Yesterday and the day before, I discussed my worries about Lonzo Ball’s ability to generate superstar value given his self-creation and pick and roll limitations. Today, I want to talk about how his playing style compares to a pass-first point guard archetype, and how he might fit on this Sixers’ team.
Having covered discrete, skill-specific deficits that Ball has compared to Steve Nash, I want to return to Nash and Steph Curry to point out some important differences about their aesthetic style of play.
All of Nash, Curry, and Ball have or had reputations as sub-standard athletes for the point guard position by NBA standards. While this characterization undersells Lonzo’s speed and motor in transition, it is fair to describe none of these players as possessing an above average first step in the halfcourt. This means that they need to find different ways of moving the ball from a less threatening position (beyond the 3-point line) to a more threatening one (closer to the basket).
One manner of doing that is by possessing a superior ballhandling ability. As we covered in the last installment, this is a worrying skill area for Ball; he appears uncomfortable dribbling in the midrange, and he was easily harassed into near turnovers when forced to dribble out of the pick and roll. Against big man mismatches, Ball rarely managed to get past them, instead settling for step back 3’s off the dribble.
It’s difficult to watch Ball struggle to break down the likes of DJ Wilson, Wenyen Gabriel, and Bam Adebayo off the dribble and then envisioning him making a play like this.
His primitive handle consists of hang dribbles and not much else. If he can’t get his defender to expose his top foot, Ball can’t beat players off the dribble. While a comparison to Steph Curry is obviously going to make Ball look inferior, you can also see that, compared to his peers, he has the most rudimentary handle.
Here is Fox displaying a hang dribble, change of speeds, a shot head fake and then a dish in the first game against UCLA.
Here is Fultz splitting a double team with a quick dribble and getting to the hoop.
And here is Dennis Smith Jr. showing off a far superior crossover and finishing body control.
Comparing Lonzo to these three players, it’s not difficult to surmise that he has the weakest handle, and by far the weakest combination of handle and athleticism (as borne out in the unassisted rim field goal attempts I covered yesterday). This doesn’t mean that he’s guaranteed to be a failure, but it does suggest that using his dribbling ability as an avenue to make up for his weak first step is unlikely.
Players of Nash’s and Curry’s ilk use another trick to overcome their physical shortcomings— they harness forward momentum to give themselves a head start against their defenders. Watch how Nash knows to attack against the defender’s momentum before he has even caught the ball here, allowing him to zip by a superior defender and harness his elite finishing touch.
TJ McConnell is a great example of this type of player as well. He doesn’t have the handle or the athleticism to easily beat players off the dribble, so he is constantly in motion, returning to the ball and using his own forward motion to give himself an advantage over defenders. This give and go with Embiid is an excellent example of McConnell taking advantage of that strategic thinking.
This is a concept that Ball has mastered in transition. He knows that if he gets a head of steam, he’ll be impossible to stop. Even better, this is where his underrated touch around the basket really shines; if he gets all the way to the rim, he’s not going to miss the shot.
However, he has not even begun to incorporate it into his play in the halfcourt. That’s okay— he can still learn to utilize this skill. But it does mean that he hasn’t begun to push the boundaries of either of the skills that can help to mitigate his weaker tools.
Based on my analysis, I do not believe that Lonzo Ball can play the role of a point guard (or primary initiator, whichever nomenclature you might prefer) in an NBA offense. As I wrote last December, the vast majority of high-level initiators are able to create both for their teammates and for themselves. Ball has not shown the capacity to do so in his time at UCLA.
Barring that capability, a few elite point guards have demonstrated high-level creation ability while shouldering a below average usage. Here too, I doubt that Ball can fulfill that role.
A few proponents of Ball’s game have argued that his presence is beneficial because he will allow teams to play a second initiator alongside him. I believe this to be accurate, but distorted reasoning— Ball doesn’t allow being played alongside an initiator, but necessitates that an initiator be played alongside him. Without a second player who can initiate in the pick and roll and stress a defense north-to-south, Lonzo-led NBA offenses will struggle.
With this taken into account, I have difficulty picturing how Ball can become a superstar level player. If he cannot create efficient scoring opportunities for himself at a high usage, he’ll need to make up for it through separate avenues. One traditional pathway has been defense, where Ball doesn’t project to be a star.
A second pathway might have been through elite passing paired with elite feel and probing ability. Given the issues I’ve presented with Ball’s pick and roll ability, handle, and comfort in the teeth of a defense, this too strikes me as implausible.
This leaves a path in which a team will be counting on Lonzo’s elite passing and IQ alone for him to become a superstar. He may be able to generate an extra 5-6 possessions a game from transition opportunities, but that is not, in and of itself, a path to superstardom. It requires supplementation with ancillary skills. As I outlined on Wednesday, the validity of categorizing Ball’s IQ and passing as elite is by no means certain, and its unresolved nature is a very low value bet to make if you’re counting on it to overcome Ball’s other weaknesses.
So I don’t think Lonzo Ball should be a Top 3 pick in a vacuum. I don’t believe he has the upside necessary to justify the capital being spent to attain him.
That said: I would love to see the Sixers draft him.
It may not seem like it after I’ve spent 4,000 words carefully noting Ball’s weaknesses as a player, but I actually like him, taken holistically, as a prospect. He has a lot of impressive strengths that I’ve largely ignored in these pieces, as I find them to be common knowledge, and agree with their value. He really is a great passer. He really does make incredible reads in transition. His spatial awareness manifests itself in anticipatory blocked shots and steals. It’s all real, and it matters in helping him contribute to a good team.
Lonzo’s biggest weakness is that he will struggle to operate as the lone initiator. This was mitigated by a stacked UCLA team that had the luxury of two other point guards (Aaron Holiday & Bryce Alford) plus TJ Leaf, a superior college creator from the 4 spot. The good news is that if Ball came to Philadelphia, he would be benefitting from a similarly cushy creation situation.
Ben Simmons and Lonzo Ball might be a dream match made in heaven. Brett Brown has famously stated for years that this Sixers team wants to play fast and take advantage of transition opportunities. Simmons on his own is an elite transition weapon, as an outstanding rebounder who can grab-and-go, and turn a 1-on-4 fastbreak into a layup plus a foul shot.
Pairing his ability and speed with Ball’s transition vision, shooting, and savvy would be a hellscape unleashed on opposing defenses. If Simmons and Ball were elite throwing outlet passes to Antonio Blakeney and Isaac Hamilton, imagine what they can wring out of a partnership together. Furthermore, Simmons can occupy the initiator role that was shared by Ball’s three UCLA teammates in the halfcourt, making up for Ball’s single biggest weakness.
For his part, Ball’s shooting will provide the spacing necessary to maximize Simmons’ play. Ball has deep range on his jumper and can release off the dribble, but he also showed some incipient ability to catch and shoot while curling around screens. As with off-the-dribble 3’s, he is limited by his release, and is stronger going to his left. But he has looked comfortable making that shot all the same.
Similarly, while he does not project to be an outstanding defender, Ball is likely to be more than capable as a 1-position defender. His biggest weakness there, too, will be mitigated by current Sixers’ players. It’s probably unwise to project Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot to remain with the Sixers too far into the future, but he showed enough promise as a rookie to perhaps be a supporting piece to this Sixers’ core.
Luwawu’s most promising skill as a rookie was his pressure defense at the point of attack. Playing him alongside Ball would enable Ball to be moved onto defending wings.
With the focus on Ball’s struggles navigating screens as a defender— a legitimate concern, that I share— it has often been lost that he has overachieved expectations as an isolation defender. His lateral agility is underrated, as he can stick with most drivers one-one-one.
This means that he can bring a lot of value to a switch heavy defense. The Sixers could run out a starting lineup of TLC-Lonzo-RoCo-Simmons-JoJo next season that would sport no one below 6’6. This would enable the switching style that has become so popular around the league in the wake of the small ball revolution and the advent of the spread pick and roll’s supremacy.
I also firmly believe that, while Lonzo does not have a superstar ceiling, he has a clear path to becoming the third best player on a championship team. I’d prefer for the Sixers to continue to swing on BPA, but that third player level is an outcome that would be enough to help vault this team into the upper echelons of championship contention. Ball will never be the type of player who can serve as legitimate insurance for Embiid or Simmons not panning out, but as a running partner for the two of them, he can ben a lethal weapon.