Is Los Angeles Lakers rookie Lonzo Ball the player who shot 1-of-9 from the field in a loss to the Philadelphia 76ers on Wednesday, missing all six of his 3-point attempts, or the player who had a triple-double (11 points, 16 rebounds, 11 assists) four nights later in a blowout win over the Denver Nuggets?
The answer is both, of course, and while Ball's inconsistency is hardly unusual for a 20-year-old rookie point guard, the all-or-nothing nature of his present skill set makes him an atypically challenging player to evaluate. Are Ball's strengths currently outweighing his weaknesses? Let's take a look.
The bad: Historic inefficiency
Unfortunately for Ball, there have been too many bad shooting nights so far this season. He's making just 31.3 percent of his shot attempts, and while that doesn't account for the fact that more than two-fifths of Ball's shots have come from beyond the arc, his 35.9 percent effective field goal percentage (counting 3s as 1.5 field goals to account for their additional value) remains dreadful.
Because Ball is attempting just 1.5 free throws per game and has made them at a 46.2 percent clip -- perhaps even more concerning from a long-term perspective than his 22.8 percent 3-point shooting -- his true shooting percentage (.368) isn't much better. No player who has seen more than 250 minutes of action this season has been as inefficient as Ball, whose true shooting percentage is actually slightly worse than what No. 1 overall pick Markelle Fultz posted (.372) in four games before being shut down with soreness in his right shoulder.
Naturally, comparing Ball's scoring efficiency with entire seasons is unfair, because he will likely improve as his numbers regress to the mean. Still, doing so helps us understand the negative impact of Ball's poor shooting thus far.
Few players have scored so inefficiently over a full season: Just 12 players since the advent of the 3-point line in 1979-80 have posted a true shooting percentage worse than Ball's .368 mark in at least 500 minutes.
Naturally, none of these players have rated better than replacement level by my wins above replacement player (WARP) metric; in fact, none has even been within one WARP of replacement level. The least efficient player to rate better than replacement level in at least 500 minutes of action was New Jersey Nets center Chris Dudley in 1992-93, when he posted a .390 true shooting percentage yet was still rated worth 0.6 WARP, because of his strong rebounding (he grabbed 20 percent of all available rebounds while on the court) and shot blocking (the 4.6 percent of opponents' 2-point attempts that he blocked was solidly above average for a center).
Given that information, it's remarkable to note that Ball rates as worth 0.7 WARP thus far this season, more than Dudley in less than half as many minutes. So clearly, the other strengths Ball brings to the table are remarkable in their own right.
The good: Stuffing the box score
Triple-doubles aren't always a great measure of player value, and that's the case with the one Ball recorded against the Nuggets. His 15.4 game score -- a John Hollinger metric designed to evaluate single-game performance -- was only third best among Lakers players in that game. (Ball's other triple-double against the Milwaukee Bucks, during which he scored 19 points on 7-of-12 shooting, rated much better, with a 25.2 game score.)
At the same time, triple-doubles generally are a good indicator of a player's versatile contributions, and that's certainly the case with Ball. His 8.8 assists per 100 plays are solidly better than the average point guard (7.6 assist rate), and just three point guards (Dejounte Murray, Russell Westbrook and Ben Simmons) have beaten the 11.0 percent of available rebounds Ball has grabbed. Beyond the triple-double stats, Ball is one of three guards among the 15 players in the league averaging at least 2.0 steals per 100 opponent plays and blocking at least 2.0 percent of opponent 2-point attempts. (Eric Bledsoe and Danny Green are the other guards in this group.)
Because of those box score contributions, and because the Lakers' defense ranks fourth in the league on a per-possession basis, WARP and similar box score metrics rate Ball as an excellent defender for a point guard. Amazingly, Ball ranks 10th defensively among all players with at least 250 minutes of action in Basketball-Reference.com's box plus-minus metric (BPM). (He's 29th in the defensive component of WARP.)
Those ratings almost certainly overstate the value of Ball's defensive contributions. The Lakers have been slightly better defensively with him on the bench, per NBA.com/Stats. That doesn't account for the teammates Ball plays with, but ESPN's real plus-minus (RPM) does, and despite using a box score-based value estimate (or "prior") similar to WARP and BPM, RPM rates Ball as about average defensively, relative to all players. (Ball does rate far better than the average point guard in defensive RPM.)
Ball's struggles typical of rookie point guards
Applying RPM's more conservative estimate of Ball's defense suggests he has played at or below replacement level during the season's first month. He ranks 77th out of the 87 players listed as point guards in RPM. And yet Ball also is tops among the four freshmen point guards drafted in this year's lottery; Dennis Smith Jr. ranks 80th, Fultz 82nd and De'Aaron Fox last among point guards.
The takeaway is something I warned before the season: One-and-done point guards don't typically play very well as rookies. At that point, I thought Ball's well-rounded game could make him the exception, but his inability to carry over his above-average 3-point shooting at UCLA (41 percent) has made that impossible.
At some point, Ball will have to score more efficiently to be an effective NBA player. There's simply no precedent for a player missing so many shots and remaining valuable. Still, for now, Ball's versatile contributions are helping to cancel out his shortcomings as a shooter.