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BOSTON — Lonzo Ball can’t shoot. At least that’s the word making its way through NBA circles this season, and it’s made its way back to the Los Angeles Lakers rookie, taking up space in his brain.
“It’s just in my head to be honest,” Ball said from TD Garden after another abysmal shooting performance in a 107-96 loss to a depleted Boston Celtics roster. “I know I can shoot the ball.”
Ball entered the game shooting a hair below 30 percent from the field, and then lowered that mark with a 4-for-15 effort against the Celtics. The highly touted rookie finished 3-for-8 at the rim, where even a 50 percent mark is considered subpar in the NBA, and he was 1-for-7 from everywhere else.
This? This is not good:
Ball stood in stark contrast to Celtics rookie Jayson Tatum, who is shooting better than 50 percent from 3-point range on nearly three attempts per game and whose absence after injuring his ankle against the Lakers was palpable from the moment he went to the locker room and L.A. made its run.
“I started off not very aggressive, and I could kind of feel that,” said Ball, “so I tried to pick it up, but I wasn’t hitting shots.”
We’re less than two weeks removed from Lakers coach Luke Walton assuring us he’s not concerned about Ball’s jumper. Since then, Ball took just two shots against the Portland Trail Blazers, missing both to become the first top-five pick to go scoreless in at least 28 minutes since 1992, and then followed that up with 3-for-15 and 3-for-13 outings against the Brooklyn Nets and Memphis Grizzlies.
Still, Walton assured us, via the Los Angeles Times, that there’s no reason to be alarmed. “Hopefully soon; hopefully in Boston it will turn around,” the coach said. “But I know that he’s out here working. I know that he’s been a good shooter his whole life. I’ve seen him make 10 straight spot shooting. He’s got the skill and the ability. It will only be a matter of time when that percentage starts to go up.”
That’s also when Ball first mentioned, “I think it’s just in my head.”
Then came the Boston outing, and it’s more than just in his head. It’s on the forefront of the NBA consciousness. He owns the league’s worst shooting percentage at the rim (38.8 percent) among players who have attempted at least 30 shots in the restricted area, he’s among the NBA’s worst mid-range shooters (30.8 percent) on a limited number of attempts, and he’s the league’s worst 3-pointer shooter (23.1 percent) among those who’ve attempted at least 50 shots from distance. It gets worse.
He owns the worst catch-and-shoot percentage among players who’ve taken at least 20 such shots, and he’s on the short list of worst pull-up shooters, too. He’s only shooting better than 40 percent on one shot type (tip-ins) and one area on the floor (the left corner 3), and he’s only 1-for-2 on both.
Ball is 21-for-64 from the field (32.8 percent) and 11-for-45 from 3 (24.4 percent) on open or wide-open shots (closer defender 4-feet-plus away), according to NBA.com/stats. His 29.5 field-goal percentage would be the worst such mark for a rookie since Dick Dickey in 1951-52, per Basketball Reference.
NBA teams are well aware of this growing data, and they’re going to sag off of him until he proves he can make them pay. Take this play late in the third quarter when the Lakers were threatening and Marcus Smart just left Ball all alone to go double-team Jordan Clarkson on the other side of the floor:
Against the Celtics, Ball often times wasn’t even willing to try and make them pay when wide open:
Making matters worse, when defenders actually step out on Lonzo, they’re daring him to go right. The Ringer’s Kevin O’Connor predicted this would happen during Ball’s freshman season at UCLA, as defenses are better designed in the NBA and scouts would pick up on the fact that Ball’s awkward right-handed shot that starts from his left hip and releases from the left side of his head is only really effective when he goes left. His 41.2 percent shooting from distance in college was a mirage as a result.
And if teams didn’t know already, Charles Barkley spelled it out for them on national TV last week:
“He’s got this defect in his game, because he can only shoot the ball from the left side of his body,” Barkley said. “So, he can only shoot going left, because he can’t go right because he’s bringing the ball from over here. So he’s only half of a player right now and guys are taking half of his body away.”
So, while Walton may insist that Ball’s jumper isn’t a problem, it is. We know this because Walton and president of basketball operations Magic Johnson are already tinkering with his shooting process.
“I’m just trying to work on balance,” Ball said from Boston in response to questions about his shot. “That’s what Luke and Magic have been telling me. Most of the problem right now is just balance.”
Everyone from Sports Illustrated to the Washington Post and even the Wall Street Journal has examined whether or not Ball can succeed as a shooter with his awkward shooting form. Milwaukee Bucks coach Jason Kidd, whose playmaking skills and early career shooting woes have drawn comparisons to Ball, certainly seems to think Ball needs a complete overhaul of that ugly jumper Cleveland Cavaliers superstar LeBron James appeared to mock during a warmup session last season.
“Yeah, I think you got to try to fix it because there’s going to be times when the defense is going to sit on it,” Kidd said in September. “Being a young player in this league, you don’t understand, ‘How can I make the game easier for you?’ Because you rely on your talent. But as veterans, those words are key because if you can make the game easier for me, I can play longer and I can be more efficient. So for Ball, I think you got to look at him being able to work on the jump shot because of being able to only go one way without it being defended well.”
In the past, Kidd had said of Ball, “He may be better than I am,” but after 11 games, the Bucks coach told ESPN’s “First Take” on Thursday morning any comparison is premature. “That’s a stretch,” he said.
Whether it’s the mechanics, his confidence or a combination of those factors, Ball can’t afford to allow his current 11-game sample size to snowball into the future, because the defense’s ability to dictate where he operates on the floor will begin to take away the one skill that makes him special — passing.
Ball admits he’s been overly passive, telling ESPN this past weekend, “Everybody is playing me for the pass so if I can get into the lanes, I have to take advantage of that.” Yet, even in the Celtics game, Ball could be seen deferring to teammates when he had a path to the basket, and defenses will seize on those drive-and-kicks when they sense you’re afraid to attack. He may have finished with six assists against the Celtics, but four of them were just passes to another teammate on the perimeter.
Ball is by no means a bust 11 games in. He’s already proven dazzling at times, especially in transition:
“He’s 6-6, unbelievable in transition, understanding that he wants to get his teammates involved,” said Celtics point guard Kyrie Irving, who put on a dazzling playmaking display in the victory against the Lakers. “Can you really put a position on him, particularly right now? I don’t know, but he does a great job of running that team. And when he starts to get comfortable and the pace starts to pick up, that’s where he starts to flourish, when it’s going up and down and he’s got to make quick decisions.”
But there are fewer transition opportunities when your team can’t get stops, as was the case early against the Celtics. “Every time we come out, we have to hit first,” said Ball. “If we don’t, we’re going to get punched like we did tonight, and it’s hard to get back. I felt like we were just laxed out there, we weren’t playing defense, and every time you don’t play defense, the offense struggles a lot.”
Individually, Ball hasn’t proven to be a great one-on-one defender, and the Lakers’ offense and defense has been slightly better when he’s off the floor as a result. Don’t expect it to get any easier.
“Defensively, he’s going to be challenged every single night,” said Irving.
It hasn’t helped that opposing defenders are relishing the opportunity to make Ball look silly as a result of his father’s blustering over the past year. Patrick Beverley was first, and Smart is the latest:
Same goes for opposing arenas. The Boston crowd booed Ball every time he touched the ball before the Celtics lead ballooned to double digits. Said Ball: “I’ve been getting booed every time I go away.”
The treatment has gotten so bad that at least one opposing player sort of feels bad for Ball.
“I told Lonzo at the end of the game, man, I’m kind of rooting for him, because he’s a good kid” said Celtics forward Marcus Morris. “It’s just his dad. His dad has a big mouth. Everybody knows it. It’s not a bad thing. If I had my dad, I wish he would be like that, too, because if anybody loves you, it’s going to be your father and he’s always going to show tough love.
“So, he’s pretty good. His dad might think he’s better, which he should, but he has a long time in the league. He’s a young guy, and it kind of sucks that he has to go everywhere and they’re just booing and booing and booing him. He’s a regular player like the rest of us. I think it’s more of the Celtics and Lakers relationship. Hopefully that doesn’t happen everywhere, but if it does, man, I guess he should just talk to his father.”
Irving wasn’t prepared to go so far as feeling bad for Ball. “Why would I feel?” said Kyrie. “Nah, man.”
For his part, Ball is trying to keep a level head about it. “It’s a long season,” he said. “You just gotta stay positive, keep putting in work, and it’s going to show for itself. Obviously right now I’m not making no shots, but I’m going to keep shooting.”
Lonzo Ball can shoot. At least that’s what the Lakers rookie is telling himself.
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