LaMelo Ball’s defense is not as bad as you think it is

LaMelo Ball, (Photo by Anthony Au-Yeung/Getty Images)
LaMelo Ball, (Photo by Anthony Au-Yeung/Getty Images) /

Defense is one of the major question marks that could push LaMelo Ball out of the top spot in the NBA Draft. But those concerns may be overblown.

LaMelo Ball’s defense was not the reason he acquired over five million followers on Instagram before turning even 18 years-old. As it turns out, heaving from behind halfcourt mid-game and making at-home videos with your brothers plays better online than off-ball stunts and veer switches.

Yet, the pendulum may have swung too far in the “LaMelo doesn’t play defense” direction. It’s often cited as the reason (along with ball-handling redundancy) why the Minnesota Timberwolves shouldn’t draft him at number one, so as to avoid adding a third sieve to the defensively inept duo of D’Angelo Russell and Karl-Anthony Towns. In just 41 possessions played together, they surrendered points at a rate of 142.5 per 100 possessions per Cleaning the Glass. Yuck.

Ball isn’t a stalwart who would solve said problems, but his combination of size (6-foot-7), above-average speed and on-court intelligence give me reason to believe that Ball might not be the huge negative he’s assumed to be on the defensive end of the floor.

What is concerning about LaMelo Ball’s defense?

Let’s build backward by first looking at what Ball gets fairly dinged for on that end (this will make more sense as we go along).

The first thing that stands out, as it does for many a young superstar guard, is a consistent lack of effort and engagement. Ball oscillates between being in a decent stance and buzzing around the court to idly ball-watch far too often. He’s a great rebounder for a guard, averaging 8.7 boards per 36 minutes according to Basketball-Reference, yet on the following plays, he completely dozes off and lets his man waltz unimpeded towards the rim, getting away with it the first time but getting burned on the second go around.

(Ball is in the bottom left-hand corner of the screen on the first play, No. 1 in white and red on the second play)

Plenty of quality NBA players make the same mistakes Ball did in the above video. Would you like to see a little more awareness and fight from your highly touted prospect? Of course, but box-outs from guards, while nice at times, aren’t the end-all-be-all. This next kind of play though is where lack of effort becomes a much bigger problem.

LaMelo quite blatantly misses his rotation there as the defender of the weak side corner, choosing to sit this possession out and stare at his non-threatening man instead of protecting the paint. Make no mistake, this isn’t a failure to understand what rotation must be made on LaMelo’s part. He’s the best passer in the class and has made that one-in-the-paint, one-in-the-corner read hundreds of times. If he knows where the defenders should be when he has the ball, he can make the same calculation without it. He needs to buy-in and care more in this situation.

I prefer over-activity to lackadaisical play on defense even if leads to mistakes, similar to how playmakers with higher turnover marks are preferable to conservative passers who don’t give the ball away but limit an offense with their refusal to attempt ambitious plays. That said, LaMelo could stand to calm down when guarding handlers in ball screen actions. One little jab step is all it takes to get him flying in the wrong direction, as NBL veterans burned him over and over again by rejecting the initial screen and driving to the hoop.

Some of these are mistakes are simply bad defensive tendencies that can hopefully be corrected with better coaching training. Others, the result of LaMelo once again going through the motions, assuming dribble handoffs and continuity ball screens will proceed with his opponent using the pick exactly as it was intended.

Per Spatial Jam, the Illawarra Warhawks’ defensive struggles as a team went beyond Ball’s play, as they allowed 124 points per 100 possessions with him on the court compared to 125 allowed with him on the bench — both putrid marks.

LaMelo could also stand to beef up a bit, as his wiry 190-pound build (per Tankathon) allows elite, physical drivers to take advantage, especially when they rip baseline. But more important to his defensive good at the next level is a simple thing that every whiteboard slamming high school coach has ever uttered — you have to care about getting scored on and really want to stop it.

What is encouraging about LaMelo Ball’s defense?

A pleasant surprise I encountered during my LaMelo deep dive was his quick and disruptive hands when pressuring ball handlers. He knows when an opponent is holding a ball in a precarious position and seeks to pounce with quick jabs. Also notice in the plays below how he does a good job fighting through the first screen to draw a foul and how he navigates the second to stay attached to his man and in good position throughout the action.

While just accruing acceptable steal numbers is not an automatic indicator of good defense (cough cough, Russell Westbrook, cough), they do show a level of disruption that can provide value. Ball racked up 1.8 steals per 36 minutes in the NBL this past season according to Basketball-Reference, which again isn’t some insane mark, but shows that he can at least disturb an offense when the time comes.

As I hinted at earlier, LaMelo is an absolute genius passer, capable of reading the court and slinging dimes that draw rave reviews from hoops nerds far and wide. Though it’s dependent on that inconsistent effort of his, when LaMelo is engaged, he makes great reads as an off-ball defender.

On both plays, LaMelo recognizes that it’s his responsibility to drop down and deter a potential lob to a sealing big man (as preventing shots at the rim are still the most important component to good NBA defense), before closing out hard but under control to his own man. Even if the opponent in the first clip created separation and scored, I’m still impressed by LaMelo’s ability to seamlessly transition from a vertical sprint toward the perimeter to a strong horizontal slide. If a guy hits a step back, long-2 with the shot clock winding down, all you can do is tip your cap and move on.

One other thing I wanted to point out is how I rarely noticed LaMelo being specifically targeted in his NBL games. Setting a million ball screens till you get the weak link guarding your best offensive player has been trendy fad in the NBA since the 2016 Cleveland Cavaliers spammed it all the way to a title on the injured Stephen Curry.

In a video for 8 in the Box Productions earlier this summer, I detailed how the Miami Heat relentlessly picked on poor Kemba Walker in the Eastern Conference Finals. My main takeaway was how important a guard’s height was to a baseline of acceptable defense, as the Heat’s Tyler Herro largely escaped the same ridicule simply due to the fact that he’s six inches taller than Walker. Simply being bigger dissuades large ball handling wings from backing a guy down and shooting over him possession after possession. LaMelo being 6-foot-7 makes him one of the tallest point guards in the NBA the day he gets drafted, and therefore, not the bullseye of opposing playoff prowlers.

LaMelo Ball’s defensive awareness may be more important than his physical tools

Curious to gauge the public’s mind, I ran this poll on my Twitter the other day:

Out of 37 entrants, 26 chose Edwards, and I have to say I firmly disagree.

Edwards, as you may have heard, has every physical tool imaginable. He stands 6-foot-5 at shooting guard, is built like a linebacker yet accelerates like a free safety and somehow has been “living in a pandemic” for a longer than the rest of mere humans. So yes, based on physical traits alone, Edwards should be a better defender than Ball.

But there’s a reason the games are played. Physical traits can’t help you too much when you consistently make mind-boggling mistakes such as these (Edwards is No. 5 in white).

Edwards truly has no idea what’s going on in the above play. He starts on Kentucky point guard Ashton Hagans (okay), then calls for a switch when Hagans exchanges with Immanuel Quickley off-ball (fine), then helps down on the Tyrese Maxey drive (sure) and then … relocates back to his man by turning his back completely to him and shuffling backward? Why on earth would anyone ever do that? And it’s not like he was defending a non-threat, as the shot goes to Immanuel Quickley — a 43 percent 3-point shooter who’s going to hear his name called on draft night.

When talking about Edwards’ future projection on the defensive end of the floor, Ben Simmons is often referenced as an elite pro defender who was poor on that end in college despite having great physical tools simply because he did not care that much at the amateur levels. Once Simmons got drafted, his engagement returned and he started locking dudes down, leading many to conclude that the same could happen for the physically gifted Edwards.

Two counters to that idea:

1. While Edwards has an admittedly impressive combination speed of strength, several guards are built in similar fashion (such as Marcus Smart, Lu Dort, Royce O’Neale, heck even Dwayne Bacon has a comparable build), there are approximately two other human beings on earth that are over 6-foot-10, muscular as can be and can move at breakneck speed all over the court like Simmons can — Giannis Antetokounmpo and Anthony Davis, who finished first and second in the Defensive Player of the Year voting respectively. Edwards’ looks and moves like a lot of good defenders, but he’s not a physical unicorn like Simmons.

2. The whole “he’ll start caring” once he gets paid for what he’s doing argument doesn’t work if said player doesn’t know what smart defense entails. Both Simmons and Ball are sensational passers who clearly have an advanced understanding of the geometry of basketball that us simpletons can’t even comprehend. Edwards, meanwhile, posted only 3.1 assists per 36 minutes on 30.4 percent usage per Tankathon, and on several occasions was standing in off-ball defensive positions that can only be described as illogical. All those physical tools don’t do you any good if you don’t know when to pull them out of your toolbox.

LaMelo knows what’s going on at all times, it’s just a question of whether or not he’s going to buy in and grind to get stops when it matters most. This sequence of plays that happened less than three minutes a part in game time is a perfect illustration of what to expect from Ball.

That first play is reprehensible on LaMelo’s part. It’s a Spain pick-and-roll, and following the back screen LaMelo has to help off the corner shooter to stop the open rim-run, yet he watches it unfold, pretending to be an innocent bystander.

But then just a few plays later and bang! LaMelo executes his rotation perfectly and causes the action to stall out.

Throughout the entire pre-draft process, I’ve bought into the idea that LaMelo Ball can be an active, possibly even good defender at the next level so long as he buys into a team’s scheme and culture. This belief not being shared by many draft analysts I trust started to worry, but my fears were assuaged when I reached out to The Athletic’s Sam Vecenie, one of the best in the NBA Draft Coverage business, who explained to me why he too believes in LaMelo Ball the defender.

“I think LaMelo was terrible on defense on the whole this year because of largely engagement and effort level issues. Also has some real mechanical flaws in terms of his stance, and he got pushed around a lot due to his lack of strength currently. But when LaMelo was engaged, he showed some real potential rotating around the court and knowing where to be. When he wants to do it, he reads the court and diagnoses what’s happening on it faster than anyone else out there. He’s a basketball genius. So if he wants to be a good defender, I think he can probably be a good defender once he gets stronger. But it’s up to him.”

“There’s a lot of reasons why I have LaMelo Ball rated as the top of my Big Board for the 2020 NBA Draft, and while defense wasn’t my primary motivator for that ranking, his cerebral court awareness crossed with his tall stature and disruptive capabilities give me confidence that he’ll be solid enough on that end of the court to let his best abilities shine through at the next level.”

Well-put Sam. Well-put.

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