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Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports
Lonzo Ball and D’Angelo Russell could wind up teammates after the 2017 NBA draft. But who should the Los Angeles Lakers (or any other hypothetical team) choose if forced to build around one of them?
It’s shoot-first versus pass-first with Russell and Ball—lead guards with contrasting styles and identities.
Flashes from Russell over the final two months of his second year with the Lakers hint at an eventual breakout season.
Ball just helped transform a lousy UCLA program a year ago into one of the nation’s top offensive machines.
They’ll each be valued for different strengths, so who’s the better long-term NBA prospect in a vacuum?
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Ball can’t match Russell’s scoring attack. And in today’s league, score-first guards are in.
Russell finished his second season in L.A. averaging 15.6 points at 21 years old. He hasn’t been efficient, but at his age without great supporting talent, which would have taken some pressure off, it’s difficult to be overly critical of his early-career shooting percentages.
Clearly skilled with high-level shot-making ability, Russell can create and convert offense for himself in ways that Ball does not.
Russell made two field goals per game as a pick-and-roll ball-handler, the same amount as Stephen Curry. And though he didn’t see many isolation opportunities, his 0.95 points per play with them shows he’s still a threat on-on-one.
He drilled 2.1 threes per game and looking smooth and confident shooting from deep, despite an average 35.2 percent mark.
Russell also proved late last year he’s capable of catching fire and scoring in bunches. He went for 40 points against the Cleveland Cavaliers on March 19 and at least 28 on five other occasions after February 23.
Ball is a shot-maker, not a scorer. He converted just 12 shots all year that weren’t layups, dunks or threes. His 16.6 points per 40 minutes at UCLA would be the lowest for a point guard taken in the lottery since Michael Carter-Williams in 2013.
The Lakers, or whoever lands Ball, won’t be able to feature him at the end of clocks or lean on him to score his team back into games. They can with Russell, who brings that go-to mentality and skill set.
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Ball’s will continue to revolve around his passing and vision, which could wind up separating him from every other point guard in the league.
Since 1992, he’s on a list with five freshmen, which includes Jason Kidd, to play 20-plus games and average at least 7.5 assists. Russell has averaged 5.0 or fewer in each of his past three seasons dating back to his one year at Ohio State.
Ball brings a pass-first mentality and sense of unselfishness we don’t see from Russell, whose decision-making has been questioned.
With Ball calling the shots at the point, the players around him must be bigger threats, but they’re also likely to see more open looks than they would if Russell dominated the ball.
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Normally, talent and skill hold a lot more weight than intangibles during the evaluation process. But in this case, leadership plays a bigger role, given who we’re talking about.
It’s a key selling point for Ball. “Makes his teammates better” is a phrase written on every scouting report. UCLA ranked outside the top 50 in offensive efficiency before Ball arrived, per KenPom.com. It finished No. 2 in 2016-17.
On the other hand, concerns about Russell’s maturity have raised questions over his potential to lead, even though it’s clear he’s going to produce at a high level. His confidence could be viewed as cockiness. His shot selection can be loose.
Will his numbers remain empty or will they start to become impact production?
An off day from Russell is more likely to hurt his team than a bad game by Ball, who only takes quality shots, (73.2 percent FG inside the arc) and is practically guaranteed to rack up assists, regardless of whether his jumper is working.
If the Lakers do take Ball at No. 2, leadership and other intangibles will have likely factored heavily into the equation for L.A.’s front office.
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Russell saw his field-goal percentage dip from 41.0 percent as a rookie to 40.5 percent in Year 2. He’s expected to improve, but how much room is there?
Will his average athleticism, which holds him around the perimeter and below the rim in the paint, limit his scoring upside?
Last year, he only made 1.1 field goals per game off drives at a 46.0 percent clip on just 2.4 attempts. He hasn’t gotten to the basket often (3.0 free-throw attempts per game), and when he has, he’s struggled to finish.
Can Russell turn this weakness into a strength? And if not, can he still become one of the better scoring guards?
Ball doesn’t get to the basket much (2.7 free-throw attempts), either, but it’s not as important for him as it is for Russell, whose value will mostly be tied to his scoring. Plus, coming out of college, Ball was far more efficient at the rim, having shot 75.9 percent there in the half court, compared to Russell’s 59.4 percent his one year at Ohio State.
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In today’s league, where almost every All-Star guard averages at least 20 points, can Ball join the game’s elite being a below-average scorer relative to others at his position?
Except using for a step-back jumper, which takes some time to get off, Ball doesn’t create his own shot inside the arc. He hit the 20-point mark six times as a freshmen, but only thanks to accurate three-point shooting. He shot a lights-out 20-of-35 from deep during those six games.
He won’t put much pressure on the defense as a scorer on days his three-ball is off. Teams also must decide how much to buy into his mechanically-unorthodox jumper. He only shot 67.3 percent on free throw—a possible sign his 41.2 percent three-point mark isn’t the most accurate future indicator.
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Labeled a scoring point guard at the 1 spot, Russell has also been effective off the ball playing the 2. Shooting guard may actually wind up being his full-time position, depending on how the Lakers fill out their roster.
Ball is flexible too. His 6’6″ size, passing and shooting should work alongside any scorer.
Defense would be the biggest concern about playing Ball and Russell together. Neither are physically strong or lockdown perimeter defenders. And the Lakers already finished last in the league in defensive efficiency.
Ideally, each players’ backcourt partner would bring plus defense and toughness.
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Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports
Russell is going to produce. He already has and should continue building on his numbers.
But will his stats eventually translate to wins?
Ball may never average 20 points per game, which is something Russell could do in his junior year as a pro. But Ball’s potential to improve a team’s offensive efficiency should hold more value than Russell’s upside as a scorer.
Unless Russell follows Stephen Curry’s and James Harden‘s paths to the elite scoring club, which seems unrealistic, there will be a greater impact felt from Ball’s ability to control games. A superior floor game and enough shooting potential give Ball the edge over Russell in a vacuum.
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