Brick by brick, Lonzo Ball is tearing down the sky-high expectations set by his father and tearing apart Laker Nation. Through the first month and a half of the NBA season, Ball has looked more Le’Bryan Nash than Steve Nash, shooting an abysmal 31.5% from the field and 25.7% from beyond the arc. If it holds, that 31.5% number would be the lowest field goal percentage for any player taking more than 10 shots a game since Woody Sauldsberry in 1961. Ball’s 3-point percentage would be the lowest ever for a player attempting at least the 4.9 triples he takes per game.
It’s all a bit perplexing. Many expected the rookie point guard to struggle with the speed and physicality of the NBA game, but making shots was something Ball never had difficulty doing until now. In his lone season at UCLA, he shot 55.1% from the floor and 41.2% from 3-point range, often pulling up off the dribble from well beyond NBA distance. The chest-release form on his jump shot was a very real concern coming into the league, but that worry had more to do with his ability to create his own looks than his ability to hit shots. Of the 103 threes he’s taken this year, only nine have come with a defender within four feet of him; he’s made three of those shots. And on the remaining 94 open threes he’s attempted he’s converted at an even worse clip, 25.5%.
His raw stats have been solid—9.0 points, 7.2 assists, and 7.0 rebounds with only 2.6 turnovers a night. And in a handful of games he’s shown glimpses of the Lonzo Ball we all loved watching with the Bruins last season, including two triple-double performances. While his historic inefficiency as a scorer has negated a lot of the benefits he’s brought the Lakers in other aspects of the game, his ability as a playmaker and floor general makes him a slight net positive for the Lakers in terms of win shares (+0.2) and value over replacement player (+0.2). A more bullish take on Ball can be found in a statistic called expected wins created by analytics guru and current editor in chief of cleaningtheglass.com Ben Falk. His formula indicates that Ball makes the Lakers play at the level of a 37-win team when he’s on the floor versus a projected win total of 35 when he’s on the bench.
So if Ball, despite all his struggles so far this year, is still contributing useful minutes to the Lakers, what does that say about his future in the NBA?
The reality of the situation is that Lonzo Ball’s shooting woes are bound to improve, even if he never becomes the shot creator and finisher some hoped he could be. Even if he simply raised his shooting percentage on open threes from 25.5% up to the league average of 37.1%, that alone would increase his scoring average from 9.0 to 10.5 points per game and improve his shooting splits to 39.7% from the floor and 36.9% from beyond the arc. And the expectation based on his college production is that Ball will eventually be an above-average three-point shooter when left unguarded.
When looking at Ball’s rookie year production, it’s important to keep in mind that the sample of games is a measly 21. And historically, that number of games is hardly large enough to lean upon when making long term predictions. Since 2000, 42 players, including Ball, have started a season shooting below 30% from beyond the arc on as many attempts—James Harden, Kevin Durant, Paul Pierce, Tracy McGrady, and Kobe Bryant (three times!).
To respond to the question posed in the headline of this article, the answer is yes and no. As controversial as Ball is as a public figure, his game is even more polarizing. As a scorer, he’s so far been one of the worst to ever don an NBA uniform. But as a playmaker, he’s posted assist and turnover numbers similar to those of Chris Paul, Jason Kidd, and Tim Hardaway as rookies. Projecting ahead, Lakers fans should be much more confident in Ball remembering how to shoot again than they should be worried that the obvious strengths in his game will atrophy.