Examining the Los Angeles Lakers’ first 10 games, their best rookie may not be point guard Lonzo Ball, who is filling up the stat sheet with assists and rebounds but has yet to look comfortable in the offense.
Ball will enter Wednesday’s game against the Celtics having missed 24 of his past 30 shots, including 11 of his past 12 3-pointers. He is struggling with his shot, when he takes them, and struggling with his confidence. His floor vision is superior. He makes his teammates better. He picks off every available rebound in his grasp, but Ball has yet to react to how teams defend him or allow him to shoot.
Coming out of summer league, scouts noticed Ball shot off the lefthanded dribble. So defenses play him to dribble right. Ball also releases the ball from his midsection, making it more difficult to release against world-class athletes.
Ball was a 41.2 percent 3-point shooter in his lone season at UCLA; he is 23.4 percent with the Lakers. After scoring 29 in an Oct. 20 win over the Suns, has averaged 7 points in the next eight games.
His talkative father LaVar, who has promised his son will change the face of the NBA, has complained recently that Lonzo isn’t playing enough in fourth quarters. The Lakers have become a competitive team thanks to rookies such as Kyle Kuzma, taken with the draft pick the Celtics swapped with the Nets last June and traded to the Lakers.
Kuzma, a 22-year-old rather unheralded early draft entry from Utah, has the potential to become a cornerstone because of his athleticism and ability to score on all spots on the floor. The 6-foot-9-inch, 220-pound swingman has scored in double figures in all but two Lakers’ games and is making 56.3 percent of his attempts and a solid 33.3 from the 3-point line.
He replaced Larry Nance Jr. (broken hand) and responded with 21 points and 13 rebounds in a win Friday over the Nets. Kuzma has been garnering more attention than Ball because of his versatility.
Ball has played in eight of the Lakers’ 10 fourth quarters this season, shooting 21.1 percent and has missed all nine of his 3-point attempts. Coach Luke Walton has sat Ball down the stretch of recent games, a testament to his struggles and the fact he may not be as NBA ready as advertised.
It’s difficult to determine the success of one-and-dones and this year is no different. Jayson Tatum has made a seamless transition to the NBA with the Celtics, averaging 14.3 points, 6.5 rebounds, with 50 percent shooting, and a whopping 52.9 percent from the 3-point line. Markelle Fultz has been limited to four games because of a shoulder injury and suddenly those who questioned Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge trading down to take Tatum are quiet.
Of all drafted NBA rookies, Ball is sixth in scoring, fourth in rebounds, and first in assists. His ability to pass has never been questioned. He is already an elite passer, even at this level. But it seems that like many rookies, Ball is experiencing those ups and downs that would be normal, except for the hype generated by his father.
Lonzo appears to be the complete opposite of his father, but he found out during his first NBA regular-season game, when fiery point guard Patrick Beverley, who held Ball to 3 points in 29 minutes, pointed out his motivation was spurred by LaVar’s comments.
That perhaps has made the road to success more difficult for Ball, but it’s only 10 games and Ball has shown flashes of brilliance. The Lakers have won three of their past four games, with wins over Memphis and Detroit. Los Angeles has seven players averaging in double figures, Brook Lopez has become a knockdown 3-point shooter, and Ball is joined by Brandon Ingram, Julius Randle, Nance, and Kuzma as players president Magic Johnson are relying upon for the franchise’s renaissance.
Ball was considered the cornerstone because of those comparisons with Jason Kidd and his apparent NBA-readiness after a year at UCLA. Ball may not be one of the league’s elite point guards yet, and it will definitely take some adjustments offensively, but the potential is still there.
Not everyone can flourish in their situation as Tatum has. He has shown the ability to adapt to the next level quickly, although he was hardly the most touted freshman in his draft class.
Celtics fans will get to see Lonzo Ball for the first time in person Wednesday in what is expected to be a raucous environment, but they won’t see the best of Ball. That is likely years away.