The Lonzo Ball Effect: What the point guard has changed for UCLA’s offense


When Lonzo Ball stepped onto the court for UCLA this fall, many in the basketball world weren’t sure which version of the elite prospect to expect. Sure, it was tough to see him failing — blessed as he is with a 6-foot-6 frame, elite vision/passing skills, and a solid (if somewhat unconventional) 3-point stroke. But would it be the Lonzo from Chino Hills High School, who (along with his two brothers, LaMelo and LiAngelo) rained triple-double fire on the competition in an offensive system reminiscent of SSOL (on speed)? Or would Ball be ‘stifled’ in his likely one-and-done tenure by Steve Alford, an embattled incumbent (after a disappointing 2015-16 campaign) coach whose penchant for playing his son (Bryce Alford) at point guard may have contributed to the draft declaration of Zach LaVine and transfer rumors for current players like Prince Ali?

At this point, it’s safe to say any real worry was wasted. UCLA is currently sitting at 13-0, having finished their non-conference slate (which included a game at Rupp Arena) undefeated. And instead of ‘worrying’ about how he’d fit at UCLA, Ball (as well as Steve Alford and the coaching staff) has remade UCLA’s offense in his own image — a freewheeling, transition attacking, 3-point bombing machine that currently ranks second in the nation (120.3 points/100 possessions) in adjusted offensive efficiency.

As discussed in Luke Winn’s excellent piece on UCLA’s offensive evolution this season, the Bruins have pulled off the neat (and unusual) trick of being an incredibly fast (top five in tempo, per KenPom) and efficient (second, as mentioned) offensive team, a sea change from the marks of last year (71st in tempo, 51st in adjusted efficiency). So what has Ball’s presence — along with adjustments from the coaching staff — changed in the offense since last year? Let’s take a deeper look.

The deep ball

The biggest changes are clear in two places — from behind the 3-point line, and in transition. UCLA is shooting a ton more 3s, with much more success. Last year, the Bruins ranked 330th in 3-point attempt rate (27.3 percent of their shots were 3’s), with a respectable, but far from elite 3-point field goal percentage of 36.3. This year, they’re up to the top-third of the NCAA in attempt rate, trying 38.8 percent of their shots from deep, and have improved to the absolute elite in conversion rate, hitting 42.8 percent of those attempts, good for sixth in the country to this point.

Read More: Villanova has a Death Lineup too

Take a look at their collective offensive shot chart on the year (though please note – there was a 5 game gap in the data – so this (and all) chart(s) doesn’t include CSU Northridge, San Diego, Long Beach State, Nebraska, or Texas A&M):

See the bottom of this article for an explanation of the shot chart graphics I use.

offenseshotchart /

So far, UCLA has been well above average from everywhere — but especially near the rim/paint, and on above-the-break 3’s. Lonzo has been a huge part of that, hitting 11 of his 21 logged attempts from the zone, and 29 of 67 overall (43.3 percent) of his 3-pointers. While there is a solid chance his percentages from deep drop a bit (he didn’t have a reputation commensurate with this level of shooting coming out of high school), there are plenty of 3-point shooters around him to compensate.

A big part of this is the relief Ball provides from a playmaking/point guard standpoint, which allows guards like Bryce Alford and Isaac Hamilton to shift into more catch-and-shoot opportunities — elite parts of their game that couldn’t shine as much in last year’s campaign. Again, in Luke Winn’s SI breakdown of UCLA this season, there are excellent graphics that show just how much this change has benefited their offensive games. From a general standpoint, UCLA has been an excellent environment in which to plop a point guard like Lonzo Ball — the other top 3 guards are hitting a collective 41.96 percent of their 3s, and even TJ Leaf is showing some touch from distance, hitting 15 of his 30 (low volume, but still very nice) attempts on the year.

otherguards /

And, to wrap up the discussion on their improvement from three, let’s take a look at a comparison of UCLA’s ‘efficiency by first shot of possession’ charts from last year and this year.

firstshots /

My biggest note from the above — check out the long two vs. the three. While, in 2015-2016, nearly 43 percent of UCLA’s possessions (that had a shot, and didn’t end in a turnover) started with a mid-range two, that number has dropped to just 28.2 percent in 2016-2017. Most of that drop has been shifted to shots from 3-point range, in a change likely welcome to both UCLA fans and the analytically inclined.

UCLA has also been monstrously more efficient in converting shots near the rim into points — last year, while any possession starting with a rim attempt (dunk, layup, or tip-in) netted the Bruins 1.41 points per possession, that number has shot up to 1.73 points per possession with Lonzo Ball at the helm. This is (obviously) related to how much they run, and how much space has been opened up around the basket with their excellent 3-point shooting — UCLA currently has the highest 2-point percentage, at 62.7, in the country.

The joys of being free

Speaking of transition — another huge gap between this year and last for UCLA is how transition happy they’ve become. Take a look at these side-by-side breakdowns of UCLA’s possessions from last season and this one, broken up by time of possession buckets.

offensebin-comparison /

Over 60 percent of UCLA’s possessions this year are over within 15 seconds of the possession beginning, 11 percentage points more than last year, and 8 percentage points of this increase is in true ‘transition’ time, or within 10 seconds of the possession beginning. The most staggering difference, though, is the efficiency of these early possessions. Comparatively, UCLA is scoring 14 points/100 possessions more on possessions that last less than 10 seconds, and 33 points/100 more on possessions lasting between 11 and 15 seconds. This mentality has permeated the entire offense — UCLA is running more on EVERY opportunity so far this year. Check out another side-by-side comparison, showing UCLA’s efficiency and percentage of overall possessions used in transition split up by possession ‘start type’ (i.e. if an offensive possession starts with the opposing team making a shot, missing a shot, coughing up a turnover, etc.).

transitionoffense-bypossessionstarttype /

So far this year, they’ve run more in every single situation (outside after a made free throw). The differences are especially stark after shot attempts. While efficiency is approximately the same when comparing the two years for a ‘missed shot’ possession start type, UCLA is on pace to ‘run’ (possession lasting 10 seconds or less) on 134 more possessions than they did last year, and 5 percent more of their overall possessions. They’ve also been especially effective pushing the ball after a made shot, scoring 53 points on 40 possessions in which they attacked transition after the other team sank a basket.

Lonzo Ball has been a key component in leading this transition push. Even when he’s not throwing ridiculous outlet passes, Ball typically brings up the ball to lead the charge in transition. To this point, he has scored (or assisted) on 71 of UCLA’s 149 made baskets in transition, along with difficult-to-measure ‘assists’ on drawn fouls in the same bracket. He is the engine that makes UCLA’s transition offense work, both from a direct influence in his play to a more-difficult-to-measure team chemistry/mentality brought about by the way he seeks out these quick shots and assists.

And that’s sort of sums up the biggest change Lonzo has brought to UCLA this year — he’s making their offense fun. It’s seen in the way they relentlessly push, in how they score, and how they play together. While the season is yet young (and their defensive efficiency/prowess could hurt them come postseason), the changes in the offense his presence have wrought have been spectacular.

(All statistics current through 12/23)