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.