Lonzo Ball Could Be an All-Time Great, but Not Until He Fixes His Jump ShotAugust 14, 2017
Lonzo Ball can keep his crossover jump shot, as his father LaVar insists he should. He can also be one of the most dynamic point guards the NBA has ever seen, as LaVar insists he will.
But he can't do both.
That's the big-picture takeaway from B/R's survey of four NBA shooting experts about Ball, the No. 2 pick of the 2017 draft and the Los Angeles Lakers' presumptive starting point guard this season. Ball is a right-handed jump-shooter but dips the ball to his left thigh and releases it from the left side of his head. His unorthodox form has inspired everyone from LeBron James (though he denies it) to YouTube impersonator Brandon Armstrong to mimic it. All four experts saw Ball play in the Las Vegas Summer League, where he was not shy about winding up and letting it fly. He was named league MVP while attempting 42 three-pointers despite making only 10 of them (23.8 percent).
"Oh, ain't nobody tinkering with his shot," his father said on ESPN LA 710 radio (via ESPN.com). "He's going to shoot the same way, comfortable, like I said, who cares about his shot. Here's the thing, he missed a lot of shots in the first few games. They act like the percentage is going to stay there. He'll go about four or five games where he'll go 4-for-5, 6-for-8. It will catch up with him. So it's not a big deal. And it'll come out to a percentage where he's always been, in the high 40s."
LaVar Ball, as with many of his proclamations, overstated his son's collegiate accuracy—Lonzo shot threes at a 41.2 percent clip at UCLA—but the experts all agree with him to a point: They all said they wouldn't try to change anything about Lonzo's shot this season. Getting a handle on all the floor general responsibilities of an NBA point guard is tough enough; having someone retool your shot at the same time would be too much.
"It would be unfair to just say, 'Stop right now and change everything,'" says one Western Conference shooting coach. "That's what I wouldn't do."
An Eastern Conference expert agreed.
"I'd let him be," he says. "You look at his numbers in college. Where he finishes his shot is fine. The rotation is fine. The setup and how he gets to that point is a little jacked up, but he makes them at a high clip. Does it change a little bit, going back to [NBA three-point] distance? Probably. Let's give it some time. The sample size is still pretty small, but the sample size from college and high school is pretty good. So let's not mess with it right now."
Eventually, though, the consensus is that Ball is going to have to make some adjustments. The collegiate three-point distance is 20 feet, nine inches. The NBA distance from the arc is another three feet away; the distance from the sides is 22 feet.
"He has to tweak his shot, for sure," says one Eastern Conference assistant coach who specializes in shooting. "The longer distance, the longer athletes, the difference in the depth perception in the arenas and the speed of the game is all going to have an impact. He's a low-30s three-point shooter in the NBA, at best, with that shot."
The right-to-left movement of Ball's upper body isn't the only part of his shot that is fundamentally unsound. One shooting coach detected issues with Ball's balance and his base.
"It's from the bottom up," he says. "If the bottom is good, then you get into everything else. I didn't even think his bottom was good in those [summer-league] games. He wasn't getting any pop from his legs. You're not able to fine-tune when it's all arm. That might be where the problem is, aside from some of the upper-body technique."
The same coach also cautioned settling on defects and solutions based solely on Ball's summer-league performances.
"Maybe he hadn't played in a while, so he didn't have his legs," he says. "Or maybe he was a little nervous, missed a couple and started thinking. Then there were a couple he didn't want to shoot, but he was wide-open so he did. I thought some of his shots were there, and then as he went along, the ball started moving a little bit, which means he was either guiding it or overthinking. The ball started to move on him, left to right, as the game went on."
For shooting coaches to truly hone in on a shooter's problem areas, they need to see him in a variety of settings—in a game, in a scrimmage, in a gym shooting all by himself.
"I need to take mental pictures," says the same Eastern Conference shooting coach. "I need to see all the little parts before I'd say, 'This is what I'd do.' In a game, I'm not watching him like that."
While there are basics that every consistent shooting form has, there is plenty of room for variation. There have been great NBA shooters with flawed shots that they made efficient simply through sheer repetition. Peja Stojakovic shot 40.1 percent from three-point range over a 13-year career with a shooting elbow that flared. Larry Bird, a legendary shooter, had what is known as a six-finger release, allowing the thumb of his guide hand add power to his shooting hand; Kyrie Irving has a similar quirk.
Indiana Pacers shooting guard Reggie Miller had a form as unique as they come—knees angled inward as he coiled his legs, guide-hand thumb underneath the ball and the palm of his shooting hand twisting to counterbalance the angle of his shooting elbow. Basketball Reference only has shooting-location statistics for the last five years of Miller's career, but nearly three-fourths of his shots were 16 feet or longer, and he still shot 44.2 percent from the field over that stretch, 47.1 percent overall for his career.
Even Warriors forward Kevin Durant, a four-time scoring champion who shot 44.2 percent from three-point range in a postseason run to his first ring last season, loops the ball toward the left side of his body and releases it almost in front of his face.
"Every shot is like a thumbprint," one veteran shooting expert says. "It's very personal. The most important thing is that the shot be an easily repeatable act. You're not trying to make it complicated. The repeatable act is the simpler act."
Lonzo Ball certainly wouldn't be the first point guard to enter the league with a questionable jumper and still become an all-time great; he wouldn't even be the first to wear a Lakers uniform. Magic Johnson shot 19.2 percent from three-point range (58-of-302) through the first nine seasons of his career. Jason Kidd, arguably Magic's successor as a ball-handler and passing wizard, only had two seasons shooting under 30 percent from beyond the arc, but some still jokingly referred to him as "Ason" early in his career because they claimed he had no "J."
Both Johnson and Kidd developed effective three-point shots in the latter stages of their careers because they couldn't get to the rim as easily anymore. In today's three-point-centric game, though, a point guard must be able to do both, especially one with as lofty expectations as Ball. In fact, given one or the other, shooting effectively from long range might just be more essential. Some point guards who can get to the rim but aren't three-points threat found themselves going to play in China (Ty Lawson) or signing one-year minimum deals (Derrick Rose).
At least one of the four shooting coaches with whom B/R spoke believes Ball has it in him to develop a reliable stroke.
"He could be a hell of a shooter," the Eastern Conference shooting coach says. "He's that talented, and he obviously has the hands. Some guys, if you don't have good hands, it doesn't matter."
No matter how talented a player is, though, the process of retooling a jump shot requires extensive time, discipline and patience.
"It's at least two months in the offseason," says the Eastern Conference coach. "No playing, just shooting. Break it all the way down. But he has to be committed to it. There can't be any ego involved. If he's not all in, it won't work."
That's where allowing Ball to struggle with his shot as a rookie might actually be beneficial—in convincing LaVar as well as Lonzo.
"Timing is important," says the veteran shooting coach. "Look, all the players at this level have had a certain degree of success doing what they're doing. People listen more after they've experienced failure. It's the guys who see the bigger picture, the guys who want to feel good about their games and want to continue to grow, those are the players who will be successful."
The bigger picture is that Lonzo Ball had a certain degree of success this summer. He won MVP in Las Vegas thanks to his passing and floor vision, but no thanks to his shooting. LaVar feels good about his son's game and says he sees no need to grow, or at least tinker. Will he feel the same way next summer? Will Lonzo? Four shooting coaches, along with the rest of us, are eager to find out.