Is LaMelo Ball Already Tracking Better Than His Brother Lonzo as a Rookie?

Jonathan Wasserman@@NBADraftWassNBA Lead WriterJanuary 8, 2021

Charlotte Hornets' LaMelo Ball goes up for a shot during the first half of an NBA basketball game against the Philadelphia 76ers, Saturday, Jan. 2, 2021, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)
Matt Slocum/Associated Press

It's been around five years since Ball became a household family name for basketball scouts, media and fans. But Friday night's Charlotte Hornets-New Orleans Pelicans game marks the first NBA matchup between two of the brothers. Let the comparison machine begin (or continue).

Lonzo vs. LaMelo: guards four years apart in age who entered the league under different circumstances but with similar national attention and unique scouting reports. 

Lonzo played in the McDonald's All-American Game, went to UCLA and won summer league MVP before his NBA debut. 

LaMelo spent high school years in Lithuania and chose Australia over college basketball before making his pro debut roughly one month after being drafted. 

Both started as rock stars. 

But how do they compare as rookies and long-term NBA prospects?

         

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LaMelo's scoring is translating quicker 

Chris Carlson/Associated Press

LaMelo has played eight NBA games, finishing his last one Wednesday night with 16 points in under 24 minutes to help defeat Trae Young's Atlanta Hawks. During Lonzo's eighth NBA contest, he went scoreless in 28 minutes.

It marked a low point of an uneven start to Lonzo's career. Two weeks earlier, he went for 29 points in his second pro game, an output that sparked optimism over Lonzo's scoring potential, which many questioned when he came out of UCLA because of his limited blow-by explosion, strength and off-the-dribble shot-making (outside of a step-back three).

Fast-forward four years to his first NBA matchup with his brother, and those 29 points remain Lonzo's career high. 

LaMelo, 19, appears further ahead as a scorer than Lonzo was at the same age. 

Heading into Friday's action, LaMelo is averaging 12.1 points while shooting 41.2 percent from the floor in 24.0 minutes per game (18.2 points per 36 minutes). Lonzo, who debuted at 19 in 2017, averaged 9.1 points on 32.6 percent shooting in 33.3 minutes (9.8 points per 36) through eight games. 

LaMelo's scoring is translating faster. Even in 2021, the 6'8" rookie may already be the tougher threat inside the arc with more size, speed, shiftiness and finishing craft than his 6'6", 23-year-old brother. They have the same amount of made two-point field-goals this season (22) despite Lonzo's having played 73 more minutes. 

And given the lack of progress Lonzo has made since his Los Angeles Lakers days, and LaMelo's superior wiggle and creativity at baseline entering the league, it's safe to bet the younger Ball brother will emerge as the better scorer.

       

Opposite shooting starts

Jacob Kupferman/Associated Press

Lonzo shot 41.2 percent from three at UCLA, accuracy that alleviated concern over his unorthodox side-of-the-face release. LaMelo shot 25.0 percent (12 games) last season in Australia, inefficiency that raised doubt from scouts over his chest-pass-like jumper.

But LaMelo's shot is falling early, and Lonzo's did not during his first month and season in L.A.

Shooting 36.1 percent from deep, LaMelo has hit multiple threes in five of eight games, appearing far more competent than skeptics anticipated. Meanwhile, Lonzo started cold, missing 26 of 36 threes through his first eight NBA games. 

He recovered slightly, finishing his rookie season at 30.5 percent and shooting 32.9 percent as an NBA sophomore. Last season's improvement to 37.5 percent was promising, but it's still tough to feel confident in his shot based on his career 49.3 free-throw percentage. 

LaMelo has made 47.1 percent of his catch-and-shoot chances and 31.3 percent of his pull-ups. Stats aside, the eye-test results on his jumper are encouraging, despite his unconventional form. He's hitting in different ways from various spots and demonstrating plenty of range. Most importantly, he's getting his shot off despite the low release.

It's reasonable to expect LaMelo to slump and potentially finish closer to the 30 percent mark like Lonzo did, but the "broken jumper" take is losing steam. 

             

Stud passers

Wilfredo Lee/Associated Press

The Ball brothers were always known for passing, and it translated quickly for them as pros.

Both instantly showed off their fearlessness and accuracy on full-court pass-aheads in transition, and their playmaking IQ stood out from Day 1. They also have the same willingness to set up teammates. Miles Bridges has looked like LaMelo's favorite target early with his explosive leaping ability around the basket that makes the point guard's job easy.

At No. 12 in the NBA in assist percentage (31.2 percent), LaMelo is averaging 4.9 dimes per game and 7.3 per 36 minutes

Lonzo, who played 33.3 minutes per night through eight games, averaged 6.6 assists per game before finishing his rookie season at 7.2. He failed to reach that average during his second and third seasons, although he played with LeBron James in 2018-19 and Jrue Holiday in 2019-20. 

But there is an idea that because of Lonzo's lack of breakdown burst, he needs to play alongside another guard or player who can penetrate and put extra pressure on the defense and rim. You don't get the same feeling with LaMelo, who appears more elusive, an attribute that suggests his playmaking upside could be higher. 

So far, LaMelo is averaging 9.3 drives per game. Lonzo averaged 7.4 in more minutes as a rookie, and he's down to 6.4 drives per game this season in New Orleans. A trickier ball-handler with shake and creativity, LaMelo looks capable of moving further up the assist leaderboard as his role and touches increase. 

        

Point guards with different roles

Derick Hingle/Associated Press

Lonzo started for the Lakers from opening night. LaMelo has come off the bench each game in Charlotte, where his role has been different than the one he played for Chino Hills, SPIRE Institute and the NBL's Hawks. 

Lonzo was more of a game-manager early, running offense and moving the ball, looking for his shot when the defense gave it up. LaMelo has been more of a spark with his tempo, flash and aggression.

Sharing ball-handling duties with Devonte' Graham, Terry Rozier and Gordon Hayward, LaMelo is taking 4.5 more shots per 36 minutes than Lonzo did as a rookie, when he started alongside off-guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and 20-year-old Brandon Ingram.

          

Defensive narratives changing fast

Defense wasn't viewed as a plus on Lonzo's scouting report, especially after Kentucky's De'Aaron Fox cooked him and UCLA for 39 points in the NCAA tournament.

And the way scouts, media and fans talked about LaMelo, it was as if the Hornets had to accept they were drafting a defensive liability. 

The narrative quickly started to change for Lonzo. The same should be happening with LaMelo, who's demonstrating impressive anticipation and reactions for making plays on the ball. He's second among rookies in steal percentage (minimum 20 minutes per game) and averaging 4.6 per game. 

He's still occasionally getting beaten and showing suspect technique on certain possessions. But he's also made impressive reads and contests. There haven't been any red flags thrown regarding effort. 

Both Ball brothers proved early they have some defensive instincts. In LaMelo's case, they look strong enough for him to reach competence for a player with his offensive value.

                 

Stats via NBA.com and Basketball Reference unless otherwise noted.