The date is October 31st, 2017. The Lakers have just defeated the Detroit Pistons 113-93. Lonzo Ball finishes with a stat line of 13 points, 3 assists, and 6 rebounds, hardly Rookie of the Year award worthy stats for the 2nd pick in the 2017 NBA draft. But Lonzo is all that anyone is talking about right now, so NBA TV elects to interview him after the game. Chris Webber asks the first question, where Lonzo is asked to elaborate on how great it is to have fulfilled his dream of playing basketball in the NBA. Isiah Thomas asks the next question, and while I’m paraphrasing the interview, Zeke acknowledges that many players in the league are so focused on their stats. Lonzo appears very comfortable not filling up the box score, so long as his team wins the game. Lonzo agrees, stating his father told him as a point guard, all that matters are wins and losses.
The next game, the Lakers arrive in Portland to play the Trailblazers, and their two-headed monster of CJ McCollum and Damien Lillard. Portland is not a city the Lakers have historically ever played well in, and in recent history, the Lakers have lost to Portland 12 straight times, by an average of 15 points. In this contest, the Lakers fall behind early by as much as 18 points, but end up hanging around to make it a game. Brook Lopez finishes with a season high 27, Kuzma finishes with 22, and Ingram continues his improved play with 14 points. But Lillard hits a 3 to seal the victory, and the Lakers lose a close one, 113-110.
If you watched the TNT post game (which is always hilarious), Shaquille O’Neal and Charles Barkley begin to take shots at Lonzo Ball. The Lakers coveted rookie finished the game with 0 points, 4 assists, and 3 rebounds. Shaq says he would like to see Lonzo be more aggressive, saying he wants to see Lonzo pull up and shoot the three, like he saw him do in college and high school. Barkley shares his theory that Ball simply can’t shoot, and that’s why he’s so passive. Both analysts would also continue to go out of their way to say Kyle Kuzma was the best rookie on the Lakers right now.
Skip forward to last night and D’Angelo Russell’s return to LA, after the Lakers traded him in the offseason to the Brooklyn Nets for Brook Lopez and the then-unheard of rookie named Kyle Kuzma. NBA fans everywhere were watching to see who would win the point guard battle. Would Ball prove the Lakers were right in drafting him to replace Russell? Would Russell drop 50 on the Lakers to show them what a grave mistake they made?
D’Angelo Russell would finish the game with 17 points, 7 assists, and 7 rebounds. Lonzo Ball ended up with just 6 points, 7 assists, and 5 rebounds. Looking at the head-to-head matchup, the Lakers clearly made a mistake in trading Russell away, and are obviously feeling some buyer’s remorse from their deal with Brooklyn. But D’Angelo did not triumphantly walk off the hardwood floor of Staples Center that night. And Lonzo Ball was not hanging his head in defeat. The Lakers easily handled the Brooklyn Nets in a 124-112 victory. And if you’ve been a Laker fan for the past 2 years, you probably saw this result coming a mile away.
D’Angelo Russell was heavily criticized during his time in LA. His rookie year, then coach Byron Scott benched him and Julius Randle for their attitudes, as well as their play on the floor. His second year, Magic Johnson himself called for D’Angelo to be a leader, and D’Angelo would respond by upping his points per game average from 13.2 to 15.6 PPG. He would hit big shots and point to the veins in his arm. And he was never shy to make a risky pass, or to call his own number for a play, even as the offense had just set up.
And therein lies the problem with D’Angelo Russell: He cared too much about what people were saying, and now no one can change his mind back. Russell would drive for a layup for his first points of the night, and net two more off a mid-range jumper where he used a teammate’s screen to free himself. Both good plays, but eventually his ego would get the better of him, as anyone who’s watched him closely during his career could see coming. In the 2nd quarter, Russell would pass to a teammate on the perimeter, but he had nothing good going for him. His teammate would pass the ball back to Russell, who then confidently hoisted a 3-pointer from at least five feet behind the line. The ball was shot so poorly that the ball bounced off the backboard, but somehow found it’s way into the hoop. Pretty sure D’Angelo didn’t call bank.
On the next possession, and clearly feeling the ice in his veins getting colder, D’Angelo used a screen to dribble into the teeth of the defense. Rather than hit the rolling Mozgov, who set the screen for him to penetrate, or pass to a wide-open teammate calling for the ball for an uncontested corner 3-point shot, Russell would drive hard to the basket to attempt a demonstrative slam for his former team and the entire city of Los Angeles to remember him by. Instead, Ingram meets him at the basket to swat his redemptive slam-dunk away, and the Lakers are off and running. Kuzma would pick up the blocked shot and pass ahead to Clarkson, who almost loses control of the ball. Clarkson would catch up to the ball, only to pass back to a trailing Julius Randle, responding to Russell’s dunk attempt with a two-handed stuff of his own.
For the Lakers, Lonzo Ball looked to have taken what the TNT post game studio said to heart, and started the game much more aggressive. At times, a bit too aggressive for my own liking, but he would settle down in the coming quarters. He would go back to setting up his teammates, particularly Brook Lopez, who scored a new season high 34 in his own revenge game. Most of Ball’s assists were to Lopez, who would either pop out after a screen to the 3-point line (he shot 6-9 from downtown), or was caught in a mismatch with the now smaller Brooklyn lineup.
Ball was able to match Russell in the assist department, but sometimes the smartest passes aren’t the ones that lead to assists. Too many times in his two-year tenure, Russell would force the issue, trying to net an assist that was never there for him, and turning the ball over in the process. What many are failing to appreciate about Ball is, even as the 2nd pick in the draft, and even with a fellow rookie teammate stealing ROY votes from him, he’s more than willing to share the ball, allowing his teammates to set others up as well.
There was a play in the 2nd quarter where Kuzma took the ball the length of the court, slowed down to survey the defense, then quickly sped past his defender to float a finger-roll into the basket. Ball would come streaking down the floor with the Lakers holding a 4 point lead, pass back to Kuzma standing behind the arc, who smartly swung the ball over to an open Ingram for an uncontested 3-pointer. With 4:08 remaining in the 2nd, Ball would elect to inbound (highly unselfish for a point guard), where he would pass to Ingram in the corner. With the entire defense rushing at him, Ingram no-looks to Kuzma who is wide open at the top of the key for another 3-pointer. In the 3rd quarter, Lonzo pitched the ball to Kuzma in the post, Kuzma would spin baseline off his defender to attack the basket, and dish the ball to a slashing Ingram for an easy two-handed slam.
Up until this year, the Lakers’ offense revolved around D’Angelo Russell. The Lakers trusted him to handle the ball and make the right decision with their offense. This year, with Lonzo Ball at point guard, we’re able to see Kuzma is a talented rookie, with point-forward ability. We’re also able to see Ingram play with much more confidence, with the talent to start fast breaks from defensive rebounds, as well as break down his defender in isolation, and get to the paint for one of his (almost signature now) finger-rolls. Yes, Russell finished with 17 points, but I forgot to mention it took him 24 shots to get there, making only 8 of his attempts. He also had 4 turnovers to Lonzo’s 0. I used to like counting up D’Angelo’s misses, since most of them were poor decisions, and add them to his turnovers to show me how many of his team’s possessions he squandered away. 16 misses with 4 turnovers equals 20 missed opportunities for the Nets that I’m sure they wish they could have back.
And while its true Lonzo missed 12 shots, he was also playing uncharacteristically aggressive to start the game, and perhaps forced a few more shots than he usually does. And at least none of these shots were from five feet behind the three-point line. He also didn’t have a single turnover to add to his miscues as the Lakers starting point guard. When I would complain about D’Angelo Russell, someone would always tell me, “Well he scored so many points and they still lost. So, you can’t blame him.” And I would always argue it was a point guard’s duty to take care of the ball, and keep his team involved. Lonzo’s stats don’t stand out, but Brook Lopez had 34 points and 10 rebounds. Kyle Kuzma had 21 points and 13 rebounds. Brandon Ingram finished with 18 points and 10 rebounds as well. And for not having any eye-popping stats of his own, Lonzo did manage to lead all players with a game high on-floor +/- of 22.
With Russell finally out of the picture, a new and unselfish brand of basketball is beginning to showcase itself in Los Angeles. So what if Lonzo isn’t the best rookie on the Lakers? So what if he doesn’t look like Stephen Curry or Jason Kidd? I’m sure the Lakers would be more than happy with Ball becoming a 2010 Rajon Rondo type player, who stays active on the defensive side of the ball, hits the defensive boards, is smart with his team’s possessions, and racks up a ton of assists. And with the continued development of Kyle Kuzma and Brandon Ingram, maybe that’s all they need him to be?
Lonzo Ball is the anti-Russell: He isn’t demonstrative, he doesn’t care about his stats or what people say about him, and he’s a willing teammate. In replacing D’Angelo Russell with Lonzo Ball, the Lakers can rest easy that if Kyle Kuzma begins to shape up like a Rookie of the Year candidate, and Ingram continues to play like the NBA’s Most Improved Player, Lonzo Ball’s ego will not stand in their way.
All stats were found and used, as always, at www.basketball-reference.com. And while I am supremely confident in the lack of ego in Lonzo Ball, I can’t say the same for his father, Lavar. I sincerely hope he’s OK with his son’s team making the playoffs if Kyle Kuzma wins ROY, because that may be the only way his then-outlandish statement becomes true. If Lonzo wins, that’s all that matters, right Lavar?