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.