Coming to the Church of Lonzo: Part 1

I started out as a Lonzo Ball skeptic. The glaring lack of penetration skills for a point guard really turned me off. However, after reading two of Kaiser Lindeman’s great pieces on him and and Dean Demakis’s various thoughts on him I decided to re-evaluate. They are two of my favorite draft writers, and having not seen that much so far, I dived into his film to see if I had been missing something. I return, a believer in the amazingness that is Lonzo Ball; a truly unique and complex prospect.

The first, and main reason, to love Lonzo Ball is obviously his passing. Everyone knows Ball is a great passer, but it is worth really examining just how incredible a distributor he is. He is probably most renowned for his outlets, and it is easy to see why.

Just not too many players have the foresight to look up and allow a play like this to occur.

Aside from his outlet passing, Lonzo generally does an incredible job of keeping his head up and finding the slightest openings for his teammates. Notice the way he releases the ball before T.J. Leaf has even clearly broken open to the hoop.

There’s a lot to be (fairly) criticized about Lonzo’s pick-and-roll game, but his ability to find the roll-man if the defense messes up in the slightest is apparent.

It is abundantly clear that Lonzo is an excellent passer in a traditional sense. He makes the right read when the defense missteps, and he even creates looks where you don’t think they exist. After watching more of him though, just how special his basketball instincts are really jumped out

Touch passes are one of the best indicators of elite ability to read the game. They require split second decision making, often while the passer is in a compromising situation. Thomas Welsh misses the shot, but this is one of the craziest passes I’ve ever seen.

This is a less flashy touch pass, but perhaps an even better signifier of Lonzo’s totally outlier understanding of the game. Most players would just catch the ball and quickly throw it to Leaf here, but Lonzo sees that the quicker he gets it to Leaf the more space Leaf will have to work with, and instinctually touches the pass ahead.

Here again, we see Lonzo processing that the quicker he gets the ball to his teammate the better position they will be in, and acting accordingly.

It can’t be emphasized enough how rare passes like the above three are. The only prospect in recent memory I could envision making such plays is Ben Simmons.

The goodness of Lonzo’s passing doesn’t stop there. His skill in actually throwing passes is off the charts, largely due to an innate sense of timing. Watch here how he lets the pass go early so it perfectly hits Isaac Hamilton in stride and leads him to his shot.

You can’t help but notice the timing and precision with which he throws his passes. It’s truly freaky. I can’t get enough of watching them, so here are a few more examples of Lonzo setting up shooters with perfectly placed dimes.

Here, Lonzo throws his entry pass a split second earlier than most would, allowing Leaf to have better position as he posts up.

The timing on this pass frees Bryce Alford to attack the basket. Any later, and his defender would be on his hip already.

This fade pass is one of my absolute favorites. It doesn’t land perfectly in Hamilton’s shooting pocket, but it directs him to the corner where he has space, giving him the opportunity to drive.

All that being said, the most special thing about the way Lonzo passes the ball is the way he sees how the game unfolds. It’s a bit cliche to compare great passers to soccer players, but Lonzo Ball is a goddamn tiki-taka master.

The sequence below might not be that impressive at first glance, but when you stop to think about it is an unreal display of court vision. Here, watch.

Lonzo ends the play with an absolutely perfect fade pass that leads his shooter right to where he’s farthest from his defender, but it’s the pass that Lonzo makes at the start of the clip that really gets me. Go ahead, watch it again.

Lonzo literally, to continue the soccer analogy, *switches fields* here. As a point guard, he is accustomed to bringing the ball up the floor, yet here he throws a pass backwards while in the backcourt without anyone pressuring him. Aaron Holiday is then able to advance the ball up the sideline to Hamilton for a potential shot, which creates the defensive breakdown that ultimately leads to a score.

I’m just guessing at Lonzo’s intention here, but it seems to me that he looked down the court, saw that the Texas A&M defense was predominantly grouped on his side of the floor, and intuitively swung the ball knowing his teammates would have the advantage on their side. It is such a weird pass for a point guard to make, that I really believe his brain was somehow able to process all that info. If so, and based on his elite BBIQ in every other respect that is the reality I will choose to live in, that’s a freaky good play.

The more you watch Lonzo, the more you see him make plays like that. Passes that aren’t flashy or necessarily lead to scores, but that open up the court in ways you would never think to see.

Again, Lonzo makes an unusual pass for a point guard to Holiday at the start of the possession, and in doing so knifes open the defense.

This pitch-back to Leaf is another example. Look at how far away Leaf is when Lonzo decides to pass the ball. He simply reads the game a step ahead of everyone else. Not to mention that he clearly understands the value of the three when you look at the shots he sets his teammates up for.

There are countless Lonzo passing clips I would like to share from just the seven games of his I watched on my laptop (the Cal, Oregon, and Utah games were watched on live TV, thus no clips), but the point should be clear. He is not just a great passing prospect, he is a generationally elite reader of the game.

I forgot to record a clip of this, but Chris Stone noted one of my favorite things about Lonzo’s IQ.

I noticed Lonzo doing this frequently, directing his teammates to run the offense or throw a certain pass even when he didn’t have the ball in his hands. Those type of plays show both his court awareness and the leadership qualities he brings to a team.

The best thing I can say about him is how instinctually he makes the right play, at least as a passer. The speed he moves the ball when there is a pass to be made is ridiculous. The obvious question is, just how much of an effect can Lonzo’s passing have on his team’s success?

From a traditional box score perspective, Lonzo looks very good, but one could argue that he is still being undersold. His per 40-stats of 9.0 AST/2.6 TO are pretty ridiculous, and it is worth noting that he is the only freshman point guard to ever average over eight assists per game and less than three turnovers, according to the Sports-Reference database (which only goes back to 1993–94). The more “concerning” number is Lonzo’s 31.7% assist rate, which is very good, but not great. However, UCLA’s wealth of players who can create their own shot, and Lonzo’s willingness to just swing the ball and not dominate possessions both serve to artificially suppress his numbers.

In fact, the idea that both Lonzo’s usage and production is being suppressed due to the talent on UCLA’s team should not be ignored. Some have argued Lonzo is looking better than he would in other contexts because of the talent around him at UCLA. Based on the film I’ve watched, and UCLA’s jump in play from last year, I believe it is more a case of Lonzo making those around him look that much better.

He certainly has talent around him that is in part responsible for UCLA’s success, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Lonzo looked like a better prospect (at least statistically) on a team without as many guys capable of creating themselves. Any possession in which he is involved in the outcome is almost always a good one, and if he had lesser teammates he could probably stretch his usage in a more traditionally appealing way.

The more compelling argument in favor of Lonzo’s passing, is the way UCLA has transformed as a team. Below is a table of various relevant team-level offensive stats, thanks to Kenpom.

Numbers in Parentheses Indicate National Rank — Updated as of 1/16/17

It is important to understand both the changes in UCLA’s personnel, and the changes in their performance, before identifying causation. Among high minute players, UCLA lost Tony Parker and Jonah Bolden, while adding T.J. Leaf, Ike Anigbogu, and Lonzo Ball. The remaining core of Bryce Alford, Aaron Holiday, Isaac Hamilton, Thomas Welsh, and to a lesser extent Gyorgy Goloman, all got a year older.

Parker was a pretty mediocre player on both ends, while Bolden was a valuable defensive guy but not much of an offensive player (though he has apparently turned himself into a prospect overseas this year). It’s fair to say that even without any newcomers, I would’ve predicted improvement in UCLA’s offense, but not dramatically so.

Looking at the newcomers, Ike Anigbogu is certainly not the cause for offensive improvement. He’s a defensive force, but his 0.0 offensive box-plus-minus (OBPM) suggests he hurts the team’s offense, if anything. T.J. Leaf however, is an offensive force. His OBPM of 8.2 is right there with Ball’s 8.7, and his estimated offensive rating of 135.6 slightly outdoes Ball’s 134.5. So why am I not writing this piece gushing about Leaf?

I’m of the belief that these one-number estimates are wrongly partitioning credit to Leaf, when Lonzo is really the catalyst. If we look at the underlying changes in the team’s offense, it is much easier to construct an argument in Lonzo’s favor. Efficiency stats aside, what interests me is tempo, three-point-rate, turnover rate, and assist rate.

UCLA went from a slightly fast paced team to one of the fastest in the country, massively upped their three-point-rate from bottom of NCAA to above-average, noticeably cut down their turnovers, and went from a decent passing team to a team that assists on the seventh most of its field goals in the country. It’s hard not to believe the pass-happy point guard who shoots, creates threes, and almost never makes bad decisions is largely responsible for that shift.

T.J. Leaf is a good passer, and a very good finisher of plays who certainly plays a large role in the team’s awesome efficiency, but the revolution in style of play should mostly be attributed to Lonzo (and possibly partially to change in philosophy by Coach Alford). Lonzo also certainly plays a role in the team’s incredible efficiency, with his ability to consistently find open teammates and throw perfect setup passes (along with his own shooting efficiency).

What intrigues me most is the assist rate. Lonzo’s individual numbers play a large role, but such a massive jump suggests the collective ball sharing of the team has improved. The value of ball movement, and the idea of passing being infectious is one of those traditional schools of basketball thought that is hard to explicitly prove, but really seems to be true in Lonzo’s case.

I’m not one to champion “wins” as stat worth worrying about much in prospect evaluation. I love Ben Simmons as a prospect and don’t really care that his LSU team was so disastrous. Nonetheless, in the case of Lonzo Ball, we have to grapple with his seemingly startling effect on his team’s success. The hypothesis that Lonzo’s ability to move the ball is infectious, and raises his team’s play above the simple value of his assists, is one we must at least confront, if not agree with.

There is no way of definitively proving whether or not a) Lonzo is as responsible for UCLA’s success as I’m suggesting or b) Lonzo can at all replicate that effect at the NBA level, but given the above statistical and visual evidence I do believe there is a persuasive case to be made.

What makes evaluating the impact of Lonzo’s passing so difficult, is that it derives its value in such a different way from many of the games great passers. Most of the time, creating for others is a two part equation of first compromising the defense in some way and then having the vision and feel to exploit that breakdown.

The traditional way of compromising the defense, is by attacking the lane and drawing help. This is what Lebron is so great at, and what one would hope Ben Simmons develops to do at an elite level. Not every great passer is as good as Lebron at causing the defense to bleed. Chris Paul continuously probes the defense, never necessarily threatening a drive and finish, but drawing attention and capitalizing all the same. Ricky Rubio is perhaps the best current example of someone who manages to bring a lot of passing value to the table without making the defense adjust to him.

This is the reason so many all-time greats are brought up when discussing Lonzo Ball. Steve Nash and John Stockton certainly put pressure on the defense, but their low scoring volume dictates that a good part of their value just came in their ability to move the ball and see the court. I generally try and stray away from comparisons like this, but the other obvious example is Magic. His size and post-up game gave him a different element, but he wasn’t penetrating the defense or looking to score *that* much. Yet, he still brought incredible offensive value to his team’s through the way his passing changed their offense.

When Lonzo is compared to guys like Magic, Nash, or Stockton, it is not because his game is all that similar to any of them. It is merely because they are the best examples of bringing immense offensive value to the table as a relatively low-scoring lead guard. Lonzo might be significantly worse at compromising the defense than any of those guys, but if that is the case the fact that he is still bringing so much offensive value means his passing is just that good.

Part two of this breakdown is going to analyze the rest of Lonzo’s game. His shooting, his defense, and his off-the-dribble attacking and finishing. More conclusions will be drawn at the end of part two, but the takeaway from part one is that while all of that stuff matters, it might not matter that much in Lonzo’s case.

Lonzo is a basketball savant, and there are justifiable arguments to be made that his passing alone can make him a hugely valuable offensive presence. There are totally fair arguments to the contrary, and I wouldn’t come anywhere close to even odds betting on Lonzo’s passing value equalling Nash/Stockton/Magic, but I feel confident in my opinion that even most who acknowledge his elite BBIQ are not appropriately valuing its median or ceiling impact.

Click here for Part 2.