The Next Steps: Lonzo Ball
When Lonzo Ball met with the Lakers’ front office at the end of last season, President of Basketball Operations Magic Johnson told the 20-year-old that this would be “the biggest offseason of your life.”
Unfortunately for Ball, a wrench was thrown into that when he had arthroscopic surgery on his left knee in mid-July.
While Ball wasn’t able to participate in full scrimmaging due to the procedure, General Manager Rob Pelinka was pleased with the way that he instead shifted his focus to the weight room.
“He hasn't been able to play five-on-five basketball because he had to have a scope on his knee,” Pelinka said in an interview with ESPN LA 710. “But just the way he stayed dedicated to reshaping his body and making sure that if he’s playing against a really strong point guard like a Russell Westbrook, who’s gonna come at him with his aggressive nature and give him a bump.
“Lonzo will be able to take it or even bump him back. You’ll see that in his physique.”
While Ball — injured for all four games against Oklahoma City — never suited up against Westbrook last year, his added bulk should give him a better chance at defending him and similarly explosive point guards.
Ball’s unavailability versus OKC was part of another reason that the front office wanted him to bulk up over the summer.
In addition to being better equipped to match up against NBA bodies, Johnson and Pelinka felt that adding to his frame would make him more durable, after Ball missed 20 games in his rookie season.
“We feel that he can go to another level if he changes his body and if he’s able to stay on the court,” Johnson said at exit interviews.
While improving his body may be a macro goal, Ball had also been given the specific target of becoming a more reliable scorer from inside the arc.
Johnson said that Ball needs to be “selfish some,” and aggressively look for his own shot.
“The main focus is scoring from all levels,” Ball said at his exit interview, “especially off the pick-and-roll getting into the paint. … Floaters, pull-ups, stuff of that nature.”
Indeed, these are areas where Ball struggled to put it through the net. He shot just 37.5 percent on pull-up jumpers (15-of-40), 32.6 percent from mid-range (14-of-43) and 29.7 percent on floaters (11-of-37).
Becoming more of a threat in these areas will open up the offense for both Ball and his teammates.
Ball’s status as a gifted passer is undisputable. In fact, had he played six more games and qualified for the league leaderboard, he would have been eighth in the entire NBA in assists (7.2).
Opponents would often be so worried about Lonzo’s passing that they would scheme their defenses to take away his targets (particularly in pick-and-rolls) and force him to score himself.
This is where Ball can make the most impact with his individual offense. When opponents are that occupied with containing the roll man and covering surrounding shooters, he should have ample opportunities to make them pay by pulling up from mid-range or lofting a floater in the paint.
Of course, it’s impossible to talk about the breadth of Ball’s scoring ability without bringing up his 3-point shooting.
Last year, he averaged 5.7 3-point attempts per game and only hit 30.5 percent of them. But the curious part of Ball’s shooting was his prolonged stretches of hot and cold streaks. For instance, he shot an icy 23.4 percent on 3’s in November but a toasty 37.7 the very next month.
“I think that he showed us that he’s a very capable shooter through the stretch that he did have,” coach Luke Walton said. “Now, obviously you have to get consistent with that. But I think that comes with time. I think if he continues to shoot and work all summer long … every single day, there’s always little things you can change: the balance of your shot, things like that.”
And while the Lakers' decision-makers told Lonzo that they wanted him to "perfect" his unorthodox shooting form rather than overhaul it, he does seem to have tweaked his jumper.
Though it cannot be properly examined until he is playing in actual games, his stroke appears to have less excess motion as he brings the ball straight up into his release, as opposed to his prior mechanics.
In the ZOne pic.twitter.com/5VIcrw1Y3v— Los Angeles Lakers (@Lakers) September 8, 2018
Another year in the NBA should also help Ball enhance the quality of his 3-point attempts.
For instance, he was about league average on spot-up attempts, averaging 0.98 points per possession, which ranks in the NBA's 50th percentile. He was even better on his trademark step-back, shooting 12-of-18 from 3-point range, per NBA.com
In short, Ball was noticeably more comfortable shooting the long ball when he was settled on the perimeter or dribbling in rhythm, as opposed to trying to create his own shot by pulling up or firing on the move.
Lonzo Ball has now hit 9 of his last 11 step-back jumpers.— Joey Ramirez (@JoeyARamirez) March 4, 2018
Definitely his most comfortable shot. pic.twitter.com/f6q9tKXdrm
The quality of Lonzo's shots should also increase due to the arrival of two of the NBA's best passers, LeBron James and Rajon Rondo, who ranked second and fourth in the NBA in assists last year, respectively.
Rondo will also serve as someone to spur Ball along as both a challenger and mentor.
Ball entered his rookie training camp as the Lakers’ unquestioned starting point guard. This year is different with the signing of the four-time all-star. The Lakers’ front office hopes that this influx of competition spurs Ball to new heights. But there are other reasons for bringing in Rondo, as well.
The second-unit point guard role was one that the Lakers struggled to fill last year, with Jordan Clarkson, Alex Caruso, Brandon Ingram and Isaiah Thomas all playing the part across the season.
Regardless of who starts, having Ball and Rondo (and James) ensures that the Lakers will always have an elite playmaker, if not two, on the floor at all times.
And perhaps most importantly for the Lakers’ longterm future, Rondo — whose storied career includes four All-Defensive selections, three years of leading the NBA in assists and one championship — could be the guide that the Lakers have sought for Ball.
“I told everybody when I took over the job and then we drafted him, the one thing that was missing was a mentor,” Johnson said. “We didn’t really have a mentor for him to teach him and tell him how to play the point guard position.
“Now we have one in Rondo that can take him through how to read defenses, how to play and defend certain guys in the league at that position, and on and on and on. Just talk basketball to him. This is really going to be an important year for Lonzo, and I think Rondo will help him out a lot.”
Johnson, arguably the greatest point guard of all-time, believes that Rondo — whose basketball IQ is Mensa-worthy — can help teach Ball how to thrive in the game's most difficult position to master.
Lonzo showed unique gifts as a rookie: already a world-class passer, off-ball defender and rebounding guard. With training camp beginning at the end of September, he will soon be able to show what other skills will emerge in year two.