The Chicago Bulls were aggressive this season with their backcourt. They already had Olympian Zach LaVine before pulling in a trio of guards in free agency. A pair of sign-and-trade arrangements brought Lonzo Ball and DeMar DeRozan to Chicago. The Bulls also signed Alex Caruso. Much sports-media scrutiny has accompanied the moves, notably the addition of DeRozan, an old-school midrange threat without much in the way of 3-point shooting. But Stephen A. Smith of ESPN took more issue with the Ball acquisition.
Ball got a four-year, $85 million contract from the New Orleans Pelicans, who traded him to the Bulls. His timing was impeccable. Ball put together the best year of his career in the final year of his rookie contract after the Pelicans declined to offer him an extension.
Smith has a point in that Ball is not a star. But is he destined to be a mistake for the Bulls?
Lonzo Ball had a lot to overcome early in his career
Few players entered the NBA with as much hype as Lonzo Ball. Most of that hype came from his father, LaVar. The younger Ball had a solid freshman season at UCLA before declaring for the 2017 NBA Draft. Not long afterward, things started to come apart. Put it this way: Stephen A. Smith’s dulcet tones were the least of his troubles.
Analysts spent the summer critiquing Ball’s funky shot mechanics. The kid appeared to be listening, if his rookie shooting splits are any indication. He shot 36.0% percent overall, 30.5% from 3-point range, and a horrific 45.1% at the foul line. For a point guard, that last number is unacceptable. It rendered him unplayable late in close games.
It didn’t help that the new president of basketball operations, Magic Johnson, used the second overall pick on the LA kid whose dad wouldn’t stop talking about how great he was. In his day, Johnson was a Hall of Fame point guard for the Los Angeles Lakers. Then he drafted Ball to be the next great Lakers point guard, so there was no pressure whatsoever.
Ball struggled through his second season and with his health throughout his stay in LA. In two seasons, he missed 65 games. He wound up as part of the massive package the Lakers sent to New Orleans for Anthony Davis. And with the Pelicans, Ball found some confidence.
Stephen A. Smith doesn’t think Ball will deliver
On an August 2021 episode of ESPN’s First Take, longtime pundit Stephen A. Smith questioned how Lonzo Ball would handle Chicago. Specifically, Smith wonders how Ball will be too laid back.
“Let me say this last thing about Lonzo Ball. I’m a say it to y’all again. Yes, he averaged 14 points this year; yes, he shot 37% from 3-point range this year. All of that is true, but I’m telling you this right now, I still see a dude that’s incremental; he ain’t going south, he’s going up, and I give him props for that. I like him, and I like his family, y’all know that.
“All I’m saying to you is that, that level of aggression that a lot of people are attaching to Lonzo Ball thinking he’s going to be this. I think that’s in you, you either got that, or you don’t. And I can see him not being that guy. Yeah, he’s going to be what he is, but I’m telling you right now, I think the Knicks are going to have a better season than Chicago.”Stephen A. Smith
Smith also questioned the wisdom of the Bulls vice president of basketball, Artūras Karnišovas, in putting together LaVine and DeRozan. At first blush, that does seem redundant.
As for Ball, Smith is correct. He is making progress.
Lonzo Ball is part of an elite group
For all his warts, Lonzo Ball joined a select group as a rookie in 2017–18. He became just the third player 20 years old or younger to average six rebounds and six assists per game in a season. Luka Dončić became the fourth member of the club in 2019–20.
Ball has made strides as a shooter. Last season, he had career highs in all three slash-line categories at 41.4%/37.8%/78.1%. He’s not a great free-throw shooter, but he’s not a danger to life and rim, either.
It’s not as if the family hasn’t had some NBA success. LaMelo Ball was the No. 3 pick in 2020 by the Charlotte Hornets and slashed and dashed his way to Rookie of the Year honors. But LaMelo also entered the NBA under far less scrutiny than did Lonzo.
Lonzo Ball is entering his fifth NBA season. Early in the regular season, he will turn 24 years old. It seems a tad premature for Stephen A. Smith to declare him a finished product.
Statistics courtesy of Basketball Reference.