Los Angeles Lakers

The case for (and against) Lonzo Ball

Lonzo Ball is one of the more divisive players in the NBA. We attempt to argue both sides of his case before the Lakers may decide his future with the team.

Ladies and gentleman of the jury…I first want to thank you for the time and attention you’ve given to this matter over these last fifteen months. It has been a long, arduous, and often draining process.

But now here we are, six weeks away from the NBA’s trading deadline — a deadline that will almost certainly see the Los Angeles Lakers begin to gear up for a playoff run. All of their young assets will be on the table, including the number two pick from the 2017 NBA Draft, the young man who you will begin your deliberations about shortly…the young man whose fate you will decide. Will he be a part of the Lakers future, or a vehicle to accelerate that future in the present?

Before you make your way back to that jury room, I need to remind you of the promise you made to the judge before this trial ever began, a promise to decide this case on the merits, to only consider the evidence presented, and to leave any preconceived ideas or biases outside.

That means that until you’ve reached a verdict, you should — indeed you must extinguish certain things from your mind. You must pretend that Lonzo Ball isn’t named Lonzo Ball, that he doesn’t play for the most famous American sports franchise outside of the Yankees and Cowboys, and that his backstory wasn’t one of essentially being groomed from birth for the sole purpose of suiting up in the purple and gold.

You must think only of what has been presented before you by the attorneys in this courtroom. The incontrovertible facts. The black and white reality of a player who has given us 87 games worth of proof as to what he is, and more importantly, what he will be.

I will be the first person to stand before you and say that this isn’t an easy decision. If it was, the parties in this case would have settled long before trial. The only reason two sides ever engage in this grueling process is because an agreement cannot be reached. But that is indeed the task before you today.

Let us start with the positives. Last year, Lonzo Ball became only the third 20-year-old ever to average six rebounds and six assists per game, joining his boss, Magic Johnson, and his new teammate, LeBron James, in that exclusive club.

This wasn’t empty calories stat-stuffing either. When Ball was on the court last season, Los Angeles was nearly even with their opponents, getting outscored by only 0.7 points per 100 possessions, the best figure of the eight Lakers to play over 1000 minutes. When he played, LA defended like a top-five team and dished it like a top-ten one. Perhaps most impressively, the Lakers were 24-28 when Ball was active and 11-19 when he wasn’t.

This season has been an adjustment playing alongside James, but there have still been positive signs. Ball rebounds for his position as well as anyone in the league, as he’s one of only 10 guards with a rebound percentage over 8 (minimum of 10 games/20 minutes per game). He’s also improved his shooting across the board, going from a .360/.305/.451 slash line to .405/.321/.517. There has been progress.

It should also be noted for the record that at 21, Ball is averaging nearly 30 minutes a night as the starting point guard for the fifth-best team in perhaps the best top to bottom conference in league history. He has been a mostly positive contributor despite still recovering from offseason knee surgery. Some of the worst shooting stats in the league haven’t completely held him back.

Ah yes…those.

There is no getting around the incontrovertible facts. There have been 161 players in the league to sport a usage rate over 16 while appearing in at least 10 games and playing more than 20 minutes a night. Lonzo Ball’s 49.0 true shooting percentage ranks 146th.

Part of this is because Ball, whose 3-point shot was a weapon in college but whose form was an elephant in the room from day one, has converted only 32.1 percent of deep balls this season. Among the 144 players who’ve taken over 100 shots from long range, that figure ranks 128th.

Perhaps worst of all, if you’re someone who believes free throws are the best indicator of long-term shooting success, the outlook is damning. Of 300 players to attempt over 20 free throws this year, Ball’s 51.4 percent ranks 295th. Perhaps even more concerning is the fact that in 35 games, he’s only gotten to the line 29 times.

There is a case to be made that in a year he was expected to take the leap, the sophomore has instead stagnated. Once again, the Lakers are a little better than even — 0.5 points per 100 possessions — with Ball on the court. The difference is that this season, that is the second-lowest among the seven Lakers who have played over 600 minutes.

While sharing the court with a ball-dominant star has no doubt taken its toll, there are other numbers that are nonetheless concerning. Ball is dishing it less (a 21.6 assist percentage this year compared to 28.9 last season) and turning it over more (16.5 percent of possessions, up from 15.6. Both figured ranked in the bottom 15 percent of players at Ball’s position, according to Cleaning the Glass).

Adding to the list of issues is the fact that this isn’t simply Ball having a difficult time adjusting to life with LeBron. In 418 possessions without James on the court, the Lakers with Ball in the lineup are getting outscored by 14.7 points per 100 possessions, which is in the third percentile league-wide.

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Now, ladies and gentleman, the true test begins. With LeBron James out for a least a few games, perhaps your decision here will become a simpler one. In his first game sans James, a one-point loss to the Sacramento Kings, Ball was perhaps the best Laker on the court, finishing one rebound shy of a triple-double. It was also the second time in ten days he hit at least four 3-pointers on at least 50 percent shooting from long range. Maybe a corner has been turned.

You will have six more weeks worth of evidence before you have to make your decision.  It will, no doubt, consume you.

We urge you to take it seriously. This young man’s future — and the future of the Lakers — may rest on what you decide.

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