This piece was supposed to be a continuation of the piece about Malcolm Brogdon, hearkening back to team Team Context, Draft Order, Opportunity, can and do affect outcomes when it comes to young players careers. Thus why it is in many ways futile for a person not helping to make NBA decisions to rank draft prospects. Then it somehow became a piece about Lonzo Ball.
I wrote about team context a few times over the Spring and Summer, most specifically after the draft, when I moved Jaylen Brown and Dejounte Murray way up my board due to Team Context, stated Wade Baldwin and Denzel Valentine, among others, were both in poor situations potentially for their future growth, and nearly dropped Gary Payton II off the board altogether.
In the next week or two, I’m going to do a preliminary review of how I did in ranking prospects, even though it’s too early in almost all cases. Especially to talk about offense. But I would like to touch upon Wade Baldwin’s early NBA failure, hazard a guess as to one reason why he might be struggling, besides the NBA is really difficult, and that will naturally lead into a discussion of Lonzo Ball.
If you want to read some thoughts about Team Context and beyond, please read this worthwhile piece by Cole Zwicker. There’s quite a deal of overlap with my thoughts, though I completely disagree that we should rate a prospect more highly because they are more likely to get an opportunity. It’s our job to acknowledge that opportunity and investment does indeed affect outcomes, and yet it is also our job to point out how sometimes the NBA is doing itself a disservice by investing, at least sometimes, in perhaps the wrong prospects.
Beyond that, Cole makes an interesting point about Lonzo Ball, being most likely an off-ball player, and then makes a slightly unfortunate comparison to “a faster, more athletic Denzel Valentine”, which doesn’t really hold up.
A Faster Denzel Valentine
The reason why this comparison doesn’t hold up is that a faster, more athletic Denzel Valentine has a completely different type of projection than this comparison innately suggests. Though I’ll admit that Lonzo Ball potentially being an off-ball Wing who could really pass was indeed my first thought upon watching him vs. Nebraska. Just because Ball doesn’t often press the issue all the way to the rim.
However, that was also before I properly understood just how Lonzo Ball is using his dribble to be effective. It’s very subtle. Yet it’s important to acknowledge there’s a reason why Lonzo Ball doesn’t have many unassisted buckets at the rim, and it actually has to do with how good he is.
We’ll discuss this point in Part 2 of this piece, but first I want to address a number of points Cole has made. Because they are significant and have to be addressed. Like this question about Ball’s future role in the NBA, which has partly to do with finding a suitable athletic comparison for the player, one that allows us to actually imagine who he might be at the next level.
And then a couple more specific points that Cole makes or implies, that a primary initiator has to take and make mid-range jump shots to bring offensive value. (This is something I never looked at historically before writing this piece, but it’s actually a place I think a formula like BPM might fail, so I’m glad the point was raised.)
Secondly, even though it’s not actually asserted, whether a low to mid-Usage perimeter player can be an offensive star. The type of player not only worthy of Top pick, but worthy of a Top 3 or 4 pick in almost every NBA draft we’ve ever seen. (It’s just a logical question to ask following from the assertion that Ball is not a top five pick and the reasons why.)
That’s not to say that’s yet where I’m placing Ball. I don’t like solidifying rankings early into the process, as it can fix and bias our thinking with need to confirm our earlier thoughts. But it’s important to know the answers to these types of questions before we even hazard a guess.
A Faster Denzel Valentine Pt. 2
The simple reason it’s important to question this comparison is because it limits the possible outcomes we can imagine for the player. And with a player as unique as Ball, I believe we should be casting a wide net.
As an example in some ways every bit as extreme, what if I call Ray Allen a faster, more athletic Nik Stauskas with better athleticism, awareness, rebounding ability and defense? Isn’t that confusing? There’s a huge cognitive dissonance here because Nik Stauskas has been a pretty a substandard NBA player thus far in his career and Allen is one of the all-time greats, even once or twice arguably being the best offensive player in the league. (I think the metrics are wrong here as well, but they suggest such a claim is more than arguable.)
Which is mainly to say, you change a given player’s athleticism and moderately tweek his other skills and you sometimes have the difference between a borderline NBA rotation guy (if everything turns out well) and a no-doubt-about-it Hall of Famer.
Manu Ginobili Without the Same First Step or Aggression
The other way to approach why this claim is confusing is to compare Ball to a player, rather than being less athletic than Ball, is most likely more athletic than Ball. And in a perhaps significant way, since we really don’t know how good Ginobili is if he doesn’t possess quite the same first step.
After all, it’s one of the defining characteristics that made him the player he is. Along with his aggression. His cleverness with dribbling. His ability to change both speed and direction. And not just side to side. (Ginobili is perhaps the only player I’ve seen who would go backwards in the middle of a drive in order to feint a defender who had blocked his path, before then exploding forward to pursue the rim, often catching the defender completely unawares.)
Then there’s Ginobili’s vision, his awareness, his ability to execute upon what he sees. His shooting ability off the catch. His shooting ability off the dribble. I mention Ginobili because his NBA skills, the way he brings value to a team on offense, are superficially somewhat similar to those of Ball. But the comparison doesn’t really tell us anything because Ginobili without that first step just isn’t Ginobili. And because Ball doesn’t have that first step or any number of other gifts that Ginobili has.
What I’m trying to say is that, while Cole may end up being entirely correct, right now, before Ball has had a chance to develop, Ball as an off-ball player, or a lead guard in a triangle or motion offense, are each perhaps only one of several possibilities.
Though Cole does hit on one point, that a Jerry Sloan style flex motion offense might indeed be ideal for a player like Ball. And then of course, as he most often does, he asks the right questions:
With his skills, will Ball be able to fit in a PnR? That’s a question we’ll try to address, but only after we find a suitable athletic comparison for Ball.
One that looks past just style of play, since to consider it makes our job almost impossible. (There is actually one player, Shaun Livingston, who at one point was somewhat similar in both. But he never played in college and missed nearly half a decade of his career recovering from injuries, so it makes the comparison a little less fruitful. He was also, at his apex, probably slightly faster and with a better handle than the one Ball currently possesses. Though each player’s initial burst and vertical seem to me to be probably similar enough for the comparison to stick, at least a little bit.)
Then what aspects will we look for in our athletic comparison? The three aspects that will go most of the way to determining if Ball can remain a player at the Point-of-attack going forward. His Frame, considering mostly height, his athleticism, focusing on speed and burst, and his dribbling skill.
Lonzo Ball and Cognitive Dissonance
Though before we get to a more textured analysis, I do want to address, in further detail, one of the issues people seem to be having with Lonzo Ball is the cognitive dissonance that arises from multiple areas when viewing him and his statistics. Especially when it comes finding proper NBA comparisons which are meant not just to attest to the way a player plays, but also so that we can cognitively imagine if a player of a certain size and athleticism can be successful as he progresses to a more difficult level of basketball. The reasons for our cognitive dissonance seem to be as thus:
1) Ball rarely tries to press the offense by beating his man off the dribble. This is somewhat different than can’t. But many have taken it to mean that he can’t do it. I’m not so sure that’s the case, especially with the help of a screen. And Ball has a good handle, though we’ll get to below why Jason Kidd comparisons don’t make a lot of sense, and it’s not just because Kidd was the best defender at his position for any number of years.
2) The statistical profile co-alligns with what we see. Ball doesn’t have a lot of unassisted makes at the rim, which suggests he can’t do it. Though we have seen fair amount of evidence that Ball indeed does have a decent first step when he wants to press the issue.
3) The players to whom we compare Ball with statistically, or superficially in style of play, don’t really compare with Ball athletically or physically. Thus we get a lot of somewhat strange comparisons, from Steve Nash to Jason Kidd to a faster, more athletic Denzel Valentine. I even understand the Kidd and Valentine references. They are well-meaning, both pointing out similarities and possible pathways for Ball’s offensive career.
Indeed, it’s highly possible, in the end, Lonzo Ball will be best playing away from the point. Regardless, to utilize all of his gifts, it would be stupid not to do so occasionally. Since Ball looks like he can hit off movement, an action from which his shot actually looks more fluid than it does off the dribble or even in spot shooting. Since it seems he uses the momentum of his movement to help him with release. At least from my limited viewings of this action.
All that being said, what we have to do is simple. We have to separate Ball’s physical frame and his athleticism from his production. From who he is as a player. Then we have to look.
Lonzo Ball Comparisons In Terms of Frame, Athleticism & Dribbling
When watching Ball, there were several comparisons that came to mind, each slightly shifting the way we might not think Ball’s possibilities as a player.
Khris Middleton, who was much slower and differently skilled than Ball in college, was one that flashed when I imagined Ball as an off-ball player with passing ability. As there are superficial but not wholly deep similarities between the players: Both tall, intelligent players who could handle the ball, pass and shoot in college. (Middleton is also a great example of why it is way to early to judge this draft class. He was not good on Detroit as a rookie, playing for a team that obviously didn’t believe in him and was unwilling to make any kind of real investment in his future.)
Klay Thompson at Washington State another. This is perhaps a better one, since Klay Thompson is more similar athletically and their strengths shooting the basketball are little bit more similar. (Shooting off the catch from movement and off the spot. However, neither is necessarily as good when an opponent gets into them or they are creating for themselves in tight spaces.) Yet Ball is probably a little more sudden than Thompson. And he definitely has more options off the dribble.
Those comparisons were both based on trying to imagine Ball in a different role.
However, the first player that came to mind from a physical and dribbling standpoint is Michael Carter-Williams.
Both tall, 6’6″ Point Guards with some dribbling ability. Less than elite athleticism. Except Ball is far less herky-jerky in his movement, far less awkward. An observation, that holds for Ball’s handle as well. His feel with the basketball is much tighter, more fluid. (You can see the looseness of MCW’s handle in college in the video package above. And you can see some of the differences and similarities between the two players as well.
Lonzo Ball and MCW, Somce Differences and Similarities in Style and Success
For instance, MCW was the more aggressive driver, at least as a sophomore (which is somewhat misleading, because even then MCW was very old for his class). As Freshmen, a fairly low percentage of each player’s shots finish with unassisted makes at the rim. (Not putbacks.) 1 in 10 for MCW. 1 in 12 for Ball.
That is to say, Ball is athletic enough to get into the lane, especially with the help of a screen. He also has a tight enough handle to get there if he takes good angles. This is how this comparison is important, that MCW could win on the screen. And not what happened after. Since the temperaments of MCW and Ball as players are completely different.
And yet the college stats are remarkably similar. It’s just that Ball is much better and more successful, not in small part because he has much better decision-making and that he can make threes. (Per Sports-Reference.com)
I made this table before the end of the Oregon game (and Sports-Reference has yet to alter their stats), but the points remain basically unchanged. We can see decision-making advantages in 2-Pt field goal percentage, and Assist-to-Turnover Rate and Raw Turnovers. While each player’s Assist to Usage Rate is remarkably similar. Right around 1.85.
Most other places, we see slight advantages for Ball, like rebounds, or blocks. Or the fact that Ball has been sneaky good at getting to the line when he drives. (How rarely he shoots from two is the main aspect suppressing his FTr.)
Indeed, MCW’s only significant advantage is in steals. Thus, also in the advanced defensive metrics like DBPM and DRtg. But it would be good to remember that MCW was actually phenomenal through the first part of his Sophomore season, and only really started to consistently show evidence that his warts would ruin him as a player come conference season.
The part of the season Ball has only now just begun.
Here is MCW’s sophomore season through the first game of Conference. We do see the warts for MCW. The handle and sloppy decision-making that causes turnovers. The inability to score from three. But we have yet to see them really affect his success.
Of course, there are several stretches in here that are concerning. The stretch of Arkansas, Easern Michigan and Long Beach State, which is highlighted because it is MCW’s first stretch of inefficient deep shooting accompanied by massive turnover issues. But he’s still doing any number of positive things on the court. Scoring from two. Getting to the line decently. Rebounding. Creating for others. Stealing the ball.
And then there’s of course the Detroit and Temple games that are the first real signs of cracks. What happens when nothing goes right for MCW. And this is more in keeping with the player we see the rest of the season, in which we see his True Shooting Percentage and assist numbers drop and his turnovers and shoddy decision-making errors rise.
That’s something we will have to look out for over the coming few months for Lonzo Ball. I think it’s an important question, not just to identify if the young player has holes in his games he needs to work on, but if he can still be successful vs. tougher competition, despite these holes.
(Though on first look, Lonzo Ball’s worst game of the early season, the Kentucky game which will be referenced below, was still significantly better than the 3-17 stinker MCW had vs. Temple or the 1-6, 6 turnover stinker he had vs. Detroit.)
Why Lonzo Ball Is Not Jason Kidd
We’ve seen this comparison more than a few times. In certain ways, it’s very accurate. 1) Ball’s ability to push the ball in transition, creating fast break opportunities sometimes out of thin air. 2) The complete lack of a mid-range game. 3) The possibility that Ball could be a very effective offensive player even without extreme offensive efficiency from the field. (Not all good to great offensive seasons are made the same way.)
In some ways, it doesn’t make sense at all. Like the fact that no matter what Ball is on offense, he’s probably best as an off-ball defender on D, given not only his strengths in creating events and finish possessions via rebound, but the fact that he’s actually already reasonably good at tracking offensive players around the key, at least when he wants to be, like when he was got switched onto Zak Irvin on Michigan. And secondly, that he’s just not nearly as fast, not nearly the dribbling wizard with the ball in his hand. And he’s certainly not being a dribbling wizard while moving at top speed.
That’s something Jason Kidd could do. Even at a young age at Cal.
It’s an important fact to note, because no team is spending a Top 7 pick on Lonzo Ball and taking the ball out of his hands. It’s not going to happen, even if you believe he’s best as an off-ball player. His potential A+ gift is creating for teammates, raising team efficiency. It makes very little sense not to give Ball every possibility to do so. And yet we shouldn’t expect him to be Jason Kidd:
Just watch the first transition play at around 4 seconds. Kidd steals the ball. At around 5 seconds, he’s around ten feet to cross half court, and the defender already knows he’s toast, even though he conceivably has a more direct angle to the basket. Kidd even lets off the gas at around the three-point line before coasting into the lay-up.
Which may not be the best example of how fast Kidd was in transition, and in general with the ball in his hands when he was younger. A thing many forget. After all, the defender isn’t trying all that hard.
Now fast forward to 0:34. Here we see Kidd steal the ball, not only needing to travel the whole court to score, but to pass three defenders, a couple who have 10-20 feet advantages in their starting positions and more direct angles to the basket. Not only does he clear them all easily, he does so by the opposite three-point line, where the defensive player who was in the best position to stop him merely performs some matador swipe at the ball as Kidd blows by him.
Kidd was insanely fast with the ball in his hands. He’s traveling basically the same speed with the ball as if he were running without it. And that’s true even when he’s performing complex dribbling maneuvers. Look at what happens at 0:52.
Sweet Merciful Crap! Jason Kidd was fucking awesome. The ball was an extension of his body in the way it just isn’t for Ball. At least not yet. And Ball is a very solid dribbler.
He’s just not Jason Kidd. Because when we talk about Jason Kidd we’re not only talking about complex dribbling maneuvers, we’re talking about complex dribbling maneuvers performed at speed.
Now Look at Lonzo Ball
To note the difference, just look at the sequence that begins around 2:00 in this highlight sequence from Lonzo Ball’s first game:
Steal at around the foul line. Weakside passing lane interception, very reminiscent of a play Jason Kidd would make.
Ball then barely clears the first defender, who has to shift his momentum in the opposite direction, then has to shield him with his body, accidentally trips him before another defender comes over to contest the lay-up and fouls Ball. (If that player in the NBA is Lebron not only is this not a foul, it’s probably a transition opportunity in the other direction.)
You remember when Jason Kidd steals the ball and the defender has to change his momentum in the other direction, even if he has 10-15 feet of an advantage on Kidd, that the play is already over in Kidd’s favor. Now let’s look at this play by Ball. We’re just talking orders of magnitude difference in both raw speed, and the ability to dribble without slowing down.
That’s not to say Ball can’t still be good. I think he can be.
However, there are reasons that blindly comparing the entirety of Ball’s game to Jason Kidd is probably not the right way to go. And that’s true of comparing Ball to any one player.
He’s just pretty unique. Ball control creation artists with enough athleticism to run NBA PnR don’t come along all that often. John Stockton, Terry Porter, Doc Rivers, Mark Jackson, and Andre Miller are some of the greats in this lineage.
Most guys that play like Ball play like him because they don’t have the athleticism to do otherwise. (Think T.J. McConnell.) That’s not the case for Ball. Even more than that, there are legitimate reasons to compare Lonzo Ball’s passing ability to that of John Stockton, which we’ll get to in Part 2.
Of course, I’m not saying he’s that good. It’s a bit premature. But Ball may be the only player I’ve seen, besides John Stockton, who consistently manipulates defensive players to create passing windows with what seem like otherwise innocuous dribbling movements. In addition to that, the timing on some of the assist opportunities he creates is very reminiscent of Stockton.
There’s a play I’ll highlight where Ball releases a pass for an assist before the screen that frees the player is even set. Now compare that type of intuition to a player like Dennis Smith, Jr., who has a chance to be great at the next level, and you begin to understand what Ball does is potentially really special.
Everyone knows today’s NBA offenses are heavily based on PnR. Of course, because of this fact, Ball is likely to find himself in an offense based out of the pick and role. So then the question is, “Can Lonzo Ball win on a screen at the NBA level?”
Based on what I’ve seen, the answer is almost certainly yes. We’ll address this more below, but at the very least, this is a question any NBA team will be able to answer in private workouts.
If Ball can’t win there , there’s no discussion. He’s not a primary initiator. However, if Ball can win on screens, what happens next just becomes a question of decision-making. When to make a pass. What type of pass to make. When to keep the ball and press your own advantage. When to reset the offense.
At the very least, we should all agree, decision-making is a strength of Lonzo Ball.
One Average NBA Athlete Who Is Very Successful
George Hill. Now I don’t want to make a stylistic comparison. These are very different players. I do want to point out that George Hill has been very successful in running offense recently, including PnR sets. And I do also want to point out that George Hill is neither super quick side-to-side, nor a dribbling wizard like Steve Nash.
Here is one rather inelegant example from last year’s conference finals, that nevertheless, still works.
And here are George Hill’s advanced numbers over the last three years, as he has taken on more lead role.
The Problem For Lonzo Ball
The main cited deficit for Lonzo Ball is his lack of unassisted baskets at the rim. I’m not so sure that’s an issue, and we’ll get to why below. However, Cole Zwicker makes this point about Ball’s mid-range jumpers:
“But there are shooting concerns there. His form being Kevin-Martinesque doesn’t allow for a lot of contorting in pull-up situations. He’s not going to make those tough one footed fall-away jumpers off the dribble like a Steve Nash because his form doesn’t allow him to shoot in that manner when he’s not set and he’s moving to the right.”
So how has Ball gotten around this issue? So far Ball has just eschewed the shots entirely. Seven on the season. One of which he’s made.
The one notable exception was vs. Kentucky, in Ball’s first game vs. higher level athletes, in which we did see him get stuck in this mid-range area.
At 2:20 of this video is one particularly good example. (Here’s another place where Ginobili is much better. Unbelievable ability to finish in traffic.)
A Difference Between the College and Pro Game
Except I do point out one difference between the pro and college game, which also happens to be the reason, at least a decent percentage of the time, that Ball didn’t try to take Kentucky’s Bigs off the dribble. Look at how compact the college floor is.
Just look at every play Mike Schmitz takes in the half court. (Thank you for the video. Obviously, DraftExpress.) I think there’s maybe one play where there aren’t two, three or even four Kentucky defenders either in or straddling the paint. The NBA is not like that, at least not if you play on a team that can space the court with jump shooters (and it makes no sense to play Ball otherwise, since that’s where he brings you an advantage, in consistently generating higher percentage looks for your shooters than they would otherwise see.)
A Visual Way To Understand the Difference
T. J. McConnell highlight packages. I know what you are saying, highlights? You’re talking about highlights?
Yes, I’m talking about highlights. And yes, I’m talking about McConnell.
Not just because we could say that Lonzo Ball is a taller, skinnier, more athletic McConnell with even better vision, and greater comfort shooting threes both on the ball and off the catch. But because there’s a reason that McConnell was able to take his strengths, the ability to keep his dribble alive and the willingness to find the open man, and turn them into legitimate strengths in the NBA on more than a few occasions during his still nascent career.
This despite the fact that he is now going up against the best athletes in the world. And I’ll argue it’s in large part because of the relative openness of the NBA game, even when a player is on the Sixers, and oft surrounded by players of limited shooting ability.
Just watch this tape. It’s not so much important what T.J. McConnell does in the highlights. Just look at the lane. The only time there’s less than two defenders in the lane is on the inbounds pass after a made bucket. And this is versus multiple teams and across multiple games. It’s just mostly the way college basketball is played.
Now watch an equivalent highlight package in the NBA. This one from T.J. McConnell’s best game of a disappointing sophomore year. Against the Pistons. McConnell scores 12, with 10 rebounds and 9 assists.
You can watch the full thing. Or if you want, you can just start 0:50. Notice at that time-stamp, there’s four or five plays in a row in which not only are there zero Pistons players in the lane when the play is initiated, there’s also zero Pistons players below the free throw line. Play after play after play.
And there are other versions of an empty lane later in the video, at 2:25 for instance. Here Ilyasova curls out to the three-point line, which results in a a defensive switch. Now the bigger, slower Harris is on McConnell. Behind him, nothing. 15 feet of open space with three defenders standing basically on the baseline.
End result. Lay-up.
Now that’s a play Ball can and will make every time. Even if the opponent had better help defenders waiting for him. That just changes the play from lay-up to a pass for an even more high percentage look. And with Ball making the pass, almost certainly either a lay-up or a three.
PnR and the Mid-Range (Continued)
The other point I wanted to make earlier, as it pertains to the Kentucky video, is that consistent PnR, which allows for the Point Guard to temporarily dislodge his defender without supreme speed and quickness, might actually help Ball, rather than hurt him. Especially in an open game, which most of Ball’s game is built for.
The one part of the game that is however potentially unsustainable is the lack of a mid-range Jumper.
It’s at the very least concerning. Because almost every PG who plays in the NBA has to take them and make them at some point. And a total lack of such shots might indicate that Ball’s current form makes it potentially difficult, if not near impossible, to hit pull-ups in traffic.
Thus, if an opposing defense can figure out how to force Ball into a steady diet of available mid-range jumpers, some of which, due to a diminishing 24 second shot clock, he’ll almost certainly have to shoot, they can effectively put him in a box.
Lonzo Ball and the Swiss-Army Knife Big, or At Least the Big That Can Shoot A Jump Shot
Considering Ball’s strengths and weaknesses off the PnR, the only viable way to put Ball in this box is by chasing Ball over the top of the screen and dropping your defensive big. And really, besides switching, that might be the best play against Ball anyway.
At 6’6″, Ball’s big for a point guard. Beyond that, he’s blessed with such elite awareness and is so good with the pass that any kind of trapping or hedging by anything less than a Garnett-level defender risks being cut apart by the pass. We’ll get to it below, when we look at how Ball uses his dribbling to create windows, but doubling Ball in any way plays into all of his strengths. You overload on Ball in any way, I’ll bet he finds a way to exploit what you give him.
And the same goes for trying to defend the roll man with a big-to-big rotation. If you’re timing’s not perfect, I bet Ball catches you. And I bet he catches you sometimes when your timing is perfect.
So let’s say a team eschews switching, perhaps because they don’t have a Draymond Green, who conceivably might be able to hang with Ball off the dribble, or perhaps they have a Tim Duncan defending the screen, who was so adept at dropping in this coverage, he could effectively shunt the initiator’s drive and defend the pass to his man at the same time.
It’s a neat trick. One big effectively guards to men, while the primary defender recovers. What does that leave? It leaves a mid-range jump shot. Right there in that gap between where the drive is cut off and the primary defender recovers. And we know that’s a shot Ball is going to turn down unless he has to take it.
How do we solve that issue? The easiest way is by playing Ball alongside a big who can shoot a jump shot, thus making the drop ineffective. Since there’s now too much space for one defender, no matter how great, to guard two men. You know, like Chris Bosh and why he was such a boon for Miami. Or better yet, like Draymond Green or Paul Millsap.
Then how you are defending Ball on the screen? With Ball as a passer, you might be in a switch-or-die situation, at least if Ball’s off the dribble shooting from deep holds up.
(If it doesn’t, it won’t be because of a lack of range, but many have argued that the release might make for difficult sledding against better defenders. (I think a more pertinent issue is the likelihood that an NBA team tries to mess with Ball’s shot before we get to see if it works. But we’ll get to that in Part 2.)
For now we are talking about Versatile Big Men. Specifically in the case Ball’s shot holds up off the dribble at the NBA level. In that scenario, Lonzo Ball and the Swiss-Army Knife Big means something different. Draymond Green, Paul Millsap, maybe Bender if he continues to progress.
It may take a year or two for Ball to get used to this way of playing, but in the scenario that Ball can shoot from 30 feet off the dribble, there aren’t that many true Fours I can imagine staying with Ball and not ultimately being exploited in some serious way to the offense’s advantage. But what may decide if Ball is a good player or a great one is if he can figure out how to beat more athletic Bigs on switches.
There’s two ways to do so. Either Ball’s going to have to find a way to win against these players, at least occasionally, in ISO situations. Or he’s going to have to rely on his teammates. As the other way around this problem is to find a way to exploit the Small-Guarding-Big mismatch the switch creates. Which is another reason why it’s perhaps going to be important that Ball is paired with an offensively skilled Big man or two.
Embiid-Simmons. Horford, or even Crowder, if Boston goes small. Karl-Anthony Towns. Dragan Bender, if he develops. Anthony Davis. Nikola Jokic. DeMarcus Cousins. Which is to say, most, but not quite all of the likely top 10, present good fits in this regard.
Elite Offensive Seasons Without Mid-Range Success
Or, evidence that this is one area of the game in which Lonzo Ball and Jason Kidd might be very similar.
We’ve begun to address this issue above. Ball might not have much of mid-range game. And since it’s hard to imagine Ball have much success in this part of the floor right now, there is one legitimate question we can ask regarding Ball:
Have there been any elite NBA offensive seasons in which the player has not had mid-range success. And for argument’s sake, let’s define elite as approaching a +4 ORPM or +4 OBPM. But also acknowledging that BPM heavily penalizes low Usage players, I’ll include such low Usage seasons I strongly suspect would have been approaching a +4 ORPM.
This is a good cut-off, since a +4 Offensive Season will almost always put a player in the top 20 in the league if they are just average on defense. And with any kind of defensive impact, either on or off ball, or even perhaps in finishing possessions on the glass, this kind of season will likely put the player in the Top 10 players in the league.
Here we have a table of most, if not almost all, of the supremely positive offensive seasons since the year 2000 that lack mid-range success. What you’ll notice is a bunch of different kinds of players. Some a little like Ball in potential style of play. Some not like Ball at all.
1) One thing we notice is more than a few seasons authored by Lebron. It turns out you can be amazing shooting a ton of shots from the mid-range to not very great effect. On that note, there’s also a couple of season from Westbrook, before he became quite the Westbrook we know now. A single season each by Wade, Kobe, Billups and Allen. More than a few from Baron Davis.
Then a season by Rudy Fernandez that might be instructive to how Ball can be valuable, since it’s not difficult to him imagine Ball putting up a more valuable version of his 2008-2009 season. A season with positive shooting and more on-ball value.
And of course, more than a few seasons by Jason Kidd, in both his Jersey and Dallas incarnations. In the former he couldn’t make a basket outside the lane, in the latter, he couldn’t miss from three.
2) Yes, I do think BPM significantly underrates some low Usage seasons. Specifically the kind that Jason Kidd, Rudy Fernandez or Draymond Green put up, which are extremely positive from the field, especially from deep, and accompanied by high assist percentages. These are the kinds of players that sometimes allow for truly great success on offense, since it’s impossible for every player on a team to use lots of possessions. Especially considering that most players in the NBA provide most of their offensive value by their ability to score.
3) Yes, I also think BPM overrates USG and if it really wants to find a closer approximation to offensive value, several changes are going to have to be made. One, they are going to have to remove USG from the equation. Firstly, using USG, especially when you penalize players with low USG rates, is like giving players positive credit for turning the ball over and missing shots, since turnovers and missed shots are a large part of USG.
Now, it doesn’t matter if you try to make up for it by subtracting value in other places in the equation. Just cognitively, it doesn’t make sense that a formula meant to model the game at a certain point asserts that turnovers and missed field goals are actually positive events.
For instance, it’s very likely that Jason Kidd’s late career seasons in Dallas are graded with higher value if Jason Kidd takes more FGA and sees a decrease in efficiency, but I find it very unlikely that this would indeed make him a better player or a more productive one in the context of those Mavericks’ offensive units.
The way around this is to model the specific shooting data that we have. Most players add value when they shoot at the rim, from three or get to the free through line. Some few like Chris Paul, Kawhi Leonard, Chris Bosh, Lebron in his best seasons, Dwyane Wade, Kobe, Ray Allen, Kevin Garnett or even Jason Terry (deadly mid-range guy for almost his entire career) almost certainly hit mid-range jumpers at values far exceeding the worst three-pointers an NBA team can take.
Yet that is not the case for these seasons here. The rate that the field goals go in barely exceed the worst three-point shots available. What are most of these guys at in these seasons? 33% 35%? Now let’s say we have a bad three-point shooter shooting the ball at 25% on a semi-contested late clock? That’s still ultimately a win unless the player taking these mid-range shots is getting fouled on these shots or in the actions that take him into the shot.
It’s a win, with but one possible exception that it would be worthwhile to study: If mid-range makes and misses are better for defensive efficiency than three-point makes and misses? And if so, at what efficiency is the cut-off?
Still, BPM is not accounting for that factor. And I don’t see much of an argument, ultimately, to treating all shots as if they are the same. In limited study I’ve done of assists and assist opportunities so far, I know that not all passes are the same. So please, take blunt force metrics like this with some grain of salt.
They are useful. But even less than they are in baseball, in which our ability to categorize and understand the disparate events that make up the game is far greater, are they answers to the really important questions.
4) Okay, now we have that only tangentially related diatribe out of the way. (It’s related because it helps us understand one way in which Ball might be underrated by boxscore metrics both now and down the line.)
5) I will say it’s interesting that some players in the last 16 years have definitely been able to limit the amount of mid-range shots they took and have still remained quite successful offensive players.
From Draymond Green, later career Jason Kidd, Rudy Fernandez, Baron Davis and Ginobili to Damian Lillard, Kemba Walker, recent Lebron and somewhat less spry Kyle Lowry.
6) Others like mid-career Jason Kidd, early Lebron James and a handful of seasons from disparate all-time greats just have very productive seasons where they aren’t actually very efficient at scoring from this range, despite the fact they make up a decent amount of their overall shot totals.
And in every one of these seasons, besides the one in which Iverson averages 10 mid-range misses a game, we’re talking less than 3.5 made baskets a game.
7) 3.5 made baskets. In some cases, only one or two. And even in those seasons, we’re talking about real quality seasons, with OBPMs between 3.5 and 6.
8) James Harden, who for some reason I didn’t look at when making the table, has two such seasons that are even better by OBPM, and just as bad if not worse than any of these players from the mid-range.
2012-2013. 5.4 OBPM. 33% of his 17 shots a game from the mid-range. Right around 30% overall from this area.
2014-2015. 7.4 OBPM. 30% of his 18 shots a game from the mid-range. Again right around 5.5 mid-range attempts a game. Though this time (just from eyeballing it) he’s at about 36-38% from these mid-range areas.
9) Obviously teams have to take some mid-range shots. Obviously some player has to take them. But as a long as a player passes them up early in the clock, which I think Ball will be inclined to do, it’s very possible this won’t be a huge problem that limits Ball’s value.
In a late clock situation, if Ball is ever good enough to be a key piece on a championship team, there’s sure to be another scorer on the team that can manage to find a decent look. (For instance, Golden State has around five of them. Durant, Curry, Green, Thompson, Iguodola, Livingston, and maybe even Ian Clark. Cleveland has at least three. Lebron, Kyrie, Love.) Even in that scenario, I’m not so sure that a step-back three from Lonzo Ball from 30-35 feet isn’t the better play. Given that his three-point percentages hold.
10) Which is to say, Ball, for most of the season has exhibited both excellent decision-making and shot selection. We might expect that it will change if we put a lot of weight on the Kentucky game. But it’s also highly possible that Ball was pressing because that was the biggest game of his career.
Regardless of what the formulas say, I’m of the opinion that players who pass up even decent to good shots for better shots tend to make their teams better. And we know with Ball, who sometimes starts the play only for the assist to end up in someone else’s pocket, that not all the credit goes to him. (Yes, some players are definitely better than others at creating secondary assists.)
One Reason To Imagine Ball Using More Possessions as He Grows Into His Game
It’s pretty easy to imagine Ball getting his Usage consistently up into that 20-27% Range as having the ability to shoot off dribble, shoot off movement and attack the defense off the dribble to effect is a pretty rare combination. And it’s a combination that could make Ball hard to defend. Since different defensive skills are needed to guard a man at the Point-of-attack and when chasing a defender around screens. And not all defenders, even sometimes quite good ones, are good at both.
Indeed, this is an advantage Steph Curry has that is rarely brought up. He’s one of the few NBA point guards that is wholly comfortable as an off-ball player. Not just playing off the ball and being stationary. But really moving, running around screens in order to find a shot.
MCW At His Best and How It Might Relate to Ball
Back to MCW. Why? Because we’re going investigate Ball’s lack of a mid-range game from a lot of different angles.
Here we have MCW’s best ten game span of his career. Ten games, or nearly ten games, at the end of his rookie year that made every Sixers fan optimistic that he might be learning how to play his game, his one true game, suited to his strengths and mitigating his weaknesses.
That is to say, we saw a ten game stretch in which MCW basically stopped shooting threes, stopped shooting mid-range jump shots, and stopped driving needlessly into danger areas of the court. Almost every shot was at the rim. And if there was no shot available at the rim or if a better shot from a teammate was available, then we saw a pass.
Here’s what that looks like in box-score form.
Now that’s pretty good. There’s some inconsistency of course. A couple of bad games, but shooting 52.5% from the field for half a month, while averaging 5.6 FTA a game, 7.5 rebounds, and 6.4 assists and 17.6 points per game is not that bad.
That’s just with MCW actually giving up on shots he can’t make and passing them onto his teammates. It’s not an attribute we openly celebrate from our great players, so we don’t see that many great players who play like this. Steve Nash was one (though he could make almost anything). John Stockton (also a great scorer). Andre Iguodola was another. Late career Jason Kidd still another. And early/mid-career Jason Kidd almost certainly would have been had he been fortunate enough to play with teammates who could shoot the ball. (ala the Olympics.)
I think there’s some reason to believe that Lonzo Ball could be this type of player, in which case we might see lots of shots at the rim and from three and not much else. And also a Usage Percentage possibly shy of 20%.
If Ball Remains Around 17-20% Usage, What Kind of Value Can We Expect?
Of course we don’t know if Ball’s Usage will ever take off. It’s highly possible, in this regard at least, Ball is who he is. If that’s the case, perhaps we should ask if there have been any star level offensive performances in low Usage seasons. Then beyond that, to ask how these players are similar and different from Ball.
(From Basketball-Reference.com. Again with any player approaching a +4 season defined as Star Level.)
I’m just going to let this list stand. It’s pretty definitive. I’ll just say two things.
First, there’s two kinds of players that make this list and then Cedric Maxwell. (He was really, really good and very much underrated.)
The other two kinds of players are all either pass-happy point guards who had some ability to score in valuable areas of the court. Or exceptional Wing shooters who could score on movement. Of all these players, besides Brent Barry and Jeff Hornacek, Lonzo Ball could be the only one who becomes both.
Second, Brent Barry is another interesting comparison as a tall player who could dribble, pass, and score from deep. Brent Barry was of course much more athletic vertically, but laterally, I’m not sure they’re so different. Of course, Brent Barry’s greatest season, 2001-2002, might be the best mid-range shooting season by a perimeter player in NBA history. But he was still super effective later in his career as an off-ball three-point assassin who could pass really well for that role. And his passing ability isn’t anywhere close to what Ball’s is.
Which is to say, if we’re saying Ball is definitively not worth a Top 5 pick because of upside, we have some funny ideas of the kind of value a typical Top 5 pick brings. Considering offense and defense, there are at least three or four avenues for Ball to put up that kind of value. (Most aren’t that successful.) If he’s successful at all of them, he’s an all-time great.
Maybe he doesn’t succeed in conference play. We’ll see. So far he’s been pretty good.
Now onto Part 2.