How Lonzo Ball's renewed confidence has helped Lakers rookie silence early criticism

It has been quite some time since a player has come into the NBA with as bright a spotlight on him as Lonzo Ball. The rookie has been under unrelenting, and at times ruthless evaluation from the moment the Lakers selected No. 2 overall in last summer's draft. 

After he was named Summer League MVP, we were ready to erect his statue. After he shot less than 25 percent from three and 30 percent from the field through his first six weeks as a pro, and became the only rookie in the last 30 years to shoot worse than 30 percent overall through his first 10 career games, we were ready to burn it down. 

All the while, Lonzo just kept playing. 

Now here he is, shooting better than 41 percent from three over his last 13 games -- including an impressive 6-of-9 from deep in the two games he's been back from the knee injury that sidelined him for a month. On Monday vs. Atlanta, Ball was a perfect 4 for 4 from the field, including three 3s. He posted 13 points, seven rebounds, five assists and three steals in his typical stat-stuffing fashion. If the season were to end right now, Ball would go down as one of four rookies in history to average at least 10 points, seven assists and seven rebounds, with the other three being Oscar Robertson, Ben Simmons and Magic Johnson. 

Johnson, of course, is responsible for a good portion of the Lonzo hype, as he was throwing around the "transcendent" label like it was nothing and talking about Ball's jersey one day hanging in the Laker rafters before he'd played a single regular-season game. At 19 years old, the kid had so much on his shoulders so soon. I was as hard on him as anyone. I do not believe, and will not ever believe, that a point guard can become anything close to elite in today's NBA when he can't shoot a lick. Simmons may end up challenging that notion, but he's more of a position-less playmaker than a true point guard, and besides that, there are exceptions to every rule. 

From the start, it was clear that Lonzo's shot -- if it didn't improve to at least a respectable level -- was going to hold him back considerably. So much of his game is predicated on making plays for others, but the catch-22 of that is the best way to make plays for others is to first make plays for yourself. That's when you become a real problem. Lonzo is never going to be Stephen Curry or Kyrie Irving; he's not wired with a score-first mentality. But he has to keep defenses honest to fully unlock his genuinely brilliant passing ability. 

As Ball struggled out of the gate, the first step for him was to simply prove to defenses, if not to himself, that even when he wasn't making shots, he was willing to take shots, as with every miss he was becoming more and more reluctant to pull the trigger. It was hard to blame him given his dreadful percentages, but his hesitance was killing his rhythm. It was making him a liability. Teams knew he didn't want to shoot. He knew he didn't want to shoot. He was constantly caught in between, to shoot or not to shoot, passing on the right ones, forcing the wrong ones, the portrait of an uncertain athlete trying to will his confidence back into existence. 

Fast forward to Monday night in Atlanta, and have a look at the difference a few months of NBA experience and some actual shooting success have made:

Forget that this shot went in. What matters is the confidence with which he stepped into it. Lonzo didn't hesitate for a second. He caught the pass, saw the rim and fired in rhythm. This is a man who is back to feeling the game, playing on instinct. Defenses have to honor that kind of shooting decisiveness, and when they do, Lonzo can now bait the close out to get into the lane and make plays, where he's really dangerous. 

So now defenses don't know what to do with him. Early in the season, for obvious reasons, defenders were going under just about every ball screen set for Lonzo, who just wasn't capable of making anyone pay for leaving him all that space to shoot, either tossing up a brick or declining the shot altogether. Now look what happens when you dare him:

Truth be told, Lonzo was probably getting too much criticism in the early going given his production in every area other than shooting. Yet now that his shooting numbers have improved so dramatically, it would be easy to go overboard in praising his progress. But let's not make the same mistake twice. Let's not focus so much on the player he might or might not become and just appreciate that right now, in this moment, despite all the pressure and all the criticism and all the craziness his father creates around him, Lonzo Ball is simply playing solid basketball. 

Let's not compare him to all-time greats. 

Let's not even compare him to other rookies. 

Yes, Donovan Mitchell has been terrific. So has Jayson Tatum. We all know about Simmons. What you might not know is that Ball, entering Monday, was in the 73rd offensive percentile, league-wide, when accounting for points and assists. That's not great. But it's certainly not terrible. Factor in the aforementioned awfulness of his first few months on the job, and that number starts to look pretty impressive. Quietly, his whole rookie campaign is starting to look the same.  

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