Today is Lonzo Ball’s 21st birthday. Legally he can drink in the state of California. As a reward for his play in the absence of Rajon Rondo, Luke Walton is keeping Ball as the Lakers starting point guard and sending Rondo to the bench. Another birthday gift via his teammate LeBron James: he made the Lakers rookies sing Happy Birthday to Lonzo in advance of their game in San Antonio.
Just the fact there was conversation about Lonzo vs. Rondo as the Lakers starting PG says how far Lonzo has come since last season, which was underwhelming at the very least and ugly at its grandiose best as Lonzo just could not meet the hype of the draft, or the Rookie of the Year predictions of his father.
Last season ended with Magic Johnson declaring this year as the biggest season of Lonzo’s career. Magic meant that he and Rob Pelinka were evaluating if Lonzo was worth an extension down the line or in the immediate future if Lonzo should be packaged for more veteran help. Unlike Jayson Tatum and Donovan Mitchell, and even his teammate Kyle Kuzma, all rookies like Lonzo, it was hard to see the Lonzo game with all those brick jump shots he horrified us with. It’s not that he wasn’t like a rookie; he was. But for the #2 pick in the draft, he wasn’t an exceptional rookie and it was hard to see star in his game. He was a decent defender, a good passer, an atrocious shot maker and played as if he had zero motor. Too often he was passive and then, as if to remind us he was the number two pick, he would turn around and have an aggressive in your face game making it difficult to understand who Lonzo was as a NBA-er.
The presence of LeBron James was a gift to the Lonzo education. LeBron took all the pressure off of Lonzo to be the it guy and pushed him back into a lane he could handle: basketball player. Signing Rajon Rondo was a brilliant move, not just so the Lakers could have a facilitator, but so Lonzo could have competition. Now he had someone in front of him to compete with.
The recurring (nauseating) storyline after the Lakers game 1 in Portland was that Lonzo wasn’t getting the starting job back. Rondo was superlative in the Lakers loss. He got to the rim and finished, he controlled tempo, he made open shots, he delivered the ball where it had to be. But Rondo did Lonzo a favor when he punched Chris Paul. He gave soft spoken Lonzo an opportunity.
In the games that Rajon missed, against San Antonio, Phoenix and Denver, Lonzo shot 53%, made 40% of his threes, averaged 13-6-6. His defense was good even as he was late covering Paddy Mills who hit the game winner when the Spurs beat the Lakers in overtime.
But really it boils down to simple math. Lonzo is better as a starter with James. Rondo is good as a starter with James and is equally effective off the bench. Rondo knows how to shape his game irrelevant to who he is playing with. Lonzo does not. Lonzo has not figured out the psychology of coming off the bench and when he backed up Rondo he was ghost like.
Of course, Lonzo being Lonzo he is always going to say he doesn’t care. He wants the Lakers to win. But his size alone makes him a force to be reckoned with. This season, his shot is falling even as his delivery is still funky and he is getting to the rim with confidence, not missing layups.
Last year, his shots at the rim were completed at a 49% clip, basically labeling Lonzo a weak athlete. This year, 69% are going in. He will probably never excel in the midrange but he doesn’t have to if his James Harden game is clicking and so far in this early season, 40% from three is 40% from three.
We put a lot of emphasis on 20 year old rookies to be great and to be honest an elite few exceed expectations. We take the great ones and then attach that exceptionalism to everyone.
Lonzo may never be elite. He just may be a pretty good point guard who can make open shots, deliver the ball and control tempo which is what a point guard is supposed to do.
21 year old Lonzo, if his early season is anything to judge him by, is just getting the career started. His UCLA game is buried way in the distance. Now he has a man game and just in time for his 21st birthday. Beware of adult Lonzo.