A Five-Part Blueprint for Lonzo Ball to Win Rookie of the Year

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistSeptember 5, 2017

A Five-Part Blueprint for Lonzo Ball to Win Rookie of the Year

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    Lonzo Ball is still learning the ins and outs of NBA life.

    Sure, he flashed the on-court skills to secure MVP honors in summer league. But when he's putting himself in Lil B's crosshairs and potentially entering the league with a curse, you remember how much growing the 19-year-old has left to do.

    But that's the fun part about rookies. They aren't fully formed yet and have dozens of different career routes they can follow.

    We plotted one of those first-year paths here. And it's not just any road, but rather the one leading him directly to the 2017-18 Rookie of the Year award.

    The hardware is voted on subjectively and has no concrete criteria for winning, so our steps are more educated guesses than scientific facts. But by studying recent winners and examining Ball's opportunity and skill set, we have identified what needs to happen for him to take the trophy.

Let Someone Else Own the Scoring

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    Last season was the Lakers' fourth in a row with a bottom-10 offense (24th to be precise). So, maybe it's a good thing that three of their five highest scoring averages were held by players who have since skipped town.

    However, the need for a No. 1 option has been glaring since Father Time got the best of Kobe Bryant. And the best-case scenario for Ball involves someone else filling it.

    That might sound counterintuitive, as volume production often helps peg the R.O.Y. winner. But if Ball is leading L.A.'s scoring charge, something has gone wrong.

    For starters, that would mean Brook Lopez has probably taken a step back, while L.A.'s other youngsters have failed to step forward. Because, as Bleacher Report's Jonathan Wasserman wrote, Ball doesn't have the game of a go-to scorer:

    "Ball only made 12 shots all season that weren't layups/dunks or threes. NBA teams that value analytics may see that as a plus, but not having a mid-range game or the jets to explode past defenders suggests his ceiling as a scorer is lower. It's worth thinking about, considering every All-Star guard in 2017 averaged at least 20 points per game.

    "'Ball would fit best with a team that can surround him with scorers,' said one NBA scout."

    The more Ball is forced to find his own shot, the less he's doing what he does best: setting the table for others to feast. He wasn't the leading scorer at UCLA (where he earned All-America honors) or with the Lakers in summer league (where he was named MVP).

Lakers Finish No. 1 in Pace

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    When Ball gets bogged down in the half court, scouts question everything from his explosiveness to his handles and shot-creation chops. But let him fly in fast breaks, and he draws comparisons to Jason Kidd and Magic Johnson, who sit second and fifth, respectively, among the league's all-time assists leaders.

    Ball is a wizard in transition. The game seems to slow down as the pace increases.

    He diagrams plays several steps ahead, sees passing windows before they open and rifles the ball through them before defenses react. And he's so consistent with his rapid decision-making that his teammates will adjust their approaches to maximize the impact of his.

    "Guys want to get out on that break and run hard. They know Lonzo will find (them)," Johnson said, per Mark Medina of the Los Angeles Daily News. "Not just give (them) a pass, but a scoring pass. Some people can pass. Very few people can give you a scoring pass."

    Ball's UCLA Bruins rode those scoring passes to the nation's No. 2 offensive efficiency rating, per kenpom.com. L.A.'s summer iteration used them to capture the Las Vegas championship.

    And the big-leaguers are ready to run. The Lakers already played at the sixth-fastest speed last season and tallied the Association's sixth-most fast-break points (15.2). But they weren't a prolific passing team (26th in assist percentage) and struggled to convert their scoring chances (21st in field-goal percentage).

    With Ball at the wheel, L.A. should not only run faster but run with more of a purpose. Because if someone slips past the defense, the freshman floor general will hit them in stride. And if the Lakers are operating at the NBA's quickest tempo, Ball's stat line will benefit from the extra volume.

Funky Shooting Form Survives NBA Transition

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    If shooting forms are works of art, Lonzo's is as abstract as they come. Even his hype man/father, LaVar, has called it "an ugly-ass form," per Vice Sports' Sam Vecenie.

    Ball's motion has almost assuredly appeared in the nightmares of shooting coaches. He's a right-handed shooter, but he dips the ball to his left thigh and launches it from the left side of his face.

    It's an issue, though it's hard to say to what degree. His inside-the-arc game is limited because of it, as he can't pull up going to his right and usually needs a step-back to create enough space to pull the trigger.

    That said, the Lakers won't complain if he's only a scoring threat around the rim and outside. That's the formula he followed in college, when he hit a blistering 55.1 percent from the field and 41.2 percent outside. The last number wasn't a fluke either, as he averaged 2.5 triples per 40 minutes and took a lot of them from NBA range.

    But he needs to sustain his outside success, something he couldn't do in Sin City (10-of-42, 23.8 percent).

    Without an in-between game, he needs a potent perimeter shot to reach the points required to earn R.O.Y. honors (15.1 or better in 13 of the last 14 seasons). And it will have to come from his unorthodox form, because Ball has too much on his plate to also endure a shooting overhaul.

    "It would be unfair to just stay, 'Stop right now and change everything,'" a Western Conference shooting coach told Bleacher Report's Ric Bucher. "That's what I wouldn't do."

Leads Rookies in Multiple Categories

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    The rookie assists race should be close. With five point guards taken among the top nine picks in this draft and last year's No. 1 selection6'10" playmaker Ben Simmons—still qualifying as a first-timer, there's a wealth of new passing talent entering the league.

    But does anyone expect Ball not to lead the category?

    Wasserman gave Ball the nod and said he'll "threaten to finish top seven in the league." B/R's Adam Fromal has Ball down for 8.2 helpers, which would be the most by a rookie since John Wall averaged 8.3 in 2010-11. One executive told The Vertical's Chris Mannix that Ball is a "once-every-10-years type of passer," while Lakers summer league coach Jud Buechler called him "one of the best passers I've seen at this level."

    Ball led the nation in dime-dropping during his lone season of college ball. He then had four outings with double-digit assists in Vegas—three more than any other rookie has ever produced there.

    There's every reason to believe Ball will blow away the distributing field. But doing what's expected may not be enough to claim the hardware.

    Put him atop one more stat category, and that could do it.

    Maybe he rides his catch-and-shoot game to a first-place finish in made threes or perimeter percentage. He might have the size, quickness and instincts to capture the steals crown. With a super-sized opportunity awaiting him, he shouldn't be prematurely ruled out of the rookie scoring race, either.

Lakers Post Best Record in Five Years

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    Team success isn't a requirement for R.O.Y. contention. High-level draft picks typically join struggling squads, and no one expects immediate team-wide results. In fact, only one of the award's last 10 winners played for an above-.500 team—Malcolm Brogdon, whose 2016-17 Milwaukee Bucks finished 42-40.

    Still, it would be nice to see progress from the Lakers, especially when 28 victories are all that's needed to record the franchise's best record in five seasons.

    Ball's promotional team has promised results. His father guaranteed a playoff berth. Johnson, L.A.'s president of basketball operations, laid out plans for a jersey retirement and multiple franchise records.

    Even if no one expects overnight success, Ball still faces some pressure to perform. And everyone will be able to see how he handles it, since the Purple and Gold will be national TV mainstays.

    Plus, the Lakers should be better. Brook Lopez is a massive upgrade at center, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope is brimming with two-way potential and Kyle Kuzma looks like one of the draft's biggest steals.

    "We are already better," Johnson said in July, per ESPN.com's Ohm Youngmisuk. "The roster is more balanced."

    Ball's job is to bring this improved roster together and instill an identity. The fruits of his labor on that front could shine in the wins column, which might be the final nudge he needs to stand above a stacked group of first-year hoopers.

                    

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

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