With few exceptions, the top draft picks each season fail to meet expectations. The expectations are routinely set too high and the learning curve underestimated. Skills will translate in flashes, potential will be seen in glimpses, but the struggles will be most prevalent.
Even in a setting like the NBA Summer League, most rookies will struggle. The jump from college to NBA is one that is often much tougher than most calculate. Throw that player onto a franchise like the Lakers where expectations are increased tenfold and the season can be chalked up as an underachieving one from day one.
The counter to every statement above is Lonzo Ball.
Yes, he’s only been a Laker for a month. Yes, he’s only played in a small handful of Summer League games. And yes, he struggled in various facets (namely shooting) in those games. But what he’s done to the Laker franchise in his time here goes beyond statistics, analytics and box scores.
When Luke Walton walked into the Lakers last season, ideas of a style of basketball similar to the Warriors free-flowing, up-tempo style filled the minds of fans. While the Lakers increased the tempo in Walton’s first year – PACE of 100.8 in 2016-17 compared to just 97.99 in 2015-16 – the offense never really compared to the Warriors. Ball movement was never quite as fast, three-pointers never flew quite as freely. The team’s offense was never as smooth as Golden State’s and the pace was never as fast as the Warriors’ often breakneck speed.
Ball stepped into the Lakers’ Summer League team after a week of practice and had them running an offense that more resembled the Warriors than anything the team ran last year. He was the key that unlocked Walton’s offensive schemes, a piece the Lakers didn’t have last season.
Much was rightfully made about the trade that shipped out D’Angelo Russell, What has become inherently clear, though, is that if Walton’s mindset and offensive philosophy resembles what the Lakers did in Summer League, Russell was never going to be that guy for the Lakers. Could Ball and Russell have co-existed? Almost certainly. But Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka made the decision and have not looked back.
This is Lonzo Ball’s team now. This is Lonzo Ball’s franchise now. He’s been handed the reigns. Right or wrong, this team will go as Lonzo goes.
In less than a month, he became the best prospect the Lakers have had in quite some time. Fans were split on Julius Randle, D’Angelo Russell and Brandon Ingram. Arguments had to be made as to why those prospects were good. With Lonzo, there is no argument. He is special.
It’s easy to chalk up the last week of games as simply nothing more than Summer League performances in a format that accentuates Lonzo’s skills. But the aforementioned players never looked this good this early in their respective Laker careers. Few players in Summer League history looked this good this quickly.
The changes Ball made were expansive. The Lakers averaged more assists in a 40-minute Summer League game (21.2 per game) than they did in 48-minute NBA games last season (20.9). That includes two games in which Ball did not play. The team’s PACE of 108.6 blows away not only their mark last year, but is 5.1 better than the first-place Nets of last season.
The offensive rating of 109.7 was 6.3 points higher than last season’s Lakers. The team’s effective field goal percentage of 55.2 percent was five points higher than the regular season.
Again, small sample size and Summer League setting both are qualifiers that apply, but it’s clear the Lakers are playing a style that is far different than last season.
To what extent the effect Ball will have on the Lakers’ actual roster remains to be seen. The turnover in the roster, particularly the starting line-up, will make it hard to determine just how much Ball changes things compared to everyone else.
What isn’t up for question is that the Lakers have entered a new era. The Lonzo Era. Buckle up, boys and girls. It’s going to be fun.