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Know The Prospect: Lonzo Ball

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Meet the player behind the father of the player.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-UCLA vs Cincinnati Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Two freshmen spent most of this season atop most NBA mock drafts: Markelle Fultz and Lonzo Ball. Fultz joined a Washington program that went 19-15 last year and 9-22 this year. UCLA was 15-17 last year, before Ball, then 31-5 this season. Those numbers look like they should matter. And the reasons they do and they don’t is the unsettled heart of the burning star that is the hype, hope and hesitance around Ball.

The numbers say Washington fell off this year, but the numbers are mum on the fact that UW lost two players in the first round of last year’s draft, Marquese Chriss and Dejounte Murray. Ball arrived at Pauley Pavilion alongside T.J. Leaf, another Bruin freshman expected to be a lottery pick this June; together they paired with seniors Bryce Alford and Isaac Hamilton to lead the Bruin renaissance. Switch their rosters and it’s easy to imagine Fultz enjoying a Sweet 16 run while Ball’s solo wizardry struggled to uplift a depleted Huskie team. But as Homer Simpson taught us, “If ifs and buts were candy and nuts...how does the rest of that go?”

Ball’s shooting tends to be the conversation starter, especially from deep, but he never scored more than 24 points in a game this season. It’s his passing that is both sublime and precocious. His assist rate of 31.5% ranked second in the Pac-12, higher than any Knicks since this dude and that dude. He is, at heart, a distributor: while playing in the McDonald’s High School All-American game, an opus to individualism, Ball had 13 assists and only took a single shot. The yin-yang of his passing plus the infinite range on his jumper (we’ll get to that shot later) helped him lead the Pac-12 in points produced (Fultz led in points produced per game; Ball was third), with a 3:1 assist-to-turnover ratio. Those numbers may have been even greater if his teammates converted more of his set-ups; even his non-slow-footed non-white teammates sometimes didn’t deliver (we’ll get to LaVar later).

In November against Texas A&M, in one of his first college games, Ball was an orchestra conductor, starting slowly, simply, then building in complexity and dynamics up to the fortissimo finish.

At the 0:36 mark, a bounce pass, a simple bounce pass, finds Hamilton for a good look on a three-pointer. What’s striking is how Ball toes the line between perfection from failure. If the bounce is even slightly higher, it’d take longer to reach Hamilton and the defense would be better positioned to contest; any lower and he’d have to start his shooting motion from a lower angle, which would elongate the shot. It’s just a bounce pass. But it’s such a bounce pass.

At 1:07, Ball could have put up a three-pointer that would have been mildly contested. No one would blame him: of all UCLA’s main players, only Leaf had a higher percentage from three. But instead of taking a shot he could accept, Ball recognized that two Aggies were tuned in to his perimeter threat, found a seam in the defense and hit Leaf for a high-percentage look in the lane.

At 1:25, Ball grabs a defensive rebound, then as soon as he lands with it flings it 75 feet to lead Hamilton for the transition bucket.

At 1:40, note what’s happening the moment Ball receives the pass. Though he’s comfortably behind the three-point line, the defense is still bending toward him. What’s noteworthy here, as earlier, is the lack of wasted motion: when Ball gets the ball, there’s an immediate slight adjustment as he positions it just a little higher, just high enough to safely lob it over the rotating defender and find Hamilton for the open look. This combination of A) THREAT TO SHOOT and B) LOOKS TO PASS would be manna to desert-wandering Knick fans.

At 2:38, he again gets the pass way beyond the stripe, and again because foes fear his infinite range, the defender is promptly off his feet trying to contest a three-pointer that never comes. Instead, Ball drives into the paint, collapsing the defense and finding Thomas Welsh for the kind of bucket Willy Hernangomez would look awfully good finishing.

At 3:24, Ball receives a cross-court pass in transition from Aaron Holiday, brother of Justin and Jrue. The defender comes flying out at him all the way from under the rim; Ball dribbles past him, collapses the D, and finds Holiday for a three that’s yet again wide open because of all the spatial strain Ball inflicts on a defense.

At 4:02, in a late-and-close situation (not a Knick strength in recent years), A&M is playing man-to-man; two defenders double Ball off a pick-and-roll. Freeze the clip at 4:06. Two Bruins are defended by one Aggie on the left side: Leaf, their best three-point shooter, is open behind the line, while Welsh is cutting down the lane. If the pick-and-roll is the oldest play in basketball, the second-oldest is creating odd-man rushes/advantages. Because Ball can shoot from so far out, defenses have to stretch farther than they’re used to or want to; because he can pass, the danger isn’t over just because two defenders are in front of him. Ball passes to Leaf; if Leaf could have made an entry pass to Welsh, Hamilton was wide open in the weakside corner. Imagine this play in late-and-close games with Hernangomez in place of Welsh, (who, while no Arvydas Sabonis, has an assist percentage that doubles Welsh’s) Kristaps Porzingis in place of Leaf, and any Knick you want in the corner (10 Knicks shot 43% or better this year from there).

Here’s Ball eviscerating Cincinnati in the NCAA Tournament. A few sweet passes in this, too, but it’s more Ball scoring, often via that wet J.

We said we’d get to Ball’s jumper, so here we are. You, your mama, and your mama’s mama’s mama have already heard about its unorthodox shape. Ballers from the lowest pick-up scrub to the pantheon itself struggle to comprehend it.

Adam Kilgore of the Washington Post described Ball “[beginning] his jumper with the ball on the left side of his body, like he is reaching into an invisible messenger bag slung over his right shoulder and strapped across his chest. The ball crosses his face and starts its arc to the rim with a flick, wrist and elbow jutting in opposing directions.”

Biodiversity is one of the NBA’s charms; back in the day a Pacer two-guard whose name shall not be uttered flourished into a Hall-of-Famer with a gangly, gruesome shooting form. Shawn Marion would have had his number retired if the D’Antoni Suns had won a title, and Marion’s shot is something the Geneva Convention should have banned long ago.

But like war, in shooting all anyone remembers is how it ended. Kilgore discussed why Ball’s shot not only works, but can actually create unusual challenges for defenders: “At 6-foot-6, most guards are not tall enough to block his shot, especially in college. And while it may seem easier to block, opponents unaccustomed to the form have difficulty adjusting. Trying to swat his shot can lead to fouls.
‘It’s difficult to time, and then he comes across,’ said Kentucky point De’Aaron Fox, who will defend Ball. ‘So if you have your hand straight up, you can hit his wrist of something like that. It’s hard to contest a shot like that.’”

Ball’s form means he never, ever shoots going to his right. This seems like something scouting reports would uncover and wield against him, mercilessly, like the time an entire baseball team’s lineup, one through nine, tried bunting for a hit against one-handed pitcher Jim Abbott. But mercilessness begets mercilessness; Grantland’s Kevin O’Connor shows Ball countering such defense with a devastating step-back.

Is this counter enough to maintain Ball’s threat as a shooter at the next level? If teams don’t respect his shot, they won’t be as vulnerable to his passing, and if Ball is a lesser-shooter and dissector in the NBA, is he worth taking with a high lottery pick? Look what Steph Curry does to counter people defending against the step-back.

No one knows if Ball will reach this level. He’s better at 19 than Curry was, but that doesn’t mean he’s destined for the same spike later in his 20s. Maybe we have too much information these days about guys at too early a point in their evolution, and risk outsmarting ourself and missing the forest for the trees. Maybe we have too much information to risk overlooking red flags we never could have recognized in the past. For instance, O’Connor’s piece also touched on how the type of ball Ball shoots with affects his shooting numbers: “He’s played 26 games with a Wilson ball (17 games at home, six games at a neutral site, and three on the road)...he shot 43.6 percent on 133 3-point attempts. In seven games playing with a Nike ball (all road games), he shot only 34.1 percent on 44 attempts.” NBA teams use Spalding basketballs. That could indicate trouble ahead for Ball. On the other hand, while NCAA teams are free to use balls from a number of brands, O’Connor writes, “few use Spalding.” So if Ball is facing an adjustment, most of his fellow rookies are, too.

On defense Ball is probably what you’d expect him to be: possessing promising qualities, but still with a lot to learn.

You may not be impressed by Ball defensively, but it seems his floor is at least “not worried, for good reasons” and his ceiling could be “great team defender.” He has quick hands, combines a high-IQ with good instincts, and is athletic. Obviously he has things to learn, particularly defending pick-and-rolls, but that’s to be expected in one so young. Pair with him a 3-and-D guy who can defend point guards (think Ron Baker with a jump shot) and Ball could be fine as a help defender primarily matched up on two-guards.

As far as Papa LaVar, there are so many angles to take into consideration. Is calling out the players on the league’s two best teams (he may not have meant to call out LeBron when he first mentioned his kids, but when he kept coming after James said cut it out, he knew what he was going) going to help Lonzo’s career in any way? Remember what the Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen did to Toni Kukoc in the 1992 Olympics? Remember what LeBron’s Miami Heat did to Jeremy Lin in 2012? How many NBA players will have matchups with Ball circled on their calendars this summer? In addition to any rookie drafted after him? Could half the league hate Lonzo by opening night?

On the other hand, life is more than the game between the lines. Courtesy of David Aldridge: “...in a league where many players have strained relationships with their fathers -- or no relationship at all -- some personnel types respect that LaVar Ball is, by all accounts, a caring and loving father who is a major influence in his sons’ lives. That love is not universal.
“‘I’m not a fan (of the father),’ another Pacific Division man said. ‘He’s putting so much pressure on those kids. He’s such a trainwreck, nobody’s going to be able to look away … but, a lot of these guys don’t have fathers. If he chooses to be present -- it’s unique -- at least it’s something.’”

It is easy and disheartening to close one’s eyes and let your imagination run amok with James Dolan/LaVar Ball headlines. That’s like getting the Keymaster and the Gatekeeper together - that would be extremely dangerous. But the Knicks aren’t just a slight tweak away from changing the narrative and becoming good. They need major transplant surgery. This team is nearly a literal flatline of inertia and ineptitude.

New York swung for the fences two years ago and landed a teenage dream. This year’s lottery will hopefully be their last high pick for a while. For an organization so desperately in need of life on- and off-the-court, it might be worthwhile to swing for it all again. A singles-hitter isn’t going to move the needle for Phil Jackson’s master plan. Lonzo Ball could be the home run we’ve all been waiting for.