I have already written why I believe Lonzo Ball has immense upside as a possible transcendent NBA star. But for his upside to be attained, he needs to not have any major obstacles in his path that offset his strengths. In this article I will look for a negative comparison to see if there are any frightening signals in Ball’s performance thus far that should cause any assessment of his upside to be skewed downward.
A common narrative on basketball twitter is that Lonzo Ball cannot create offense for himself, and we should be extremely worried about it. The best way to assess the validity of this narrative is to look at historical pass first point guard prospects who struggled to score. Let’s start by making a list of guards drafted in the top 10 during the lottery era who were better at passing than scoring:
That’s a pretty good list, as there are few busts and many of these players were as good or better than their drafting teams hoped. The first lesson to be gleaned is that it’s rare for pass first PG’s to be badly overrated in the draft. But there is the occasional Trey Burke or Kris Dunn, so let’s dive further and see how these players compared to Lonzo as freshmen. Stats are pace adjusted per 40, with an * for the players that are not pace adjusted due to lack of pace data:
If there is a signal for disappointment it likely comes in assist rate. Dunn and Burke come in at the bottom as the two biggest busts.
Dunn was a completely disaster all around as a freshman, and was even worse in 4 games as a sophomore before finally putting it together as a junior. Trey Burke never had natural point guard skills, and was also plagued by his diminutive size and poor athleticism. Neither of them can be seen as pertinent comps for Lonzo.
Next– where are the scoring flags for Lonzo? Raw point totals are not precise measures of creation ability, but he has easily the highest eFG% on the list and could easily have the highest scoring rate if he attempted more inefficient shots. Based on how basketball twitter rails on his lack of scoring, you would expect him to be dead last on the list. Yet here he is with the best scoring stats of the bunch.
Also let’s take a moment to appreciate that to match Jason Kidd’s freshman offensive output, Ball would merely need to add a truckload of bricks and turnovers to his profile.
Forget Creating Shots, Let’s Talk About Making Them!
On average, the high eFG% prospects panned out well, with Paul, Conley, and Miller all providing great values for their slots. Jason Williams is the only questionable one. But he was a 20 year old freshman playing for mid-major Marshall, only 6’1″, and seemed more in tune with making mixtape highlights than racking up efficient attempts for his teammates. And he still had a still has 71% percentile career win shares for all time #7 overall picks, which is rather good for the most negative example of the bunch.
Perhaps people should be less worried about Ball’s lack of elite creation and more impressed with his outlier ability to never miss.
Speaking of missing shots– this chart excludes Ricky Rubio, who never played NCAA basketball. Rubio struggles to score simply because he cannot convert shots from any part of the court, and he has been plagued by a career of low usage and horrific eFG%. Yet he is still considering a good point guard. Even if Ball does not measure up defensively, his passing and shotmaking ability completely dwarf those of Rubio, and I would say that a more offensively gifted (and overall better) version of Rubio is his absolute floor.
Reaching Deeper For Comps
Outside of the top 10 you are looking at talent that is badly dwarfed by Ball, but it is still difficult to find any sign that an elite passer who can make shots busts. I am not going to be as comprehensive here, just going to offer a balanced list of players who offer both positive and negative outcomes. Also not pace adjusted for anybody but Lonzo, and I used career stats for all:
I included Kendall Williams and Marcus Williams because they are players with outlier assist rates who busted. But you can see that Williams had a horrible eFG%, and Williams had a horrible scoring output with a mediocre eFG%. They provide examples of what REAL scoring flags look like, and you can see Lonzo is light years ahead of them.
And some non-scorers don’t fall on their face: Muggsy Bogues shows that you can have serious scoring flags and still have an NBA career at 5’3″ if you are good enough at creating for teammates and avoiding mistakes.
This chart agrees with my earlier theory that Lonzo’s shot making deserves more love. The three best slot values in Stockton, Nash, and Mark Jackson all had the best eFG%’s of the group, and the brickiest players busted the hardest.
Given the way some people talk about Ball’s scoring flags, you would think that there would be SOME historic comp that offers a scary downside scenario. But there’s nothing there. Scoring is the most easily quantified statistic, and there is no example of a pass first point guard who has busted without having a scoring output that is light years inferior to that of Ball.
This analysis does not completely assuage concerns, as a significant portion of his scoring comes off the ball or in transition. Further, his 43% 3P% may not be sustainable. Some of the better NBA players may have had some offensive advantages that are not directly perceptible by simply looking at the numbers. But he passes the negative comp test so comfortably, it is difficult to see how his limited creation could prove debilitating.
If anything this analysis suggests that he has an outlier scoring edge in his completely awesome eFG%. I believe this deserves more attention than his lack of high scoring volume. After all, his scant attempts at creating have been highly efficient– perhaps he would assuage creation concerns if he was not such a genius at avoiding low quality attempts.
Ball’s strengths are clearly elite. His basketball IQ is through the roof, he makes insanely difficult passes with pinpoint precision, he has made 43% of his 3PA with most coming from NBA range, and his physical profile is stellar for a player with his combination of skill and smarts. He has limitations in his game much like every other prospect, but where is the evidence that they remotely weigh as heavy as his positive strengths?
Putting too much emphasis on Ball’s weaknesses qualifies as getting lost in details. It is akin to arguing that a beautiful woman is not attractive because she has pointy elbows– it’s great that you noticed a flaw, but giving this flaw too much attention is only going to lead to faulty conclusions. The bottom line is that Lonzo oozes star potential, and there is no quantifiable signal that suggests he has serious downside risk. He is probably going to be awesome, and I cannot fathom that it is correct to draft any prospect other than Markelle Fultz ahead of him.
One thought – is Rubio truly a worse passer than Lonzo, or does his total inability to score at any level cannibalize his playmaking? Teams completely play him to pass, which hurts his potentially high-level passing vision. Watching many possessions with Rubio, it seems as though his man is playing way off him until he drives.
Of course it doesn’t appears that’s an issue with Lonzo (who clearly has no fear of shooting open jumpers). At the very worst Ball is Chauncey Billups with superior passing, no?
Ball’s passing is so outlier good it is safe to assume that most players are worse. Even if Rubio is actually as good but it is only dampened by his inability to score, he is still inferior in practice.
I like the Billups comp since he is such a good shot maker. I feel like there are just so many good PG’s that it is easy to see Lonzo becoming a + version of, which is probably a good sign.
I’m honestly a little confused by the purpose of this article, Dean. You’ve spent three years arguing about the risks of missing on upside, but don’t address that particular argument in this piece, instead focusing on the safety of picking Ball.
There is, generally, broad consensus that there is little downside risk in selecting Ball, as you’ve shown. But that, on its own, doesn’t justify consideration for the #1 pick in this draft.
The worry with his creation isn’t simply whether he will be able to score efficiently– again, the most widely-held view is optimistic that he will be able to, including that of many of his skeptics, myself included. The worry is how he will be able to serve as a superstar offensive lynchpin without a proven ability to create shots for himself. That’s a wholly different concern from whether he’ll be able to score efficiently, and one which you haven’t addressed here at all.
You and I are in agreement that the point of the draft is to provide yourself an opportunity at stars that are difficult to attain in any other way. There are essentially two ways to provide that value– outlier elite offensive ability paired with neutral to slight positive defense (Steph, Harden, Lowry, Westbrook, Durant), outlier defensive ability paired with neutral to positive offense (Duncan, Shaq, Robinson, Embiid). If you’re elite on both sides, you’re LBJ and in the running for greatest player ever.
The criticism with Lonzo is that it’s difficult to envision *how* he provides that value without an enormous increase in his self-creation ability. Given his struggles guarding the PnR and average defensive tools, he’s unlikely to be a large plus on that end. Therefore, to reach a legitimate superstar upside, it is incumbent upon his offense to be elite, and in order for that to happen, he needs to create more shots than 28-footers. Otherwise he’ll lack the ceiling that is the entire purpose of a top overall pick.
There’s a legitimate argument to be made that Jackson, Tatum, and Smith all do too, and that he is therefore a justified second overall selection in spite of his warts. But that’s not the argument that you’re making here. You’ve instead argued against a view that few people have without addressing the real concerns.
I may have presented this poorly if this is how you interpreted this. Maybe I’ll add a paragraph at the top to make the point clearer. But I’ll walk you through my logic
1) I already have a long writeup and many tweets about Ball about why I believe he has outlier upside. Don’t need to re-hash these.
2) Downside isn’t just about bust risk– it also diminishes upside. For instance Lonzo can have all of the smarts + passing ability in the world, but if he was 5’9″ with a broken shot it is hard to argue that it provides an elite upside tail.
3) The point of this writeup is to show that other great PG’s such as Kidd, Paul, Nash, Stockton did not show incredible scoring ability that Lonzo has failed to display. So how can you argue that his lack of creation disqualifies him from having an elite upside tail if there is no evidence that past star pass first PG’s scored drastically more?
So my main point is that there is no MAJOR obstacle getting in the way of attaining his upside. His lack of creation is some obstacle, but relatively minor in my book. I just don’t see the quantifiable evidence that it precludes him from becoming an all time great.
Points 1 and 2 are fair enough, although I do think there is some reality to the idea that Russell Westbrook (and, in a similar vein, DSJ) has both a low downside and a high upside.
My main issue with your argument is the complete dismissal of creation limiting his upside. I can agree that it doesn’t prevent him from having utility, but none of the PG’s in question prove that it can’t impact his upside. Kidd was an all-time elite PG defender; so is Paul, who is also one of the best mid-range shooters in history; Stockton is the all-time steals leader; Nash was arguably the GOAT off-the-dribble shooter pre-Curry. Lonzo doesn’t project to be that kind of defender or shooter.
So perhaps there is some validity to your point that a PG doesn’t necessarily need to be a high volume self-creator, despite the current trend of the league. But the larger take-away for me from the pool of players you’ve provided is that they *also* need to provide elite ability in some other area.
A secondary takeaway would be that these players–sans Paul, also the highest volume self-creator– all were best-served as second bananas on contenders, rather than primary superstars. Neither of these takeaways reinforce the idea that his creation wart is a minor obstacle.
It also ignores the degree to which he is an outlier in these categories. Obviously, Hoop-Math doesn’t exist for the older players you mention, but JZ showed conclusively that he’s an extreme outlier in Rim FG’s, both assisted or unassisted. FTr is obviously a flawed way of capturing this, but you can see here, too, that even the low volume PG’s you mention (except for Nash) got to the line at a far higher rate than Lonzo does, suggesting they were more aggressive attacking the rim.
Stockton (CBB career): .472
Freshman FTA/40 (unadjusted & obviously UCLA plays very fast):
There’s real utility in being able to probe and pressure a defense and in providing a threat to score in a variety of ways even if you don’t score often. The first 3 clearly did the former to a greater degree than Ball, and Nash clearly did the latter to a greater degree. I don’t think we can simply dismiss that as being imperative to the success of these players.
A counterargument might be that because of the demonstrated high IQ of these players, it was always likely they would figure some of this out, and Lonzo is likely to do so as well. But I suspect it is not the more likely outcome given his existing deficit in these areas.
Anyway, those are my bones to pick with your standing assessment. Still love your work and you think about this stuff differently than almost anyone else does, which introduces a worthwhile, unique perspective to the conversation. I just don’t know if you’re engaging with the counterarguments fully on this one.
I’m doing my best to fully engage with the counterarguments. I may seem dismissive is because I had already poked through the stats I posted in this writeup and felt that there was nothing really too off-putting. But I’m always happy to hear counterpoints, because I don’t want to miss anything key.
Re: FT rate— VJL has mentioned that it has poor NBA translation when Wiggins was racking them up. It can be a flag if it’s exceptionally low (see: Deyonta Davis), but Lonzo’s isn’t THAT bad. But let’s count it as a non-trivial data point nevertheless:
When stacking him up numerically he is head and shoulders above the competition in 3 key areas: height, eFG%, and AST:TOV rate.
He is also toward the bottom but not dead last in 3 other areas: FT%, STL%, and FT rate.
To approximate magnitude of goodness/badness, let’s measure how many sigmas above/below average he is relative to this group of 5 for each category:
He is more of a positive outlier in his good areas than he is negative in the bad areas
IMO the 3 good areas are collectively higher leverage than the weaker ones. FTr isn’t proven to be a big signal, and his FT% is still a small sample with HS/AAU data suggesting it will improve. STL% is his only real flag and compared to regular PG prospect it’s pretty good.
Taken in collective, I hope you can see why he skews positive in comparison to the point gods in my mind.
IMO he is clearly most similar to Nash bc Nash has the same concerns w/ even lower FT and steal rates and they both love to push pace. Nash’s big edge is FT%, and yes it is possible that Ball never matches Nash’s shooting greatness. But even if he doesn’t, he still isn’t THAT far behind (Nash never shot volume), and he will likely make up for it with his much lower TOV rate. And then when you factor in the physical and D advantages, it’s just really hard to see him being WORSE than Nash but easy to see him being better.
So I do consider the counterarguments to be valid to some extent, but this may give you some insight as to why I don’t care nearly as much about them as other people. Maybe I am wrong, let me know if you think there are any flaws in my analysis.
Thanks for responding, dude. Was in DC the last two days so I’m only getting around to this now.
A couple thoughts, without any real structure to them:
1. I definitely think he is statistically most similar to Nash. Aesthetically, the comp isn’t there at all for me (a lot of which is off the dribble stuff), but if it’s a better comp now that I’ve dived in a bit than I initially gave it credit for.
I disagree about it being hard to see Lonza becoming worse than Nash– Nash was really good! But a poor man’s Nash with better D is still very impactful, which you’ve decidedly sold me on.
2. Some disagreement is probably due to the importance we’re placing on the relative strengths and weaknesses you mention. A fair middle would probably presume that I’m not weighing the importance of his outlier AST:TO and eFG/TS correctly, while you may be underselling the impact of his (lack of) aggression.
Interesting point from VJL– do you know if he controlled for USG% at all? I would guess that a lot of the stats that he showed have poor correlation would be more correlated if we could include a usage component, but it’s purely an untested hypothesis on my part.
3. I’m not placing a ton of value on Lonzo’s height. I think we’ve both made the point that tools matter most in that players are able to effectively utilize them. It’s part of the issue with Wiggins– who cares if you’ve got a 45″ vertical if your rebound rate is sub-7%?
It certainly matters in that Lonzo can shoot over small defenders, play above the rim off two feet, see over the D, and accrues an outlier-y number of blocks. But I also think that’s represented in everything else we’re seeing in his profile. I wouldn’t overly credit him for his height beyond that.
4. As I’ve thought about this more, you’ve sold me on scoring being less of a necessity for outstanding pass-first PG’s than I initially thought. I do think they need to supplement it with an additional strength, but your point is valid. It will be interesting to see where he looks likely to add a skill like that.
I haven’t had a chance to watch yet, but it sounds like he had a very good game yesterday, too. Excited to give it a watch. Thanks for the chat, this has been enjoyable for me.
Re: FT rate, he didn’t really elaborate but it makes sense that players who bully physically inferior NCAA defenses will often have shaky translation. But on the flipped, an exceptionally low FT rate may indicate a lack of toughness and frequent shying from contact. Overall I would say that Lonzo’s FT rate is a minor flag stating the obvious that he does not put much pressure on the rim and is thus heavily dependent on his passing, shooting, and ability to avoid mistakes.
I think height is an underrated tool, especially for PG’s. Just not that many all time greats < 6'6". Of course it means little in a vacuum, but being high on his skill/smarts it makes a world of difference that he is 6'6" vs 6'3" or less. Given how CP3 statistically dominates everybody 6'5" and under in NBA history with his overpowered assist:TOV (among other qualities where he is superior to Ball, but this is the area where he stands out as outlier). It is worth wondering if Lonzo can be even more dominant as more non-elite scorers have achieved greatness than players 6'0" and under. I mean look at Tyus Jones– guy was an elite recruit who was great in NCAA and slid to late 1st bc he is just 6'2". I imagine this is a big reason why traditional scouts have an easy time embracing Lonzo yet took guys like Marvin + Deron ahead of CP.
Glad you are coming around. It's always nice to have an intelligent discussion where we can consider each other's input to arrive closer to the truth. I appreciate the skeptical input as well, as I don't want to get too excited without carefully considering the flaws. I had a nice time chatting about this too!
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Great write up. With the season concluded, would there be any new weaknesses or additional concerns with Ball?
No, I am fairly convinced that he is the best prospect in the draft. Weaknesses are there but they are not nearly as debilitating as his strengths are excellent