While last season left the Dallas Mavericks with a handful of gaps to fill in the roster, perhaps none was more glaring than the need for more ball handlers. Outside of Luka Doncic, sixth man Jalen Brunson was the only other player capable of controlling possessions outside of a straight line attack. The Mavericks can get by during much of the regular season that way, given how dynamic Doncic is, but in the postseason it doesn’t work.
This summer it would be wise for Nico Harrison and Mark Cuban to focus on addressing that need, and Lonzo Ball might be a great option to focus on.
The 23-year old point guard, picked second in the 2017 draft (the Dennis Smith Jr. draft), just finished his second season with the New Orleans Pelicans. He began his career with the Los Angeles Lakers, and after two seasons was traded in a large package that sent Anthony Davis from New Orleans to LA.
Since Ball arrived in New Orleans he found better touch from deep, averaging 38-percent from three. Last season was perhaps his best all around, starting all 55 games he appeared in and posting averages of 15 points, five rebounds, six assists, and 1.5 steals per game.
He just completed his 4-year $33-million rookie deal and after New Orleans recently finalized his qualifying offer, Ball enters the offseason as a restricted free agent. The Pelicans will have the opportunity to match any offer sheet that Ball signs.
Both in LA and in New Orleans he showcased his ability as a passer in transition, with a keen sense of finding leak outs and quick baskets. Few in the league are as effective as Ball in initiating the offense from the opponent’s end of the floor. His vision and touch are a lethal combination in this set.
Where Ball has grown the most is at the three-point line, where his catch-and-shoot frequency has increased (46.3-percent last season) and it has paid off. Hitting 40-percent of his catch-and-shoot attempts, Ball is making the case he’s best used off the ball in half court sets.
He’s worked at restructuring his shot, which was unique when he entered the league to say the least. The extra work looks to have paid off, and will be the key to him being effective when games slow down. Because he isn’t as effective as an on-ball creator in the half court (we’ll get into that later) he must be useful as a spacer off the ball. If he can show consistency with his shot, his role as shooter and secondary passer is clear. He has great vision and is adept at making the extra pass when the defense is off balance. Think of Ball on offense as Jason Kidd on the Mavericks back in 2011, except obviously younger and more athletic.
On the other end he is not a shutdown defender at the point of attack, slowing down a superstar playmaker around the perimeter. But Ball has good hands and can roam off the ball to create turnovers. He finished in the top 20 in the league in steal-percentage and 23rd in deflections per game.
Overall it is his high-IQ and feel for the game that is most valuable wherever he ends up. There are clear gaps in his game, but he is a quality starting guard that will be valued on the market.
For a fantastic deep dive on why Lonzo Ball might be misunderstood, and how he can best be used moving forward head to Jackson Frank’s fantastic piece at The Analyst. There was plenty of hype in Lonzo Ball’s game as a playmaker while at UCLA, and led to pressure to revive the Lakers, which left many questioning his game four years into his pro career.
His laid-back, low energy style influences much of his game. It’s most apparent in the half court when he’s tasked to be the primary ball handler and playmaker. If he doesn’t make a play in transition his ability to single-handedly create for others diminishes.
Ball rarely takes control of games, or even stretches of games. He doesn’t play a physical style, which means not imposing himself driving through the lane, or disrupting the other team defensively.
But that’s where Frank gets it right. Ball is certainly not a perfect player, but much of his flaws are made severe by trying to make him something he actually is not. It may put some of his future in question, a finding a balance between what he is and what role he wants to play.
Fit with the Mavericks
The Mavericks hoped Josh Richardson could fill the role of shutdown defender and secondary ball handler when they traded for him last fall during the draft. Whether it was Richardson not connecting with former coach Rick Carlisle’s system, or misunderstanding who he was as a player, it just didn’t work out. The 27-year old guard has a player-option this summer, so his future with the Mavericks is unclear.
While Ball also cannot be the point of attack defender for the Mavericks, he could fill a version of Richardson’s role. Providing length and a level of disruption as a team defender is something the Mavericks need.
He also compliments Luka Doncic in a few unique ways. Though Doncic’s vision is superb, he doesn’t push the ball in transition nearly as much. Having Lonzo as a fast break weapon for the Mavericks would add a new element to the Jason Kidd era.
Once the Mavericks are in the half-court Ball could be the ideal release valve for Luka’s two-man game. Spacing the floor as a shooter, and then being a weakside passer finding cutters off Luka’s playmaking could prove a deadly combination.
It seems the fan base is divided on which player the Mavericks should target if they look at restricted free agents. While it is always a gamble to put the fate of your free agency in the hands of an opposing team’s front office for a couple days, Ball would certainly be an improvement in the Mavericks starting five.