When drafted, Lonzo Ball was expected to lead the Los Angeles Lakers offense for years to come. Now, it runs through LeBron James.
While trying to digest everything that comes with James' earth-shattering decision to agree to join the Lakers, as Klutch Sports Group announced, one question has been raised: How will he and Ball fit together?
It's a common thought or belief that both are best with the basketball in their hands. Does the addition of James take away from Ball's strengths?
It's worth addressing but not overthinking.
Ball, off the ball
The ball will belong to James next year, and it won't limit Lonzo's effectiveness. In fact, the addition of James will help illuminate Ball's versatility and ability to be equally effective playing off teammates' action.
Dating back to his time at UCLA, Ball was more efficient spotting up than working off ball screens or scoring one-on-one. That year on a talented UCLA team that included TJ Leaf, Aaron Holiday, Bryce Alford, Ike Anigbogu and Thomas Welsh, Ball ranked in the 95th percentile in spot-ups, which made up 23.1 percent of his offense, more than pick-and-roll ball-handling (10.2 percent) and isolation (6.9 percent).
He even stood out as a timely cutter (7.3 percent of his offense, 96th percentile, 22-of-25), a strength we'll see more of as he spends additional time on the wing in a James-featured offense.
A major selling point of Ball's is his knack for impacting games without having to use stretches of a shot clock trying to create, which is what coach Luke Walton will call on James for. With weapons around him at UCLA, Ball ranked No. 5 in the country in offensive box plus-minus, and that was while being used in just 18.1 percent of the Bruins' possessions.
Ball doesn't require freedom to dominate the ball or dance with it. He taps into his vision, passing accuracy and basketball IQ to make quick, smart decisions that lead to open shots for teammates and ball movement.
It's more accurate to describe Lonzo as a ball-mover than a playmaker.
Last season, Ball ranked in the 17th percentile as a pick-and-roll ball-handler. Only 4.0 percent of his offense came out of isolation.
He averaged 7.2 assists, needing just 3.18 dribbles and 3.82 seconds per touch. Those are low numbers for a starting point guard. In comparison, Kyrie Irving took 4.47 dribbles and 4.82 seconds per touch. Ball shouldn't have trouble adjusting to a new teammate who'll dominate the ball over him.
"Lonzo is a ball-mover. He isn't ball-dominant," one scout texted Bleacher Report. "Shooting is a different conversation. But their play styles are totally compatible."
A key for Ball next season will be capitalizing as a scorer off James' creativity and penetration. He only shot 30.5 percent from three as a rookie and 33.0 percent on catch-and-shoot jumpers.
It was a disappointing development, given the questions and emphasis tied to his unorthodox shot mechanics and the success he had at UCLA. His freshman numbers still fuel optimism—Ball made 45.5 percent of his guarded catch-and-shoot jumpers and 42.9 percent on unguarded attempts.
And chances are, by adding a player like James, who'll also make the game easier for L.A.'s other young players, Ball will see more open shots.
How does Ball affect James?
The main topic of discussion when breaking down the new duo is how James affects Ball, since the offense will revolve around James—like every other offense he's played in—and Ball is the 20-year-old developing sophomore.
But will James have to adjust at all to Ball? If anything, James will have to deal with another heavy workload, unless the Lakers flip some of their younger starters for an established star like Kawhi Leonard.
Last year, Ball averaged just 7.5 drives and 1.7 points off of them. He was never known for possessing blow-by explosiveness, a limitation that's likely to persist moving forward. Ball puts less pressure on defenses off the dribble than Irving did with James in Cleveland. In 2016-17, Irving averaged 11.9 drives and 7.4 points off them.
In terms of getting into the paint, the Lakers will be reliant on James, just as the Cavaliers were last season when George Hill was at the point.
Ball and James
Stats and styles side, Ball should coexist with James if for no other reason than he's as bright and unselfish of a player that there is. His core strength is his mind, not any one skill, and it will allow him to adapt to an unfamiliar situation, having always been the focal point.
Ball will still press buttons in the half court, and James will benefit from Ball's savvy decision-making. He's the anti-Isaiah Thomas, who seems unlikely to be back with L.A., especially since upon his return from injury in Cleveland last year before the Cavaliers traded him, James had his worst month (January) of the season in terms of points per game (23.5 points) and field-goal percentage (50.6).
There shouldn't be any concern about Ball and James fitting together in the lineup. Now the questions are who'll be filling in the gaps and whether management can find a way to add another star building block.
Stats courtesy of Synergy Sports, NBA.com and Sports Reference