LAS VEGAS — Jason Kidd has heard the comparisons of Lonzo Ball to himself many times since Ball began to shine at UCLA last season.
Some even think that Ball looks a bit like Kidd when he came out as a highly acclaimed pass-first point guard and the No. 2 overall pick out of Cal in the 1994 draft.
“Yeah, I’ve heard that a lot,” Kidd said last week at the Las Vegas Summer League. “And the more I have been in Vegas, that is all I have heard.”
While that’s up for debate, some longtime NBA executives and coaches do see Kidd-like traits in Ball’s game. From the flashy pinpoint passing, uncanny floor vision and ability to see plays develop in advance to the unflappable demeanor right down to the much-maligned jump shot, Ball reminds some of the current Milwaukee Bucks head coach.
“I thought he was as advertised,” said one longtime Eastern Conference talent evaluator, who needed to see Ball only twice to be sold on the Lakers rookie. “Elite facilitator/passer, makes everyone better. If you just do what you’re supposed to do, he will get you the ball right on time. He’s pretty incredible. No disappointment on my part. … The guy is special.
“He reminds me of J-Kidd.”
ESPN spoke to general managers, head coaches, assistant coaches, scouts/talent evaluators and former players at the Las Vegas Summer League to ask them what they learned about Ball, who was named the Most Valuable Player of summer league play ahead of Monday’s championship game. Here’s their breakdown of Magic Johnson’s point guard protégé, where he excels, where he can improve and what he will face:
It took Ball less than 30 seconds into his first summer league action to deliver his first highlight: an alley-oop pass to the Lakers’ second overall pick from a year ago, Brandon Ingram.
In six games, Ball averaged 16.3 points, a summer league-leading 9.3 assists, 7.7 rebounds, 2.5 steals and 1.0 blocks per game. The 19-year-old rookie recorded two triple-doubles and four games with 10 assists or more. No other rookie in Las Vegas Summer League history has had more than one game with 10 assists, and no other rookie has ever had a triple-double here, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
The way Ball delivered some of those assists had Lakers fans in the stands and even Magic standing up and applauding at times. Lakers summer league coach Jud Buechler, a three-time NBA champion who played for 12 years, proclaimed that “[Ball] is already one of the best passers I’ve seen at this level” — this after the point guard played only his third game in Vegas.
Of course, Buechler had just watched Ball explode for 36 points, 11 assists, 8 rebounds, 5 steals and 2 blocks to go with 6 turnovers in that game, a one-point win over Philadelphia — the only team that passed over him in the 2017 NBA draft.
“Special talent, great vision, outstanding competitor, NBA-ready,” said ESPN analyst Mark Jackson, who is fourth all time on the assists list (10,334). “His passing ability is contagious.”
“A home run pick for Magic, Rob [Pelinka] and the Lakers organization.”
Ball’s passing and pass-first mentality were “as advertised,” as one talent evaluator put it. The Lakers point guard constantly looked to push the ball immediately up court after a rebound.
There were multiple occasions when Ball would either grab a rebound or catch an outlet pass and, in the same motion, fire a bomb sometimes the length of the court. And his passes almost always hit the target, some sailing right over defenders frantically sprinting back trying to cover a streaking Lakers player or over the outstretched arms of a defender and into a teammate’s hands for a dunk or layup.
Ball, who sometimes throws the ball ahead of his teammates like a quarterback leading his receiver, always seemed to know where his teammates were heading. And teammates willingly ran hard, even when plays developed out of nowhere.
On one particular play on Sunday against Dallas, Ball was chasing down a loose ball near half court. Right before a Mavericks defender charging at him could get to the ball, Ball punched the ball ahead to guard Alex Caruso, who dunked it.
Johnson, the Lakers president of basketball operations, stood up in appreciation of the Showtime-like play.
“He’s pretty good,” said one Eastern Conference head coach in Las Vegas. “He’s just got a sixth sense, another sense. Certain guys have one more sense, one more ability to understand the game. And he’s got a great understanding, great anticipation.”
“You can’t explain it, but there’s something there that is special.”
A Western Conference general manager echoed the sentiment and noticed how Ball drew big crowds to the Thomas & Mack Center. For his second game, against the Celtics and third overall pick Jayson Tatum on a Saturday, tickets were sold out the day before by noon. It was the first time Las Vegas Summer League sold out a session a day in advance in its 14-year history. The league set an attendance record with 127,843.
The 6-foot-6 point guard even made others in the NBA tune in on TV.
“The fact that I am watching this game tells you he’s good,” one Eastern Conference assistant coach texted as he watched Ball play on television on Sunday night. “He is fun to watch. … I see Kidd all of the time when I watch him.”
That assistant wasn’t alone in his thinking. The longtime East talent evaluator saw something very specific in Ball that reminded him of Kidd. Kidd, who finished second all time to John Stockton with 12,091 assists, used to say how he would take a mental snapshot of where his teammates were on the floor before he would grab a rebound or outlet pass so he could move the ball even quicker.
It didn’t take long for the evaluator to see Ball doing something similar.
“What all great passers do is the guy takes a picture in his head,” he said. “The guy rebounds the ball, and he looks up and takes a picture. Watch every other point guard. [Ball] looks up the floor and takes a quick snapshot. The others don’t do that. That’s what he does. Like Jason [did].”
One area where Ball struggled was his perimeter shot. During his summer league debut in an overtime loss to the Clippers, Ball shot just 2-for-15 and 1-for-11 from 3-point range. One Clippers source said they sagged off Ball once they saw him struggle from the perimeter.
Ball shot 10-of-42 from 3-point range overall, though he finally started to find his rhythm in his last game on Sunday against the Mavericks. Ball, who shot 55.1 percent overall and 41.2 percent from 3 at UCLA, knocked down his first two treys and made 5 of 7 shots from the field against Dallas before leaving in the third quarter with a mild calf strain that kept him out of Monday’s championship game.
“It’ll come,” the Eastern Conference head coach said. “He will get that right. I think it is just a matter of time getting used to the 3-point line. I don’t think we should [make a big deal out of] this 3-point shooting thing now. Let’s see what he does in the regular season.”
Most NBA execs and coaches didn’t think Ball’s unorthodox sideways release would be a problem.
“You see Kevin Martin get his shot off, and you see other guys with unorthodox shots get their shots off,” one Western Conference assistant coach said. “You see smaller, tiny guards like back in the day, Earl Boykins, used to be able to score [and get his shot off]. Ball’s been doing that for so long, he’s used to that, so that is all that really matters.”
“I do think that because [Ball’s shot] takes so much time, he will have less time to get that off so maybe he will have to adjust a little bit,” the assistant added. “Ultimately being able to make the shot is really what is more important. If he is making it, it will help him with the other things that he does that are special. If he is not making that shot, it makes it much more difficult for him to create for others.”
Even as Ball was missing 10 of 11 3-pointers in his debut, LaVar Ball said the positive he took was that his son still had the confidence to shoot and would keep shooting. Lonzo Ball said after that game that he realized he passed on opportunities to get into the paint more and create. As summer league went on, Ball made the adjustment and often drove and would either create a scoring opportunity for himself or a teammate. Whenever he ran into a wall of defenders, Ball was often accurate at kicking out to a teammate on the perimeter.
“I don’t know what people expect from him,” said Sam Cassell, the Clippers’ summer league coach and a three-time NBA-champion point guard. “He’s 19 years old. He is going to take his bumps and bruises, but he will be fine.
“He got a knack for finding people. He is a great passer.”
Kidd is living proof of a highly touted pass-first point guard coming into the league without a steady jumper only to retire as one of the all-time leading 3-point shooters. After all, Kidd would hear hecklers bark, ” ‘Ason Kidd’ because he has no J.”
Kidd said he didn’t develop his perimeter shot for several years because he spent so much of his early years concentrating on passing and getting his teammates easy baskets. It helped that Kidd came into the league with scorers like Jim Jackson and Jamal Mashburn to pass to in Dallas.
“When you are passing or looking to make the game easy, sometimes the third thing [you think about] is to shoot,” said Kidd, whose 1,988 made 3-pointers ranks eighth all time. “So when you got passing on your mind first, second and sometimes third, your shot, you get left with a second or two on the clock and you rush it. It is just a matter of being able to slow that thing down.
“My job wasn’t to shoot the ball,” Kidd added. “My job was to get the ball to the scorers, and that is what I did. When you are a setup man, you just continue to work on being able to get the ball to your teammates and put them in position to be successful.”
Lakers rookie Kyle Kuzma, who was on the receiving end of several of Ball’s assists, joked that he was like Randy Moss chasing down several of Ball’s beautiful bombs.
But another Eastern Conference head coach wondered whether Ball will have enough talent around him to excel and how that will affect his confidence.
“He’s the quarterback, but if you have no wide receivers, the QB will be sacked,” the head coach said. “He has no receivers. He’s going to be under pressure.”
Then there is the level of competition and elite point guards he will face in the West nightly, from MVP Russell Westbrook to Steph Curry to Chris Paul to Damian Lillard.
“Where it will be difficult for him, first of all, is he is in the West,” said a Western Conference assistant coach. “He is starting in a situation where there is no light night. The guys he will have to defend, as well as the guys he is going against, are relentless.
“The thing that I see in him that I think will have to come out more than anything, especially early on, especially while the Lakers are putting their pieces together, is being able to do kind of what Jason Kidd did. Jason Kidd would work with whoever he had. He didn’t always necessarily have great receivers either, but he was able to make average receivers good and good receivers great. You put a guy like Richard Jefferson, for instance — J-Kidd’s first year in New Jersey — who wasn’t known as an outside shooter. So Jason Kidd made sure he ran the lane and got him the ball right up at the rim where he could dunk it and do what he did best.”
The Lakers hope their prized point guard will spread the ball around to the likes of Ingram, Julius Randle, Brook Lopez, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance Jr.
Another area where NBA coaches and execs say Ball can improve is his physique — adding muscle to his thin frame. Ball said if he had to identify one area where he wants to improve before the season, it’s “definitely to get stronger.”
Ball committed a total of 23 turnovers at summer league, and there will inevitably be tough nights like that. It will be a part of his learning process.
“Well, he is going to get better just by being on the floor,” said Jackson, who was Rookie of the Year in 1987-88 with the New York Knicks. “All of those things will come. I was fortunate enough to play for a coach [Rick Pitino] when I first got into the league that put me out there and allowed me to make mistakes. And he is going to play for a coach who is an outstanding young coach in Luke [Walton] who is going to allow him to make mistakes and allow him to flourish.”
Jackson, though, wants people to pump the brakes on the comparisons to Kidd, the 1994 co-Rookie of the Year, let alone talk by LaVar that his son will one day “step over [Magic] and be the best guard ever” with Johnson’s tutelage.
Jackson just wants Ball to have space to forge his own path.
“With all due respect, I am not going to disrespect the greats in the history of the game,” Jackson said. “I heard the comments by his dad, whether it be Magic or Kidd, let’s deal with Lonzo Ball, who is an outstanding young player who has an incredible future. Magic Johnson is the best point guard that has ever played the game and one of the best players that has ever played.
“Jason Kidd is one of the best point guards that has ever played the game and a Hall of Famer. I will leave that conversation for somebody else. But this kid has an incredible future. I like the way he has got his head on his shoulders, and his parents have done an outstanding job of raising him, and you can see that.”
Kidd does see one thing in Ball that reminds him of himself.
“His composure, just his mannerisms, just seems like he is always under control and is aware of what is always going on around him,” Kidd said. “His poise, just his ability to understand what the team needs at that time and how he makes the game easy for his teammates.
“He’s got vision, he’s got eyesight. He competes to win. If you have those traits, it is easier to teach someone how to shoot. That just takes time. And I think in due time he can have the whole package.”