25-under-25: Lonzo Ball at No. 16

25-under-25, Chicago Bulls

Lonzo Ball hasn’t ascended to stardom, but the 24-year-old is one of the smartest players in the NBA and only getting better.

Lonzo Ball is not a star, and each facet of his game is grounded in that fact. Where many NBA players stretch themselves beyond their limits, Ball seems to work under no delusions of who he is, operating with full clarity of what he can do and, crucially, what he can’t. That divide — between the can and the can’t — has turned Ball into a bit of a lightning rod, and how one values his skill set is its own kind of basketball personality test.

Depending on your viewpoint, the Chicago Bulls either just committed $80 million over four years to a point guard who can’t reliably create in pick-and-roll, or invested in a solid young starter who does nearly everything else well. Ball’s low-usage, low-efficiency scoring may prevent him from ever being the catalyst of a quality offense, but his ability to handle the ball in secondary actions, space the floor and otherwise facilitate the game for teammates makes him one of the best connective players in the NBA.

Lonzo Ball sticks to what he does well, which is perfect for the Chicago Bulls

The foundation of Ball’s game are his preternatural instincts. He’s one of the smartest players in basketball, which allows him to make instantaneous decisions and recognize advantages before defenders can erase them. He knows that his every action will trigger a reaction from his opponent and understands how to leverage those reactions into opportunities. Cheeky touch-passes and early transition hit-aheads are not only fun to watch, they also evince how quickly Ball processes the action in front of him, how naturally he anticipates it and, increasingly, how well he manipulates it.

There are shades of Kyle Lowry and Andre Iguodala in the way Ball spots scoring chances before they appear, then swiftly exploits them when they open. That quick decision-making cuts down on the time he needs to have the ball in his hands, which reduces the opportunity cost of fitting Ball next to other offensive weapons.

When the ball finds him, he doesn’t waste time with idle dribbles or long scans of the floor; he makes an immediate decision to either shoot, pass or dribble, rarely holding the ball longer than he needs to find the next advantage. Among guards who touched the ball at least 60 times per game last season, only Bradley Beal averaged fewer seconds per touch than Ball, and still the Pelicans scored nearly 4.5 more points per 100 possessions with Ball on the floor than with him off.

Because he doesn’t need the ball in his hands to be effective, Ball can slot in next to an offensive focal point like Zion Williamson, Brandon Ingram or Zach LaVine without diminishing his or his teammates’ value. It helps that Ball has improved significantly as a shooter since he entered the league, giving him enough gravity to warrant serious closeouts and make defenders at least think twice about leaving him. And while he remains an inefficient offensive player on the whole — largely due to abysmal percentages between the rim and the 3-point line — and turns the ball over too often for his role, the fact that Ball posted career-best marks in both turnover rate and true shooting percentage last season offers hope that he’ll eventually become a more well-rounded player.

The Bulls won’t need Ball to stretch himself much as a halfcourt creator next season with LaVine, DeMar DeRozan and Nikola Vucevic already on the roster. His main offensive responsibility — in addition to pushing in transition and reliably hitting jumpers — will be to act as a conduit for his higher-usage teammates. Ideally, Ball’s ability to handle the ball and deliver it to others on time would open up LaVine’s off-ball game; or allow Vucevic to get to a preferred spot and quickly go to work; or make room for DeRozan to score decisively without monopolizing the ball.

On the other end of the floor, Ball will likely be the primary defender of opposing guards and wings, a role he didn’t always have to play in Los Angeles or New Orleans. Though a savvy help defender with solid positional size, Ball isn’t quite a lockdown on-ball defender, which could leave him slightly under-qualified to bear the significant responsibility Chicago will foist upon him.

Maybe meeting that challenge is a logical next step for Ball, who navigates screens well and has a knack for disrupting opponents’ sets. But even if he leaps into elite defensive territory, it likely won’t outweigh the many shortcomings of Chicago’s other defenders. That underscores Ball’s nature as a player: he’ll fit into most any style, scheme or concept, but doesn’t singlehandedly transform his team into something more. His value is, in many ways, a reflection of his environment, which might make the upcoming season his most intriguing yet.

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