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Future Sixers: Lonzo Ball Is Not a Lead Guard, Part 1

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Lonzo Ball has serious flaws, and they may prevent him from being the lead guard expected at his draft slot.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-South Regional-Kentucky vs UCLA Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

Let’s get this out of the way at the beginning: This is an article about Lonzo Ball, the player and prospect, not about his father. If you’re looking for an opinion on whether LaVar Ball should impact the Sixers’ drafting decisions, you’ve come to the wrong place. If you’re looking for a scouting report on Lonzo Ball, congratulations! You’re in the right place.

I wrote about Ball in December, and I feel that my conclusions hold up 6 months later. The exact numbers may have changed slightly, but the implications for his playing style have not. Here are the general takeaways:

  1. Ball excels in transition, where his superior spatial awareness and natural unselfishness combine to make him a lethal presence setting up teammates and scoring on his own.
  2. Ball also excels at creating transition opportunities, as his ability to push the ball and his outlet passing enable easy, early shot-clock FGA’s that most players cannot create.
  3. Ball’s outstanding field goal efficiency and UCLA’s uptempo style served to mask some scary deficiencies as a self-creator.
  4. Ball will likely be a 1-position defender who creates defensive events at an above average rate. He struggles to navigate screens on- and off-ball, making him a dicey pick and roll defender. He has better lateral agility in defensive isolation than his athletic reputation suggests, but lacks the strength or length to defend bigger wings or forwards.

The scouting report hasn’t changed. So what does it mean for projecting Ball’s future?

There is a line of thinking that asserts that Lonzo’s self-creation struggles should be discounted because of his elite basketball IQ and because there have been other pass-first point guards whose values were not limited by their low usage. These are two separate arguments— the first is that his elite attributes (IQ and passing) will offset his weaknesses so as to render them less significant; the second is that you need not shoulder a high usage rate to have an outsized offensive impact.

If one argues that a skill is so elite so as to counteract other, lacking skills, it is worth investigating the validity of that claim. If we’re counting on the outlier nature of a particular skill to warp predictive properties, we had better be sure that it is, in fact, an outlier. Otherwise, the expectation must be that it will not warp the prediction, and that we should treat the player as we would any other.

A surface-level analysis appears to support the “elite passing” assertion. Lonzo led the NCAA in total assists (274) and assists per game (7.6) this year. He sported an absurd assist-to-turnover ratio of 3.08 : 1, and he routinely rifled passes like this in transition.

He also frequently displayed touch passes that would find an open UCLA player before the defense had time to actualize their rotation to Ball, let alone the next player.

This was a brilliant bit of recognition to catch his defender out of position, followed by a quick pass to create a simple rim attempt for his Ike Anigbogu as two defenders converged on the ball, rather than trying to contort his body to score himself. Ball creates opportunities like this a few times a game, and they are indicative of heightened IQ.

He also makes great snap passes to cutting teammates out of sets, like this one to TJ Leaf.

So on the surface, his play fits the narrative. If you dig a little deeper, though, you can start to find some holes in the argument. For instance, Ball’s gaudy assist totals can attribute some inflation to the pace at which UCLA played, among the fastest in the nation. In addition, Ball played 36 minutes a game. This meant that he both played more minutes than most athletes and played more possessions per minute than most athletes, both of which would contribute to an artificial inflation of raw assist numbers.

If we standardize his assist totals for the number of possessions, the outlook is less rosy. Lonzo’s 31.4% assist rate is a perfectly reasonable number for a point guard, but it’s not elite. According to my database, it places him slightly above average among point guards, in the 57.9th percentile; a fine, but not outstanding rate.

You can see this when comparing him to point guards selected in the lottery since 2010-11.

To be clear, 31.4% is a perfectly adequate assist rate for a lottery bound point guard. Kemba Walker, Damian Lillard, and Eric Bledsoe each sported rates easily below that, and each has become an above average starting point guard. The point is not to discredit Lonzo as a passer, but to consider the idea of him as an elite passer.

The case of D’Angelo Russell may be instructive here. We were wowed by the audacity of some of his passes, and allowed ourselves to label him an elite passer. We assumed that his passing and shooting would cover for his athletic deficiencies and provide him a path to superstardom. Thus far, we have been wrong, and it may have been in no small part due to overstating the quality of his strengths in college.

Ball’s passing numbers are also a bit inflated from his team situation at UCLA. Playing alongside Bryce Alford, Ball benefits from having an elite shooter on the wing. UCLA’s pet set is frequently simple pindown screens, followed by Ball swinging the ball to Alford after he has popped free.

Alford was one of the leading NCAA shooters in this situation. On 108 possessions as a shooter out of a screen, he shot an absurd 48-96, good for 1.345 points per possession, according to Chris Stone. Some of that may have to do with Lonzo’s ability to place passes into the shooter’s pocket, but it should undoubtedly be attributed to Alford’s purity as a shooter and scorer more than to Lonzo’s skill making reads.

In addition, Thomas Welsh shot 52% on 2-point jumpers on high volume, according to Hoop-Math. That’s more than 15 percentage points above the average. That means that a not-insignificant chunk of Ball’s assists may have come because he was passing to great college finishers, not because of his vision or passing acumen.

A conservative estimate for assists generated above what we might call “expected assists generated” might add 5% to Lonzo’s assist total. A 5% decrease in Lonzo’s assist rate would put him at 29.8%, which is perfectly average for starting point guards, and below average for point guards selected in the lottery (15th out of 23).

To some degree, that’s to be expected. All point guards benefit from the accrual of “cheap assists.” But there is a plausible argument that Ball benefits disproportionately more (at least a little), due to the players he was lucky to be playing alongside.

If you’re unconvinced by these arguments, that’s fine. I don’t believe they show, definitively, that Ball is not an elite passer. Nor were they meant to. Rather, the purpose was to question the consensus narrative that has formed, and to investigate whether it has merit.

To that end, this has poked some holes in the argument that his elite passing will help him to overcome other deficiencies. The safer bet is that Ball has some outstanding strengths at recognizing certain passing reads, but that these will not, in and of themselves, augment his game beyond how they would normally augment a player’s game.

Tomorrow, I’ll go into more depth on Ball’s halfcourt creation.