2017 NBA Draft: Pros and Cons of LA Lakers Drafting Lonzo Ball with No. 2 Pick
The Los Angeles Lakers cleared their biggest hurdle of the 2017 NBA offseason with some needed lottery luck. They not only retained their top-three protected pick, they managed to move up into the No. 2 slot.
Unless the Boston Celtics—or a potential trade partner—are Big Baller Brand fanatics, that should put the Lakers in Lonzo Ball territory. Whether that actually puts the Chino Hills hooper in a Lakers jersey may not be as cut and dried as his outspoken father seems to think.
As with any NBA draft prospect, Ball has his strengths and weaknesses. The Lakers, buried in a franchise-worst four-year playoff drought, have a bevy of issues that need correcting. They also have until June 22 to decide whether Ball is the right prospect to help them get back on track.
We're here to assist in that evaluation process. By weighing the biggest pros and cons involved in drafting Ball, we can help determine whether the 6'6" point guard with the funky shooting form should be the choice once L.A. is on the clock.
Pro: He's Their Missing Playmaker
Over the past 24 months, the Lakers have invested a No. 2 pick on a point guard and snagged their head coach from a staff overseeing the league's best ball movement. It hasn't been enough.
They finished the 2016-17 season with bottom-third rankings in offensive rating (103.4, 24th), assist percentage (53.2, 26th) and assists per turnover (1.38, 28th), per NBA.com. Their point guards carried a collective scoring mentality and finished with the position's ninth-most points (25.4) but the fifth-fewest assists (7.3) and sixth-most turnovers (4.0), per HoopsStats.com.
They need someone capable of tying the roster together, and Ball—the best playmaker in this prospect batch—could be their Lebowski rug. The point guard led the NCAA in assists (7.7) and quarterbacked the second-most efficient offense, per kenpom.com. His vision, creativity and selflessness have elicited comparisons to Magic Johnson, even from L.A.'s president of basketball operations himself.
As CBS Sports' Brad Botkin observed, Ball already looks like an NBA-caliber initiator:
"He just feels the game, really understands pace and movement, both ball and player, and he's a savant passer. He'll make the flashy drive and dish, but he'll also make the simple swing pass or just keep the ball moving in the half court, and he can be Jason Kidd-like in the open floor. That's not an overstatement. He can be the best player on the floor without looking to score."
No other prospect would jump-start Luke Walton's offensive overhaul quite like Ball. As his teammates discovered that good positioning and strong cuts would be rewarded with touches, the offensive stickiness could clean up quickly.
And the entire operation should move faster, which would better tap into this wealth of young, athletic talent. The Lakers already piled in the sixth-most fast-break points this past season (15.2), but a discerning distributor like Ball should be able to uncover a new level of open-court potency.
Con: Big Baller Bedlam
There is no rulebook on prospect parenthood, but it's hard to remember a progenitor as public as LaVar Ball. Cameras and microphones have a way of gravitating toward the patriarch, and he consistently sparks viral blazes with boasts about his son's skills or outrageous claims about his own game.
It's hard to tell how much, if at all, LaVar's mouth has impacted Lonzo's stock. There are certainly far worse red flags to have, and many are routinely overlooked for elite talent. And, for what it's worth, Lonzo appreciates the sentiment.
"I know how he's been since Day 1, it's just that now all of America gets to see him because he's on the TV all the time," Lonzo told reporters in April, per Tania Ganguli of the Los Angeles Times. "I know he loves exposure, so it's good for him and I just hope he stays the same. I don't want my dad to change.”
But no matter how this is packaged—parental support, business marketing—it still is an unnecessary distraction. For a Lakers team with a young roster, a second-year head coach and a rookie front office, there could be apprehensions over potential interference. With the way LaVar generates clicks, it's not like his public platform is going away, particularly if Lonzo sticks in L.A.
"If you don’t play him the right way, is the father going to say something?" a Western Conference scout said, per Marc Berman of the New York Post. "And you don't want to have him on a big stage. ... You're always thinking: What's next?"
Not to mention, Lonzo now enters the league under an intensely burning spotlight. Being a high pick already puts a target on a player's back, but when everyone has seen the claims that this 19-year-old is better than LeBron James or Stephen Curry, they're all going to try to make their own statements against him.
"Guys aren't just gonna go at him, they're gonna go at him," former Laker Sam Perkins told USA Today's Scott Gleeson. "All I'm saying is he is gonna get his initiation from Isaiah [Thomas] to Curry to LeBron."
Pro: His Shooting Will Help Lakers Offense Breathe
Aesthetics aside, though, it's a lethal shot. During his lone season at UCLA, Ball fired 5.4 long-range looks a night and converted them at a 41.2 percent clip.
The Lakers, who were 19th in makes and 22nd in percentage, only had one player match Ball's three-point volume and efficiency—Nick Young, who has indicated he may seek a change of address in free agency. The next closest was journeyman Tyler Ennis, who is bound for unrestricted free agency. D'Angelo Russell paced their players still under contract with 2.1 makes and a 35.2 percent success rate.
Ball's wonky form might muddle his in-between effectiveness, but he's prolific from the areas that analytics fans prefer. And the fact he can finish both outside and at the rim makes him a reliable off-ball threat, which should only increase the effectiveness of Russell, Jordan Clarkson, Brandon Ingram and Julius Randle attacking off the dribble.
"Ball's statistical profile is that of an elite jump-shooter—for a point guard—who rarely messes around with mid-range attempts and has NBA range on his threes," Luke Winn of Sports Illustrated wrote.
While lacking a primary setup man, the Lakers have a slew of secondary playmakers. It's just that those players need better targets for their passes, evidenced by the team's meager 21.2 catch-and-shoot points per game (29th overall). Put Ball on the receiving end of those opportunities, and that number could spike quickly.
Con: He Won't Fix the Broken Defense
One player can only do so much to help stop the bleeding. Still, having a Josh Jackson to corral elite perimeter threats or a De'Aaron Fox to harass opposing point guards—like he did Ball in their Sweet 16 meeting—would be a start.
Having Ball, on the other hand, would just mean having an offense-first guard on a team that already has too many of them.
"A backcourt of D'Angelo Russell and Lonzo is going to get killed defensively," The Ringer's Jonathan Tjarks wrote, "and the Lakers don't really have much shot-blocking up front to cover for them."
To be fair, Ball has some defensive strengths. He can kickstart transition attacks with steals (1.8), blocks (0.8) and defensive boards (5.1), directly unlocking the best area of his game.
But he doesn't have the quick-twitch athleticism to stay in front of speedy point guards, and physicality can be an issue against stronger guards and screeners. His ideal NBA setting would feature a backcourt partner who could handle defensive assignments of all types, but the Lakers can't give him that.
If L.A. can't field a competent defense with Russell and Ball at the guard spots, it could be forced to trade one. That's not necessarily the end of the world, but it would sting for a couple reasons. Compiling a slew of defensive lowlights wouldn't exactly boost their trade value, and parting with an early pick this soon could appear shortsighted if that player excels elsewhere.
Verdict: He's Worth the Risk
Clubs selecting this early in the draft should adhere to the best-player-available policy. Ideally, that player also addresses some type of need.
Assuming Markelle Fultz comes off the board first, Ball would best check both boxes for the Lakers. They want to run as much as possible, then use movement and spacing to juice their half-court game. Those are all among the greatest strengths possessed by the hometown hooper with the $495 kicks.
He seems ready for all the pressure that would be awaiting him in Hollywood. He's never shied away from his father's fanfaronade—in fact, he's done some boasting of his own—nor let all the attention adversely affect him. He's comfortable enough in the spotlight to drop a freestyle and put out a signature shoe before playing an NBA second.
Even with some concerns about his game, Ball has qualities that could work as the Lakers' franchise face. There's no guarantee they have drafted that player yet, so anyone with an upside that high holds obvious and perhaps ample appeal.
The on-court marriage isn't quite perfect—half-court scoring and backcourt defense could both remain struggles—but the biggest elements of it are close. If nothing else, a quick and savvy decision-maker like Ball should help give Los Angeles an identity closer to what Walton has envisioned.