Lonzo Ball can ball but who exactly he is remains unclear

November 17, 2016; Los Angeles, CA, USA; UCLA Bruins guard Lonzo Ball (2) moves to the basket against San Diego Toreros guard Tyler Williams (1) and forward Frank Ryder (30) during the second half at Pauley Pavilion. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports
November 17, 2016; Los Angeles, CA, USA; UCLA Bruins guard Lonzo Ball (2) moves to the basket against San Diego Toreros guard Tyler Williams (1) and forward Frank Ryder (30) during the second half at Pauley Pavilion. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports /

A wizard passer with elite basketball intelligence for a 19-year-old, Lonzo Ball has taken college basketball by storm over the first few weeks. In fact, Ball is playing so well that notable draft sites have already bumped him up into the top five in mock drafts.

It’s hard to argue with the numbers. Through seven games Ball is averaging 10 assists per 40 minutes pace adjusted, with a 3.76 assist/turnover ratio, both marks in the top three for lead guards drafted in the entire history of the Draftexpress database. Ball is also shooting 48.6 percent on 5.8 3-point attempts per 40 minutes pace adjusted, a scintillating number. Basically, it would be almost impossible to recreate a better start to the year for a lead guard (if you extricate a certain other freshman lead guard who plays for the University of Washington).

Ball has helped cultivate a pass-first, unselfish brand of basketball and the UCLA Bruins’ combination of high pace and floor-spacing combines to make for an aesthetically appealing product. UCLA is first in the country in assists per game, averages the 17th most possessions per game, and is currently seventh overall in Kenpom’s adjusted offensive efficiency. Some of that is opposition, as the Texas A&M Aggies have really been UCLA’s only challenge thus far. But the numbers speak for themselves. Ball should unquestionably share in his team’s exploits thus far, but the fact he he has a spaced floor and multiple playmakers to share the creation burden operating in basically an ideal environment has to weigh in.

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Ball clearly has “it” in some capacity. The question upon a deeper dive into game film and more stats is what exactly “it” is, and how his game translates to the NBA level.

At 6-foot-6 with a 6-foot-7 wingspan, Ball has plus height and respectable length for a lead guard at the next level. Operating at 190 pounds he is a bit light and doesn’t have a physically imposing build or style of play, but he’s not outlier skinny. Athletically, Ball is already associated with emphatic lob-catch finishes via highlight clips, and has some bounce off two feet in space:

His vertical lift off two feet, accompanying body control and quick second jump here are all impressive:

Ball is best characterized as a good but not great athlete, but based on a three-game sample he’s more athletic than I gave him credit for in the preseason. He is twitchier reacting on defense and really excels with his closing speed in recovery situations to challenge shots. The biggest negative athletically is average burst for an elite prospect and not being overly explosive jumping off one foot in traffic.

You can’t talk about Ball without addressing his passing acumen at the forefront. Ball has legitimate NBA lead guard vision, and that was something most people who followed him closely pre-UCLA expected to be confirmed.

It’s not only the vision however. Ball’s passes are usually right on point, whether in shooting pockets or leading the big in precise fashion here:

Ball doesn’t hold the ball, and is able to diagnose the floor efficiently:

He really excels as a transition passer, already showing quick reactionary ability to defensive rebound and fire on-point outlet passes to exploit unset defenses:

Ball just makes open court skip passes like this look incredibly appealing with the off-hand missile:

UCLA runs a ton of baseline screening and floppy action for shooters. Some of these are easy reads to efficient shooters, rendering on-point delivery the real key, and Ball doesn’t disappoint:

Ball entered the year with shooting being one of the main question marks due to his delivery. He famously has a lower release over the left side of his face which necessitates space to complete unchallenged (I’m somewhat convinced that if Ball’s shooting mechanics were more aesthetically appealing he might be the No. 1 pick right now for highlight watchers).

The early returns are promising off the catch. Ball’s mechanics are ugly, but at least the process is consistently ugly. He shows consistent preparatory footwork catching on the hop or the 1-2, and even when the ball is thrown to his right side his release is still reasonably quick and the entire process looks enough like a single motion:

Ball doesn’t get a ton of lift and he kicks his legs out forward, but again, it’s pretty consistent with legitimate NBA range:

He dips the ball on the catch as well, but he can still shoot over length in certain situations, as here over 6-foot-9 forward DJ Hogg (a respectable prospect):

Ball even throws in tape of squaring up and setting his feet quickly running off a pindown, again catching on the hop:

Thus far, 23 percent of Ball’s finishing possessions come in spot up opportunities, and he’s currently sporting a very respectable 1.227 points per possession efficiency mark which ranks in the 79th percentile, per Synergy Sports. It’s unclear how his shot will translate against NBA athletes closing out on him consistently with superior length, but at this juncture solely off the catch Ball’s problem is release point and not consistent or unappealing mechanics.

Shooting off the dribble is another issue entirely. Ball has only taken six off-the-dribble jumpers in the halfcourt thus far. And of those he has only made three per Synergy Sports. Meanwhile, Hoop-Math.com only has him credited with one made unassisted two-point jumper. Basically all of Ball’s shots have come at the rim or beyond the arc and almost all have been assisted.

There are some flashes of his ability to shoot off the dribble with range creating space to get his shot off, like in the following clips, but the volume is small:

The two areas on offense I wanted to see from Ball coming into the season was overall halfcourt scoring in the form of off-the-dribble shooting and finishing around the rim on dribble-drives out of mostly pick-and-roll, and we just haven’t seen that thus far. He hasn’t played the traditional pick-and-roll primary initiator role at UCLA, and breaking guys down off the bounce and navigating his way all the way into the teeth of the defense just hasn’t been his game.

That’s not to say it wont be his game in the future, but Ball isn’t overly shifty with the ball, lacking the ability to change direction on a dime. He’s had 20 makes at the rim through seven games. Thirteen of those were assisted and two came on putbacks. So Ball really only has fvie unassisted makes per Hoop-Math.com. For context, Markelle Fultz has 13 unassisted makes at the rim in only six games. Unassisted makes at the basket, as well as general attempts there, are plus indicators of dribble-drive ability and the ability to break defenses down, and right now one of Ball’s only makes at the rim is via the straight-line variety:

He shows decent burst here, but it’s basically a red carpet right to the basket with Texas A&M five man Tyler Davis’ back turned near the basket. Also notice the lack of vertical pop off of one foot.

Ball doesn’t have a ton of shake, but in his play he does offer a nice hesitation dribble and drop-off pass after gaining a slight advantage on the closeout:

Here is another straight-line drive where Ball shows some length extension finishing over Hogg’s 6-foot-8 wingspan:

He’s not slow by any means, but the elite burst isn’t there. It is also unclear if Ball has enough juice to get separation in one-on-one situations. Here, he utilizes a nice right-to-left crossover, but his handle is loose and he can’t gain any separation from his defender:

He still converts the lob because his recognition and court awareness are outstanding, and that’s what really makes him special.

Ball only has seven finishing possessions as the pick-and-roll handler this year, again per Synergy. His points per possession in overall pick-and-roll offense, including passing, is elite. But the fact is most of his offensive production there has come via passes without breaking the defense down deep in the paint. He hasn’t shown flashes of pick-and-roll prodding yet, instead relying on quick recognition like on the skip pass here, identifying the weak side defender starting to rotate down to tag the roll man:

He recognizes a similar series of events here and exploits the rotation, along with good foot-work on the jump stop:

My opinion has been throughout that Ball is more of a spread pick-and-roll lead guard who needs optimum space to get his shot off and a screen to separate. This is one of the best examples of that, and Ball does a good job here penetrating a little bit father into the paint to make sure he keeps the big man defending the screener occupied a little longer to free up stretch four TJ Leaf for the pick and pop:

If Ball can shoot off the dribble, especially 3s out of pick-and-roll, it gives him a much clearer avenue to thrive at the next level. He has the size with added strength to keep defenders on his hip in jail turning the corner, which compensates some for his lack of shiftiness.

Overall, Ball has more questions to answer than the box score implies. He needs to show consistent half-court scoring via the ability to break defenses down with creativity off the bounce getting all the way to the rim and corresponding finishing prowess via touch with his lack of elite vertical pop, as well as shot creating and shot making ability off the bounce. Both of these questions have been objectively unanswered thus far, and for someone playing his entire high school career on Mike D’Antoni’s dream team pace wise, the answers aren’t there either. We know he can thrive in transition as a playmaker, and 25 percent of his finishing possessions have come there. It’s about the half court.

I focused entirely on his offense above, but his defense has been non-terrible as a help defender, yet not especially good overall. Ball shows good instincts crashing down from the perimeter for blocks like this:

He also recovers pretty impressively with closing speed to challenge shooters on pull-ups as touched on in the introduction, possessing the length to be a factor there. He doesn’t defend the point of attack that often, or well when he does. From a small sample size, he seems to have that Damian Lillard hop disease where he’ll leave his feet hopping to one side in pick-and-roll and gets blown by. Just something to monitor.

This shouldn’t be construed as a vote of no confidence in Ball in the slightest, but rather a call to pump the brakes a bit. There’s a lot to like about an incredibly intelligent and elite passer who can shoot it. He just needs to show more in imperative lead guard areas to vault into the truly elite in this class.