Nobody doubts that Lonzo Ball is going to be a worthy top-five pick in the upcoming 2017 NBA Draft.
The UCLA freshman guard is a basketball savant, with an innate understanding of the game that's sui generis. It's impossible to come up with a past player comparison for him, because there isn't one. Ball looks like an organization-changer, a wholly unselfish maestro who was put on the Earth to play basketball and win games. He may or may not be the best player in the draft, but there's no arguing that he's the most singular. And his uniqueness extends to the one aspect of his game that is often held up as a next-level question mark.
Specifically, how will Ball's one-of-a-kind jump shot—characterized by a funky gather and release on the left side of his body, even though he's a right-handed shooter—work against NBA defenders?
First things first. Ball can shoot. In fact, his numbers are insanely good. He's shooting 42 percent from beyond the arc this season on over 150 attempts. More granularly, he's hitting at a 1.3 points-per-possession rate off catch-and-shoot attempts—which according to Synergy puts him in the top 12 percent of college players—and 1.4 points-per-possession off dribble pull-ups, which ranks No. 1 among 1,074 players with at least 27 attempts this season.
Still, questions persist, largely because Ball's form looks so odd.
To understand just how Ball's jumper came to be—and how people around basketball see it translating to the NBA—VICE Sports talked to people around him and the league. The first thing we learned? Ball didn't always shoot like this.
According to his father, LaVar, Ball had awfully normal looking mechanics up until the age of 12.
"Everyone started taking away his right [hand], so he had to start driving left for the game winners," LaVar Ball said. "You can't come back on the left side [as defenders], and he started getting good and knocking them down."
From there, the shot simply evolved. It's not exactly something a shooting coach would teach. But it worked. Lonzo and LaVar were happy with the results, especially as Lonzo became a prominent player and needed more tricks up his sleeve to counter different defensive looks.
"They started double-and-triple-teaming him, and you gotta get that shot off no matter what," LaVar said. "So he started going (up from the left side), and they were dropping in. So now he started doing step-backs and stuff, and it just keeps evolving. What I tell my boys is, they all shoot the ball (well). And every one of them shoots differently. Because the philosophy is 'perfect your shot.' That's what my boys do."
Trying to "perfect their shot" hasn't stopped the Ball family from experimenting. Darren Moore, the family's personal basketball trainer—and the only person who LaVar trusts to tinker with Lonzo's game—told VICE Sports that shooting a high three-point percentage was one of their main goals heading into UCLA's season.
Before a preseason team trip to Australia, LaVar suggested that Lonzo try out a more traditional gather motion.
"I said 'hey, I'm not going to tell you to shoot differently, but I'm going to give you another gun in the holster,'" LaVar said. "If you're on the right side, you gotta (bring it up more from the middle). But he was going back and forth too much (mechanically), and shot raggedy as hell. So when he got back, I said, 'you know what, let's go back to shooting the 30-footers your way.'"
If it ain't broke, the Balls realized, don't fix it.
"We ain't gonna tinker with his shot ever again," LaVar said. "I shouldn't have said nothing then. I also told him this: you got people with perfect form who can't shoot a lick. So let's have an ugly-ass form and let it go in. We'll see who's a better shooter then."
Moore agrees, and said that he personally has never messed with Ball's shot.
"The reason why is that the first time LaVar had me come and train him, I noticed he was a great shooter," Moore said. "I think anybody, be it NBA GMs, or executives, when they first see him in the gym, the shot is the first thing you're going to notice. The ball has good arc, he gets good rotation, and he has an amazing follow through. It just comes from the other side.
"The thing is though, he can knock down 10, 20 in a row. When you see that in person, and see how deep he can shoot, you don't want to tamper with it. It's just like, 'why?' Just because someone tells you you're supposed to shoot from the right side? If you can make 20 in a row at the top of the key from the left side of your face, shoot it, I don't care."
Do NBA talent evaluators feel the same way? The ones VICE Sports has spoken to seem fine with it. There's no league-wise desire to mess with Ball's shot, despite some apprehensions about how effectively he will be able to shoot off the dribble against bigger, faster defenders.
Ball's natural touch is tremendous. The arc and rotation on the ball are good, and he shoots with a clean, crisp release that has very little off-hand interaction. The rhythm on his jumper is perfect, and he stays on balance. His release point is low, but Ball often can counteract that weakness through sheer range.
In terms of comparable jump shots, two names tend to come up: Kevin Martin and Kevin Durant. Both are right-handed shooters who are left-eye dominant on their releases. What does that mean? It's pretty simple. Most right-handed shooters align their shot either in the middle or on the right side of their body, and become right-eye dominant shooters. By contrast, almost everything Ball does comes from the left side of his body, including gathering the ball at his left hip and bringing it up to the front of his left eye before shooting.
Much of the time, right-handed shooters who bring the ball up on the left side have trouble keeping their bodies aligned properly, which can lead to inconsistent results. Occasionally, this happens with Ball—his misses tend to be uglier than other players' misses. However, Ball is so athletic, fluid, and gets such clean extension that most of the time he correctly re-aligns himself in mid-air.
"Basically, he starts with a broken alignment, but then brings it all back together when he extends and follows through," an NBA executive with scouting experience said. "If you're watching tape and only look at the last frame, you wouldn't know there are any questions about his jump shot."
Nobody worries about Ball's ability to drain shots in catch-and-shoot situations. The NBA questions are all about shooting off the dribble, and even then, people in the league are only worried about how Ball will shoot when going to his right.
"Very few people focus on the ball pick up off the dribble," the league executive said. "Steph [Curry] is the best shooter off of the dribble we've ever seen, and it's in large part due to how quick he is picking up the ball. Going to his left—particularly on step-backs—Ball is going to actually be better than most players because of how he brings the ball up on that side of his body.
"Going to his right, I'm not saying he's going to struggle, I'm saying I've never seen him do it. Never. And with the dynamics at play on his shot, that makes sense."
I watched all of Ball's jump shots this season, and he has only taken one jumper off the dribble that could be considered "going to his right."
Ball made the shot. But here's why it remains a concern: Right-handed shooters going to their strong side naturally have a more difficult time, because it's difficult to get their shoulders aligned properly toward the basket on a drive in that direction. Ball not only has to worry about getting his shoulders aligned, but also has to bring the ball back to his left hip from his right hand. That's why you see the little hitch while he's at the bottom of his motion.
In college, that doesn't really matter. But in the NBA, it's likely that good defenders will be able to close space during that hitch.
"He's going to make threes, but he's not going to be the greatest off-the-dribble shooter," another NBA executive told VICE Sports. "There are just certain shots he can't even take. The same thing could be said for anyone, though. It's not like the end-all, be-all."
That much is true. Ball might not be a traditional "can get his bucket in any way scorer" like Washington guard and probable No. 1 pick Markelle Fultz, but his jump shot is remarkably efficient, has deep range, and will be an NBA weapon regardless of his mechanics. Moreover, it's not like Ball is a one-dimensional shooter who can only contribute if he's knocking down jumpers.
"The concern from everyone is, 'can he go right off the bounce in the pick-and-roll?'" said David Nurse, a former Brooklyn Nets' shooting and development coach who's working as a consultant for UCLA this season. "I don't think he's going to have to shoot that shot much at all. In a pick-and-roll situation, he's so smart that he's going to play a chess game with it. If guys chase over top, he'll get into the lane and distribute. He's also got a really good floater game that he hasn't shown much, but he has really good touch and he can go to that."
Ultimately, the feeling in NBA circles is that Ball will simply figure out how to make his funky jumper work for him. He's simply too smart and too gifted not to. He may not be the best scorer in college basketball, but that's not why league teams are excited to add him. He will fit into just about any situation, and if his pro career is anything like his current UCLA season, he'll help his team win in ways that no other elite prospect can match.
Besides, LaVar has a point: the shot that looks best is the one that goes in. "Ugly-ass" or otherwise.
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