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Listen to the Data: Draft Lonzo Ball Number One

Lonzo Ball Ashwin Rao/ via Flickr.com

NBA

The top pick in the NBA draft will be either Markelle Fultz or Lonzo Ball. There are a lot of factors to consider when deciding which of the two it should be.

Lonzo Ball has led his team to a 31-4 record and the NCAA Tournament Sweet 16. Markelle Fultz is sitting at home watching Lonzo ball out (see what I did there?) on a big stage.

Ball was a consistent contributor on a team that was a game out of 1st place in the PAC-12. In the same conference, Fultz’s Washington team was a game out of last place.

I’m not sure who any members of Markelle Fultz’s family are. At this point most people know, and many despise, Lonzo’s attention-seeking father LaVarr and Lonzo’s cherry-picking brother LaMelo.

Ball also has unconventional shot mechanics that make some fans nervous. Fultz has a shot that looks so pure it’s easy to fantasize about Fultz developing into a prolific NBA shooter.

 

Does Any of This Matter?

Probably not. What does matter is the full body of work each player produced this season, which we can represent through analytics. That’s what teams like the Celtics, Lakers, Suns, Magic, and 76ers, the five most likely teams to end up with the top draft pick, will do.

But this may matter for more than those five teams. Those teams have the highest odds, but 14 total teams have some level of an opportunity to land the top pick. Here are the odds for teams based on the current standings according to Tankathon.com.

Lonzo Ball

So to analyze the two prospects and gauge their true abilities, let’s compare Ball and Fultz in some key offensive and defensive categories.




 

What Data to Look At

To sort through the noisy stats and get to what is important when assessing Fultz and Ball, we have to understand what they’ll be expected to do at the NBA level.

To do this, I’ve compiled data from Synergy Sports Technology on every NBA starting point guard about the types of actions point guards do most. From amassing that information, I was able to determine how frequently an average NBA point guard does each key action:

Lonzo Ball

From this, we can see that the ability to score out of the pick and roll as a ball handler is key as an NBA point guard. Scoring in spot up opportunities and isolation also play a role, while scoring from off-ball screens and cuts are less important.

 

Offensive Comparison

Next, we need to identify how effective Fultz and Ball are in these kinds of situations. To do so, we’ll look at their Points Per Possession (PPP) for each action. We’ll then translate that PPP into the percentile they’re in relative to the rest of college basketball. If you’re in the 80th percentile for something, that means that you’re better than 80% of the NCAA at it. When we pull that data for Markelle Fultz and Lonzo Ball, this is what we find:

Lonzo Ball

Notes: Data shown is vs man defense, which is what they’ll face 99% of the time in the NBA. *Fultz only has 8 possessions as a cutter.

Ball is a much more well-rounded player. Fultz is elite scoring from the pick and roll, but ball is elite at almost everything. Both players are good, but Ball’s numbers are fantastic.

In Fultz’s favor is that he’s more effective than Lonzo in the action point guards do about 58% of their possessions, operate out of the pick and roll. However, Ball is superior in every other category.

 

Shot Charts

To get more of an understand of where their shots come from, here are the season-long shot charts for both players. Fultz’s is on the left and Ball’s is on the right. The numbers may be small, but the more blue an area is, the better shooter a player is from that area.

Lonzo BallLonzo Ball

Two things stand out to me from looking at this:

  1. Lonzo Ball has crazy range from deep
  2. Lonzo Ball doesn’t shoot mid-range shots much at all

This second observation would lead me to believe one of two things:

  1. He can’t shoot from mid-range
  2. He possesses Daryl Morey-eske shot selection

 

I investigated this to find out more. From watching hundreds of clips of film on Ball, I ascertained that he can shoot from mid range, but does everything in his power to avoid these low value shots in pursuit of more efficient 3-point shots and shots at the rim. There were a plethora of occasions Ball had a long 2-point shot, but made the conscious effort to step back and take a 3-pointer instead.

Why? Because it’s a much more valuable shot.

2-pointers: 45% shooting * 2 points = 0.9 points/shot

3-pointers: 30% shooting * 3 points = 0.9 point/shot

 

You can shoot a much lower percentage after stepping back and shooting a 3-pointer than on a long two-pointer, and it’ll still be a more valuable shot. Ball exhibits a next-level awareness to relentlessly target these higher value shots, whereas Fultz would just take the long 2-point shot.

Ball is also a better passer and creator than Fultz, with his Points/(Possession + Assists) being in the 99th percentile of all of college basketball. He’s elite at passing and creating for others, while Fultz is just good at it.

Conclusion: It’s not a landslide, but Ball is better than Fultz at almost every offensive category. He gets the edge offensively.

 

Defensive Comparison

Defensive is important too, no matter how little some fans care to think. Defense is the reason Isaiah Thomas isn’t an overall elite point guard. Defense is the reason Kyle Lowry is better than Kyrie Irving. So let’s talk about defense.

If we look at the same areas, but on defense, the results are quite telling.

Lonzo Ball

Notes: Data shown is in man defense. *Synergy doesn’t track cutting defense.

Ball is leaps and bounds better at defense than Fultz. Ball is a great pick & roll defender. He’s elite at spot up defense, which includes closing out, contesting, defending off the dribble, and defending drives after the offensive player attacks a closeout. Ball is above average in isolation defense and is a good off-screen defender as well.

Fultz is a different story. His isolation numbers look extraordinary, and puzzling relative to the rest of his percentiles. That’s because that number is misleading.

I watched every isolation possession Fultz played this season, and he was beat in about 60% of those possessions. Fultz was frequently beat, but bailed out from unforced turnovers and missed easy shots.

Looking at the rest of Fultz’s numbers we can see that he’s atrocious in every other category. He projects to be a major defensive liability at the NBA level if he can’t defend inferior players in college.

Conclusion: I’d give a HUGE edge to Ball on defense.

 

Understanding Context

It’s important to understand the situations each player is in. The data for both players is from facing relatively the same competition, since both UCLA and Washington are in the PAC-12.

The next piece of context is the talent and scheme for each program. At UCLA, Lonzo Ball plays on a roster with a lot of talent and on a scheme that spaces the floor and is prolific offensively.

Markelle Fultz played with a worse supporting cast at Washington, but they weren’t that bad. The scheme the Huskies ran wasn’t quite as good as UCLA’s top ranked offense, but it was a decent system that produced an above average offense. There is a lot of excuse making for Fultz’s data, but from studying a large volume of film I haven’t found evidence to back up claims that Fultz operated in a stagnant system, had to score against a packed paint, or has deflated numbers due to a poorly spaced offense.

 

Conclusion: Lonzo Ball Should Be the Top Pick in This Year’s Draft

With the data and context in mind, who is the better player? I believe that Fultz is better than his numbers suggest offensively. Is he better enough to be elite in so many areas like Ball is? No.

What really seals the deal for Ball is his defense. Fultz is putrid defensively, while Ball is a very good defender. Scoring 1.1 points per possession but giving up 1.3 doesn’t win basketball games.

An added bonus for Ball is his versatility. Fultz also doesn’t possess the versatility Ball has as an off-ball scorer. We can see this through the discrepancy in their off-screen and cutting numbers. Fultz doesn’t currently possess these skills.

To conclude, Ball is the better player right now, would be more effective and versatile at the NBA level, and should be the top pick in this year’s NBA Draft.

3 Comments

  1. Mike B

    March 27, 2017 at 3:24 pm

    Except Lonzo Ball cannot physically dribble to his right and shoot a jump shot, has Synergy/Hoop-Math numbers that make it clear his value in the half court is entirely dependant on his teammates/system of play, and (going to have to check on his finally tally now that his season is over) only averaged 2 ball screen possessions per game…. the action you acknowledge as most important for a guard prospect.

    Lonzo Ball is the basketball equivalent to a Spread offense QB. Sure the college numbers may look good but will it convert when placed in a pro system against pro defenses.

  2. Cranjis McBasketball

    March 27, 2017 at 10:42 pm

    He shot 50% dribbling to his right and shooting a jump shot, the same % as him dribbling left

    What numbers are you referencing with the Synergy/Hoop-Math data? Lonzo was in the 92nd %ile shooting when his shot was contested and was in the 98th %ile shooting off the dribble. He can clearly create.

    In regards to the PnR possessions, I think it’s important to understand that Ball is a combo guard. That was his role in high school and at UCLA. He’s multi-faceted offensively and has a profile that matches a SG more than a PG. He averaged 5.1 possessions per game as the ball handler in the pick and roll and excelled in those possessions. If here were to be drafted by Boston, LA, or Phoenix, who collectively have a 60.5% at the top pick and a 56% chance at the 2nd pick, there’s a fair chance either Ball would be asked to play the SG role to some degree with D’Angelo Russell, Isaiah Thomas, and Eric Bledsoe incumbent in the PG positions and weak SGs on all three team. On average, in the PG role 57.94% of possessions would be spent operating the PnR. In a SG role, that number decreases to 30.47%. It shouldn’t be assumed that Ball wouldn’t play a fair amount SG in his first year, especially if paired with already ball-dominant players like DLO, IT, or Bledsoe. And that would be fine for Ball, who’s shown effectiveness in other areas of his game that would make him a great off-ball player.

    Thanks for the read. You’re asking the right questions, but the film and data work I’ve done lead me to believe he’s more than a system player, as you allude.

  3. Dean

    April 11, 2017 at 1:50 pm

    Ball can not break down nba caliber defenders off the dribble. He has to get a switch on a big. Look at footage of when he played in Australia. He struggles finishing over NBA caliber bigs and couldn’t get past his defender and these were Australia pros. He also shot terrible because those were men and pros, although Australian. Also on defense he was abysmal. On PnR his man score 8-9 consecutive sets. Don’t watch the film from college where the talent and physicality is lacking. Watch the Australia footage and it is glaring. He can also make step back to the left shots due to shot mechanics.

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