Coming to the Church of Lonzo: Part 2

If you haven’t already, I recommend you read part one of this piece in which I examine the potential impact of Lonzo’s ability to share the ball. Here, I will take a look at the rest of his game.

The obvious red flag in Lonzo’s profile as a point guard prospect is his inability to score off-the-dribble inside the arc. According to Hoop-Math, Lonzo has only eight non-transition unassisted makes at the rim in his first 19 games, and if we compare him to the other top point guard prospects in this respect he does not come out very well.

HC = Half Court, UA = Unassisted — Updated as of 1/15/17

There are a couple of things that jump out in Lonzo’s profile. First, that he scores 1/3rd less frequently at the rim on his own than any of the other top point guard prospects should not be ignored. I will dive further into his penetrating ability, or lack thereof, in a second.

Secondly, his relatively high number of assisted makes at the rim is a testament to both his cutting ability, and his leaping off of two feet. His feel for cutting is just another sign of his basketball instincts being all kinds of special. If I may include one more Lonzo passing highlight, we can see how he could potentially bring more value than most guards from cutting to the basket.

Cutting aside, it is time to address Lonzo’s off-the-dribble attacking. It has been theorized by many that a large reason for his infrequent trips to the lane is he lacks burst with the ball. I reject this reasoning. Lonzo isn’t a exceptionally explosive player, but he has shown an adequate first step.

The problem instead is two-fold. He plays far too upright, and he lacks the ability to finish with any pressure at the rim. Here, we see Lonzo having the burst to turn the corner and get in the lane but blowing the finish.

This time Lonzo shows off his speed with the ball, which should not be underrated, but badly misses what should be an easy finish.

Again, Lonzo has the requisite athleticism to get to the basket, but his finishing fails him. His leaping off of one foot is clearly much worse than off-two, but he also seems to lack any sort of touch or control of the ball. It is a weird phenomenon, considering his exceptional passing touch.

Lack of finishing is a big problem. Lonzo gains the advantage in this pick-and-roll and puts himself in a relatively good position to finish, but kicks it out due to his dearth of confidence in his finishing.

Lonzo’s uprightness is also apparent in all of the above clips. He lacks flexibility in the hips and knees, and rarely plays low to the ground as a result. The football saying that “low-man wins” is equally true in basketball when it comes to turning the corner on your opponent, and really limits Lonzo. He has a good handle and variety of moves, but because of how high he plays off the ground it is not nearly as effective and much more prone to getting stripped.

The play winds up okay, but after displaying the burst to attack a switch Lonzo’s high-handle nearly causes a turnover.

On this play, Lonzo does a good job pushing the ball in transition, but gets it poked away due to how high he keeps it.

Here, Lonzo tries to dribble the ball low to the ground but because his hips stay so high he winds up losing control of it.

This is a huge issue for Lonzo, as it makes him much less capable of attacking in the half-court. If he does get cut off on his first step and doesn’t have a relatively easy lane to the basket he struggles to create space for himself. He gets bailed out by his vision and a good cut from his teammate, but his inability to break guys down off-the-dribble is apparent here.

The other critique in Lonzo’s attacking-game is his avoidance of the mid-range jump shot. Due to his unusual shooting form he is much more comfortable shooting step-backs than pull-ups, and almost completely avoids shooting jumpers inside the arc. If we again compare his mid-range numbers to the other top NCAA point guards, it is obvious why scouts are concerned.

Updated as of 1/15/17

Lonzo takes mid-range shots less than half as frequently as the next lowest volume mid-range shooter makes them. The few times he has forced up a mid-range look it is easy to see why he tries to stay away from them typically. His form just looks incredibly awkward when his body is in forward motion.

Without a doubt, it is a weakness in Lonzo’s prospect profile that he is not even competent from the mid-range. However, the idea that not shooting from the mid-range is an issue on its own is flawed. Lonzo is almost certainly going to be an efficient offensive player in the NBA because he exclusively shoots from three and at the rim. In many ways, it is a strength in Lonzo’s profile and a weakness in guys like Fultz and Fox’s that they have such an affinity for the mid-range.

The reason it is a concern is because of how it might allow defenses to guard Lonzo. Being able to make good things happen in pick-and-roll is fundamental to half-court success in the modern NBA. Without the ability to threaten the mid-range or probe the defense and finish at the rim, teams could easily guard him by dropping their big man back in soft coverage and having the on-ball defender fight over the screen to prevent a step-back three. Michigan doesn’t even guard this pick-and-roll in all that disciplined a fashion, but Lonzo’s inability to make the defense bend in any way causes the play to fizzle out.

The two questions for Lonzo are how much can he improve in these areas, and how much does it matter? In terms of improvement, it is not fair to expect the development of a mid-range game. It would require a complete re-working of his shot, and could easily tank his value as a three-point shooter.

Where he could realistically improve is as a driver and finisher. He has both the horizontal and vertical athleticism, along with the makings of a handle, but improvement is never a given. Working on his hip flexibility to get his handle lower and adding floaters and more creative finishes to his game is certainly doable.

The question of how much it matters is probably more pertinent to Lonzo’s NBA success. I expect some improvement, but he probably will never be even average for a point guard at attacking or finishing in traffic. There is a notion that Lonzo is so bad in these areas that he might need to play off-the-ball in the NBA. This ignores the many offensive opportunities Lonzo creates in non-traditional fashion, and that he still can be successful in pick-and-roll simply due to his speed and decision making.

So, being able to do these traditional things definitely matters. If Lonzo were to become a true offensive star he would undoubtedly need to improve. Still, I don’t think he would need as much improvement as most do, and I think he could be a very good offensive point guard without succeeding at penetrating and finishing. He is just that outlier of a creator in other ways.

He could play off-the-ball and succeed in that role, but it would suppress the value his passing brings. The reason he can thrive off-the-ball is because of his ability to space the floor. Lonzo’s outside shot is obviously a very controversial topic. His form is totally bizarre and he is shooting <70% from the free throw line, but at some point it’s hard to argue with the success he has had shooting the ball from beyond the arc.

Lonzo is at a stellar 43% from deep on the year, and is already at over 100 attempts due to shooting 6.4 threes per 40. His numbers become even more impressive when you consider the type of threes he is hitting. Shooting on the move like this from as far beyond the arc as he does is not often seen at the college level.

When you add in his comfort level shooting step-backs and rhythm pull-ups from very deep you get a completely unique shooting package.

Lonzo is oftentimes forced to shoot from farther behind the arc because he needs more space to get his shot off, but since he is so comfortable doing so it is not really a problem. If anything, Lonzo will stretch NBA defenses even further than most high-level floor spacers — giving him tons of utility off-ball and giving him more room to work with in isolation situations.

I’m not concerned with Lonzo’s form, at least pertaining to his three-point shooting. I do think hand-wringing over his FT% is justified, as it is typically a big flaw in many young shooting prospects. My personal theory on the matter is that his funky form makes him overly reliant on the rhythm of hopping into his shot, and therefore his free throw shooting should be less of a flag than it is for most. I understand such a theory could be seen as an unfair jump, but with the combination of volume, efficiency, and difficulty Lonzo is shooting with it seems almost less fair to question his shot.

In fact, the argument that Lonzo could be an elite NBA shooter is probably being undersold. I get why there is a bunch of skepticism surrounding his shooting, but we must also consider the possibility that he can really freaking shoot the ball. I wouldn’t be shocked if his shot failed him in the NBA, but I think his most likely outcome is as at the very least a plus floor spacer.

Before I reach any concluding thoughts, it is time to address Lonzo’s defense. Defense is half the battle after all. There are a lot of concerns about his ability to guard NBA point guards. At times, he doesn’t look very good guarding the point of attack.

This is usually attributed to a lack of lateral quickness, and the example of the Kentucky game, in which De’Aaron Fox burned him multiple times is brought up. I don’t think this is a totally fair assessment for a couple reasons. For one, De’Aaron Fox burns pretty much anyone he goes up against, and looking slow against one of the quickest point guards I’ve ever seen is not necessarily a problem.

From a broader perspective, Lonzo does not have elite lateral quickness by any means, but his defensive problems are more about his lack of hip flexibility. On a play like this we can see that Lonzo can actually move his feet pretty well, albeit not at an elite level.

I showed the clip two above to display Lonzo’s weaknesses, but in all the games of his I watched that was actually the only time he just got blown by like that. Instead, where he really struggles is when he gets put involved in ball-screen action. All the times Fox beat him to the cup in the half-court came after Lonzo attempted to get around a screen.

Lonzo doesn’t have the strength and flexibility to fight over screens, and almost always attempts to go under. Sadly, going under isn’t a sustainable strategy to guarding the pick-and-roll. Here, Lonzo gets re-screened and gives up an easy look by trying to cheat under.

When Lonzo does successfully fight over a screen he does it too slowly to get himself back in the play (though this play is also an indictment of T.J. Leaf’s defense).

Other times, Lonzo does get under the screen pretty quickly, but is forced to deal with the reality of going under screens against high-level guards.

These are all examples of Lonzo getting pretty badly beat, but they also were his worst plays I saw in the nine or so games of his I’ve watched. He usually does a good job getting under quickly, and though he doesn’t make guys uncomfortable with the ball he doesn’t get beat egregiously either.

As a point of attack defender in the NBA, Lonzo will probably always struggle guarding ball-screens, and particularly with super-quick guards, but I don’t think he’s bound to be a disaster. He shows real flashes of moving well and containing guys on the perimeter.

Importantly, Lonzo projects as a good to elite defender off-the-ball, and capable of guarding wings full time in lineups with a better point guard defender. He is posting a very solid 2.7% steal rate and 2.4% block rate, and it is clear his outlier basketball instincts at least somewhat translate to the defensive end of the court.

I mean, look at the read-and-react ability required to make this deflection and save.

This deflection as well is a display of simply fantastic anticipation.

He uses his speed and play recognition well to be a threat in the passing lanes.

Making an on-ball play like this is a real indicator of superior instincts.

In the above clips Lonzo creates defensive value by making events happen, but he is also just a generally cerebral defensive player.

On this play, Lonzo starts out by anticipating the pass to the corner and forcing the offensive player to adjust ever so slightly. Then, he does enough to dissuade penetration from the corner, before dropping into help to prevent a dump-off to the big. Finally, he jumps back into the play and feints like he’s going to close out on a potential kick-back to the perimeter, forcing the opponent into the lower efficiency floater. Nothing exceptional, but a series of smart and heady defensive plays that add up to helping a team.

Everything I’ve seen just suggests he reads the game a step-ahead of everyone else. Watch here how he starts closing out to the corner before the pass is made and has the lateral quicks and balance to prevent any attempt at penetration. He gets lower on this close out than any other time I’ve seen him, and is a promising sign of the potential to develop a lower style of play.

The next play is the reason Lonzo could be an above-average NBA defender, even if he is below-average in on-ball ball-screen situations. He doesn’t completely wall off the penetration, but he does enough to contain it, and then has the presence of mind to switch onto the attacking player and stop his drive.

Lonzo’s switch-ability should not be underrated, as it gives him a lot of potential defensive versatility. Standing 6'5 with a reported 6'7.5 wingspan he could easily play the two-guard in almost any lineup. That type of size and length should even make him able to guard many small forwards comfortably. He is skinny right now, but he has broad shoulders that I would expect him to grow into and allow him to guard all but the biggest and best of wings.

His length and IQ will also allow him to switch well onto big guys, particularly as he adds strength. UCLA actually has him play defensive power forward some, and when they go to zone he oftentimes plays on the bottom. On this play, he uses his size and awareness to deny a post-entry to a much bigger player.

As he adds strength he should be comfortable switching onto most power forwards for short stretches of time, and even could switch onto smaller 5’s in an end of clock situation.

What does that leave us with? A minus on-ball defender of 1’s, but a solid on-ball defender of 2’s and 3’s with positional versatility, and a plus off-ball defender regardless of position. That makes up a solid defensive prospect — dependent on his on-ball defense of 1’s being merely weak and not disastrous. I think he’s athletic and smart enough to not be terrible there, but if you truly believe he can’t guard 1’s he still profiles as a versatile and helpful wing defender who just needs to be paired with a better point of attack guy.

Alright, it’s time to wrap up. Only Lonzo Ball could force me to spill over 6,000 words. There are a few key takeaways I have about Lonzo’s skills.

  1. His passing ability is as good as anyone in the NBA. There is a real (though not likely) chance he can bring similar creation value as the NBA’s all-time best passers. It might even be fair to say Ricky Rubio’s passing is a median expectation for Lonzo’s, seeing as Rubio similarly struggles with creating openings in the defense to exploit.
  2. Finishing and attacking are real weaknesses in his game. He has the speed, leaping, and IQ to where there is reason for hope of improvement, but dramatic improvement should not be expected. He will not be a high usage scorer, though that is not a pre-requisite for being an elite offensive player.
  3. While there are fair questions about his shot, there is also evidence that he could be an elite three-point shooter. One who brings extra value with his ability to shoot on the move, off-the-dribble, and from very deep.
  4. His on-ball defense will be somewhere from terrible — average as a point guard, and probably around below-average — average as a wing. Where he winds up falling on those scales will be pretty important. In any scenario, his ability to switch across multiple positions will always give him more defensive value.
  5. He will be a plus off-ball defender who creates events and rotates well. Off-ball defense isn’t as important for guards, but it’s still a large component of NBA defense and a way to make up for mediocre on-ball guarding.

Ultimately, I see three different potential scenarios for Lonzo’s career that he will likely fall between. The scenarios in which he really fails as an NBA guy would probably involve his shot sucking, but otherwise I see him as a very high-floor prospect.

Scenario 1: He plays almost exclusively as a two-guard. He is a below-par defender but a good enough shooter and passer to bring lots of off-ball value on offense, and could still be a 4th or 5th starter.

Scenario 2: He develops enough as an on-ball creator and defender to play the one, but is still decidedly below-average in each of those areas. He winds up as a noticeably worse defensive but much better offensive (due to shooting) version of Ricky Rubio.

Scenario 3: He becomes a net positive defender due to okay on-ball D along with great off-ball D, and improves his penetrating and attacking to acceptable NBA point guard levels. Being simply acceptable in these areas allows him to be one of the NBA’s very best offensive players due to his completely outlier passing and very elite shooting. He is a top-10, if not maybe top-5, player in the league.

This is an overly simplistic breakdown. There are a lot of potential outcomes in between these scenarios, and certainly some just completely worse ones. I do think it is a relatively fair look at Lonzo though, and his combination of decently-high floor and ultra-high ceiling. Realistic outcomes exist in which Lonzo even blows away the more optimistic third scenario.

Lonzo is a classic case of people focusing on what he’s not, and failing to realize what he is. Even with all the supposed flaws in his game, Lonzo currently comes out #1 in Kevin Pelton’s NBA draft model. That he has produced so well statistically despite the large flaws in his game speaks to how he can succeed even with his flaws, and just how good he could be with improvement in his problem areas. I haven’t watched enough of Markelle Fultz to say Lonzo is a better or worse prospect, but I do know I am an absolute believer in Lonzo. He may not be the #1 guy in this year’s class due to Fultz, but he is the type of talent worthy of a #1 pick.

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