'Cat-Quick' Lonzo Provides Game-Changing Defense

Luka Doncic tried to put him on a highlight reel.

Streaking ahead with the ball, Doncic attempted to dribble between Lonzo Ball’s legs, but the Lakers’ point guard had other ideas.

At the last instant, he bent his knees to thwart the nutmeg attempt, then took it the other direction to serve up a lob to Tyson Chandler.

“He’s cat-quick,” LeBron James said of Ball. “His length, his hands are very fast. His ability to pick up full-court. And he pretty much doesn’t get tired.”

Those feline reflexes were on full display all night long, as Ball swiped five steals in Friday’s win over the Mavericks.

These were tide-shifting plays, as the Lakers scored on all of his thefts. And Ball did most of that work himself, providing two buckets, assisting on another pair, and earning a trip to the foul line.

Ball’s havoc-creating defense and transition playmaking were instrumental in the Lakers’ 31-13 advantage in fast-break points.

“He just has a knack for where the ball’s gonna be,” Brandon Ingram said. “He’s always in the right position.”

But Ball — who also had 10 points and four assists — has proven to be more than just a highlight defender. His on-ball coverage has been on another level this season.

Dennis Smith Jr. was Lonzo’s mark for most of the night, and the sophomore couldn’t find much separation against the indefatigable Laker.

Even when Ball rotated down into the paint to help defend Doncic, he was still able to use his speed and length to rush out for a solid contest on Smith’s 3-pointer.

Ball’s aggressiveness did bite him now and again, as he fouled out for the first time as a pro. But that’s a small cost for the kind of defensive impact he has provided this season.

That’s not to say this is a new development for Lonzo. He was excellent defensively as a rookie, and coach Luke Walton said that his prowess on that side of the ball was obvious early on.

“We saw it right away,” Walton said. “It was one of the things the coaching staff was shocked about. When you come straight to the NBA when you’re young [after] one year of college, defense is normally the last thing you do when you’re a high draft pick.

“His defensive instincts, he was way more advanced than we thought he would be on that side of the court.”

And the best part about Ball’s defense is that he is continuing to evolve.

Harrison Barnes was Dallas’ top weapon on the night, scoring a game-high 29 points. However, he couldn’t convert on a pair of post-ups against Lonzo, whose textbook footwork and active hands stifled the power forward.

Defense is, of course, a team effort. The Lakers have been suffocating across the board in back-to-back games, holding Indiana and Dallas to some of their lowest production of the season.

JaVale McGee and Tyson Chandler have locked down the paint. Kyle Kuzma has played some of the best defense of his career. Brandon Ingram has been just as impressive defensively as Ball.

But few players on any team have provided the blend of possession-to-possession and highlight-worthy defense that Ball has.

“A lot of people label me as not a defender for some reason,” Ball said. “I don’t know why.”