Lonzo Ball gave his critics one game at the Las Vegas Summer League to tear to pieces.
He shot a woeful 2-of-15 during his professional debut, a line that looked even worse through the fish bowl in which the carnival barker’s son and 19-year-old face of the Los Angeles Lakers exists.
Starting with his next time out, he transformed the hardwood into his personal playground and ignited a desert-wide Big Baller Bash. Over his six games in Vegas, he averaged 16.3 points, 9.3 assists, 7.7 rebounds and 2.5 steals, a stat line that propelled him to MVP honors.
The distributing average was the best ever posted by a summer-leaguer. He flooded one box score with 36 points, 11 assists, eight rebounds and five steals, then he tallied 16 points and 10 assists in only 21 minutes of another contest he exited early with calf tightness.
He triple-doubled twice and registered double-digit assists four times. Prior to this year, no rookie had ever dropped a triple-double or reached 10 assists more than once during the Vegas Summer League, per ESPN Stats & Information.
If Ball’s hype was wild before, his Sin City stampede sent it to ludicrous levels.
“If he’s getting triple-doubles in the summer league, he is going to get triple-doubles in the regular season,” Lakers president Magic Johnson said during the press conference to introduce free-agent signing Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, per ESPN.com’s Ohm Youngmisuk. “… Lonzo is special, no question about it, because he makes everyone better. He does something you can’t teach. He gives you a scoring pass. Very few point guards in this league can do that.”
Ball is such a natural playmaker, Lakers fans should feel comfortable expecting jaw-dropping dishes from their freshman phenom. What else will be realistically in play for Ball’s rookie run? Immediate stardom is pushing it, but capturing a coveted piece of hardware may not be.
The post-Kobe Bryant Lakers have been an amorphous ball of clay, and Lonzo looks like the perfect player to mold it.
The 6’6″ floor general boasts the unselfishness and quick decision-making needed to trigger a movement-based offense. His passing touch—seen on everything from drive-and-kicks and interior drop-offs to full-court look-aheads—has been favorably compared to the likes of Jason Kidd and Magic, who sit second and fifth, respectively, on the league’s all-time career assist leaderboards.
That’s what makes Ball such a compelling figure to lead the Lakers into their next chapter. They have other young talents on the roster, but they’ve lacked cohesion. Despite being coached by Luke Walton—who honed his craft on the pass-happy Golden State Warriors—L.A. finished just 26th in assist percentage last season.
That ranking could rise quickly with Ball at the helm, considering he just powered UCLA to an NCAA-best 21.4 assists per game in 2016-17.
“The way Lonzo plays will set the tone,” Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka told Bleacher Report’s Kevin Ding. “And it really meshes so naturally well with the way Luke’s vision for the team is, which is open floor, ball movement, versatility, length.”
The Lakers have already handed Ball the reins. They shipped out the best player at his position before he even arrived (D’Angelo Russell) and don’t have another pure point guard on the roster.
Ball’s creativity is the primary hope for L.A. rising the rankings, and it’s due to more than just his individual passing prowess. Players will run faster in transition and cut harder to open spots when they learn those movements will be rewarded. As they see the impact of Ball’s passing, distributing becomes contagious, as it did for the summer-league champs.
“I think everybody understands playing with somebody with Lonzo‘s talent will make them better and also get them easier baskets,” Johnson said, per ESPN.com’s Baxter Holmes. “He just needs to play his game. He doesn’t need to change; just play his game.”
Ball could also help L.A.’s rebounding troubles (21st in rebound percentage), while he stands to benefit from Caldwell-Pope’s ability to defend both guard spots.
For all of the positives stemming from Ball’s summer-league run, his biggest negative was tops on his concerns list coming out of college.
He shot just 38.2 percent overall and went 10-of-42 beyond the arc. Shooting itself isn’t the issue—he buried 41.2 percent of his triples as a Bruin—but rather it’s whether he can regularly generate his own scoring chances against NBA defenders.
“Can you be a great point guard in the NBA if you can’t consistently create your own shot? That’s the biggest question surrounding Ball, who’s crafty but not especially quick or explosive,” Sports Illustrated‘s Jeremy Woo wrote.
Ball lacks elite burst off the dribble and doesn’t consistently pressure defenses with aggressive attacks, having averaged just 3.1 free-throw attempts per 40 minutes in college. His long, unorthodox shooting form also renders him mostly ineffective from the mid-range. Only 12 of his field goals at UCLA weren’t either at the rim or from long distance, per Bleacher Report’s Jonathan Wasserman.
Granted, the Lakers didn’t draft Ball as a scorer. And if their superstar wishes are eventually granted, they’ll have a top-shelf table-setter who can do his own damage as both a spot-up sniper and complementary scorer.
But point-production could be an uphill battle until that happens.
The Lakers’ top returning scorer is Jordan Clarkson, who’s likely moving to the second unit and has produced an above-average player efficiency rating once in three seasons. Their top free-agency addition is Caldwell-Pope, who averaged 13.8 points on sub-40 percent shooting last year.
They might need first-option-type scoring from Ball—or something close to it—but his weaknesses are pronounced enough to restrict his ability to fill that role.
The macro expectations for Ball are every bit as enormous as his father’s boisterous claims. When Johnson introduced the teenager, he put Ball on a purple-and-gold throne as the team’s new face while ambitiously aiming for an eventual jersey retirement and multiple franchise records falling along the way.
And the Lakers’ charismatic leader is far from the only one with such lofty aspirations.
“We feel like Lonzo is a transcendent talent,” Pelinka said, per Tania Ganguli of the Los Angeles Times. “The way he passes the ball, you look at quarterbacks like Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers that just have a gift. There’s clearly a gift with what he’s been blessed with.”
In the immediate future, Ball will have every opportunity to succeed. He’ll challenge for the rookie lead in playing time, which should lead to robust stat lines, occasional triple-double pursuits and assist totals sure to impress.
“Between his unique passing skills and signature unselfishness, he’ll threaten to finish top-seven in the league with around eight assists per game,” Wasserman predicted.
Ball will be a regular on the highlight reel due to his delicious dime-dropping, and he’ll be one of the better glass-cleaners at his position. Volume won’t be an issue when it comes to Rookie of the Year voting, in which he should factor heavily.
But efficiency seems unlikely to be a strength this early in his career. His individual offense isn’t where it needs to be in order to break down NBA defenses. He’ll also be hurt by the lack of premier scorers around him, which will bring extra defensive attention his way.
Complete Stat Predictions
- Minutes: 33.8
- Points: 12.8
- Rebounds: 4.6
- Assists: 7.7
- Field-goal percentage: .416
- Three-point percentage: .349
- Free-throw percentage: .710
Zach Buckley covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @ZachBuckleyNBA.
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