Lonzo Ball has drawn massive hype as an NBA prospect, as he is now in the conversation for the #1 overall pick in spite of Markelle Fultz’s existence. He has become a polarizing figure on basketball twitter as some perceive him as Basketball Jesus, whereas others see him as a non-deity who cannot create his own shot at the rim or play defense.
It is common to evaluate prospects based on which boxes they check off, and Lonzo is considered a big risk through this lens. Neither his handle nor first step is elite, and he rarely creates his own shot at the rim. And while he is shooting 43% from 3, his 68% FT’s and low release on his jumper raise concerns for his ability to consistently make NBA 3’s. And because he is a non-elite athlete who struggles to defend at the point of attack, we are left with a point guard who cannot get to the rim, can only maybe shoot, and cannot defend. When you view it that way, Lonzo sounds far from awesome.
But the counterpoint is that Lonzo has strengths in his game as well, and they are spectacular. It starts with his supreme basketball IQ, which has potential to be the best basketball IQ in NBA history. He constantly pushes pace and dishes picture perfect passes to set up his teammates with high quality shots in their hot spots. This is his one big strength which has captivated the draft world.
Aside from smarts, Ball has elite size for a PG at 6’6″, and even though he is not an explosive freak, he moves well and is a pretty good athlete. Height is an extremely important tool for a PG, as it gives him the ability to see and pass over defenses as well as switch onto wings defensively. Overall his physical tools are a significant positive, as they enable him to rack up good rebounds, steal, and block totals for a PG.
The Checkbox Fallacy
The problem with grading a player based on checkboxes is that it will penalize a player for multiple minor flaws and an outlier strength. Let’s play devil’s advocate to Lonzo’s flags:
While Ball does have downside on defense, his physical tools, rebound, steal, and block rates offer just as much upside on that end. If nothing else his height gives him the ability to fit in well with a heavy switching defense. And while he is flawed, nothing is broken in a way that precludes him from being great defensively as a pro.
His shot is a minor concern, but if he ticks up his FT% it becomes trivial. He is currently at 68% in an extremely small sample. In 2015 AAU play he shot 24/31 from the line, and if you sum that with his UCLA sample he is up to 71%. He is shooting 43% from 3 on nearly twice as many 3PA as FTA with the majority of his makes coming from NBA 3 range, and he rarely misses badly. His shot is not perfect, but is a clear positive in my eyes.
The greatest concern is his ability to create for himself, but there are a number of mitigating factors:
- As per synergy, he ranks 91 percentile as both a PnR handler and isolation scorer. He attacks infrequently, but is efficient when he does.
- His off the dribble shot qualifies as creation, and while he only has 14 attempts he has 20 points ranking him 99%ile. Small sample yes, but he often takes this shot from NBA 3 range and rarely misses badly.
- There have been elite NBA PG’s such as Steve Nash and John Stockton who did not put significant pressure on the rim in college. It is not nearly a fatal flaw given the skill set.
- He moves well off the ball, and often dunks home lobs off of cuts. Even if he needs creation help, he can still be a dynamite off ball player with size to defend wings.
Overall Lonzo has a handful of pink flags in his game, but no glaring red flags. Meanwhile, he has the one outlier strength of being a basketball genius that should carry exponentially more weight than the weaknesses in his game.
Basketball IQ and Point Gods
Let’s take a moment to look at the most successful players drafted outside of the top 3 in NBA history:
We have a couple of non-athletes who dominated with smarts and skill in Bird and Curry on the list, but the player I want to focus on is the guy at the top: Chris Paul.
Chris Paul was drafted after Andrew Bogut, Marvin Williams, and Deron Williams because 6’0″ players never become superstars. But Chris Paul bucked that trend, and is likely the best player in NBA history 6’5″ and under. He did so by being a basketball savant with parallels to Lonzo Ball, as his efficient PG play led Wake Forest to the #1 offense in both of his NCAA seasons.
Now let’s see the best players drafted outside of the top 14:
Oh hey, it’s two more basketball genius PG’s that like Ball were neither elite athletes nor scorers.
Basketball IQ is an incredibly important trait for a point guard. The PG has the ball in his hands the most, and is constantly making decisions that affect his team’s scoring output. Consistently good decision making can add up to a tremendous amount of value, therefore it should not be a surprise that three of the biggest draft steals in NBA history had an elite basketball IQ to overcome their flaws that caused them to slide.
Now consider that Lonzo’s pre-draft flaws are more trivial, as he is has a much better physical profile than any of Paul, Stockton, or Nash, and he also has far more draft hype than any of the three as well. The additional hype does not make him necessarily better, but imagine: what if he overachieves his draft expectation as much as the aforementioned trio? He would be in the conversation for the best player in NBA history.
To me it is incredible that people care more about the ability to put pressure on the rim than his basketball IQ. There is only one Russell Westbrook, and there will likely not be another. Most all-time great PG’s are more cerebral than athletic, with Steph Curry, Jason Kidd, Magic Johnson, and pre-injury Penny Hardaway as further examples. If you look at the athletic scorers with average IQ outside of Russ, you are more likely to end up with a Stephon Marbury or Allen Iverson who are not causes to tank for.
But How Do We Know Lonzo is a Basketball Genius?!?
Great question! After all, it is awfully aggressive to rank him up there with the creme de la creme of basketball IQ’s in NBA history. First, let’s look at UCLA’s team offensive success under Steve Alford via kenpom.com:
Steve Alford is not a great coach (without Ball he clearly undervalues 3PA), but he does attract great talent. In 2014, he took over a loaded roster featuring Kyle Anderson, Jordan Adams, Norman Powell, Zach LaVine, and the efficient Wear twins. This resulted in easily his best offense in 21 pre-Ball seasons as a college head coach at #11 in NCAA, as his next best ranked #38 for Iowa in 2005.
Now Lonzo, Leaf, and company are waffle crushing that team with the #1 offense in the country. Lonzo’s impact is noticeable in a few ways: 1) UCLA is posting a historic eFG% as he creates elite shots both inside and outside the arc, 2) The team has a massive spike in 3PA rate as he understands that 3 pointers are better than mid-range, and 3) the team’s tempo and average possession length are faster than ever because he knows to push pace and move the ball crisply.
Not only does Lonzo create elite shots for his teammates, he does so with an unprecedented ability to avoid turnovers. Let’s compare his NCAA per 40 stats to other PG’s. Note that Nash and Stockton were late bloomers so I used their senior year stats, and career samples for the others:
You could mention that a bust like Tyler Ennis had a nearly as good assist:TOV rate (3.2), but he did so by making low risk, low reward passes for a team with a below average eFG%. To be a risk taker like Lonzo and create monster eFG% for his team and STILL avoid turnovers is nothing short of godlike.
Chris Paul is the gold standard for NBA assist to turnover rate, and Ball puts his numbers to shame. Granted, Ball benefits from a lower scoring volume (I did not adjust for pace so his volume is even lower than it appears), but the point is clear: we have never seen a player create shots for his teammates while avoiding turnovers like this ever before. Not even close.
So Lonzo is going to better than all of those studs?
Not necessarily. There are areas he pales in comparison to this group, even outside of scoring volume. Looking at career per 40 rates for everybody (again, not adjusted for pace):
Again, not pace adjusted so Lonzo’s steal rate is slightly inflated here. The only player who gets fewer steals is Nash, who makes up for it with a much better FT%. Kidd is the only player who is as poor at the line, but he makes up for it with double the steal rate. Meanwhile Chris Paul crushes him at both, so perhaps he has some subtle cerebral and skill advantage that will prevent Ball from reaching his status as a point god.
The steal rate also lends credence to his defense being a problem, as in spite of his tools he is much closer to Nash the sieve than the the great stoppers like Stockton and Kidd.
While there is some evidence that Ball is in a league of his own as a point god, there is other evidence that he is a notch below the creme de la creme. It is possible that he peaks as the best of the bunch, but he also could be the weakest link.
There are enough flaws in Ball’s game to stop short of calling him a guaranteed hall of famer, which is how I felt about Joel Embiid when he played at Kansas. But there is much to love, and nothing to strongly dislike. He is definitely going to be a good NBA player, and is likely going to be great one.
I have watched him play more than any other prospect in this class, and every time I see him I feel as if I am witnessing greatness. He runs UCLA’s offense as perfectly as a 19 year old can, and it is mesmerizing to see him consistently set up his teammates with amazing shots with such infrequent mistakes.
This draft class is so loaded, it is still early to come to many hard conclusions. But I have seen enough of Lonzo to come to a few:
- He is clearly a top 2 prospect on my board. Josh Jackson has great upside, but his shot is a much bigger wart than any of Ball’s, and I do not think he has as much overall goodness as Ball’s basketball IQ offers.
- Ball deserves consideration at #1 overall. Markelle Fultz is an incredible talent in his own rite, but it is plausible that Ball is the better prospect. I am not sure who will end up #1 on my final big board, right now they are super close to me.
- Dennis Smith Jr. has approximately 0% odds of becoming a better NBA player than Ball. He is the inverse of Lonzo as he passes the checkbox test, but his limited basketball IQ and size make him a poor gamble in the top 5.