What Plays Would be Dreams Come True for Lonzo Ball?
For a Los Angeles Lakers franchise so famous for “Showtime,” Lonzo Ball is a particularly proper fit.
His portfolio was already bulging with off-the-backboard passes for dunks and dramatic step-back home-run shots before arriving in the NBA this season. And in an era when social media makes highlights more shareable and snackable than ever, Ball has a way with the basketball that offers unique style with substance.
The sweet pocket pass off the pick-and-roll for Julius Randle’s rousing dunk got the NBA’s main Twitter account to roll that highlight and rave about Ball’s six first-quarter assists in Indiana on Tuesday. But basketball aficionados would have just as much appreciation for the little play where Ball touch-tipped a defensive rebound in the backcourt perfectly to an open teammate to trigger a Lakers fast break.
Against Miami on Friday, Ball does what he often does—make the difficult look easy. He used a sidearm flip to loft the ball from behind midcourt to an accelerating Kyle Kuzma not yet ahead of the pack, passing over three guys to hit Kuzma in stride for the score. What Ball did just last week at Golden State was something you simply do not see: inbounding the ball 3.9 seconds left before halftime from under his basket, racing the length of the court and winding up scoring on Kentavious Caldwell-Pope’s air-ball shot/alley-oop pass just before the buzzer.
Ball is a magician who is stealing old tricks and inventing new ones every day. He’s a pitcher who wants to be on the mound with a hundred different pitches. He’s a ringmaster who is absolutely attuned to engaging and entertaining his circus crowd.
As a mechanism for Ball to uncover what kinds of plays get his head most excited and his heart deeply fulfilled, I sketched out 10 specific scenarios for him to review. Ten great plays—all in victories, I prefaced, so he couldn’t default to how he’s just all about winning—none with the obvious theater of being game-winning, last-second moments.
Ball approached the task so seriously that he took notes as he read through the options (summarizing “Hustle” for one, “Rebound Pass” for another, etc.). When I commented on his note-taking that he looked like he wanted to go back to school, Ball replied flatly and humorously with one word: “No.”
Solo acts, team plays, stuff you practice, totally organic moments, all things worthy of admiration. I had Ball rank them, 1-10, and then we discussed what his choices said about his game.
10. Your teammate gets the defensive rebound, outlets to someone else who makes touch pass to you on the move at midcourt. Instead of pushing it ahead with the dribble, you find another teammate not quite ahead of the pack with the hit-ahead pass, and he catches and drops it for the trailer to dunk without the ball ever touching the floor on the possession.
Immediately with the lowest-ranked play we see that classical beautiful basketball does not compare to fantastic stuff that evokes an emotional response in Ball.
“That’s just great fundamental basketball,” he says. “It’s cool. I like that they got the dunk. I like that the ball never hit the floor. That’s a play you show on film. This is a perfect play.”
I argue that perhaps perfection should be rewarded with a higher place on his list. Then Ball says something that reveals why it’s at the bottom for him…and how painting by numbers could never be his masterpiece.
“It’s pretty basic,” he says. “The way I play, I like to be free.”
Nevertheless, I remind him again about the ball never hitting the floor.
“That’s very rare, especially in the NBA,” he says. “But compared to all these other plays?!”
9. Jump early and time it to block the power forward’s shot from behind with your help defense. The ball bounces right to the center, but you block him from behind, too. Rip the rebound away from the power forward and throw a quick, seemingly blind outlet pass that begins a pretty 3-on-1 fast break executed perfectly by your teammates.
One of Ball’s staples on defense is the block from behind on bigs. Even more standard for him is the amazing outlet pass.
Hence his disinterest. Too easy.
His response: “Block and kick it up. 3-on-1. Yeah.”
8. Avoid getting your shot blocked and make your lefty reverse layup. Head back on defense but stop suddenly, change direction and deflect the opposing team’s inbounds pass into the air. Leap over the opposing player and bat the loose ball—with your back to the basket and your teammate in the lane—over to that teammate, and he dunks.
“Make a layup; get a steal,” Ball says. “It’s a good play. That’s just not as exciting as the other ones.”
I tell him that this is a play I pulled from a LeBron James career highlight reel. James actually did this, stealing an outlet pass rather than an inbounds pass, and delivering that miraculous-looking pass behind his head.
Ball admires James for how similarly all-around their games are, and we wind up in a discussion about how it depends on the player what type of play has the most impact on the momentum of a game and the inspiration of the crowd. Sometimes it could be a crazy-long three-pointer; oftentimes it is a dunk.
Regardless, a meter runs in Ball’s head as to when the game could use him taking a bold risk to send it off the charts.
“A person who does it well is Steph Curry,” Ball says. “Sometimes he shoots it far just to get the crowd or his teammates going. Whether he makes it or misses it, it’s giving some energy to the game.
“It depends on the player. If a guy like Steph Curry does it, it’s pretty much like a dunk for him. He’ll pull up from the Laker logo. It just depends who it is. If it’s LeBron, I’d probably want to see him dunk it and have everybody go crazy.”
And for Ball, is a distance shot or a big dunk more potent as a tide-turner?
"For me, I’d probably say a dunk, because I shoot a lot more,” he says. “People are kind of used to me shooting.”
7. Rotate, rotate, and rotate again in team defense, and then you step off your latest man to help right on time and block a dunk at the rim. Race the other way in transition while your team fetches the rebound. They throw you an off-target lob, but you leap ahead of your man and tap the errant lob back behind him for a trailing teammate to dunk.
The last part of this play comes from Ball’s own career, and he notices.
In a UCLA-Washington game last year, Isaac Hamilton’s alley-pop pass for Ball was transformed just this way into a dunk for trailing Ike Anigbogu.
“Luckily, Ike was in the right spot at the right time, because I had nowhere to go with the ball,” Ball says. “He was right there. I just tapped it to him, and he dunked. Some of it just has to happen perfect.”
But there’s truly something special to redeeming what is about to go astray. As in the case of just before halftime at Golden State, it’s usually a combination of hustle and basketball IQ that leads a player to be in the right place for those kinds of totally unscripted moments.
“I like ‘em, just because you can hear the crowd,” Ball says. “When they threw the lob to me, it was like, ‘Ooh, it’s a bad lob,’ and then ‘Oh!’ They go crazy when it’s a dunk.
“It turns into a good play. That’s what I like about it. Turning nothing into something.”
6. Shoot the passing lane, deflect the ball and chase it to save it before crashing into the scorer’s table, then scramble back into the play, spot up and take a kick-out pass from a teammate to hit a three while being fouled for a four-point play. (Yes, you make the free throw.)
“Just a lot of hustle,” Ball says. “And then plus the made free throw; that’s the bonus.”
(Off topic, I ask Ball what he’s working on to improve his free-throw shooting. His answer: “Just slow down. I’m shooting them too fast. Take an extra dribble and breathe a little bit more. Mostly bend your knees, though, because I do shoot ‘em straight up. In the flow of the game, if you’re tired and you’re shooting ‘em straight up, that’s not going to come off good.”)
Contemplating this play leads to a withdrawal from Ball’s bank of basketball history.
“This one reminded me of Michael Jordan,” Ball says. “He didn’t hit a three. He came down and dunked on somebody. I remember him getting a steal, jumping out of bounds but throwing it to Scottie [Pippen], coming back in. That’s what I thought of.”
5. Spread floor, defender daring you to shoot, talking trash that you can’t shoot. You start with a jab step, then your step-back-to-the-left move. You’re all the way back to the edge of the center-court logo…and you perfect-swish the long three from epic distance.
Now we’re getting into the stuff that Ball really likes. He calls this play “very personal.”
“I just like that because it relates to me,” he says. “That’s how people guard me. That’s like my go-to move. The step back.”
He says the part about the trash talk might be writer embellishment, except it very much can feel like disrespect to be defended that way.
"Just the way they guard me,” he says. “You ain’t really got to say nothing. You’re pretty much telling me: ‘Just shoot it.’"
This brings us to Ball’s personal highlight moment. The fact that it’s only about midway through the list tells you that he imagines a lot more remarkable things in his future.
He cites the step-back 30-footer he hit on Feb. 9, 2017, for UCLA against Oregon. It avenged a previous loss to the Ducks, salvaged a rare one-assist game by Ball and came after Ball’s driving layup had been answered by an Oregon three-pointer.
Given space to shoot this time, Ball drilled the long three-pointer with 32 seconds left for a 77-75 UCLA lead...and I suspect the chance to relive that shining moment is one reason he would want to go back to school.
“I hit a step-back three to basically win it. I just remember Pauley Pavilion going crazy; there were a lot of people there,” Ball says. “When we first started the season, we didn’t have that many fans at our games. And to get to that, sold out, it was pretty cool.”
4. Your clean steal at one end. Start back the other way with the opposition in your path one at a time as if in some action movie. Behind the back past one, spin move past another, crossover toward the lane, ball-fake to go right past another…before passing it between the legs of the last defender for a teammate to dunk.
“Basically all the moves,” he says. “All the kids, that’d probably be their No. 1, just because of all the ball-handling moves and it ends with a pass to a teammate to dunk. The crowd’s for sure going to crazy if all that happened.”
I say: “I don’t think you’ll ever be able to do this in a real NBA game. It’s too much. Guys would have to be lined up perfectly to go through one at a time.”
He says: “We’ll see.”
3. Steal the ball from your man with a perfectly timed poke. Recover it at your own three-point line and spin the ball bowling-style up ahead for a teammate to pick up on the run, just a step ahead of his man. He strolls right down the lane and goes up for the layup.
“Just because of the bowling-ball pass,” Ball says. “That’s cool, because when you throw it and it drops fast. The way you describe it, it goes right over the defender.”
Jason Kidd made a play like this once where he basically rolled the ball ahead along the floor. Ball envisions it more like an underhand hurl—because someone at home tutored him to practice it that way.
“My dad taught me how to throw that pass when I was little,” Ball says. “I’ll throw all these passes to my brothers, especially the middle one [LiAngelo] because he catches everything. That’s one of my favorite passes.
“He [LaVar] taught me because when you take it out [to inbound from under the basket] and you want to throw it full length, you can’t throw it like that, because it’ll hit the backboard sometimes.
So if you just want to get it out of the net instead of running [to the side], you can just take it out and throw it as fast as possible.”
The preparation has already been done then, unbelievably.
Ball just needs the opportunity, and we can see him turn an opponent’s made basket into some crazy-quick, LaVar-dreamt-up, bowling-alley-style, slow-pitch-softball inbounds toss.
“Hopefully,” he says.
2. Play solid defense to contest a jumper and produce a miss. Leap high to control a contested defensive rebound at your free-throw line, but while still in the air just before you land, throw a football-style long pass from there to hit a teammate in stride at the other free-throw line for the dunk and the foul.
“Degree of difficulty,” Ball says. “To rebound and throw it before you land? I’ve done that to my brothers before. It reminds me of my brothers. That’s a pretty cool play to get it out of there without even hitting the floor.”
Are you starting to see what interests Ball the most?
It’s the creative stuff—and the creative stuff features magic tricks that can actually be practiced to unveil on stage when the curtain goes up.
A mid-air rebound and touchdown pass? Coming soon.
“Yeah, it’ll come out,” he says.
1. Roar down the floor in transition. See a smaller, faster guard get back and try to cut you off from the side near the free-throw line. Lower your shoulder and subtly but powerfully move him clean out of the way—all the way into the corner out of bounds. Dunk, hang on the rim for a split-second, and throw a punch in the air as you land and stare him down.
The top spot goes to something deeply personal.
Ball did this exact play in his true life at a memorable time.
March 11, 2016 at Chino Hills High School. A CIF State playoff game against Immanuel High School from near Fresno en route to a 35-0 senior season for Ball, state title and mythical national championship.
“That’s everything: the starting point,” Ball says. “High school, then you go to college, NBA.
“It was a playoff game. I remember the atmosphere, and I remember posting it, that play. It was just a good play. All my friends and stuff at the game, they went crazy. Huge moment in my career.”
It was notably a physical play. A show of superiority and force.
“It just shows you’re better than the competition, pretty much,” Ball says. “Push him off and dunk it like that.”
For a kid who just two years later is immersed in the full experience of being the Los Angeles Lakers’ point guard, not Chino Hills High’s point guard, it makes a lot of sense.
You might think it’s small-time stuff and should be left far in the past if Ball is now making mind-blowing moves on the defending champion Golden State Warriors’ home court and plotting so many more the NBA hasn’t seen before.
But Ball, 20, is not so far removed from his roots. And he explains that he thinks back to his past for all things, whether to find gratitude, confidence or innovation for his next great play.
“Huge moment in my career,” he says. “We went undefeated that year. A bunch of stuff happened.”
He gets a look in his eyes that is different, a deeper earnestness than the playfulness that was evident in discussing all these fictitious moments.
“That,” he says, “was a good play.”
Kevin Ding is an independent sports writer, and the statements and views expressed by him do not necessarily represent the views of the Los Angeles Lakers.
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