Who Does Lonzo Ball Resemble Most Early in His Career?

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistDecember 8, 2017

Who Does Lonzo Ball Resemble Most Early in His Career?

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    Lonzo Ball just cleared the quarter mark of his first NBA season, and it seems he's worn almost every label in the hoops lexicon.

    And yet, the one that fits best is the one that captures his uniqueness—the Los Angeles Lakers' freshman floor general is anomalous.

    Everything from his funky shooting form and promoting pops to his preternatural passing and gift for glass-cleaning puts him in a class all his own. He's already both the Association's youngest triple-dipper and, for now, its least efficient scorer of the three-point era.

    The numbers and eye test agree; he's not the next anyone, but rather the first Lonzo.

    That said, there are still similarities between his start and those of big league point guards past and present. To create a level playing field, his rookie numbers have been measured against others' first-year figures to determine which players the lanky lead guard most resembles at this early stage of his career.

Honorable Mentions

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    Rocky Widner/Getty Images

    Bobby Jackson

    Jackson stood 6'1", was more comfortable as a scorer than distributor and spent the bulk of his career as a second-team spark plug. So, the former favorite of Sacramento Kings fans isn't close enough to Lonzo to crack the actual ranking.

    But Jackson was comparably productive as a rookie, averaging more than four assists and four boards a night while shooting below 40 percent overall and sub-30 outside.

              

    Mark Jackson

    Before joining the broadcast booth, Jackson forged a similar connection to New York as the one Ball has with California. The Brooklyn native was a high school star in the city and a four-year hooper at St. John's. The New York Knicks snatched him with the 18th pick in 1987, and he wouldn't leave the Empire State until his sixth NBA season.

    Jackson's style was different from Ball's. Jackson was more methodical and physical. Although only 6'1" and 180 pounds, he played bigger than his size and used to punish opponents in the low post. That might sound distinctly anti-Ball, but the Lakers have tried to deploy him there a handful of times.

    Jackson was also a natural playmaker, but he was more polished and productive (13.6 points and 10.6 assists as a rookie).

                     

    Lafayette "Fat" Lever

    An underrated source of triple-doubles, Lever could saturate a stat sheet with the best of them. His 43 career triple-doubles are eighth-most all time, which is even more impressive than it sounds with knee injuries having limited his big league tenure.

    Lever wasn't a shooter or even a shooting hopeful (0.7 career three-point attempts per game), and he opted for fundamentals over flair. But his rookie averages (7.8 points and 5.3 assists) were in the ballpark with Ball's (8.8 and 7.0), and Lever shined brightest when he was behind the wheel of a high-octane offense.

5. Michael Carter-Williams

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    Bob Leverone/Associated Press

    Rookie Numbers: 16.7 PPG, 6.3 APG, 6.2 RPG, 1.9 SPG, 40.5 FG%, 26.4 3P%, 48.0 TS%, 15.5 PER

    If this feels like an insulting way to start, you might have forgotten how far Michael Carter-Williams has fallen from his 2013-14 Rookie of the Year campaign.

    Like Lonzo, MCW was a stat sheet-filler from the start. He finished one steal shy of a triple-double in his debut—one theft and three boards short of a quadruple-double—against the then-defending champion Miami Heat. After that contest, LeBron James heaped praise on the freshman and declared the Philadelphia 76ers "got a good one," per CSN Philly (via Syracuse.com).

    If those words sound familiar, that's because they should. When Ball broke James' mark as the youngest to triple-double, the King used the same line regarding the Lakers' selection, per ESPN.com's Ohm Youngmisuk.

    By season's end, Carter-Williams joined Oscar Robertson and Magic Johnson as the only rookies to average at least six assists and six rebounds. If Ball keeps up at his current clip (7.0 assists and 6.9 rebounds), he'd also earn entry into that exclusive club.

    But the scoring column distorts this comparison, as Carter-Williams nearly doubled Ball's nightly contribution of 8.8 points. Context is critical here, though. Carter-Williams fired up the second-most field goals for the shamelessly tanking Sixers, while Ball is only fifth in total shots on a Lakers club with nothing to gain by losing.

    Carter-Williams also had the second-highest field-goal percentage of this group, although he shared Ball's struggles from distance (Lonzo is only hitting 24.3 percent of his triples).

    The thought of Ball following Carter-Williams' career path—he's now averaging just 17.9 minutes behind Kemba Walker—might haunt the dreams of Lakers fans after they read this. But as long as Ball follows a different blueprint for his next step, he could have worse guides for 2017-18 than rookie-year MCW.

4. Emmanuel Mudiay

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    Jamie Schwaberow/Getty Images

    Rookie Numbers: 12.8 PPG, 5.5 APG, 3.4 RPG, 1.0 SPG, 36.4 FG%, 31.9 3P%, 43.7 TS%, 9.9 PER

    There are different scripts to the early careers of Ball and Emmanuel Mudiay, but both come from the same genre. It's not just the similar size—Ball is 6'6" and 190 pounds; Mudiay checks in at 6'5" and 200—it's their like-minded approach to the position.

    Mudiay was only 15 when hoops lifer, then SMU head coach, Larry Brown declared him the best young point guard he'd seen. While Brown later regretted his choice of words—due to the pressure they put on Mudiay—he praised the point guard again in 2015 for being "way beyond his years," per Howie Kussoy of the New York Post.

    Former Phoenix Suns coach Earl Watson was on the wrong side of Ball's first NBA breakout—a 29-point, 11-rebound, nine-assist gem in his second professional game. Watson later appeared on FS1's Undisputed and dubbed Ball "beyond his years," via LonzoWire's Josh Martin.

    There's a selflessness that links the floor generals, even though Mudiay is a better athlete and more assertive and Lonzo boasts better ball control and—in theory—more shooting range. There are also statistical likenesses. Of the five Ball comps given here, Mudiay comes closest to matching his player efficiency rating (9.9 to 9.8) and true shooting percentage (43.7 to 38.0).

    The Lakers can only hope the similarities stop there.

    Mudiay's career has already stagnated. All of his counting categories have dropped each season he's been in the league, and despite an uptick in shooting success, he's now playing less than half the game for the Denver Nuggets (21.6 minutes).

3. Elfrid Payton

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    Chuck Burton/Associated Press

    Rookie Numbers: 8.9 PPG, 6.5 APG, 4.3 RPG, 1.7 SPG, 42.5 FG%, 26.2 3P%, 45.6 TS%, 13.8 PER

    A product of Louisiana-Lafayette, Elfrid Payton entered the league without anything resembling Big Baller hype. But as a pass-first point guard with good size, he pieced together a quietly impressive initial campaign for the Orlando Magic.

    While he lost his starting gig for a little over a month, he reclaimed it for good before the calendar changed and tallied two triple-doubles in March 2015. He was even less aggressive than Ball as a scorer and didn't try to pretend he possessed a three-point shot (0.5 per game).

    That weakens the stylistic comparison, since Ball launches nearly five long balls per night, but the stats largely read the same. His 7.7 assists per 36 minutes almost mirrored Ball's 7.6, and his 10.6 per-36 points shared a neighborhood with Ball's 9.5. Payton has yet to enjoy Ball's rebounding success, while the former played a peskier brand of defense than the latter.

    As for shooting, rookie-year Payton was Ball's closest clone among this quintet. Of course, that's a kinder way of saying none of the other four had lower three-point or free-throw percentages, all of which still outpace Ball's current marks.

    Even as an NBA freshman, Payton was more of a live-ball threat thanks to tighter handles and a quicker first step. But he also looked most comfortable in transition and setting up teammates, both of which rank among Ball's greatest strengths.

    If Ball's floor resides in proximity to Payton, that's not terrible news for the Lakers. At the least, that would mean their No. 2 pick didn't go to waste, as Payton has proved to be a serviceable starter.

    But there's an issue if Ball's ceiling doesn't sit several levels above Payton. L.A. is banking on Ball becoming a star, a feat there's no evidence suggesting Payton will ever achieve.

2. Jason Kidd

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    Rocky Widner/Getty Images

    Rookie Numbers: 11.7 PPG, 7.7 APG, 5.4 RPG, 1.9 SPG, 38.5 FG%, 27.2 3P%, 47.1 TS%, 15.1 PER

    You had to know this was coming, right?

    Two comparisons have been swirling around Ball since long before his Lakers career was spoken into existence: Magic Johnson and Jason Kidd. The former is comical. Johnson entered the Association as an 18-point scorer and a 50 percent shooter, two things Ball may never be. But the Kidd comps might have merit, regardless of what the future Hall of Famer thinks.

    "It is too early," Kidd told ESPN.com's Ohm Youngmisuk. "...We are jumping the gun a little bit. Let's enjoy and watch this young kid play, and then we will make the comparison at 40 games [or more]."

    We don't feel the need to wait. Not when the stats, styles and even the storylines are this similar.

    Kidd and Ball were both born in California and then starred in the state at the prep and college levels. Each was snagged with the second selection of his draft. Both were dynamic transition attackers, great rebounders for their position and selfless setup artists.

    The numbers take the likenesses a step further. The counting categories are all in the same zip codes—7.7 assists to Ball's 7.0; 5.4 rebounds to 6.9; 1.9 steals to 1.4. "Ason Kidd," as in "no J," wasn't any more threatening from three as a rookie, but like Ball, he wouldn't hesitate to fire (3.3 attempts per game). 

    Kidd, though, was more advanced and aggressive as a scorer. He averaged more than twice as many free-throw attempts (3.5 to 1.3) and nearly three additional points (11.7 to 8.8) on the same number of attempts (10.8).

    Those offensive advancements keep Kidd from being Ball's closest clone, although he's clearly the one Lakers fans hope he can mimic. Kidd became a perennial All-Star without being a go-to scorer or shooting particularly efficiently—his three ball came around, but his career field-goal percentage was only 40.0—which could be Ball's challenge given his limitations.

1. Ricky Rubio

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    Alex Goodlett/Associated Press

    Rookie Numbers: 10.6 PPG, 8.2 APG, 4.2 RPG, 2.2 SPG, 35.7 FG%, 34.0 3P%, 47.6 TS%, 14.6 PER

    Ricky Rubio wasn't the highest-drafted player on this list, but the Spanish setup artist came closest to rivaling Lonzo's level of intrigue.

    A passing prodigy in his own right, Rubio was the youngest player to appear in Spain's prestigious ACB League (at 14) and the youngest to play in an Olympic men's gold-medal game (at 17). He was only 18 at the time of the 2009 draft, during which he was one of two point guards infamously taken by the Minnesota Timberwolves ahead of Stephen Curry (along with Jonny Flynn).

    Rubio's buzz has dimmed considerably since, but he performed mostly as advertised as a rookie. He was a top-10 distributor (sixth that season, tied for eighth all time among rookies), a better rebounder than most backcourt players and a limited scorer due to a jump shot that never came around and problems finishing around the basket.

    Sound familiar? There's more.

    Like Ball, Rubio rarely looked for the rim (9.5 shots a night) and always tracked his teammates' movement. Both ran offenses with X-ray vision, all kinds of craftiness and a gas pedal glued to the floor. They also sabotaged their own attacks by shrinking the spacing as non-shooters (from everywhere) but also compensated to some degree as rebounders and defenders.

    That Rubio would stand as Ball's best comparison, though, shows how inexact this science is. Watching one rarely conjures images of the other. But if you're looking at who Ball is right now—a pass-first wizard in the open floor who rebounds, defends and bogs down offenses by not posing a severe scoring threat—you're checking many of the same boxes rookie-year Rubio did.

    Problem is Rubio's scouting report and production have seemingly plateaued. His weaknesses have confined him to the average-or-slightly-above rank at point guard. But he'd be deadly if he ever found a jumper, which is reason for optimism with Ball. He entered the league with a much better reputation as a shooter, and if that part of his arsenal can make the NBA leap, his ceiling will skyrocket.

                    

    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.