Will Lonzo Ball or Kyle Kuzma Go Down as Lakers' Best Rookie This Season?

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistNovember 28, 2017

Will Lonzo Ball or Kyle Kuzma Go Down as Lakers' Best Rookie This Season?

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    Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

    Two of the top four members of the 2017-18 Los Angeles Lakers rotation are first-round rookies, which is unquestionably a promising development for the rebuilding franchise.

    But even if both have cemented themselves as organizational centerpieces, only one can wear our subjective crown as this season's best Lakers freshman.

    There's no clearly defined criteria for that honor, but that's OK, since a rough outline should guide us through. We have compared the prized prospects in four key areas by analyzing what scouting reports told us before their debuts, how the stat sheet says they've performed as professionals and what our eye test reveals about how the rest of the campaign will treat them.

    There's also no actual reward for our selection, unless this exercise counts as a digital pat on the back. If nothing else, it can serve as props to L.A. for furthering its reconstruction effort with these budding ballers.

Shooting

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    Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

    Ball's shooting has been so atrocious that even if Kuzma weren't impressing in this category, he'd still have the chance to win it by default.

    The numbers are as unsightly as Ball's unorthodox form, which worried scouts long before he was piling up NBA bricks. His 30.9 field-goal percentage is the tied for the worst of any player through his first 20 career outings since 1983-84 (minimum 500 minutes). And if he continues at his current pace, his 37.0 true shooting percentage will be the worst of the three-point era (min. 2,000 minutes).

    What's worse is that Ball offered a seemingly simple diagnosis for the struggles nearly a month ago.

    "It's just in my head to be honest," Ball told reporters in early November. "I know I can shoot the ball."

    Ball's college career says he's right. During his one-and-done run at UCLA, he hit 55.1 percent of all shots, including 41.2 from three and a ridiculous 73.2 on twos.

    But his across-the-body windup hasn't had nearly the same success from NBA ranges against NBA defenders. And that makes this head-to-head battle an annihilation.

    Kuzma owns sizable percentage advantages from the field (50.4 to 30.9), three (37.9 to 24.5) and the charity stripe (76.8 to 42.9). Kuzma has been the superior marksman from just about everywhere—the restricted area (67.0 to 42.7), the non-restricted painted area (48.9 to 24.0), the mid-range (35.7 to 22.2), the top of the key (39.1 to 25.9) and the right corner (50.0 to 0.0).

    Ball, though, does have one spot to his name—the left corner, where his 2-of-6 showing perches ahead of Kuzma's 1-of-7.

    Even still, I'm guessing Mortal Kombat judges would give Kuzma a flawless victory here.

    Advantage: Kuzma

Playmaking

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    Gary Dineen/Getty Images

    As with shooting, this argument isn't particularly close. But this one can't be written off as a problem for the loser.

    In fact, Kuzma's passing ability at his size has long increased his versatility (and thus, his value). The 6'9" forward averaged the third-most assists on his college club as a junior (2.4) and now paces all NBA freshman forwards with 32 total.

    But in this discussion, Kuzma is a surprisingly good amateur artist whose work is being displayed next to a Picasso. It's a credit to Kuzma that his distributing is even noticed when he shares the floor with a passing prodigy.

    "[Ball] makes the right pass every time," 11-year veteran Corey Brewer said, per Tania Ganguli of the Los Angeles Times. "There's only a few guys that can make those passes and they're really good players."

    He not only leads the Lakers in assists per game (7.1), he ranks seventh overall. Since 2000, only five first-year floor generals have cleared that mark. (Ben Simmons, 7.7, is also on pace to do so.)

    At his best, Ball can be an identity-changer with his passing. His look-ahead outlets encourage teammates to sprint down the floor, and his pin-point deliveries in the half court can increase the effectiveness of cutters and spot-up snipers. It's no coincidence this attack sees significant spikes in assist percentage (57.4 from 53.3) and pace (106.2 from 103.9) when he's behind the wheel.

    Advantage: Ball

Rebounding

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    Jesse D. Garrabrant/Getty Images

    Our first close call of the competition sees both Ball and Kuzma ranked among the top five rookie rebounders.

    Kuzma has already collected double-digit boards on five different occasions, which is tied for the third-highest total among rookies. The Lakers also post a 50.5 rebounding percentage when he's in the game, their second-highest among rotation regulars.

    He's not always a factor on the boards—nine outings with four rebounds or fewer—but he's physically equipped to control them. With his length, quickness and athleticism, he can rocket his rebounding total by snaring balls over the top or chasing them down away from the rim.

    But he hasn't been the best rookie rebounder wearing purple and gold this season.

    Ball (third) actually sits two spots ahead of Kuzma (fifth) on the first-year rankings and contributes more than a full board extra per game (7.3 to 6.1). In his 17th game as a pro, Ball had the third-best rebounding performance for a first-year backcourt player since 1963-64 by snagging 16 missed shots.

    "He attacks the rebound where it's going," head coach Luke Walton said, per Joey Ramirez of the Lakers' official site. "He's not waiting for the ball to come to him. He goes and gets it and understands angles."

    Since 2000, only three guards have played 2,000 minutes and averaged more rebounds than Ball's current mark—Jason Kidd, Russell Westbrook and James Harden. All are/were annual All-Stars, and none matched Ball's glass work as a rookie. Only four freshman guards ever have—Hall of Famers Oscar Robertson, Tom Gola, Jerry West and Magic Johnson.

    Advantage: Ball

Defense

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    Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

    Entering the year, this category seemed likelier to belong to Kuzma.

    While both had problems with consistency, Ball's deficiencies appeared more threatening to his effectiveness than Kuzma's. Ball previously struggled with both quickness and physicality, areas that would only be exacerbated by his NBA transition. Kuzma, meanwhile, had his biggest issues with intensity and awareness, problems potentially corrected (or at least lessened) by good coaching.

    But with a month-plus in the books, Ball has been demonstrably better in point prevention. Most metrics suggest it isn't close.

    Ball has a plus-0.52 defensive real plus-minus, good enough for 134th overall and eighth at his position, per ESPN.com. Kuzma owns a minus-1.76, which puts him all the way back at 420th and 91st out of 92 power forwards. NBA Math's defensive points saved shows an even wider gap—10th overall, third at point guard for Ball (plus-34.00); 433rd overall, dead last at power forward for Kuzma (minus-22.17).

    Players shoot 5.4 points worse than their average against Ball but 3.5 points better against Kuzma. L.A. allows 101.6 points per 100 possessions during Ball's floor time and 104.4 when Kuzma is in. Ball sits second among rookies in steals (28) and is tied for second in blocks (17); Kuzma isn't top 15 in either (tied for 19th in steals, tied for 24th in blocks).

    Kuzma, whose 23rd birthday will come before Ball's 21st, looks like a neophyte pro still finding his way on the defensive end. Ball, on the other hand, finds himself well ahead of the curve. 

    Advantage: Ball

Final Verdict

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    Robert Laberge/Getty Images

    No Lakers rookie will open more eyes this season than Kuzma.

    Due to his draft position (27th overall), his achievements are magnified and his shortcomings are largely swept under the rug. He generated minimal expectations—if any—when he arrived via the D'Angelo Russell swap. That Kuzma has since emerged as L.A.'s leading scorer makes his presence feel like a found lottery ticket containing a jackpot prize.

    Ball's campaign, though, is judged on a unique scale. Because the hoops world has deemed every Lonzo event as newsworthy, it will continue vacillating between holding him up as a centerpiece prospect and tearing him down as a colossal bust.

    But don't be fooled by Ball's roller coaster. And don't get too fixated on the scoring and shooting columns.

    Because if you objectively view all angles of this, there are far more reasons than not to think Ball will have the better first NBA go-round. Ball more than makes up the difference in scoring and shooting with across-the-board production that speaks to his numerous strengths.

    Kuzma has been wildly productive, particularly for his draft position. In the last decade, only five freshmen have averaged at least 16 points and six boards (Simmons is as well). None were drafted lower than 11th (Michael Carter-Williams), and the other four were top-three selections. 

    But Ball is having a debut for the ages. If he keeps up his current clip, he'll join Magic Johnson and Oscar Robertson as the only freshmen to ever average at least eight points, seven rebounds and seven assists. (Simmons can do the same.)

    The big winners here are the Lakers, who don't have to chose between their prized prospects and can feature both in their post-Kobe Bryant rebuild. But if the franchise had to tab one rookie above the other for the 2017-18 season, the choice would be obvious.

    Best Lakers Rookie: Ball

    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.

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