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Future Sixers: Lonzo Ball, Non-Scoring Point Guard

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NCAA Basketball: UCLA at Kentucky Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

This season has been one big coming out party for Lonzo Ball. As a high schooler, there was constantly push-back against his being a top tier prospect in a class full of them due to the helter-skelter style his Chino Hills high school team played, and the Ball brothers’ refusal to enter into national AAU tournaments against other top prospects. Scouts chalked up his triple-double numbers to the Huskies’ fast pace, and pointed out that he lacked the elite speed and quickness his peers have been lauded for.

After Chino Hills ran the table in Ball’s senior season and he put in a star performance at the McDonald’s All-American game, everyone began to change their tune. Now that he’s leading UCLA to an undefeated start and the #2 ranking in both the AP and the coaches’ polls, his draft stock has gone through the roof. Lonzo Ball has arrived, and he is being billed as a transcendent passing talent.

I’m here to pump the brakes a bit.

Let’s start with the positive, though. Ball is undoubtedly an elite passer with outstanding vision and the ability to place a pass on the money from a mile away. He’s known for his outlet passes to streaking wings, but it cannot be overstated how impressive passes like these are:

Ball consistently sees plays that most players don’t look for, and he has the ability to place the ball exactly where it needs to go. Look at him make this off-hand skip pass on the money in transition. College point guards don’t even bother to try this ish most of the time.

(H/T to Cole Zwicker for this video)

In short, if Lonzo is playing in transition, he really is worth the buzz. He can pick out the right passes, he can pull up and shoot it from deep, he’s a good leaper off two feet who can finish at the rack, and he’s brilliant at reading what the defense is giving him and taking it all the way to the hole if no one commits to stopping him.

Unfortunately, the game isn’t played in transition only. And it’s in the halfcourt that his shortcomings manifest themselves.

Ball has really struggled to break players down off the dribble, and in most cases he doesn’t even try. Kentucky starts two bigs in Bam Adebayo and Wenyen Gabriel who are more comfortable than most in containing perimeter players off the dribble, but NBA-caliber point guards should still feel confident attacking them off the dribble. Ball declined to do so on nearly every occasion last week. In the halfcourt, Ball simply isn’t aggressive, as he has neither the explosive first step nor the shifty shake necessary to beat defenders off the dribble. As a result, he becomes a non-threat, except as a spot-up shooter.

Mid-way through the first half against Kentucky, Steve Alford changed the flow of the game by moving Ball to the 4, which matched him up against Adebayo without even requiring a switch. However, Ball was ineffectual taking Bam off the dribble, settling for passes after one or two wayward dribbles.

He has to do better in these situations. UCLA’s pristine spacing allows him acres of space to the right side of the key, and between his handle and his size, he should be able to knife into the paint past Adebayo with little issue. Instead, he turns it over.

Even when he’s garnering assists, he’s often not responsible for creating the points— he simply makes a correct pass after a shooter has put in a lot of work to get open. Look at his first two assists against Portland, for example.

Neither of those are simple passes and, to Ball’s credit, he puts them on the money. But the burden of creation was on the shooter in both cases, requiring Alford and Hamilton to sprint around screens, square their bodies upon catching, and make a difficult shot.

The second play particularly hints at one of Ball’s shortcomings as a ballhandler (although Alford’s pathetic screen does him no favors). In pick and roll situations, he’s unable to take advantage of the manufactured 2-on-1 edge. He almost always makes a quick read to a wing shooter rather than penetrating deep into the paint and either kicking to a shooter or dishing to a big.

As with the previous two plays, he makes a nice pass here, but he doesn’t create anything particularly enterprising. He penetrates to the foul line, but no further, which is pretty standard for Ball. He’s not a threat to shoot off the dribble— his low release makes it difficult for him to create separation and easy for defenders to contest. Per Hoop-Math, Ball has attempted only 7 2-point jump shots this season, 8% of his total FGA. He’s made only 1, good for 14% FG% on the worst shot in the game. So Rashad Jackson can go under the screen with impunity, and Ball also can’t beat him to the spot, as Jackson is in front of him before he gets below the foul line.

While he is undoubtedly elite in transition and has outstanding vision, Ball has also benefited disproportionately from UCLA’s putting 4 shooters around him. Alford, Holiday, Hamilton, and Leaf are all shooting above 40% from 3, while Thomas Welsh is nearly automatic from the mid-range, as you can see in the above clip.

These shortcomings are evident in Ball’s statistical profile, where he fits the description of a secondary wing player more than a team’s primary initiator (with the obvious exception of his ridiculous assist rate). The first flag is Ball’s overall scoring— at only 21.6 points per 100 possessions, he’s close to the worst 10% of point guard prospects in scoring, and is squarely in the bottom quartile for all prospects.

Depicting his lack of aggression, Ball’s Free Throw rate (FTA/FGA) is only at .31, also bottom quartile for both on-ball point guards and off-ball wings. As others have noted, Hoop-Math shows Ball as having created only 2 unassisted rim field goals in 310 minutes of play. Standardized to a per 40 metric, his 0.26 FG/40 pales in comparison to Markelle Fultz, Jawun Evans, or Dennis Smith.

Here is how Ball stacks up against the other top point guards in this class in these key scoring categories:

(Fultz’s stats do not include his 12/7 game against Gonzaga.)

Ball’s weaknesses are thrown into stark relief when viewed this way. While he scores efficiently, thanks to his bound-to-regress 43% on 3FG’s, he doesn’t score nearly frequently enough or in a diverse manner.

Does any of this mean that Ball will be a bust? Decidedly not. But it does put into question his ability to be a primary initiator for championship level offense. For any Top 4 or 5 contender, their primary creator is proficient at creating both for his teammates and for himself. LeBron, Steph, Chris Paul, Westbrook, Durant, and Harden all pass this test. Kawhi doesn’t, but he brings enough value on defense to offset his passing shortcomings. Ball has his strengths as a defender, but doesn’t project to be overly impactful there.

On defense, too, UCLA’s strengths serve to mask Ball’s limitations. As an on-ball defender, he lacks the lateral agility to stay in front of quick lead guards at the point of attack. De’Aaron Fox got the better of Ball on Saturday and absolutely toyed with him at times.

In most of UCLA’s defensive sets, Ball actually guards wings, allowing Holiday or Alford to check opposing point guards. It mitigates his weaknesses while allowing his strengths (decision-making, creating defensive events from weak-side positions) to shine through. His size (6’6) allows him to guard up a position relatively easily.

Unfortunately, while Ball is competent as a wing defender in the NCAA, he is unlikely to be an impactful defender at the NBA level. Here are how his defensive stats compare to 2’s and 3’s considered to be NBA prospects.

This presents teams drafting Ball with a few separate quandaries. The first is the question of whether to play him on-ball or off. He needs to be played on-ball to unlock his most valuable skill, but his inability to create off the dribble for himself and others presents a significant hurdle for NBA offenses. That necessitates playing him next to another creator on the wing.

The Sixers have such a creator in Ben Simmons, but playing Ball next to Simmons still presents more issues. If he is asked to guard opposing point guards, he will struggle to keep them in front of him; but if he is moved to the wing, the Sixers will still need a 3-and-D point guard and will be willingly giving up defensive impact on the wing while minimizing his offensive impact.

These are the issues that Ball presents to any team that drafts him. He has real strengths as a passer and shooter (despite his wonky form), but his weaknesses limit his potential impact at the next level. In order for Ball to be the Top 5 pick he’s being billed as, he’ll need to improve his scoring ability and his defense. Otherwise, NBA teams will be asking a lot of questions about how to use him.

Future Sixers Point Guard Power Rankings:

Shorter PG Rankings this week, since we ran long on Ball. The Sixers’ future PG this week is going to be determined entirely by 3-point shooting. Because, duh, nothing else matters to this Sixers’ team, right?

1. Jawun Evans, Oklahoma State, 52.6% from 3

Evans has been on fire to start the season. His 3FGA’s per game are low, but he has shown the ability to knock them down in two straight seasons.

2. Markelle Fultz, Washington, 48.5%

Fultz had his worst showing of the year against Gonzaga, but still managed to stroke 3-6 from deep. Some Simmons potential for Fultz to be the top pick while UW misses the tournament.

3. Frank Ntilikina, Strasbourg, 46.9%

Big Frank continues to pleasantly surprise with his off-ball shooting this year, having made 15 of 32 attempts in his first `18 games for Strasbourg.

4. Lonzo Ball, UCLA, 43.5%

The mechanics don’t matter, as Ball continues to stroke it. Enjoy this shot standing on the UK logo from last week.

5. Dennis Smith, NC State, 26.5%

We’ve arrived at the “Athletes Who Can’t Shoot” portion of the rankings! Smith, surprisingly, is the best of the bunch.

6. Edmond Sumner, Xavier, 22.7%

Sumner exploded onto the scene over the summer due to his bouncy range off the dribble. Of course, that range doesn’t extend to his shot, where he’s shooting a putrid percentage for the second year running.

7. De’Aaron Fox, Kentucky, 15%

Fox just can’t shoot, man. Like. At all. UK runs PnR’s at the foul line so he can take pull-ups, and he still bricks them all.

Games to Watch This Weekend:

Villanova (1) vs. Notre Dame (23), 12:00pm, December 10, CBS

Josh Hart continues to look like a serious player of the year candidate, as he has acted as Villanova’s de facto initiator all year, assisting on 22% of his teammates’ baskets with a usage of 24% while in the game. His defense remains solid. Notre Dame’s wings could be a good test for Hart and weekly favorite Mikal Bridges, whose TS% remains a ridiculous 74% through 9 games.

Michigan at UCLA (2), 8:00pm, December 10, ESPN2

UCLA continues their tough early season schedule with a visit from Michigan, who have put together a decent 7-2 start and play Beilein’s trademark zones on offense and defense. Given all the shooting on the UCLA roster, Michigan might have to change its tune, but its always a good idea watch Lonzo Ball against high-caliber athletes.

Florida (21) at Florida State, 4:00pm, December 11, WatchESPN

Fresh off a loss to Duke in Madison Square Garden in which the Gators weren’t particularly competitive in the second half, they travel to Tallahassee to face their in-state rivals. Jonathan Isaac missed the last game, but if he returns, his match-up with Devin Robinson should be an exciting one to watch. Even without Isaac, Dwayne Bacon should be an exciting watch as well.