Best- and Worst-Case Scenarios for Lonzo Ball's Rookie Season with Lakers

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistAugust 24, 2017

Best- and Worst-Case Scenarios for Lonzo Ball's Rookie Season with Lakers

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    On the Lonzo Ball hype scale, Los Angeles Lakers head coach Luke Walton might have the tamest internal take of all.

    The skipper described the No. 2 overall pick as "the type of player that, when he's on the floor, all four guys out there with him become better instantly," per Greg Beacham of the Associated Press (h/t NBA.com).

    That's still lofty praise for an unproven player, but it pales in comparison to some of the other expectations set forth—like Lonzo leading a 2018 playoff charge or immediately assuming control of the storied franchise.

    The hope surrounding L.A.'s prized prospect has already reached a fever pitch. The reality, though, is clouded in the murky abyss known as the crystal ball.

    Lonzo could key the Lakers' next climb to greatness. Or he might fizzle out in spectacular fashion.

    His reality will probably land somewhere in between. But the extreme possibilities are far more interesting, so we're loading up our fire-take cannon and shelling out the best and worst projections for Ball's rookie run.


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Best: He Leads All Rookies in Assists...By a Mile

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    The praise for Ball's passing always rings hyperbolic.

    Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka likened it to the quarterbacking prowess of the New England Patriots' Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers of the Green Bay Packers, per ESPN.com's Baxter Holmes. An Eastern Conference coach said Ball has a "sixth sense...a great understanding, great anticipation," per ESPN.com's Ohm Youngmisuk.

    The numbers say the superlatives are warranted.

    Last season, the then-freshman led the nation with 7.6 assists per game. In addition, he quarterbacked UCLA to the country's second-best offensive efficiency, 49 spots better than it fared the previous year, per KenPom.com.

    The NBA Summer League followed the same script. Ball not only paced all players with 9.3 helpers per game, his assist average was the highest recorded in the event's history. He topped 10 dimes in four games; no other rookie had ever done so more than once, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

    Ball's vision, selflessness and creativity form one of the most prolific passing packages seen in any recent prospect. His hit-ahead outlets and high-speed decision-making are perfect fits for a Lakers offense that played at the sixth-fastest speed last season and wants to increase the tempo.

    All signs point to Lonzo leading the first-year field in assists. And even though four other floor generals were taken in the top 10, this may not be a close race.

Worst: He Can't Create His Own Shots

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    Funky shooting forms are nothing new to the NBA. (Thinking of you, Shawn Marion.) And they don't automatically portend perimeter struggles. (Kevin Martin looked like a shooting coach's nightmare, but was actually a career 38.4 percent three-point sniper.)

    So, it's hard to gauge how problematic—if at all—Ball's unorthodox release really is. Basically, he's a righty who triggers his shots on his left side. The final product is fine in terms of arc and rotation, but it takes time for the cross-body alignment and ends with a low release point.

    That didn't stop him from striping 41.2 percent of his threes as a Bruin, many of which were launched from NBA range. But it's a potential problem in his off-the-dribble game, where he's already limited by less-than-elite explosiveness and rudimentary handles.

    "Except for using a step-back jumper, which takes some time to get off, Ball doesn't create his own shot inside the arc," Bleacher Report's Jonathan Wasserman wrote. "He hit the 20-point mark six times as a freshman, but only thanks to accurate three-point shooting. ... He won't put much pressure on the defense as a scorer on days his three-ball is off."

    It's fair to wonder how much that matters on a macro level. If Ball helps the Lakers institute an uptempo, free-flowing offense that elevates the players around him and eventually attracts top-tier talent, they'll gladly live with his shortcomings (and should have better crunch-time options, anyway).

    But through the micro lens that is the upcoming campaign, this is a concern. Since L.A. is more invested in his future than guys like Brook Lopez and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Ball could be immediately thrust into a prominent offensive position. And that would put his half-court weaknesses directly under Hollywood's searing spotlight.

Best: He Gives the Lakers Their Post-Kobe Identity

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    Jae C. Hong/Associated Press

    The Lakers have no problems displaying their plans for the hoops world to see, even if the transparency could be problematic in some cases.

    Take their play style, for instance. Their president of basketball operations, Magic Johnson, quarterbacked the famed run-and-gun Showtime offense during his playing days. Their coach, Luke Walton, honed his craft with the Golden State Warriors, who essentially rebooted and modernized that attack with the same stresses on pace and passing along with a heightened emphasis on perimeter shooting.

    L.A. knows what it wants to be, and Ball looks like the type of player who can take it there. If the Lakers follow his lead the way the Bruins did, they could skyrocket their 2016-17 rankings in assist percentage (53.2, 26th) and passes per game (292.8, 20th).

    "Ball's willingness to not only throw long baseball passes to teammates down court, but also give it up to teammates who aren't even in a scoring zone made passing contagious," Mike Schmitz wrote for DraftExpress. "He empowered teammates by giving it up quickly, and one simple pass quickly led to five in a row and a wide open three, leaving defenses spinning."

    The Lakers felt a similar influence en route to their summer league title. With Ball as the driving force, they used hot-potato passing as a way to unearth transition chances, alley-oop opportunities and clean outside looks.

    This franchise needs a basketball rebranding. It hasn't booked a playoff trip since 2013 or even found the footing needed to step outside of Kobe Bryant's shadow. With ambitious aims for 2018 free agency, the Lakers could use both excitement and a contagious system.

Worst: He Generates Fewer Headlines Than His Dad

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    There is no silencing Lonzo's carnival-barking father, LaVar. The elder Ball has yet to meet a microphone he doesn't like, and his absurd braggadocio can catch viral-fire in any sport.

    Lonzo is used to this already. The Lakers have maintained they aren't worried about any distractions and saw Ball's family support as another reason to draft him.

    There's a method to (most of) LaVar's madness, and it's all about the marketing needed to push a family-run shoe and apparel company onto the national stage. But now that Lonzo has the spotlight of a marquee market, will LaVar quiet down at all?

    Maybe the better question to ask is whether he can. If Lonzo struggles to get going, and LaVar isn't as loud and arrogant in front of the cameras, will media receive that as faltering confidence? And if his claims get less outlandish, will people stick around to hear them? If not, can Big Baller Brand survive with Lonzo as the lone marketing force?

    Truth be told, LaVar's boasts are fine (provided he avoids the cringe-worthy kind). But if they start distracting from Lonzo, that's a terrible sign. The younger Ball has Hollywood at his fingertips and a historic NBA franchise in his hands; everything is positioned for him to dominate Lakers coverage.

    Unless it becomes clear he lacks the necessary skills to lead this team. Or his father says something so controversial it pulls all focus off the court. Or worse, both things happen simultaneously.

Best: He Earns Rookie of the Year Honors

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    No sooner had Ball landed in L.A. than oddsmakers put the 6'6" floor general in pole position for the 2017-18 Rookie of the Year race. An MVP performance in Las Vegas helped extend his lead, as he's now the favorite at +175, per OddsShark. Dennis Smith Jr. of the Dallas Mavericks sits second at +325.

    Their fellow freshmen flipped the rankings, though. Partaking in NBA.com's annual rookie survey, they gave more support to Smith (25.7 percent) than Ball (20.0) for R.O.Y. honors, although they gave Ball the best odds—along with Jayson Tatum—at having the best career.

    But no matter how you peg this race right now, it's easy to see Ball is in one of the best positions to win it.

    "There is every reason to think that Ball will push the pace, fire up three-pointers and do what endeared him to Magic Johnson..." NBA.com's Fran Blinebury wrote. "If Magic can put enough of the right pieces around him, Ball is the kind of fire-starter that can burn down the house with enthusiasm and make the Lakers hot, hot, hot again."

    It's arguable no rookie has a better opportunity than Ball.

    The Lakers have already cleared his path to the starting lineup by dealing D'Angelo Russell, and the roster lacks a serious threat for playing time. Minutes won't be an issue, and neither will touches since L.A. wants its fresh face to establish a new style of play. Oh, and the Lakers are going to be live on national TV 35 times, so Ball will spend more of his campaign in front of voters than his competition.

Worst: He Hurts L.A.'s Chances in 2018 Free Agency

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    Even with the stars seemingly aligning for a Lakers splash next summer, they should know there are no free-agency guarantees.

    Their own recent history could tell them that much. They had salary cap space and SoCal amenities to sell in 2015 but couldn't convince Greg Monroe to choose them over the Milwaukee Bucks. They were again positioned to splurge last summer but had to settle for Luol Deng and Timofey Mozgov (at astronomic prices, no less).

    Granted, those Lakers didn't have Johnson and general manager Rob Pelinka at the helm. But the point is they need more than financial flexibility and built-in market advantages to attract elite talent.

    On-court success—or at least a realistic avenue to it—is necessary to snag a star. And Ball is responsible for making that a reality, both through his own transition to the big stage and his ability to boost the players around him. As ESPN.com's Ramona Shelburne observed, L.A.'s next chapter is intrinsically tied to Ball:

    "If Lonzo lives up to the faith the Lakers have shown in him—a tough proposition for any rookie, let alone a 19-year-old area native in his big-time hometown market—everything else they're dreaming of is possible—the superstars next summer, the return of Showtime, all of it.

    "If he doesn't, a lot more than their faith in him and Lakers exceptionalism will erode."

    Both the short- and long-term roads to relevance run directly through Ball. At least, they will as long as his play doesn't derail them.

                     

    Unless otherwise indicated, all stats from Basketball Reference or NBA.com.

    Zach Buckley covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @ZachBuckleyNBA.