LOS ANGELES — Playing with LeBron James is a blessing for anyone with NBA Finals dreams, but it comes at a price for ball-handling guards like Lonzo Ball.
James, of course, dominates games as both a scorer and playmaker, but that's a tough challenge to play alongside for a 21-year-old with passive instincts.
"When Zo realizes how good he is on the floor, it makes him a very dynamic player, and it makes us even better," James said.
There are a couple of notable examples throughout James' career of assertive stars finding their place next to him, but Ball is not prime Dwyane Wade or Kyrie Irving.
For some, it can take years of reps to find balance between scoring and playmaking. James figured it out at an early age: "Probably after my sophomore year of high school."
James and the Lakers will need more from Ball, who averaged 10.2 points, 7.2 assists and 6.9 rebounds as a rookie but is down to an 8.3/4.6/5.6 stat line in his second season.
He's not necessarily a late bloomer, but he's still adjusting to the NBA game. Too often, Ball defers to teammates when he should be calling his own number. Some of the generosity is his inherent point guard mentality, but it may also indicate unpolished shooting and finishing.
Ball has improved over last season's percentages, but he still isn't hitting shots at a high rate. Going from 36 percent to 40.4 percent from the field, 30.5 percent to 35.5 percent from three and 45.1 percent to 57.1 percent from the line is progress, but he is going to have to evolve both as a scorer and shooter to help the Lakers win regularly.
Over the past six games without Rajon Rondo, the Lakers are 3-3 (after winning six of seven leading up to the injury). Ball struggled in the first two games without Rondo, shooting 1-of-11 from the field while missing all seven of his three-point attempts.
Against the Cleveland Cavaliers, Ball took coach Luke Walton's advice to heart and raised his aggression level significantly, scoring 15 points on 7-of-11 shooting in a win. He's since continued to attack the basket, albeit with mixed results.
Video analyst Pete Zayas of Laker Film Room recently broke down some of Ball's driving deficiencies: the timing on his jumps, a tendency to leap off two feet instead of one, inconsistent gathering of the ball. Like his unorthodox jump shot, Ball's basic fundamentals are lacking.
These are areas that can be improved, and the time Ball lost over the summer recovering from knee surgery could be a factor. He's thrived on his natural basketball instincts, but he needs to put in significant individual work to develop better habits.
Walton admires Ball's intangibles and hopes he'll stay engaged more consistently. "Defense, steals, strips, rebounds, that's the type of player that helps us win games," Walton said.
In recent weeks, the Lakers coach added a "1-3" pick-and-roll, with Ball screening for James. The action creates problems for switching defenses, as few point guards stand a chance matched up against James.
To counter, some opponents blitz James with multiple defenders, preferring Ball's attack instead, even with fewer numbers to protect the basket.
"They decided to [swarm] LeBron off the ball screen. That pretty much leaves me in the open floor to do what I want with it," Ball said after a win Friday over the Utah Jazz. "You've got me coming down the lane or you've got JaVale [McGee] for the lob. It's pretty much three options: layup, JaVale, or if they help ... kick it out to the corner."
Based on Ball's shooting percentages, teams should stay home and force him to try to finish at the rim. He needs to make teams pay, but until he improves his fundamentals, he's going to be inconsistent.
"We want him to be aggressive all the time, but we don't want him shooting just to take shots," Walton said. "He's a brilliant playmaker, and we want him getting in the other team's lane, collapsing the defense."
James knows it will take time for Ball to flesh out his game. "Does he even have 82 [games] under his belt yet?" James asked recently. Nope, Ball is up to 72 after 52 played as a rookie.
"I think every game is a teaching point for him," James said, praising Ball for what he can be on the court. "I think sometimes he just doesn't realize how great he is."
Ball has great teachers in his ear with James and Rondo, and they both believe in him. Rondo celebrates more on the Lakers bench than any of his teammates when Ball scores at the basket.
"They're two of the best leaders I've ever played with in my life," Ball said. "I cherish the moments I have with them and try to learn as much as I can."
Ball needs to soak up their knowledge, but his rudimentary skills may not improve until he gets a full, healthy offseason to train. In the meantime, the Lakers need Ball to keep attacking the basket and shoot open shots, warts and all.