If you’ve been watching Lonzo Ball and the Los Angeles Lakers recently, you’ve probably also been wildly wrung, back and forth, between amazement and disappointment. Since the young point guard was drafted out of UCLA number 2 overall this summer, a world of expectations has been placed squarely on his shoulders. And in the games we’ve seen since the start of the season, he’s emerged from some of those games living up to the expectations, but just as many falling flat.
So what’s going on with Lonzo?
First, it should be pointed out that the media’s obsession with Lonzo is abnormally high compared with other top-level draft picks. That’s not necessarily his fault. Lonzo’s father Lavar Ball manages to grab him plenty spotlight by virtue of the noise he makes. The Big Baller Brand patriarch runs his mouth in the kind of way that invites cameras and attention—a natural clickbait mine. Playing in big-market Los Angeles, where every top pick is expected to be the next Kobe, probably doesn’t help much.
As the new media darling—we’re even getting “Lonzo Wednesdays” now—it makes sense that both his failures and successes are magnified. With expectations come scrutiny, and with scrutiny comes pressure. So, when he scores zero points against the Trailblazers one day, and then becomes the youngest ever player to record a triple-double against the Bucks on another, you can be sure people will blow the extremes out of proportion. Let’s sit down and take a look at young Lonzo's prospects. How good or bad can he really be?
Here are his possible future scenarios—from the worst case to best.
The Worst Case Scenario: Lonzo Bust
It happens. Top Draft picks sometimes just don’t pan out. Before the draft class of 2017, the most highly touted and talented draft class was 2003’s. The number 2 pick at the time, Darko Milicic, eventually fizzled out of the NBA, while his peers—LeBron, D-Wade, Carmelo—went on to have All-Star careers.
So, while Lonzo’s strengths are clear—playmaking ability, court vision, a penchant to rebound as well as guard—his weakness remains a huge one: scoring. If the biggest hole in his skill set is the name of the game itself, it’s hard to imagine Lonzo as a star. Through the first month, Lonzo has posted the worst shooting percentage (30.3) among players shooting at least 3.5 times a game. That can be owed to his infamously awkward release and shooting form—a habit that by now could be extremely difficult to break.
If Lonzo doesn’t quickly develop into a reliable scoring threat soon, then he’ll be no different from the dime-a-dozen point guards in the League, or even the G-League. In the Lakers’ first match-up against the Sixers, he was completely outclassed by fellow rookie Ben Simmons.
But the pitfall is deeper for Lonzo: the reality is, those other guards don’t have the burden that he’s carrying. All the franchise expectations, media attention, and off-court antics could easily affect him adversely. If his mental fortitude doesn’t hold up, we could easily see Lonzo doing a Darko and pulling out of the league within a few years. Expect Lavar in tears if this happens.
Pessimistic: The Journeyman
Players who don’t start out with a clear talent for scoring rarely ever become renowned for scoring, and at the moment, Lonzo falls squarely into this category. Unless he has a scoring renaissance comparable to that of Kyle Lowry’s (who spent his first six seasons averaging less than 10 PPG but is now a primary option for Toronto), Lonzo Ball must be relegated to a pure facilitator kind of point guard.
This was the package that Los Angeles expected when they plucked him out of his college freshman year, but the deal was, his strange, behind-the-ear-pullback shot was supposed to translate to the NBA. Without this development, Ball’s projected growth trajectory becomes extremely conservative.
In this case, it will become clear that Lonzo doesn’t deserve the keys to an offense, and he’ll be relegated to a back-up point guard sooner rather than later. Once that happens, the dreams of him becoming a franchise player may have to be scrapped, and he’s sent elsewhere much like D’Angelo Russell before him. Then he might spend the rest of his career as a journeyman—perhaps the PG version of Andrew Bogut.
Realistic: The Fringe All-Star PG
If you want a pass-first point guard who has shown flashes of greatness, but never quite soared to that level, look no further than Ricky Rubio. Utah’s guard has become a completely serviceable facilitator on offense, and while he’s not a major scoring threat, and does enough to warrant a starting job. Lonzo’s trajectory at the moment puts him in line with Rubio.
Here’s the issue with Lonzo: inconsistency. He plays extremely well sporadically, but he also undermines himself with poor performances in between. His triple-double versus the Bucks sounds fantastic, it’s also sandwiched by games versus the Suns and Wizards where he shot 2 of 11 from range. You want consistency out of a franchise player; the ability to deliver should be knowledge, not hope.
If Lonzo never evolves his shooting, and never matures enough to command attention even vocally like the Chris Pauls and Russell Westbrooks of the league, then this is the kind of career he’s looking at. He’ll probably peak as a fringe-All-Star player, but won’t come close to sniffing the “best PG’s in the league” conversation.
"Any kid who can turn in a 29-point game performance, while recording 12 rebounds and 13 assists, clearly has potential. "
Optimistic: The No-Doubt All-Star PG
Now, this is where it gets fun. Any kid who can turn in a 29-point game performance, while recording 12 rebounds and 13 assists, clearly has potential. Because of Lonzo Ball’s elite court vision and passing, he’s often been compared, not unfairly, to four-time All-Star Rajon Rondo.
Here’s the difference, though: Rondo compounds his passing with crafty drives, top-tier handles, and wicked fake-outs that often allow him to penetrate defenses single-handedly. Lonzo Ball does not have these in his repertoire at the moment; he heavily favors one hand over the other and still turns the ball over due to a careless dribble or pass one time too many.
If he does manage to expand his arsenal to include such moves, however? Then Lonzo won’t just be a starting-level point guard, he’ll be a mainstay in All-Star Games and All-NBA teams. The modern NBA has shifted onto the fast lane, and in that motion-offense-oriented world, a triple-threat player is a gem. Ball could be one… if he adds depth to his game.
Best Case Scenario: The Second Coming of Magic Johnson
Now, let’s consider the best-case scenario, which is the vision most Lakers fans had when they learned they were picking number two in the 2017 draft.
In NBA history, arguably two of the best and most complete players include Magic Johnson and LeBron James. Both were fantastic scorers capable of letting their individual talent take over games when necessary, but by and large preferred to involve their teammates in securing victories. Lavar Ball claims he can speak truths into being (seriously: he basically said he was Zeus during the draft), and in this case, what he wants to see is his son becoming the same manner of player. Lonzo’s physical tools—length, athleticism, reaction speed—make this more attainable.
For this to happen—for Lonzo to come into his own as an MVP-level player capable of bringing a few more banners to LA—then he’s going to need to replicate his all-around games against more elite NBA talent. He’ll also need to prove himself worthy on the defensive end, all while accumulating the confidence, presence, and basketball IQ people associate with franchise leaders.
It’s a tall order to ask, but yes, fans are allowed to dream.
In the end, Lonzo’s future will probably fall somewhere between the best- and worst-case scenarios. There is no science in predicting how good players will turn out, and it’s usually about three to four years into someone’s career that we can really determine how high their ceiling goes. Sometimes it takes even longer.
For us fans, we can only sit here and imagine what kind of road Lonzo Ball takes as he blazes his trail, playing one big guessing game all the way. Whether that street ends in failure or superstardom, we’ll have to wait to see.
It’s his move. Everyone’s watching.