Summer League action made Jan Vesely look like an actual basketball player for two years in a row, so probably you should be wary of setting much stock by it. Still, if, like mine, your enthusiasm for the NBA at any given time tracks pretty closely with the number of bright young dudes within it flashing megawatt potential, it was hard not to be alarmed by Lonzo Ball’s performance this past Friday night in his Summer League debut for the Lakers.
It wasn’t just, or even mostly, the horrendous 2-for-15 shooting. Summer League is an environment essentially designed to make lottery picks look like superstars: The competition isn’t good enough, nor the play itself sophisticated enough, to make any deficiencies in experience matter nearly as much as gradients of sheer basketball talent. Amid all the loose, minimally coached slop, a truly special young player ought to be able to dominate the action. He ought to look like a higher class of specimen. Theoretically, that’s what he is!
For example, two nights before Ball’s debut, first overall pick Markelle Fultz spent most of the first three quarters of his first Summer League game looking sleepy and bored; then, in the fourth, he simply started trying, not even all that hard, and scored 13 of his 23 points in the quarter. He got wherever he wanted on the floor; he made the guys defending him look like the bozos they mostly are. Likewise, Boston’s Jayson Tatum, the guy drafted right behind Ball, spent Saturday night (against Ball’s own Lakers squad) looking like some unholy combination of Dirk Nowitzki and Carmelo Anthony; the 27 points he scored on only 19 shots matter less than just how utterly invincible he seemed on a court with a bunch of D-Leaguers and international players.
In Ball’s debut game, his teammate Brandon Ingram, a second-year player who was nigh-on useless in his rookie season, looked like a full-fledged member of whatever mutant species Kevin Durant and Giannis Antetokounmpo come from. Utah’s Donovan Mitchell, drafted 11 spots behind Ball, spent his Summer League debut appearing entirely unbound by the laws of physics. And so on. It’s a theme.
And then there was Lonzo, trying and failing to slip past Summer League power forwards off the dribble, seeming all but incapable of getting within 15 feet of the basket against a set defense, working hard and looking, as a result, not like a demigod among scrubs but, far too often, like a scrappy energy guy, a third guard. Like a dude who tries real hard because he has to.
Fultz can work on his (abysmal) defense. Tatum and Ingram can lift weights to gradually fill out their stick-like frames. Experience will improve Mitchell’s shot selection and teach him how to modulate his pace. Lonzo won’t always shoot 13-percent from the floor, of course, but barring phenomenal advancements in robotic implants, he’s as spry and quick as he will ever be, right now, and he struggles to turn the corner on a 6-9 doofus named Brice Johnson. That’s concerning.
On the other hand:
None of these, from Lonzo’s 11-11-11 triple-double in his second Summer League game, are the highlights of a world-destroying phenom. Even that stylish transition layup is a bit of lovely make-do from a guy who’s missing a lot of the athletic burst you might expect from the second-overall pick in the NBA draft: He’s not moving all that fast; he doesn’t explode to the rim; the whole thing is a little wobblier and less certain than it first appears. They are the highlights, though, of a heady and smooth basketball player with terrific practiced skills, great passing touch, and sublime court vision, the kind of dextrous and creative dude who can find any of his four teammates anywhere on the court at any time, who processes the action at warp speed, whose team makes tremendous hay in the open court and thus gets out and runs a lot. The kind of dude who knows what he has and how to use it. The kind of dude who lubricates his team’s play to a whirring hum. A fine player!
This makes him, I think, the rare lottery pick type whose abilities are going to showcase poorly in the Summer League. He is not a team unto himself, but rather the kind of dude whose effectiveness increases exponentially* as he and his teammates get more familiar with each other: If he knows where they will be, he will have the ball waiting for them when they get there. Not for nothing, but his coach, Luke Walton, also was that kind of player, albeit born with feet that were actual cinderblocks and a skeleton made of straw.
His dad LaVar’s nonstop hype-manning had the effect, I think, of selling casual observers the wrong promise about Lonzo’s abilities: He isn’t and never was the blue-chip freak with limitless room to grow into monstrous potential, because his natural athletic gifts actually are fairly modest and he’s mostly grown into them already. The thing that makes Lonzo exciting isn’t his ceiling—no, LaVar, he isn’t now and won’t be better than Steph Curry, not ever—but his floor.
Just about the worst thing Lonzo can be is a sublime passer and versatile defender who cooks in transition and then maybe just directs the offense from the top of the key or from the post when forced into a half-court game. If his grotesque-looking jumpshot never turns into a genuine weapon, he still will be far, far better than Jon Barry. He will be Andre Miller, but taller, able to see over the top of the action and move the ball without having to pound it first. If he consumes a lot of cheese and wine, he will be more like Boris Diaw. Those are approximations of his floor, and they’re fine things to be. Miller and Diaw both spent long and splendid careers making NBA teams better when they were on the court. Nobody who moves the ball like Lonzo, who is as creative and precise and rangy a passer as he is, who channels the ball around the court as quickly and fluidly and aggressively as he does, has ever been a truly bad NBA player, whether he had a worth-a-damn first step or not.
Lonzo will be fine. He will be a fine NBA player. He is at least as safe a bet to be a steadily fine NBA player as Fultz is; he’s also a safer bet to be a fine NBA player than he is to be a great one. He almost certainly will come up shy of his dad’s stratospheric boasts, but who wouldn’t?