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Los Angeles Lakers

Harper | Lonzo Ball experience hasn’t taken over summer league as hoped

Los Angeles Lakers' Lonzo Ball shoots over Los Angeles Clippers' Brice Johnson (10) during overtime of an NBA summer league basketball game, Friday, July 7, 2017, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)
AP Photo/John Locher

LAS VEGAS — Lonzo Ball probably didn’t duck a rematch with De’Aaron Fox.

The matchup — made famous during the NCAA Tournament as Fox dropped 39 and a win on Ball’s UCLA squad — should have received a meaningless but new chapter during the Las Vegas Summer League. While it would give the internet something to throw into virtual faces, the result would not end up affecting their careers in any way. If Fox outplayed Ball again, Lonzo would receive four chances in the regular season to actually throw a meaningful L De’Aaron’s way.

If the Los Angeles Lakers outplayed Fox, the result gets chalked up to a summer league game without any real consequences. The built-in excuses for this summer session could be manipulated in any convenient way that suits your fandom or perspective.

Instead, Ball ended up bringing more attention to this potential rivalry. By sitting out their showdown off The Strip, Ball added fuel to the fire of possibly avoiding Fox outplaying him again. But Ball told the Lakers’ television crew that he wanted to play. Fox believed that the injury was legitimate and no sense risking further injury to his groin for a summer league game.

“He’s a competitor,” Fox said. “If he’s hurt, like people said, it’s summer league, don’t risk it. When I tweaked my ankle, coach took me out. It was the same thing. No one’s ducking anybody. At the end of the day we’re still going to play each other. We’re both in the NBA for a reason.”

His absence left many wondering what there is to think about the game, strengths and weaknesses Ball showed us in just two Vegas games. A mixed bag of trepidation, elation and his father stealing the spotlight left and right.

For months, LaVar Ball put pressure on the results of every Lonzo Ball moment that will hit us in the next decade or two. While the father figure barks the loudest, Lonzo’s game presents itself as much more subdued. The dribbling doesn’t come across very flashy. The passing has more purpose than theatrics. Despite the 28 shots in two games (made just seven), he hasn’t imposed an unreasonable scoring load on his own shoulders. Most of his shots come within the flow of the offense and by dare from the opposing defense. Ball manages to blend into the shadows of the Summer Lakers while having the biggest spotlight of any player in Vegas right now.

Conflicting feelings exist around the team on whether Ball will see more action in the summer league as we enter the tournament format. If Ball doesn’t play, some look at it as another built-in excuse for when he faces adversity. If Ball does return to the summer court, ducking Fox will definitely look like it happened.

In the long run, none of it actually matters, but the growing sentiment about Ball rests on the idea that he has shown stardom as an ambitious goal rather than a predestined certainty.

Instead of lighting the summer league on fire, he left a lot of non-Lakers supporters wondering what the big deal is. And that comes with his last game producing an 11-point, 11-rebound, 11-assist triple-double against Boston. His production has existed, but finding a way to stoke the fires has fallen short.

Magic Johnson remains confident in his selection. Both publicly and behind closed doors, Magic believes in the second pick in the 2017 NBA Draft. But getting him from theory to reality will require a lot moving forward.

In many ways, what the Lakers put around Ball will likely determine just how good he can be. Ball has plenty of skills, but hopes of a Jason Kidd-type presence on the floor are clearly premature. Currently, the Lakers have players like Brandon Ingram, Jordan Clarkson, Julius Randle and Brook Lopez for Ball to direct. They’ll bring in Kentavious Caldwell-Pope for next year, hoping he can find his shooting stroke and provide a defensive impact.

All of this will give way to 2018 when many around the league assume anything less than an upset of the Golden State Warriors leads to Paul George bolting Oklahoma City for the Lakers. And of course, the big catch would be finding the pipe dream of LeBron James running out West and leaving Dan Gilbert once again.

Should the Lakers end up landing James, it would throw a very interesting wrench into the path of Ball. James would likely take the ball out of Lonzo’s hands quite a bit. It could either help turn him into a more well-rounded player with increased off-ball opportunities, or it could hinder his growth as he becomes pushed to the side as the older superstars work. Until we have the possibility to consider this, let’s take a look at the good and bad of Lonzo Ball from the brief, groin-truncated (this sounds more painful than intended) Las Vegas experience.

The good side of Lonzo

While some wanted Ball to establish himself as the star of the summer, he took a much more measured approach. Other rookies jumped right into the water; Lonzo kept dipping his toes in and slowly adjusting to the temperature for a lot of it. His game was centered around getting the pace high and keeping things moving. The ball rarely stuck in his hands as he received a pass and prepared for the next movement. This is the type of play Magic wanted to find in his point guard. Keep things moving and keep the defense worried about what’s next.

It all starts with the change of possessions for the Lakers under Ball’s control. He does a phenomenal job of surveying the court in the blink of an eye, looking to catch a sleeping transition defender. Transition assists accounted for nine of his 16 assists in the two games. At the real NBA level, Ball will likely face more consistent effort and organization getting back on defense. That eliminates these easy passes, which lead into quick driving lanes for buckets and contact. But on the nights the Lakers push opposing defenses to the limit in tempo, he should rack up easy assists with these look-ahead flicks of the wrist:

 

Mental lapses get taken advantage of and it doesn’t have to come from an eye-popping pass. The basic stuff becomes much more frustrating because giving up these transition buckets without it dazzling you makes it look mundane for Lonzo. Defenses don’t want to be shredded by the mundane plays. It’s far less defeating to have the spectacular take you down. So when Ball is able to pick apart the defense with easy plays like this, the impact creates far more frustration than normal.

Most of those passes happened in the game against the Celtics, which was Game 2 for him in Vegas. People around the team believed Ball felt more acclimated to the pace and expectations within his team’s game plan design. Perhaps this mentality will create a slow start and more pressure added to the beginning of his NBA career. But that would also mean that he’d be equipped to adjust to the moments and play environment with a lot of success.

We saw less playmaking in the half court for Ball and the Summer Lakers, but still some nice moments when he got into open space. This will need to be where Lonzo excels. Despite Magic’s affinity for his Showtime Lakers, you can’t just run all the time. Ball struggled to get into that open space in the chaotic, cluttered Vegas environment. He threw creative entry passes to teammates, including the lob he opened with to Ingram. When a sloppy closeout occurred, he found his seam:

 

As a scoring option, he didn’t show much in his two games. His shot rarely fell and he only found himself trying to score around the basket a handful of times. Considering how rudimentary the defensive schemes in the summer can be, it would have been fun to see more opportunities like this post-up from Ball against a smaller guard:

 

Considering Lonzo’s height advantage, he should find plenty of ways to take advantage of these post-ups with either his size or passing ability.

The concerns Lonzo showed

Of course, not everything created a positive buzz for Ball this past week. In a league in which non-shooting point guards seem to get downplayed, Ball fits that description quite well. It all starts with the shooting motion, which has served as a concern for scouts and executives since he first found himself on their radar. He shoots the ball as a right-handed dominant player from the left side of his face. So much motion exists within his shooting form, and a lot of motion typically complicates consistency.

In his time at summer league so far, Ball showed no cause to quell the pre-draft shooting concerns. He went 7-for-28 from the field, and this is the breakdown from Synergy Sports on his shot selection:

  • 2 of 17 on all jump shots
  • 0 of 8 on jumpers off the dribble
  • 1 of 3 on guarded catch-and-shoot attempts
  • 0 of 3 on unguarded catch-and-shoot attempts

Overall, he finished 2 of 16 from 3-point range in both games, with an aggressive but futile 1-for-11 performance in the first game. Defenders consistently went under the screen against Ball, as expected. Teams will gladly make Ball beat them by proving he can hit jumpers. The key for him is twofold: 1) make jumpers and 2) don’t feel compelled to force the shot. The second part requires a lot of patience to see what advantages present themselves from a sagging defense. Then he can use that room to survey the floor and find the best counteraction.

The Celtics played him a little more aggressively defensively than the Clippers did. Kendall Marshall, a veteran by many respects, gave him acres of space on the floor when screened. At times, he would feign to sag off, only to throw a quick hand up on Ball as he went into his shooting motion. Scouts believe a lot of teams will throw this type of contest at him because so much time exists from his gather until his release. While his impressive percentage (41.2 percent on 194 3-point attempts) in college created some optimism, this small summer sample size seems to have dissipated hope that Ball will be a shooter right away.

He can still be an impact shooter on catch-and-shoot opportunities. But several executives, coaches and scouts believe a slow start will doom his confidence shooting at the NBA level. Then only a real shooting form reconstruction can boost belief that this part of his game exists.

The other issue comes from a feeling that maybe Ball’s operation within the pick-and-roll isn’t as lofty as advertised. He struggled a lot as a pick-and-roll scorer and initiator in his two games. At times, he found great passing angles and sucked the defense into a shell game. Other times, he failed to create space on jumpers or attack the basket when he should have. The feel for operating in the pick-and-roll just wasn’t apparent in the chaotic environment. The good and the bad intermingled like a ballroom dancing class:

 

Ball wanted to prove to defenses they’d have to pay for leaving him space. Instead, he ended up broke from his opportunities.

So what does any of this mean? Nothing and quite a bit at the same time. Any concerns about Ball’s NBA prospects came to light in a glaring way. Detractors from Ball feel vindicated that this begins a justification to their doubt. Believers find solace in knowing summer league doesn’t make or break future stars. It is but a required blip that you hope to use as a marketing tool for the rookie campaign. Maybe the best thing for Ball so far comes from the standpoint of using it as a wake-up call.

He can soak up the good from it and bank it as a growing weapon of choice. He can internalize the disrespect from the opposing defense daring him to shoot. Create understanding of how to counter their defensive indifference and make it work within Luke Walton’s system. If Ball returns to the summer court and the Lakers win three games in the tournament, the potential for a showdown with Fox in the semifinals creates more opportunities for buzz around his future stardom. Or it creates another growing criticism of Lonzo and how far he has to come.

Either way, Ball will find himself in meaningful NBA competition soon. There is a lot to like about his future. And there is a whole lot more to come.

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