The Step Back is rolling out its 25-under-25 list over this week. Follow along with our rankings of the top 25 NBA players under the age of 25.
Lonzo Ball is many things.
Lonzo Ball is a prisoner of his father’s rhetoric. LaVar’s reckless boasting has constructed a cage of perception around Lonzo. His father’s hyperbole and the unfairly inflated expectations Lonzo carried to the NBA will always be a part of the conversation about him. As such, there will always be something about him that doesn’t measure up, some piece of his game that will be found wanting. To truly succeed, he will have to be more than just a good basketball player.
Lonzo Ball is a good basketball player. His rookie season was buffeted by the hot winds of his father’s proselytizing, and overshadowed by injuries that cost him 30 games and his atrocious shooting numbers. His jump shooting was already a point of contention among fans and analysts, given the Hideo Nomo-esque wind-up and seeing him clank so many was an affirmation for the disbelievers. But Lonzo was one of the few players in the league with both steal and block percentages of at least 2.0, indicative of a defensive impact well beyond that of an average rookie. Per 36-minutes, he averaged 7.6 assists and 7.3 rebounds, pushing into LeBron-Simmons-Giannis territory. The team context wasn’t ideal for showcasing his unique abilities, but Lonzo is already making an impact.
Lonzo Ball is a player who will benefit from working with LeBron James. It seems like this should go without saying, considering it’s true for you, me, and pretty much any human being who might set foot on a basketball court. But it bears repeating, as an answer to any hand-wringing over Lonzo needing to work more off-ball. Setting aside whatever knowledge about the value of an Instagram-ready, sweat-soaked work ethic, having the ball out of his hands a bit more will help Lonzo to show all the things that make him special. He was a very good catch-and-shoot 3-point shooter in college, and more space means more time for that jumper to unfurl unimpeded. At UCLA, he also showed himself to be exceptionally adept at finding space in the defense as a cutter, ranking in the 96th percentile in scoring efficiency off cuts. His elite vision and awareness will be even more dangerous against a defense that is already bent or broken by LeBron’s battering-ram drives, consumed with one of the most dangerous offensive threat in the league.
Lonzo Ball is utterly unique. Fans and media love the comparison game, working hard to wedge basketball unicorns and hippogriffs into familiar boxes for easy taxonomic categorization. But what, somewhat uniformly, describe the NBA’s truly special players is the fact that they don’t resemble what has come before them. LeBron will forever be measured against Jordan and Kobe, but the comparison really breaks down when you move off of accomplishments and onto methods and aesthetics. You can see a young Jason Kidd in Lonzo, that’s fine. But it’s also missing all the ways in which Lonzo’s game is a product of place and time, evolved for a league nearly a quarter of a century removed from Kidd’s rookie season. Lonzo plays the game differently and I think this season we’ll see just how special that is.
Lonzo Ball is a work in progress. He will still be just 20 years old when the opening tip goes up on the 2018-19 season. He will have three more seasons after this one in which writers at The Step Back will take stock of his game, hold him up against his youthful peers and place him somewhere on this list of the best under-25 players in the NBA. We, collectively, knocked him down six spots this season but maybe that says more about us than it does about him. After all, he’s a unique and productive young player, still improving and now working alongside one of the greatest players in NBA history.