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Becoming Lonzo Ball in an impatient NBA world

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LOS ANGELES — Ten games into his NBA career, Lonzo Ball is a basketball Rorschach test.

What do you see when you look at him play? Do you see the playmaker averaging 6.8 assists per game, the guy who keeps the ball moving and rebounds surprisingly well, the one who is pushing the Lakers to the third fastest pace in the league, the one energized their athletic bigs to get out and run the floor, and the guy who has been crucial to L.A.s unexpected 5-5 start?

Or do you see the player who is shooting 29.9 percent this season, the one shooting just 39 percent at the rim and struggling with decisions when the defense collapses, the one that teams are sagging off and daring to shoot, the guy struggling on defense, the one searching to find his way in the half court? Do you see the player some are comparing to Ricky Rubio and are saying will never be an All-NBA (or maybe All-Star) player?

It’s a Rorschach test, the answer says more about you — and your biases about Ball and the Lakers — than it does the player himself.

Ball is both those things — an impressive playmaker and a guy struggling with his shot and defense at the next level.

What is Ball? A just turned 20-year-old rookie 10 games into an NBA career. He’s a guy developing, but in an impatient world that does not want to wait for him. He’s a guy for whom the game is still moving a million miles an hour and he is trying to keep up. What did you expect from him at this point, consistency? The next Magic Johnson?

“Those two young guys, they’re a handful,” Grizzlies coach David Fizdale said Sunday of Ball and Brandon Ingram, after the pair helped the Lakers beat Memphis. “I think as their shooting becomes more consistent, they are going to become a problem Everybody is looking at the body of work right now, but these kids get better and they got a heck of a staff down there that I know is going to develop them.”

Not to go all Sam Hinkie, but it’s a process. Players take time to develop. To make any long-term comparisons at this point, to suggest he may not live up to the standards of a No. 2 pick, is foolish this early in his career. We just don’t know.

Ball is a young man going against grown-ass men being physical with him nightly in a way he has never had to deal with before. NBA scouts and staffs are now getting a body of film to study, tendencies to put into scouting reports, and they will take away what he wants to do (like get back and take away the long look-ahead pass). It falls on Ball to adjust (something that didn’t happen the same way at UCLA). The good news for Lakers fans is Ball puts in the work.

Pass first point guards tend to come along slower in the NBA than their scoring counterparts, just look at the first 10 games of Jason Kidd (his and Ball’s numbers are similar). That’s especially true for pass first point guards who don’t have great shooters around them — Ball does not. Brook Lopez is the best three-point shooter among the other Lakers starters (Brandon Ingram has a nice three-point percentage overall but was just 6-of-16 shooting in spot-up situations coming into Sunday, he has to get his buckets with the ball in his hands.)

Ball was not expected to be an elite scorer, he never was (he averaged 14.6 points a game at UCLA). Yet scoring, and making better decision on when to attack and look for his shot, is going to be the first hard lesson to learn. He has to start with being more comfortable with his jumper — until he becomes a bigger threat to score teams are sagging off him and daring him to shoot. When he did, lining up a wide open three deep in the fourth quarter Sunday while Memphis was making a comeback, there were audible murmurs of concern in Staples center from fans (they were right, he missed it and was 1-of-8 from three on the night, 3-of-13 overall).

“I want him to keep shooting. I’m glad he’s not turning them down,” Lakers’ coach Luke Walton said. “I’m glad he’s trying to put pressure on the rim. The way to break through (his rough start shooting) is to keep working, at practice coming in early and get the shots up, then keep doing it in the game. Eventually you will figure it out, especially if you’ve been a good shooter your entire life.”

“A lot of shots that are open I’m getting, now I just got to knock them down,” Ball said.

Ball had his best success in the half court Sunday when he was aggressive and drove into and attacked the space the defender was giving him playing off him, something he needs to do more consistently. He has struggled in the past with his decision making on those drives — shooting over long defenders when kick-out passes were open, or passing when he had the better shot — but that is improving. What Walton said he wants is for Ball to remain aggressive.

“I feel I’m getting better at it,” Ball said of attacking that space. “Especially in transition, there’s a lot of gaps I can get into and I’m just trying to get better at it every time.”

It’s partially a matter of better decision making, something that comes with time and experience.

“Like he had a couple today that felt like heat checks, and if he hit the one before and the crowd’s behind it I’m okay with that,” Walton said. “But there are other quick threes he took when they were on a run. It’s pretty much the same shot, but within the game the momentum is different, so you got to learn the difference between those.”

Ball, like most rookies, is still a raw lump of clay being molded into an NBA player. Watching Ball a lot this season, it’s tempting to think that another ball-dominant playmaker — like the kind of big names the Lakers will target in free agency next summer, LeBron James and Paul George — would help Ball’s game. It would give the floor spacing and open up passing lanes (but again, Ball’s jumper needs to improve to really make that work).

We can see the gifts, not just the passing but the eagerness to do it at tempo that has started to transform the Lakers’ culture. This is a fast team (sometimes a little too fast and out of control, as young teams do), an athletic team in the way the Lakers have not been in a very long time. Like Showtime era long.

But Ball isn’t Magic Johnson, coming in after a few years of college (and being tested there by the likes of Larry Bird), then entering on a championship level team with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar putting up 25 and 10 still, and with Hall of Famer Jamaal Wilkes stroking baseline jumpers to the tune of 20 points a night.

Ball is young and developing, joining a team with the core players young and learning just like him (plus a couple of veterans, such as Brook Lopez, helping them win games). It was Magic that drafted Ball, and what he wanted was leadership and a guy to shift the culture of this team — and he has gotten that. This is a much better Lakers team than a year ago. A team with a long way to go, a team that’s likely watching the playoffs from home this spring, but a team that has a direction now.

Ball brought that. How much more will he bring? That we have to wait and see, we just don’t know yet.

Steven Adams says Thunder late-game struggles on him, not Westbrook/George/Anthony

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In the first half of games this season, the Oklahoma City Thunder have the best defense in the NBA, allowing just 91.7 points per 100 possessions. In those first 24 minutes, the Thunder are outscoring teams by 12.7 points per 100 possessions, second best in the NBA (Houston is first).

However, in the fourth quarter, the Thunder defense is 18.1 points per 100 possessions worse. Their offense stagnates late in games with a lot of “you take a turn and then it’s my turn” isolation between Russell Westbrook, Paul George, and Carmelo Anthony.

The Thunder have nine losses this season, and OKC lost double-digit leads in six of those. Monday night it was a 19-point lead against New Orleans where the Pelicans — without DeMarcus Cousins — came back to win 114-107.

There’s a lot of blame and finger-pointing going on in Oklahoma City, but Steven Adams said less of that should be at the three stars and more of it should be at him. Via Royce Young at ESPN:

“Mainly me, to be honest (should be blamed). Because the play itself you have to execute it properly and it has to be legit down to the t. I screwed up my feet on a couple of them in terms of spacing. … Everyone plays a part in the plight so you can say yeah the shot doesn’t go in which sucks. But to get them that shot I didn’t help them.”

Adams can take on a little of the blame, but this is a team thing right now — everyone has earned some blame. Billy Donovan as coach, role players like Andre Roberson or Patrick Patterson who have not lived up to expectations this season, and yes Westbrook/George/Anthony have earned some blame, too. It’s a little bit of everything.

There’s also time for the Thunder to figure it out, but they are on the clock as this is a one-year experiment in Oklahoma City (no way they pay the whopping tax coming next season to keep all three stars and Adams, no matter what ownership says publicly).

C.J. McCollum: I told Evan Fournier during altercation ‘ you’re sweet and soft like those crepes you eat’

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C.J. McCollum blew kisses at Evan Fournier when they got into a confrontation during the Trail Blazers’ win over the Magic last week:

But apparently the incident was even better than that!

McCollum on The Flagrant Two podcast, as transcribed by Colin Ward-Henninger of CBSSports.com:

“I just felt like he disrespected me by putting his hands on me,” McCollum said. “Obviously, I’m not trying to get any fines or anything of that nature and I told him he was sweet. He’s French, and I said that, ‘you’re sweet and soft like those crepes you eat.’ “

Did McCollum actually say that in the moment, or did he come up with the line after the fact? I want the former to be true, so I choose to believe it.

Report: Nuggets Paul Millsap out three months due to wrist surgery

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There were big sighs of relief in Denver when Paul Millsaps’ X-rays on his injured wrist came back negative. There were fears of a fracture suffered against the Lakers last weekend, but word from the team is it was just a sprain. He sat out the game against the Kings, but the timeline for his return was not expected to be long.

Except it has turned out to be a little more than a simple sprain. From Sham Charania of Yahoo and Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

Millsap — who signed a three-year, $90 million contract with Denver over the summer, after spending seven seasons with the Jazz and Hawks — is averaging 15.3 points and 6.2 rebounds a game. More importantly, he has been key to Denver’s defense going from one of the NBA’s worst to the middle of the pack this season. He’s started the season getting a handful fewer shots a game then he did in Atlanta last season, and Millsap was slightly less efficient, but like the team as a whole he seemed to be finding a groove and looked better during the recent streak when Denver won 4-of-5. He and the Nuggets were figuring out how to play together.

The Nuggets have been 4.5 points per 100 possessions better when Millsap has been on the court this season, and that will not be easy to replace.

While Kenneth Faried got the start with Millsap out last game, it was Trey Lyles who stepped up — and who Denver needs to step up with Millsap out. Others will have to step up with some defense while he is out.

LaVar Ball on Luke Walton: “They’re soft. They don’t know how to coach my son.”

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Luke Walton is trying to create a professional environment around his young Lakers’ core. One where they expect the players to put in extra work without being told they have to, one where the coaches guide the development, but it’s ultimately the player in charge of his own course. Basically, Walton is treating his young players like adults and is asking them to respond to it like professional adults. It’s what he’s seen Steve Kerr do in Golden State and it works. It’s how Gregg Popovich has created a dynasty in San Antonio.

LaVar Ball sees the world very differently. He’s old school, from the “do as I say” mold.

So it shouldn’t be a shock that after the Lakers’ ugly loss last Friday to the Suns, the Lakers media spoke to LaVar Ball about his son’s play and Ball took a shot at the Lakers’ coach. Here are the quotes, via Eric Pincus of Bleacher Report.

“They’re soft. They don’t know how to coach my son. I know how to coach him,” LaVar Ball said. “I tell him to go get the victory. Stop messing around.”

Does he have a problem with coach Luke Walton?

“No, I have a problem with losing,” Ball responded.

I have multiple thoughts here, which means bullet points.

• I am breaking my own rule with this post, which is “don’t cover LaVar Ball, he’s just meaningless click bait.” I debated the point, but I think there is a legitimate basketball reason to cover this post (keep reading).

• Things Luke Walton cares more about than what LaVar Ball thinks of his coaching style: How much extra guacamole costs at Chipotle; if Netflix has “Golden Girls” to stream; what shoes Lakers’ sideline reporter Mike Trudell is wearing during postgame interviews; which Van Halen album “Dance the Night Away” is on; which show won the 1974 Tony for Best Musical.

Lonzo Ball‘s struggles with his shot this season — 31.3 percent overall, and he is struggling from three and around the rim — are well documented. It’s clear he is in his own head about it at this point. What can keep him there longer is conflicting advice from his father and his coach. So far, Lonzo seems to be siding with the coaching staff, for example, he credited assistant coach Brian Shaw for telling him to rebound more aggressively, then push the ball himself. LaVar will want to take credit for that, too. Lonzo needs to listen to his coaches, take his father’s advice for what it’s worth, and find his path.

• LaVar is lucky that the level-headed, mature-for-his-age, hard-working Lonzo was his oldest son. Just from what I see on the outside, not sure either of the other two Ball children could have handled this scrutiny nearly as well.

• Luke Walton is working to create something sustainable with the Lakers, they are not going to let anything (or anyone) bump them off that path.