NEW YORK – The first thing that strikes you when watching Lonzo Ball is that he is very … average. That’s not a slight. Name more than a handful of rookies who have entered the league as anything but a deeply flawed player? Even LeBron James shot 29 percent from three.
That’s Ball. He’s a spindly 6-foot-6, 190-pound playmaker with an awkward shot and an incomplete game. Is his stroke broken? Who knows? Ball made 41.2 percent of his threes with that hitchy jumper at UCLA last season. Two reasons NBA teams advocate a shot change: If it doesn’t go in, and if you can’t get it off. Ball’s shooting has been erratic, but it’s way too soon to advocate for an overhaul. Pretty isn’t a requisite for an NBA jumper — Shawn Marion, Kevin Martin and Reggie Miller can attest to that.
The Knicks clipped the Lakers 113-109 in overtime on Tuesday in a game of little consequence. The win kept New York in the eighth spot in the East; the loss pushed the Lakers a few games back of the final playoff spot in the West. For many of the 19,359 stuffed into Madison Square Garden for this ESPN-televised event — and with more than a few sporting No. 2 Lakers and UCLA jerseys — this was about getting a first look at Ball, L.A.’s polarizing rookie.
And he was good. Ball’s final stat line: 17-points, eight rebounds and six assists. He split his six three-point attempts and finished 6-of-13 from the floor. He had some nice moments, like a two-minute stretch in the third quarter when he chipped in seven points and assisted on another three. And he had some rough moments, particularly defensively, when Frank Ntilikina occasionally overwhelmed him and bigger Knicks guards would overpower him.
“Lonzo makes the right pass 98 percent of the time,” a veteran scout who studied Ball on the Lakers’ recent East Coast swing told Yahoo Sports. “A lot of times they are passes most guys don’t see. I’d like to see him shoot the ball better. I think it’s more of a confidence thing. Every time he misses a shot, it seems like he feels the weight of the world on top of him. He knows everyone talks about it.
“But I love his rebounding ability as a point guard. A lot of his success is going to be predicated on the players they put around him. He can get guys open shots, but it won’t matter if they aren’t hitting them.”
Ball haters are an interesting bunch. Point guard is the most difficult position for a young player to learn — and one of the most challenging in all of pro sports. Russell Westbrook is a great point guard, right? Westbrook averaged 15.3 points while making 27.1 percent of his threes in his first season. What about Jason Kidd? First-ballot Hall of Famer soon. His first year: 11.7 points, 27.2 percent from three.
Ball is a triple-double threat — he became the youngest player in NBA history to collect one last month — and he’s doing it with a target on his back that Christian Hackenberg couldn’t miss. The LaVar Ball Show rolled through New York on Tuesday, with LaVar telling ESPN that the Lakers asked him to cool his public criticism of coach Luke Walton. LaVar downplayed the meeting, but throw LaVar’s Walton beef on the pile with crazy Lonzo comparisons to Stephen Curry and a general detachment from reality.
One rival exec compared Lonzo’s potential problems with the Lakers to Eric Lindros’ with the NHL’s Philadelphia Flyers. Lindros’ overbearing parents — who reportedly kept charts on who passed Lindros the puck, and who didn’t — destroyed his relationship with the Flyers. If the relationship between LaVar and the Lakers continues to sour, the exec said, Lonzo may have to step in.
“If it starts to affect his relationships with his coaches and teammates, he is going to have to step in and say, ‘This is my job, stop [screwing] with it,’” the exec told Yahoo Sports.
If Lonzo is affected by the circus around him — which includes his younger brothers, LiAngelo and LaMelo, signing with a team in Lithuania — he doesn’t show it. Some 30 minutes after the Lakers’ loss, Ball leaned back in his locker, his left knee wrapped in ice, a purple towel around his waist. He pushed in a pair of wireless earbuds as his teammates hurriedly dressed around him. Later, he deadpanned through a 3-½ minute interview, praising Ntilikina (“He is a great player.”), acknowledging his first time playing at MSG (“It was a lot of fun.”), while shrugging at LaVar’s demonstrative nature on the sidelines (“I like his energy, some don’t.”).
There are plenty of questions about Ball, but inconsistent play in a rookie season isn’t one of them. There’s a natural talent in Ball, a rare playmaking skill that’s evident. If off-the-court issues don’t derail Ball, there’s no stopping him from becoming one of the NBA’s better players on it.
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