The baby brother is supposed to be the best. He spends his childhood trying to keep up with his older siblings, playing against their older friends, wanting to exceed the weight on his shoulders of being so-and-so’s little brother.
LaMelo Ball is Lonzo’s baby brother (and LiAngelo’s, too, but for the sake of discussion, this is about LaMelo and Lonzo). Now all that’s left to find out is who’s better. Lonzo was the No. 2 overall pick in the 2017 NBA Draft out of UCLA. LaMelo is lining up to be a top-three selection in the 2020 NBA Draft with a less conventional path to get there. They’re similar in stature and position, but they’ve got different games. Lonzo has proven to be a solid pass-first point guard in the NBA, while LaMelo oozes upside coupled with risk.
Will the Ball family follow the universal rules of athletic baby brothers? We broke it all down for you.
LaMelo vs. Lonzo: Passing
Both LaMelo and Lonzo execute passes that other players don’t even see. Whether that’s pushing the ball in transition, flinging a one-handed pass across the court, pulling out a flashy distribution to a rolling forward, it doesn’t matter — the passing skills and vision of the Ball brothers are absolutely top-notch.
It’s not really fair to compare LaMelo’s passing in Australia’s National Basketball League (NBL) to Lonzo’s in the NBA, but we can go with the pre-draft season Lonzo spent at UCLA. LaMelo actually recorded a higher assist percentage (36.9 percent) in Australia than Lonzo did at UCLA (31.4 percent) while also turning the ball over more than six percentage points less than his older brother.
Lonzo’s game, as we’ll get into more below, is more predicated on passing than LaMelo’s. For Lonzo to be an above-average NBA player, he needs his passing to be his best skill. That’s not necessarily true for LaMelo, even though it also might be LaMelo’s best skill.
Lonzo has averaged 6.6 assists per game in his NBA career, and LaMelo averaged 6.8 assists per game last year in Australia. This really is a tight competition. The one misconception to avoid when discussing LaMelo’s passing is the idea that his occasionally self-centered game means he doesn’t like to pass. LaMelo, just like Lonzo, is a great distributor.
Verdict: Lonzo, but only barely, and only because his game depends on passing more than LaMelo’s.
LaMelo vs. Lonzo: Shooting
Whoever taught the Ball brothers to shoot (we’re looking at you, LaVar) didn’t exactly do a picture perfect job. Lonzo’s always had a launch from the shoulder sort of shot, although it’s gotten cleaned up the last few years in the NBA. LaMelo appears more to push the ball from almost directly in front of his face, which isn’t quite a recipe for seeing the target.
Statistically, Lonzo has the obvious edge here right now. He shot better than 40 percent from 3 at UCLA, while LaMelo shot just 25 percent beyond the line in Australia (although the NBL line is further back than the NCAA one).
Since entering the NBA, Lonzo has improved in each of his three seasons as a shooter from 3-point range, going from 31 to 33 to 38 percent this past season for the Pelicans. Teams still tend to sag off Lonzo and force him to make shots, but when left open, he’s done that more consistently.
That’ll be the biggest key for LaMelo in the NBA: Making the open ones that other teams give him. Opponents will be more worried about LaMelo’s size and passing ability getting into the lane, where he’s also an adept finisher. That means they’ll sag off him, too. If he can make the open ones (and pass up the shaky shot selection that’s often a part of the LaMelo highlight reels we see), he’ll be an effective enough shooter in the league for his other talents to really shine through.
Verdict: Lonzo is the better shooter at this very moment. Neither has great form, but if LaMelo’s shot selection improves, he might be able to catch up.
LaMelo vs. Lonzo: Scoring
This is where things start shifting drastically in LaMelo’s favor. Lonzo might’ve improved his shooting from the outside, but he isn’t as shifty in the lane and doesn’t have as wide a variety of finishing options.
In 2019-20, Lonzo was in the bottom-fifth of the NBA in two-point field-goal percentage, shooting less than 45 percent from inside the arc. That’s simply not efficient enough. He misses layups more than you’d ever like from a 6-6 guard. It’s worth noting that Lonzo was uber-efficient in the paint in college, but he was helped by playing on a very talented, fast-paced team that often got him super easy looks against less athletic defenders.
LaMelo, on the other hand, shot a better percentage from two-point range in Australia and brings a wide variety of finishing moves. LaMelo frequently launches off one foot in the lane, be it for floaters or fancy layups. He also appears more comfortable shooting off the dribble, although that’s not yet an efficient shot for him.
At this point, we’ve likely seen what Lonzo can be as a scorer. He can add small bits and pieces to his game, but he’ll likely remain about a 10 point per game scorer at the NBA level. If that’s where LaMelo topped out, it’d be a disappointment, because he’s already got all the moves — he just needs to pull them out at the right time and increase their efficiency a bit.
Verdict: LaMelo is both the better scorer right now and has the much higher scoring ceiling.
LaMelo vs. Lonzo: Defense
Remember when Lonzo got torched by Kentucky’s De’Aaron Fox in the NCAA Tournament? Yeah, everyone was down on his defense then, but he’s turned out just fine. He’s averaged 1.5 steals and 0.6 blocks per game in his NBA career, and more often than not he uses his length well to limit easy chances for opponents while also defending the passing lanes.
The negative highlights that surface for LaMelo are almost always defensively based. It’s an effort thing for a young player with LaMelo’s length and athleticism more than it is anything else. He still averaged 1.7 steals per game in Australia, showing a nose for the ball, at least.
No one’s entering the 2020 draft feeling like LaMelo’s defense is a plus, but there are likely varying opinions in front offices nonetheless. LaMelo has the athletic tools to be a good defender, but so do many of the players who come into the league as negatives at that end and never really get better. Thanks to LaMelo’s size as a nominal point guard, teams could possibly use him against small-forward types where he’ll have a better chance of keeping a bigger player in front of him, but it’s really all going to come down to whether a team can get LaMelo to focus defensively.
Verdict: Lonzo, but the jury is still out on LaMelo. If he can lock in for long stretches as a defender, he should be solid, too.
LaMelo vs. Lonzo: Ceiling
Coming out of UCLA, maybe a case could’ve been made for Lonzo in this category. Applying a bunch of ‘ifs’ next to his name would’ve grown the ceiling for sure: if his shot improves, if he continues to score efficiently at the rim, if his defense doesn’t come and go. But we’ve mostly seen what Lonzo is — a player who can run an offense very well but will rarely create his own shot. That’s useful for an NBA team, no doubt.
LaMelo is different. We discussed the upside he has offensively above, probably more offensive upside than even the most fervent Lonzo supporter ever thought he had in the NBA. LaMelo brings the generational passing talent of Lonzo paired with the scoring skillset of a 20-point per game scorer. Whether he reaches that level in the NBA remains to be seen, but it’s there.
Of course, the reason LaMelo isn’t the surefire No. 1 pick despite a massive, 20 ppg and 10 apg-level ceiling, is because of this notion of his bust potential. What if he doesn’t give good effort? What if he keeps taking bad shots? What if his personality as a point guard doesn’t bring the team together?
Think about it, though. LaMelo will bare minimum be the best passer on a team, capable of creating a chunk of easy shots for his teammates every game. Even if inefficient, he’ll bring enough different scoring possibilities to the table to keep defenses honest. And at least he’ll occasionally make an athletic, game-changing play on defense, even if those don’t show up quite as much as a team would want.
Maybe the nightmare scenario for LaMelo is bad, but the same could be said for any player in almost any draft. For a team needing an influx of talent, ceiling can outdo red flags. In LaMelo’s case, the ceiling is high.
Verdict: LaMelo’s got a higher ceiling than Lonzo did coming out of college or than Lonzo appears to have after three years in the NBA. The baby brother certainly could be the best.
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