Why Luke Walton and the Lakers won't bench the struggling Lonzo Ball

Ball Don't Lie
<a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/ncaab/players/136151/" data-ylk="slk:Lonzo Ball">Lonzo Ball</a> has ridden the bench in each of the Lakers’ last two fourth quarters. (Getty)
Lonzo Ball has ridden the bench in each of the Lakers’ last two fourth quarters. (Getty)

Lonzo Ball’s going through it, right now. His unstoppable ride to superstardom, the one loudly spoken into existence and repeated on every available platform by his inimitable father, has hit a pretty significant speed bump in the form of a shooting slump for the ages.

The No. 2 pick in the 2017 NBA draft, who shot 55 percent from the floor, 41 percent from 3-point range and 67 percent at the foul line at UCLA, has made only 30 percent of his field goals, 23 percent of his long-range tries and 50 percent of his free throws through 15 NBA games. Add it all up, and Ball’s got a True Shooting percentage (a stat that takes into account 2-point, 3-point and free-throw accuracy) of 36.4 percent — the lowest mark turned in by any rookie clocking at least 30 minutes per game since Woody Sauldsberry of the Philadelphia Warriors all the way back in the 1957-58 season.

Yes, it’s been a half-century since a big-minutes freshman has shot this badly. This is not the kind of history LaVar Ball predicted his oldest son would make.

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In each of the Los Angeles Lakers’ last two games — Monday’s win over the Phoenix Suns and Wednesday’s loss at the hands of Joel Embiid and the Philadelphia 76ers — L.A. head coach Luke Walton parked Ball on the bench for the entire fourth quarter. With games in the balance, he’s preferred to run the offense through sixth man Jordan Clarkson and second-year forward Brandon Ingram, both of whom have been better equipped to threaten defenses than the rook who can’t shoot straight.

But while Walton has gone away from Lonzo at the end of games this week — and while the Lakers have, thus far, been more than nine points per 100 possessions better with Ball off the floor than on it this season — he made it clear Thursday, ahead of yet another tilt with the Suns on Friday, that he doesn’t plan to do so at the opening tip. From Shahan Ahmed of NBC Los Angeles:

“He’s our starting point guard,” Los Angeles Lakers coach Luke Walton said, almost struggling at the thought of being asked about Ball possibly going to the bench to ease the immense pressure the rookie has been under. “There’re no talks as of now of moving Lonzo to the bench.”

Walton repeated, almost laughing off the thought, “He’s our starting point guard.”

He’ll keep that role, at least in part, because Walton continues to see Ball put in the work to try to right his listing ship. More from Ahmed:

When Walton turned up at the facility for practice on Thursday, Ball had already arrived early. The coach soon learned that the no. 2 pick in the 2017 NBA draft had visited the Lakers’ facility to shoot the lights out after Wednesday’s game and then came back early on Thursday to shoot the lights back on. Evidently, Ball didn’t sleep well following the poor outing, and the experience may have changed him.

“His energy seemed a little, not the same playful, joyful Lonzo that he normally is,” Walton said on Thursday. “But that could be a good thing, that he’s frustrated or mad a little bit.”

Walton also allowed for the possibility that Ball’s mind could be cluttered by the situation involving his younger brother, LiAngelo Ball, who was one of three UCLA players arrested last week for shoplifting sunglasses in Hangzhou, China. After being released and detained in their team hotel, Ball and teammates Cody Riley and Jalen Hill returned to Los Angeles on Tuesday. One day later, UCLA suspended all three players indefinitely.

From Ohm Youngmisuk of ESPN.com:

“It’s got to [weigh on Lonzo],” Walton said. “It’s family and they’re a close family. So obviously growing up together and whatnot, if my younger brother was in China being arrested, that would weigh on me. So again, [it’s] speculation. You’ve got to ask Lonzo; he’s the only one who can tell you that. But I would imagine.”

Whatever the root cause of Ball’s woes — concern for his brother, suffocating attention and 24/7 all-angles coverage (for which, yes, his father does bear at least some responsibility), a fundamental flaw in his funky across-the-body shooting form that allows defenses to all but eliminate the threat of him going to his right — they’ve persisted. Just as importantly, though, so has Lonzo.

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After Patrick Beverley welcomed him to the NBA by eating him alive, Ball bounced back with 29 points on 27 shots, 11 rebounds and nine assists the next night. After conceding in Boston that his shooting troubles were weighing on his mind, he flirted with a triple-double against the Washington Wizards and got one against the Milwaukee Bucks. As I wrote earlier this week, Ball’s doing a pretty darn good job of checking off other boxes — playmaking, rebounding, defensive work — even as he continues his masonry apprenticeship.

“I’m going to keep shooting,” Ball told Shams Charania of The Vertical in Milwaukee. “My teammates, my coaches, everybody — they know I can shoot. They see it in practice.”

That’s exactly what Walton wants: for Ball to keep the faith, keep firing and keep doing everything else he’s been doing, believing that eventually the results will line up with the process.

“He’s a confident young man, as he should be,” Walton said, according to Bill Oram of the Orange County Register. “He’s very good at the game of basketball. What he’s already accomplished in these games, getting a triple-double, rebounding the way he is against the bigs in this league. The assists he’s putting up. That’s really impressive for a 20-year-old point guard to be able to do.”

And that’s why — for now, at least — Walton’s going to keep giving Lonzo the keys to the Lakers, trusting that talent and hard work will eventually dispel the fog that’s enveloped one of the sport’s most closely watched young players. As the saying goes, when you’re going through hell, keep going. And, damn it, keep shooting.

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Dan Devine is an editor for Ball Don’t Lie on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at devine@yahoo-inc.com or follow him on Twitter!

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