(First posted at RealGM)
Lonzo Ball is the one player in this draft class, other than Markelle Fultz, who has already shown potential to become a franchise-altering foundation piece. The passing magician led UCLA, a team that had lost 17 of its 32 games the previous year, to 31 wins in 36 matches and a trip to the Sweet Sixteen this season.
Driven by Ball’s natural inclination to speed up the pace of the game and ability to create three-point shots for others without necessarily needing to get deep into the lane to collapse the defense, the Bruins ranked second in the country in adjusted offensive efficiency – according to Ken Pomeroy.
Though it should be mentioned he had the fortune of playing with a good collection of talent around him, as stretch four TJ Leaf and alley oop finisher Ike Anigbogu will be drafted in the first round, pick-and-pop threat Thomas Welsh will be signed to one of those preseason deals and shooters Isaac Hamilton and Bryce Alford will get D-League looks, Ball was nonetheless fairly considered the catalyst of UCLA’s resurgence as a national power.
He alleviated some concerns regarding his ability to control an offense and make it run on his rhythm, create for others in the half-court within a more structured system and also make shots from long range, despite his unorthodox mechanics.
But Ball, as is the case with most 19-year-olds, still has areas to improve in terms of getting to the basket against a set defense, hitting the eventual stop-and-pop jumper and making the sort of difference on defense that his physical profile (six-foot-six height, six-foot-nine wingspan – according to Draft Express) suggests he should be able to.
His ability to up the tempo often starts with his defensive rebounding. According to our stats’ database, Ball collected 14.3% of opponents’ misses in his 1,232 minutes on the floor last season, which is an impressive mark when you consider UCLA often had two big men in the lineup for the most part and all of them good rebounders on their own.
After grabbing a miss, Ball is an excellent decision maker in terms of pushing the ball up the court himself or moving it ahead with outlet passes that excite the crowd and encourage his teammates to consistently run the floor. UCLA ranked 21st in the country in pace and 20th in three pointers attempted.
Ball has also proven himself a good finisher in transition, either taking it end-to-end all the way to the basket if the opponent opts for prioritizing covering shooters or filling the lane when somebody else is running the break, as he’s able to play above the rim as a target for lobs. According to hoop-math, he finished his 123 shots at the basket at a 79% clip, with the majority of those coming in transition.
Ball wasn’t as a prolific an interior scorer in the half-court, though, with only 40 unassisted makes at the rim in his 36 appearances (discounting his seven putbacks) and earning only 3.1 foul shots per 40 minutes – according to sports-reference.
In isolation, he has enough of a handle to crossover slower defenders and some shiftiness for hesitation moves but lacks speed to just blow by his man and strength to maintain his balance and his momentum forward through contact. Due to those limitations, Ball consistently avoided attempting to take his man one-on-one, which is generally fine (everyone prefers team-oriented ball these days), except for the times the opponent switched a big onto him and he failed to make them pay for it.
Out of the pick-and-roll, Ball has shown a little more quickness turning the corner and attacking the basket on a straight line drive. He generally doesn’t rise up in traffic with particularly impressive explosiveness but showed some improvement using his length to extend himself finishing against iffy rim protection.
Those are encouraging signs there’s something to be developed there but Ball doesn’t slash all the way to the rim frequently, with only 10.2% of his shots coming out of the pick-and-roll – according to research by Draft Express’ Mike Schmitz.
That percentage is also pretty low because Ball has no semblance of a stop-and-pop mid-range jumper against an opposing center dropping back to prioritize rim protection at this point of his development. Pull-up two-pointers are the most inefficient shot in the game but lead ball handlers need to be able to take those every now and again to dissuade the opponent from just sagging off him completely. Without any real threat of that shot, real good defenses will manage to take away the lob without bringing in a weak-side defender, also making it difficult to create that mighty valuable corner three as well.
And, yet, despite those limitations, Ball leads the point guards in Draft Express’ top 100 in points per play and posted a mighty impressive .668 effective field goal percentage in his one year at Westwood. And that’s the case because he hit 41.2% of his 194 three-point shots, while averaging 6.1 attempts per 40 minutes.
Ball was notorious for his unorthodox mechanics coming into college and most people suspected his ability to make shots wouldn’t hold up but he managed to speed up his long release on those step-back bombs when opponents go under the screen on the pick-and-roll, showed range way beyond NBA distance and flashed some diversity as far as how his three-pointer can be a viable option; showcasing side-step one-dribble pull-ups after escaping a closeout and even some ability to let it fly quickly after coming off pin-down screens.
Concerns remain over his ability to get those shots off at the next level, against longer defenders who are able to press him 35 feet away from the basket, especially because his misses can be particularly gruesome. But I think Ball has proven he can certainly make open shots. If he has reasonable time to rise up comfortably, he gets pretty good spin on the ball, the arc on his shot often looks great and it’s not uncommon to see him get all net on his makes.
Thanks to that ability to act as a credible threat spotting up off the ball, Ball offers positional flexibility on offense, giving his coach the option of having another point guard out there with him, which was the case at UCLA, where he often shared the floor with Aaron Holiday. And, given the limitations he’s shown creating against a set defense as of this point, this might be how Ball makes the biggest impact. He’s a player with such a high IQ that when he gets to attack a defense that has already been moved, Ball can absolutely pick them apart.
As a secondary shot creator, someone who catches the ball on the second side of the floor and has the opportunity to get into the lane against a scrambling defense, because his catch-and-shoot three-pointer demands a closeout, Ball is perfectly capable of causing disruption via dribble penetration. Even if the scouting report clearly states that his top priority attacking off the bounce is passing, it’s just very difficult for opponents not to try preventing him from reaching the basket, which as a result opens the big man roaming baseline at the dunker’s spot.
But in order to truly become the superstar Ball has shown he might be, he will need to be a lead ball handler who is responsible for igniting the chain of reactions that break down the defense late in games, when it’s more difficult to run deliberate offense. And even though he has his deficiencies as a scorer, Ball has a chance of developing into that player because he is one of those wizards who can anticipate passing lanes a split-second before they come open.
Much the same way Ben Simmons and Luka Doncic do, Ball can identify weak-side defenders taking an extra step inside too soon and get corner shooters a look without even necessarily needing to get deep into the lane and suck in the entire defense.
And when he does drive off the ball screen, his height helps him to see over traffic and he’s proven himself able to hit the big rolling to the basket on well timed lobs or pass across his body to the opposite end of the court, assisting on 31.4% of UCLA’s scores when he was on the floor – a fairly impressive high figure when you consider he didn’t get to monopolize possession off the ball within the Bruins’ motion-oriented offense.
That said, Ball’s risk taking approach, often looking to squeeze jaw-dropping passes into tight windows, has a cost and he turned it over on a third of his possessions creating out of the pick-and-roll – according to research by Draft Express.
On the other end, Ball’s upside is also playing purely as the one, defending opposing point guards, facilitating for his coach to surround him with more size on the wing and triggering the switching most teams are looking to pursue more and more these days.
The plan would be relying on his length to envelope these smaller players one-on-one and contest, block or deflect shots and passes from behind when they put him in the pick-and-roll.
Ball, however, may be at too much of a quickness disadvantage for that to be a sound strategy on an every night basis. De’Aaron Fox sure made it seem that way on his 39-point performance in the Sweet Sixteen. But it’s tough to tell for sure because Ball’s effort hasn’t always been up to a higher standard.
Ball certainly looked like he gave a crap on defense, a lot more than had been the case at Chino Hills, bending his knees to get in a stance and attempting to navigate over screens a fair amount. His intensity still wasn’t anywhere close to what you would see in a plus-defender, though, as there was also plenty of instances where he died on screens and put in great jeopardy the integrity of the scheme.
UCLA often hid him off the ball and that seems like it will be his destiny in the pros as well, based on what he’s shown so far. And as a weak-side defender, Ball showed instincts and used his length to make plays in the passing lanes, averaging 2.1 steals per 40 minutes, and helped finish a lot of possessions with his defensive rebounding, as mentioned earlier. As a result of his ability to create events, Ball actually ranked fourth on the team in defensive rating among rotation players.
The problem there as well is if Ball ends up on a wing who can drive at him. His length and decent lateral quickness should help staying in front of most players his own size but he has a thin 190-pound frame in the context of his six-foot-six height and generally doesn’t play with any force or toughness, lacking strength to have any hope of containing dribble penetration through contact.
Ball ranks second on Draft Express’ top 100 and under that scenario, four teams have the best odds of drafting him – according to Tankathon:
BOSTON CELTICS (via Brooklyn, 21.5% chance at the second pick): Boston would probably be the best possible scenario for Ball to land with, not just because they are a very good team already but because they are a team with a clear need for what he does and have a roster tailor-made to cover up his weaknesses.
For the third straight year the Celtics have struggled during the postseason when Isaiah Thomas rests, as Marcus Smart just hasn’t developed into a lead ball handler who can run a viable offense against these types of better-prepared defenses. Ball could fill this void, while surrounded by some combination of Smart, Avery Bradley, Jaylen Brown and Jae Crowder protecting him on defense.
Perhaps pairing Thomas and Ball for long stretches will prove untenable on defense but if those wings and Al Horford/Ante Zizic can make it viable, then they could surely fit on offense, much in the same way Ball did well at UCLA while paired with Holiday.
Ball’s already shown he has no problem fitting into a motion-oriented offense, will provide gravity when Thomas is on the ball and can set up the offense when Thomas sprints around staggered screens to catch the ball on grab-and-go’s, which the Celtics do a fair amount.
Then when it’s time for Boston to consider re-signing Thomas to a lucrative long-term contract in the summer of 2018, perhaps hesitant about how someone with his stature might age, Ball’s presence should expand their set of options.
PHOENIX SUNS (18.8%): It’s complicated.
Eric Bledsoe and Brandon Knight are under contract for multiple seasons. Bledsoe even had a bit of a comeback year this season before Phoenix decided to just cut it short one month before the end in an attempt to lose every game the rest of the way.
But it’s unclear how much does it matter.
Technically, Ball can play with both of them. He can spot up off the ball and attack a scrambling defense with Bledsoe initiating offense and then run the show when Knight subs in, as he’s done better in the pros as an off guard.
But the likelihood is those vets will be traded sooner rather than later if the Suns can land Ball, as they’ve proven with the decisions they’ve indicated this last year (their signings policy, their coaching hire, their minutes distribution) that the intention is to go through a full rebuild.
Building a team around the basketball IQs of Ball and Dragan Bender has tremendous upside but Phoenix’s front office will need to go to work on collecting the athletes and shooters needed to supplement those two. Marquese Chriss and Devin Booker are already in place but they will obviously need more. Perhaps the fliers they took on potential placeholders like Elijah Millsap and Jarrell Eddie can be seen as a first step.
Under that direction, Alex Len and TJ Warren will be tough fits and will probably need to be moved on from eventually. Len as soon as this summer, as he’ll be a restricted free agent.
LOS ANGELES LAKERS (15.7%): The Lakers took a full season to collect information on their prospects and came out of it without any clear answers.
D’Angelo Russell ran point for most of the year but didn’t seem to meet Luke Walton’s expectations and was eventually moved to a different role late in the season, when it was Jordan Clarkson’s time to get a chance to run the show in uninspiring fashion.
Brandon Ingram was pretty bad for the most part, except for that last month where it’s difficult to tell what’s real and what’s not because so many teams stop trying.
Julius Randle collected numbers but it’s still unclear how he fits on a modern lineup, as he’s unable to protect the rim and doesn’t yet shoot three-pointers.
So, with that as the case, there’s nothing that should prevent the Lakers from drafting Ball if they have the chance and feel like he’s the best option available. He should certainly fit the way Walton would like this team to play on offense.
That said, adding Ball won’t quite help what was the worst defense in the league last season, ranking 30th in scoring allowed per possession. What that means is sooner rather than later they will have to consider moving two of Russell, Clarkson and Randle, as building a good defense around them surrounding Ball is probably unlikely.
PHILADELPHIA 76ERS (12.6%): We know what Sam Hinkie would do if Ball is the best rated player on their board when the Sixers are on the clock but Brian Colangelo’s priorities aren’t yet clear.
And the thing is Philadelphia just can’t catch enough of a break to head in a specific direction.
The fit of Ball with Ben Simmons can work fine on offense but would be very challenging on defense, as Simmons needs more of a 3&D point guard to supplement him and Ball is missing half of that skill-set. But if Joel Embiid is back and he is real and he is reliable, then it could be a worthy experiment.
When Embiid was on the court this season, the 76ers defended at an elite level and he really only had Robert Covington and TJ McConnell helping him out.
But it will probably always be unknown to which extent Embiid can be counted on and Philly gave up their hedge for his unavailability in exchange for Justin Anderson and two second round picks. Meanwhile, Jahlil Okafor is yet to show he’s interested in playing any sort of defense, even when he’s been the top center available and the one responsible for leading their efforts on that end.
As it’s always been the case in Philadelphia, it’s just hard to say what would make the most sense in a team context because they’ve never had the building blocks all healthy long enough at same time to figure anything out.
 He turns 20 in October
 He also hit a good deal of contested shots off the catch as well but it’s tougher to have an expectation those will translate
Editor’s Note: Rafael Uehara is the managing editor of ‘Basketball Scouting’. More of his work can be found here or at RealGM, where he is a regular contributor. He can be followed on twitter as @rafael_uehara