Lonzo Ball was one of the most exciting players in high school basketball last season. At Chino Hills, the just-turned 19-year-old was the triggerman of a lightning-fast up-tempo offense that is trying to take pace-and-space to its logical conclusion, as well chronicled by Danny Chau at The Ringer.
At UCLA, Ball won’t get to play the same style. That will almost definitely also be case in the NBA. And because some areas of halfcourt play weren’t particularly emphasized at Chino Hills, Ball enters the college level with a few question marks regarding how well he can fit in more traditionally structured ecosystems.
But Ball has shown plenty in terms of shot creation creativity and possesses an elite combination of height and length for a primary ball-handler. Based on those two factors, Draft Express ranks him 14th in its top 100 prior to the start of the season.
Ball’s court vision is off the charts and he has excellent touch on his deliveries.
Because of how Chino Hills played, Ball is naturally inclined to speed up the pace of the game. He is constantly looking to pass ahead and ignite a break but has proven able to pass on the move as well after pushing the ball up the court himself.
Few teams at the high school level were able to prevent Chino Hills from getting up-and-down the floor but when he was forced to play in the halfcourt, Ball flashed the ability to create for others in spread pick-and-roll with proficiency.
He’s able to create three-point shots for weak-side spot-up shooters without necessarily needing to get deep into the lane to destabilize the defense because at 6'6, he can see over most on-ball defenders and identify teammates rotating to open spots or left open due to an opponent’s miscue.
And even if opponents have the flexibility to defend him with a taller wing, Ball is equipped to maneuver them around a ball-screen just as well as he’s shown he understands how to play with pace and deliver well-timed pocket passes to the big diving down the lane.
Ball had some opportunities to play downhill this preseason. He doesn’t have an explosive first-step to turn the corner or just blow by a big dropping back but is very patient waiting for driving lanes to clear and uses hesitation moves and in-and-out dribbles to get into the lane. Once he sucks in an extra defender, Ball can deliver well-timed lobs and has also proven able to make passes across his body.
An aggressive risk taker who constantly looks to squeeze impressive-looking passes into tight windows in traffic, it must be brought up he is also turnover prone as well.
Chino Hills’ offense rarely featured many passes in a single possession but in those unusual situations when Ball found himself with the ball swung to him with the defense scrambling, he proved to be extremely unselfish and constantly looked to make the extra pass around the horn to an open teammate.
Ball is only a so-so scorer at this point of his development.
Despite his unorthodox mechanics, he is a capable outside shooter. Ball elevates with good balance but releases the ball from a low point; at face level and from the side of his face. Yet, he gets pretty good spin on the ball and the arc on his shot often looks great. On his makes, most of them off the catch, Ball tends to get all net.
If he gets to go through his long release unchallenged, Ball should be enough of a threat on catch-and-shoots that he provides his coach the flexibility of playing him with another ball-handler.
But when he is rushed, either by a defender or shooting on the move (sprinting into a spot, catching, gathering himself and letting it fly quickly), Ball isn’t as capable, especially off the bounce.
He can make long bombs when he gets to walk into his shot uncontested but has not shown much development in terms of making step-back jumpers in isolation or stop-and-pop mid-range pull-ups out of the pick-and-roll just yet.
Though perhaps more concerning is the fact Ball is also a subpar finisher.
He lacks speed to blow by his man on straight line drives but can get around him with crossovers and hesitation moves. At the rim, however, Ball isn’t explosive enough to try finishing with power against help defenders waiting for him at the goal, can’t hang in the air to try reverses, hasn’t yet developed craftiness seeking contact in traffic to earn foul shots and his touch around length is fairly lousy as of now.
Chino Hills didn’t play a lot of half-court defense, opting for a two-three three-quarters court soft press that often left them vulnerable. But when it did, Ball was hit-and-miss.
He used his six-foot-eight wingspan to make plays in the passing lanes and contest shots from behind at the basket. If engaged, Ball could develop into a real asset on this end; getting deflections and steals on ball reversals and crosscourt passes as a weak-side defender, challenging mid-range shots from behind after navigating over ball-screens and contesting shots at the rim rotating in as a help-defender.
But despite a physical profile that should enable him to be a plus defender, he did not play very hard or with a lot of toughness. Ball rarely bent his knees to get low in a stance, on or off the ball. He did not show a lot of pride in trying to keep opponents in front. A guy like him should be enveloping point guards but that rarely happens.
Ball’s height and length should afford his coach the possibility of having him defend wings but that’s not a particularly great option as of now. He’s shown to be too lackadaisical off the ball, sometimes getting burned for backdoor cuts, though the bigger problem is his lack of strength to put up much of a fight when these bigger types drive at him. That lack of strength and general toughness are also reasons why Ball is not fit to pick up big men on switches as well.
The one area Ball unquestionably excels on defense is rebounding. He’s shown great instincts tracking the ball off the rim and can leap off the ground quite quickly to high-point it.
Ball starts the season rated as lottery-caliber because shot creation is extremely valuable and because his height and length suggests positional versatility might be in his future, something that is at a premium in this Era of basketball.
But he will need to show substantial improvement as a scorer and in terms of competitiveness on defense to rise up the board. And if UCLA has another one of those anticlimactic seasons it has grown accustomed to in the Steve Alford Era, perception of him might even go the other way.
Ball’s smarts will always be appealing but the combination of questionable shot, unimpressive athleticism, weak defense and subpar interior scoring net Kyle Anderson, someone with a similar profile, only a late first-round spot.