When the Los Angeles Lakers drafted Lonzo Ball with the second pick in 2017, Magic Johnson threw a huge press conference in which he insinuated that Lonzo’s jersey would one day be retired by the Lakers.
Fast forward three years and Lonzo is playing for the New Orleans Pelicans and hasn’t averaged more than 12 points per game in any season in his career.
So, Lonzo is a bust, right?
Well, that’s a difficult question to answer, especially since Lonzo doesn’t fall in the Bennett/Oden/Darko very obvious bust camp and a lot of people are still high on him.
Cases like Lonzo’s are especially difficult, so the first thing we have to do is determine exactly what a bust is.
We’ll define a draft bust this way: draft busts are players that fail to meet at least 60% of realistic expectations and therefore substantially decrease their team’s expected chances to win.
For the rest of the article, we’ll look at several key aspects of Lonzo’s game and determine scientifically (based on advanced stats, film breakdown, and my own opinion) to what degree Lonzo has lived up to his expectations.
First, let’s examine exactly what those expectations were.
Obviously, Ball’s expectations were high coming into the league, but it’s important to look at the context.
Lonzo was drafted with the second overall pick to one of the best franchises in team sports, which happened to be in the middle of its driest stretch ever.
On this day 3 years ago, the Lakers selected Lonzo Ball with the Second Pick in the NBA Draft ⭐️2️⃣
— The Laker Files (@LakerFiles) June 22, 2020
Did I mention that he was the Lakers’ third top-two pick in as many years?
Regardless of any other factors, the arrival of Ball was supposed to signal in the Lakers’ next dynasty, which is an unfair amount of pressure for any 19-year-old.
Oh, and there were other factors.
Lonzo’s dad, LaVar Ball, set a new precedent for parent involvement for athlete prospects.
LaVar went on tour on seemingly every sports talk show and even some that had nothing to do with sports proclaiming his son as the future king of Los Angeles and face of the NBA.
LaVar’s antics combined with joining the Lakers when he did put arguably more pressure on Lonzo than we’ve put on any prospect since at least LeBron James.
So, exterior expectations may have been to bring multiple titles to the Lakers and eventually have his number retired.
However, a more realistic view may have seen him as a third-best guy on a title team in his prime, and that’s what we’re going to go with here.
Since his days at Chino Hills High School, so many of Lonzo’s highlights have been pinpoint, fullcourt passes that would make the likes of Kevin Love and Wes Unseld proud.
Since he entered the NBA, you can probably count on one hand the number of players who are more impactful in sparking a team’s transition offense.
Much like Russell Westbrook, Lonzo is an elite rebounder at his position and gets going as soon as he grabs a board.
Lonzo Ball blocks Kennard into JaVale McGee's face before running the PERFECT fast break.
What a play.pic.twitter.com/Rq6b4YrYIo
— Sporting News (@sportingnews) January 10, 2019
Then, when they have numbers, his precision pass to the guy streaking toward the hoop or the corner may just be the best pass in basketball.
For statistical proof, Lonzo’s teams have been in the top six in both offensive pace and efficiency in the fast break in each of his three years in the league (Inpredictable).
For your entertainment pleasure, here’s some of Lonzo’s best transition passes from his time as a Laker:
Lonzo’s score in the fastbreak: 110/100 (reality/expectations).
So, it’s hard to overstate how bad Lonzo has been as a halfcourt player in his career.
As a ball-handler, his elite passing rarely helps him as he just can’t get penetration with a first step that’s weaker than anyone realized while he was in college.
Off the ball, while he improved as a spot-up shooter in New Orleans, he almost never cuts and just looks lost most of the time.
Since Lonzo was expected to be a primarily on-ball player in the NBA, he likely didn’t develop skills that NBA players need when they share ball-handling duties, which he’s had to do with LeBron and now Jrue Holiday.
Lonzo was expected to be an offensive engine in the NBA, and if you can’t create in the half-court, you can’t have that title.
Lonzo’s score here is 15/100 (since half-court offense is such a broad category and affects most offensive plays, this category will receive double the weight of the other categories).
Here’s the subtitle of The Ringer’s first-ever story on Lonzo: “Be Like Steph: LaVar Ball and his three sons are trying to change basketball, one 30-foot shot at a time.”
Danny Chau is one of the best basketball writers in the world, and it was no stretch at the time to think Lonzo could become an all-timer from deep range.
Here are just a few shots from Ball’s lone season at UCLA as evidence:
So, what happened?
Well, Lonzo is the first of likely many victims who actually started shooting threes too early.
Credit to LaVar, he saw the three-point era in the NBA coming before almost any of us, and he made his sons start practicing 30-footers when they were little.
For Lonzo, though, this had an unintended consequence: since he started shooting threes before he hit puberty, he developed a heave-like jumper, as that was the only way he could get the ball to the rim as a kid.
Unlike his brothers, who saw how the shot has affected Lonzo in the NBA, he didn’t really begin to fix the poor mechanics until after his rookie season.
This has obviously caused a number of issues, most notably that his shot is so slow that he can’t get it off on NBA defenders, especially when he has to turn his hips while moving right.
So, the 41% college three-point shooter shot 31% in his first two years in the NBA.
While it’s getting substantially better (37% last year), he had to spend his first two NBA offseasons, which could have been spent developing a better first step or learning how to move off the ball, starting from scratch with a new, still imperfect jumper.
Lonzo’s score: 35/100.
Here’s where Lonzo is really gonna gain some ground in his “Wait a second, I’m not a bust!” case.
When Lonzo entered the draft, most people, including myself, thought he would be monumentally bad on defense.
Why, you ask?
Because he was monumentally bad in college!
Watching Lonzo play defense at UCLA was not unlike watching James Harden play defense in the NBA: slow, checked out, and absolutely no intensity.
In the NBA, though, Lonzo’s been among the top ten point guards in defensive win shares in two of his first three seasons despite playing fewer minutes than anyone else in that group.
Since his first Summer League, Lonzo has looked like a plus-defender at his worst and an all-league defender at his best.
Lonzo may not have the quickest feet, but his length helps him stay in front of smaller guards and switch on to some power forwards.
Plus, his basketball IQ is otherworldly and allows him to make plays like these:
In almost all of these plays, Lonzo anticipates exactly where the ball will be and sneaks a hand in without giving up position.
While he may not ever quite make an All-NBA Defensive team with Ben Simmons and Marcus Smart in the league, he’ll be a plus defender until and unless he stops trying on that end entirely.
His score: 150/100.
According to these extremely scientific ratings we’ve given Lonzo, he’s 65% of the player a reasonable person would have expected him to be.
If you remember from earlier, that’s just above the threshold of a bust!
He certainly isn’t the offensive engine we expected him to be, but he’s good enough at many of the little things that he could certainly be a starter on a title team with the right pieces around him.
Plus, who knows what could happen after an offseason being comfortable with his jump shot?
Obviously, the margins are so close, and anything from a slight regression to a short career could put him on the other side of this discussion.
At least for now, though, LaVar can rest easy knowing at least one of his sons has become an above-average NBA role player, just as he predicted.