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Future Sixers: Lonzo Ball Is Not a Lead Guard, Part 2

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The second in a series of posts about Lonzo Ball’s ability to be a lead guard.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-South Regional-Kentucky vs UCLA Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

Yesterday, I addressed the idea that Lonzo’s elite passing and spatial awareness elevates his game in a greater manner than it does for others. Today, I want to address why I believe he won’t follow in the footsteps of other great pass-first point guards who achieved superstar impacts.

It is, of course, possible for Ball to be a pass-first point guard with above average passing and vision who can impart superstar value. There have been multiple iterations of that player type throughout the years. The most prominently successful have probably been John Stockton, Jason Kidd, Chris Paul, and Steve Nash.

Paul and Stockton are problematic as exemplars of a plausible career path; Chris Paul is one of the best point guard defenders ever and Stockton is the career leader in steals. Paul is also an outstanding self-creator, whose usage could have likely sustained an increase without seeing his efficiency drop off a cliff. Stockton, meanwhile, made a living at the line. He had a career FTr above .400, an absurd rate for a point guard.

Jason Kidd, too, was one of the greatest point guard defenders of all time. He shares some key similarities with Ball— great size; excels in transition; a very good rebounding point guard; and struggles attacking the hoop in the half court— but the gap on defense is too large to ignore. An average to below average point guard defender with Jason Kidd’s ability on offense would not have been a superstar player. He needed to affect change on both ends of the court to be as impactful as he was.

Which leaves Steve Nash, also the most frequent comparison. It’s the comp that works best, too, based on their collegiate profiles. Nash and Ball both had anemic usage rates with Nash attempting 9.9 FGs/40, and Lonzo attempting 10.9. Neither got to the line effectively, with FTr’s of .310 and .286, respectively, during their freshman seasons. Both shot above 40% from 3 and took more than half of their field goal attempts from deep.

Nash’s supreme NBA value came from 3 distinct areas:

  1. Historic 3-point shooting off the dribble and off the catch, paired with elite free throw shooting.
  2. High level finishing at the hoop despite few attempts there.
  3. High level orchestration out of the spread pick and roll.

The first seems potentially replicable for Ball. Perhaps “historic” shooting is a step too far, but high level shooting is well within the realm of reason. Ball is known for his deep step back 3’s, and he shot a scorching 41.2% from deep at UCLA. Despite Ball’s reputation, an important difference between the two is the frequency with which they created 3’s off the dribble.

According to Hoop-Math, 73.8% of Ball’s 3FGA’s were assisted. That puts him squarely in the bottom half of point guard prospects, well below Dennis Smith (48.1%), Markelle Fultz (55.8%), or D’Angelo Russell (53.2%). Steve Nash hued much closer to the latter 3 players than to Ball. According to BB-Ref, during his prime years from 2000-01 through 2009-10, Nash was assisted on only 49.1% of his 3’s.

The difference in volume is likely attributable, in part, to Ball’s strange form. Because he needs to be going left to avoid having defenders disrupt his shot attempt, it is more difficult for him to get to that shot out of most regular action.

As Cole Zwicker wrote last week, you can see the consistency with which Ball needs to be heading left to get off a clean shot. That will limit his ceiling in this regard.

As with passing, a surface-level analysis of Ball’s finishing also suggests that it will translate extremely efficiently. Again, there are some hidden flags that present a much less rosy picture.

The most obvious one is how rarely Ball creates his own shot at the rim. He is shooting 78.9% on rim FGA’s, an elite FG% for a big man, let alone a point guard. Crucially though, over half of his rim FGA’s are assisted. Within my Hoop-Math sample since 2012, that is an outlier number for point guards.

This denotes, in part, how smart of a cutter Ball is without the ball. Combined with his strong leaping ability off of two feet, he’s a very dangerous player on back cuts, and he has good enough touch so that, if he gets to the rim in transition, he’s likely to score.

But it also demonstrates a major weakness of Ball’s. Point guards tend to have more trouble finishing at the rim because they need to create the shot themselves. They do so off the dribble, and then need to finish over rotating players. Nash was a wizard at finding creative ways to achieve this during his prime. He scored with either hand, refined wrong-footed and reverse layups, had a deadly floater, and perfected his signature scooping layup.

In contrast, Ball is reticent to even attempt shots at the rim. The presence of Lauri Markkanen, one of the worst rim protecting bigs in the NCAA, scares him enough to dump the ball to TJ Leaf here, who doesn’t expect the pass and nearly turns it over.

A savvier player would have pulled a finish out of a grab bag of moves or stepped past Markkanen and forced a shooting foul. Ball is unable to make a play despite deep position, and UCLA is forced to reset their offense.

In all the film I watched in preparation for this piece, there isn’t a single Lonzo PnR like this.

And I have not yet witnessed a Lonzo finish showing the driving patience and basket savvy that Steve Nash displays here (against Tim Freaking Duncan, of all people).

Ball’s problems creating efficient shot opportunities at the rim are thrown into stark relief when comparing him to other point guards selected in the first round of the draft.

By Z-Score, his 0.9 unassisted halfcourt rim attempts per 40 minutes place him in the 11th percentile among drafted primary creators. Similarly, while Ball’s field goal percentage on mid-range jumpers was actually pretty good, he took so few attempts so as to render his efficiency immaterial. According to Hoop-Math, Ball attempted only 26 such shots on the year, a minuscule 7% of his 343 field goal attempts.

So Ball is essentially a one-level scorer— if he isn’t creating a 3-pointer, he probably isn’t creating a shot for himself. This shortcoming is immediately evident if you watch Ball run pick and roll actions.

(And one non-PnR)

All four of these clips indicate Ball’s discomfort handling the ball in the midrange. He doesn’t feel comfortable stopping on a dime to pull-up, hitting a floater over a retreating big, or maintaining his dribble and probing elsewhere. Compare these possessions to a Steve Nash or Chris Paul pick and roll.

Nash and Paul are two of the best pick and roll handlers ever, so it’s unsurprising that Ball doesn’t live up to their (impossibly high) standards. Still, look at how the two pros keep their dribble alive, probing the defense a little bit more until they see a gap, and then taking what opens up— a dish to Stoudemire or scoop layup in Nash’s case, and an open pull-up in Paul’s. Ball doesn’t display enough comfort with the ball in his hands to delay the action until either of those options might materialize. Nash and Paul also both demonstrate the capacity to change speeds in this action; Lonzo is either stop or go, with no in-between.

In fact, the more that you watch Ball operate in pick and roll action, the more evident his discomfort as a ballhandler becomes. UCLA frequently ran sets with Ball handling in the pick and roll— sometimes in a standard spread set with floppy action, sometimes in a “Horns,” double-pick set. In the majority of these situations, Ball takes one dribble past the screener and then immediately tosses an early pass over the defenders in the direction that the pick came from.

Oregon even began anticipating the action and sent an extra weak side defender at the roll man. Ball made the pass anyway, resulting in a near Leaf turnover.

I’m not exaggerating when I say this is Lonzo’s read in a majority of his plays. I scouted 6 games and charted all pick and rolls in which he was the lead ballhandler. I counted 47 occurrences; of those pick and rolls, Ball took two dribbles or fewer 29 times. That’s more than 60% of his actions. At UCLA, playing alongside two strong-shooting college big men, it was largely effective. But it doesn’t project to be so at the NBA level.

(By the way, Ball’s uniformity in making PnR reads is another point contradicting the narrative about his elite basketball IQ. This ran too long to include it in yesterday’s piece, but it was meant as a supporting argument for the article’s conclusion.)

In all of the plays above, the defending team guarded the pick and roll by sending both defenders at the ball, having their big hedge and then recover. This leaves the screener immediately open, which allows Ball to make his customary pass. However, teams began to realize some more success against the action by switching their big onto Ball, or soft hedging, without committing to the same degree. You can see immediately how it nullifies the action.

Kentucky, especially, employed this defense to great effect. Ball simply doesn’t have the speed or the handle to punish big men off the bounce, meaning there was no incentive preventing them from switching. Ball made one particularly memorable step back jumper of Adebayo, but otherwise he struggled to create many looks of value against their big men.

(Monk is obviously not a big, but this does demonstrate, again, the one-dimensionality of his game.)

The one player against whom Ball saw success in isolation was Derek Willis, a rare 4-year player for Calipari who struggled to see the court in his first two seasons precisely because of his poor foot speed. There won’t be many Derek Willises guarding Lonzo Ball in the NBA.

This matters because NBA teams won’t hedge against him. They’ll force him to beat his man off the dribble, which he has shown no capacity for at UCLA.

His inability to attack bigs points to his single biggest issue in the pick and roll— far too often, he simply doesn’t create a shot opportunity for his team. Out of 47 pick and roll opportunities, 24 failed to even generate a shot attempt out of the action.

This puts a hard ceiling on Ball’s effectiveness running the pick and roll. If half of the sets can’t even create a shot attempt, it is simply not an efficient play type. Unsurprisingly, it failed to generate efficient looks at a high rate: UCLA scored only 32 points directly out of the 47 pick and roll actions I charted; they shot 4 of 9 on three pointers, 4 of 6 on midrange jumpers, and 6 of 8 on rim attempts.

This is 6 games— it’s not a representative sample. But you can see the systemic issues in this play. The most glaring is Lonzo’s unwillingness and incapability of using his dribble to put pressure on the defense in a North-South manner. In fact, if the defense forces Lonzo to dribble out of the PnR, they’ve won; he’s far more likely to turn the ball over or force a reset than he is to create a good shot attempt when he puts the ball on the floor.

In fact, out of the 47 pick and rolls I watched Lonzo conduct over 6 games, only 3 resulted in a UCLA shot created by Ball’s pressuring the defense with his dribble. The first is the Derek Willis isolation, highlighted earlier in the article. The second was one of his only midrange jumpers of the year. You can see him snake back to his left to get a clean shot off. If he can make looks like this more consistently, it will add an important component to his pick and roll game.

And the last one was a rare 1-2 pick and roll in which Allonzo Trier was defending the screener. Neither Trier nor Kobi Simmons stopped ball in the action, and Ball was able to barrel through Lauri Markkanen for a finish and a foul.

These dribble-related issues point to a turnover problem that, again, is hidden at the surface level. Ball’s 274 assists to only 89 turnovers is about as good of a ratio as exists. Yet if you watch carefully, it’s clear that he is responsible for a lot of bad turnovers. This is evident from a quick glance at his advanced statistics— Ball actually has a higher TOV% (18.6) than USG% (18.1). TOV% is an estimate of the number of turnover per 100 possessions, while usage is calculated directly by comparing a player’s field goal attempts to his team’s, so they’re not an exact comparison. Still, it’s alarming that a point guard might be as likely to turn the ball over as he is to shoot.

To try to create a better turnover statistic, I decided to compare TO rates to combined usage and assist rates this year. As I wrote in my Fultz article, it paints him in a flattering light, as it allows us to understand how aggressive he is asked to be by his team, and his turnovers are understood in that context. It does the opposite for Ball. He swings from having an elite AST:TO ratio to having a bottom quartile TO-to-True Usage ratio.

This is only one measurement of turnover impact, but when combined with my observations about his dribbling struggles in the PnR, it does raise major questions about Ball’s capability to thrive as a primary ballhandler.

So of the four pass-first point guards who were able to derive the most value from their playing style, three possessed skillsets different enough from Ball to see a difficult path for him to replicate value in the same way, with Nash as the lone remaining luminary. Of Nash’s three outstanding skills, only one is plausibly replicable for Ball. He is too far behind as a difficult shotmaker in traffic and especially as a pick and roll handler to realistically expect him to reproduce Nash’s value.

Tomorrow, I’ll cover another difference between Ball and other pass-first point guards, and cover what he would look like playing on the Sixers.