Lonzo Ball's Updated Rookie of the Year Blueprint

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistNovember 20, 2017

Lonzo Ball's Updated Rookie of the Year Blueprint

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    Despite the occasional outburst, it's largely been a hot-take-inducing, ship-abandoning start to Lonzo Ball's highly publicized NBA career.

    Just last month, the prominent prospect kicked off the 2017-18 campaign with the highest Rookie of the Year odds. But inconsistent scoring and consistently erratic shooting has pushed Ball off that pedestal and, in the eyes of many observers, far back in the award's race.

    Bleacher Report's Adam Fromal put three freshmen on his recent Rookie of the Year watch list; Ball didn't make the cut. No one from ESPN's Forecast crew tabbed Ball for the award.

    None of that actually prevents Ball from taking home the hardware, but his path to the podium seems to grow more precarious by the day. In light of this increasing difficulty, we have refreshed our ROY blueprint for the new pride of the Purple and Gold.

Quiet External Expectations

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    Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

    If handled correctly, Ball's hype train would still be at the station, fueling up on the potential of a 20-year-old point guard with great size and better vision. Instead, it's on the verge of overheating after those around him have seemingly held a contest over who can make the most outlandish Lonzo comment.

    His carnival-barking old man, LaVar Ball, probably takes the cake by putting Lonzo ahead of Stephen Curry, Kobe Bryant and everyone on the planet. But in terms of increasing pressure, Lakers president Magic Johnson is right there for anointing the rookie as the franchise's new face before he'd even suited up at summer league.

    Ball turned 20 in October. Those expectations were as unfair as they were absurd.

    But they've also proved damaging to Ball's reputation. When people promised he would change L.A.—if not the entire hoops world—overnight and then he didn't, critics wanted someone to point a finger at. And rather than pin the blame on those responsible for the noise, Ball's detractors are instead pondering if he's a bust.

    He's played 17 games in his career. He's also been the youngest player ever to record a triple-double and the sixth with multiple triple-doubles in his first 20 contests. If the campaign closed today, he'd join Johnson and Oscar Robertson as the only freshmen to average at least eight points, seven assists and seven rebounds. (Ben Simmons is also clearing those marks.)

    Shooting woes aside (we'll dissect those in a minute), Ball has been historically prolific. It's just that he was billed as being flawless, so any weaknesses are exponentially magnified. If the asinine chatter quiets around him, he'll have a better chance of being measured by his production and not against others' projections.

Keep Launching

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    Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

    It turns out the ugliest aspect of Ball's shot isn't his funky form. It's the sorry statistics attached to the stroke.

    He's had the same number of games shooting above 30 percent (four) as ones in which he's fallen below 20. He's finished with more points than shots only twice. He's the NBA's second-worst restricted-area shooter (44.0 percent, minimum three attempts per game) and a bottom-five free-throw shooter (46.2 percent, fifth, minimum 20 attempts).

    Only two players have ever logged 2,000 minutes and shot worse than Ball's 31.3 field-goal percentage. Only one has cleared that threshold with a lower true shooting percentage than his 36.8.

    Those are terrifying trends, potentially capable of lowering his ceiling by several stories. They're also largely unexpected. Even with questions about his mechanics, he's the same player who shot 55.1 percent overall and 41.2 percent from three at UCLA. NBA defenders are obviously more challenging, but Ball says they aren't the reason he's struggling.

    "It's in my head, to be honest," Ball told reporters earlier this month. "I know I can shoot the ball."

    Good marksmen can shoot their way out of slumps. That's Ball's best option to right the ship.

    He's a much better finisher than he's shown, and—provided he hasn't lost confidencehis talent should at least get him to a serviceable shooting level sooner than later. That might be all he needs, too, since scoring and shooting were never his likely paths to rookie honors anyway.

Crack Top Five in Assists

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    Winslow Townson/Associated Press

    Ball has always held an across-the-board appeal—hence, the many Jason Kidd comparisons—but there's never been a question about his greatest gift.

    Ball is a preternatural passer. He doesn't simply spot uncovered teammates; he can pass his guys open.

    "His passes look different," Andrew Sharp wrote for Sports Illustrated. "They're more crisp. They're cleaner. And there's a strange kind of kinetic energy that emerges when he's on the floor. The game moves faster, even as it's clear it's moving slower for Lonzo."

    Ball is already the Association's ninth-best table-setter with 7.1 helpers per game. The average age of the eight players in front of him is 28.6, and that's with the 21-year-old Simmons (8.0 assists, sixth) dragging it younger.

    Quarterbacking is Ball's best hope for separating himself from a loaded group of first-year hoopers. 

    He's not going to outscore the freshman crop's elite (12th with 8.9 points per game), and even though he's a great rebounder for a guard (7.1 a night, fourth among backcourt players), he won't secure the hardware with a supplementary skill.

    This is about making his top talent shine brighter than his competitors'. If Ball surpasses all rookie passers and cements himself as a top-five distributor overall (in fifth place is LeBron James with an 8.6 average), that won't be easy for voters to ignore.

Stay Top Three in Minutes

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    Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

    Ball might be treated like the Lakers' headliner, but he's not handled like a closer.

    Despite being second on the team in total minutes, he's only fifth in floor time logged during the final 12-minute frame. And his 13 fourth-quarter appearances are only good for seventh.

    As far as LaVar is concerned, this equates to L.A. conceding defeats.

    "Let him play the whole fourth quarter and bet you'll always win," the elder Ball told Bleacher Report's Eric Pincus. "He'll get into a better flow."

    Of course, within LaVar's plea, there's also an admission that Lonzo hasn't been his best during the final stanza. Ball has the Lakers' second-worst fourth-quarter plus/minus (minus-35), so chasing wins has sometimes meant sidelining the prized prospect.

    But if this continues cutting into his workload, he'll lose the opportunity to outshine his peers. As it stands, he's still second among rookies in overall minutes (33.1) and just 10th in fourth-quarter run.

    He can't afford to lose volume. His efficiency could rebound in a big way and still not be near the top of his class. Raw numbers are going to matter, and the only way to compile them at a potentially award-winning rate is to keep himself among the most utilized rookies.

Keep L.A. Near Playoff Hunt

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    Team success doesn't always enter the Rookie of the Year discussion. In fact, before Malcolm Brogdon's Milwaukee Bucks made the Big Dance last season, no club that employed the winner had qualified since the 2008-09 Chicago Bulls (Derrick Rose).

    But every metric can be a difference-maker in a tight race. And, assuming Simmons doesn't run away with it, this year could be a photo finish.

    That's not necessarily good news for Ball, though. Not when L.A. has tailed off after a 5-5 start (2-5 since), been stuck in the cellar on offense (28th in efficiency) and, as Bleacher Report's Grant Hughes noted, played worse than the deceptive data suggests on defense:

    "L.A. finished 30th on D a year ago and so far resides among the top five in point prevention.

    "How? Luck, mostly.

    "The Lakers have done well in limiting opponents' corner-three attempts, but otherwise, the strong defensive performance has been the result of teams simply missing shots. Los Angeles has the lowest opponent three-point percentage in the league. Coupled with a scheme that permits huge numbers of attempts at the rim, the Lakers defense is going to regress—at least to the middle of the pack."

    All of that said, the Lakers have some upward mobility on offense—and there's a very real chance Ball could lead them in that charge. Avoid steep regression at the other end, and maybe that's enough to keep L.A. within striking distance of a playoff berth.

    It might be a long shot, sure, but it's possible no one runs away with the West's No. 8 seed. If the Lakers are respectable, that would give Ball a much-needed boost, as Simmons and the Boston Celtics' Jayson Tatum both look likely to earn high marks for team triumphs.


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

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