything from how everyone picked apart the Lakers’ last two second overall picks?
The Lakers are getting outscored by 4.7 points per 100 possessions during Ball’s minutes and outscoring teams by 1.4 when he’s out. Those aren’t great numbers, but not too far off of D’Angelo Russell (-13 net rating while on the floor, -7.7 off) and Brandon Ingram (-8 on, -5.9 off) during their rookie years. And don’t forget Ingram’s numbers were buoyed by playing tons of minutes with a Lakers bench that was among the best lineups in the league to start last season.
This kind of stuff happens with rookies, especially rookie point guards. The Sacramento Kings are worse with De’Aaron Fox on the floor, as were the Philadelphia 76ers when Markelle Fultz was playing.
Further emphasizing the absurdity in judging Ball too early was the way Milwaukee Bucks Head Coach Jason Kidd judged Ball way too early during an appearance on ESPN’s “First Take.”
Seemingly unironically, a statement from Kidd saying comparing Ball to him was “a stretch” played over a graphic showing that the two basically did the same things during the first handful of games of their careers.
Does that mean Ball will be Kidd? Of course not, but Russell and Ingram have both since begun to play better and show natural growth, and Kidd obviously went on to become one of the best point guards of all-time. There is very little reason to think Ball won’t improve and grow as well, because that’s what young players do.
Ball has shot well at every level before the NBA and his passing is so otherwordly that it’s hard not to just assume he’s going to figure this out. Even if one can’t go so far as to assume that, it should at least be clear that it’s far too early to bury Ball or his career yet. Social and traditional media will pick Ball apart and roast him for retweets because that’s just how this goes, which he at the very least seems to understand.
“I try to stay balanced,” Ball said. “I just go out there and try and help my team win. The spotlight has been on me for a while now.”
That spotlight will continue to shine on Ball’s faults until he begins to play better, but those optimistic about Ball should also keep an eye on the stuff that glare is casting a shadow over that demonstrates Ball might actually be just fine.
All quotes transcribed via the Lakers’ Twitter account or Spectrum Sportsnet. All stats per NBA.com.
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