Lonzo Ball has led UCLA to 13 straight wins to start the season, including a victory at Kentucky. According to kenpom.com, the Bruins have played a fairly weak schedule but Ball’s averages of 15.8 points, 9.6 assists and 6.7 rebounds per 40 minutes are impressive nonetheless. His draft stock has gone through the roof and Draft Express currently ranks him fourth in its 2017 board.
In terms of physical profile and skill level, he’s about the exact same player I profiled prior to the season at RealGM. But his environment and the level of competition have changed, and within this new context, some of the concerns I raised have been alleviated while others remain.
CONCERNS THAT HAVE BEEN ALLEVIATED
CONTROLING THE PACE OF THE GAME: One of the concerns I raised was the probability that he wouldn’t be able to play similarly to what he did at Chino Hills anywhere else. But through the first couple of months of the college year, that hasn’t turned out to be the case. UCLA doesn’t play at the frenetic pace Chino Hills did but it does run a high-octane offense triggered by Ball’s natural inclination to speed up the game. And in large part due to its uptempo style, the Bruins currently rank second in the country in adjusted offensive efficiency. I think it’s fair to say wherever Ball plays, he’ll always pass ahead and look to push the ball up the floor.
SHOOTING OFF THE CATCH: Ball looked like a capable shot maker in high school but the nature of his odd release made it questionable whether he would be as much of a threat from long-range moving forward.
He is getting the ball out quicker, easier off the catch but the long release remains about the same and the ball is still going in. Ball has nailed 43.3% of his three-point shots this season, while attempting almost six bombs per 40 minutes – according to basketball-reference.
He’s also flashed a little more diversity in the types of shots he can make – showcasing deep range on step-back threes, side-step one-dribble pull-ups after escaping a closeout and even some ability to let it fly quicking after coming off pindown screens.
As a credible threat from three-point range, Ball offers legit positional flexibility on offense – as we’ve been able to see at UCLA, which plays multiple smaller guards around him and at times has even played him as the second tallest player in a lineup.
FINISHING AT THE RIM: this is a concern that has and also hasn’t been alleviated.
Ball rarely gets to the rim in the half-court but he’s done fairly well in transition and has converted 76.2% of his 42 shots at the basket overall – according to hoop-math. He is a guy whose top priority out there is passing and with a guy like that there is always concern he’ll overpass in transition, botching a bunch of fast-breaks in the process – as we’ve seen from Rajon Rondo a ton over the last half-a-decade. That has not been a problem at all with Ball.
And in the few times he drove his way to the goal against a set defense, Ball has even flashed some development in terms of using his six-foot-eight wingspan for reverse finishes around rim protectors, which I hadn’t seen much from him in high school.
EFFORT ON DEFENSE: Ball hasn’t yet developed into some sort of difference maker on defense but he’s at least proven he gives a crap. UCLA still prefers hiding him on the least dangerous matchup in the perimeter but when he’s needed to guard on the ball, Ball has bent his knees to get in a stance and put in the effort to try going over a ball-screen.
His rebounding has translated to the college game. He’s collected 12.9% of opponents’ misses when he’s on the floor, which is an appealing rate for a guard, considering UCLA has big men who are good at securing these boards on their own.
And his steal numbers have also carried over, as he’s averaged 1.8 steals per 40 minutes. That figure is now more trustworthy, given UCLA is structured with more discipline than Chino Hills was.
CONCERNS THAT HAVEN’T BEEN ALLEVIATED
INTERIOR SCORING: Ball has not shown much improvement in terms of getting to the basket against a set defense. While more than a third of his attempts have come at the rim, the bulk of them have materialized in transition or off cuts. He’s made just nine unsassisted shots at the basket in 452 minutes, when you discount putbacks, and averages just 3.4 foul shots per 40 minutes.
Ball is a very well polished passer in the pick-and-roll and can pick apart scrambling defenses, as his .317 assist percentage can attest. But opponents can go under screens against him without much cause for concern due to his inability to make or even attempt stop-and-pop mid-range jumpers at this point of his development.
Ball has also struggled badly against switches. He doesn’t have much speed to just blow by his man one-on-one and doesn’t appear to have a go-to move he trusts during games to shake his defender side-to-side. Kentucky felt very comfortable with Endrice Adebayo guarding him and Ball didn’t even attempt to take him off the bounce in multiple occasions.
ON BALL DEFENSE: Ball’s size offers positional flexibility but the ideal scenario would be him being able to guard opposing point guards, permitting his coach to surround him with bigger players and then switch as necessary. But it’s unclear how well Ball could hold up if tasked with guarding smaller players who can manipulate him into ball-screens constantly, given UCLA has consistently hidden him off the ball.
Editor’s Note: Rafael Uehara is the managing editor of ‘Basketball Scouting’. More of his work can be found here or at Upside & Motor and at RealGM, where he is a regular contributor. He can be followed on twitter as @rafael_uehara