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Lonzo Ball and the hazards of archaic position labels

As Ball enters the final year of his rookie contract a question looms. Just what is he?

NBA: New Orleans Pelicans at Dallas Mavericks Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Lonzo Ball is a basketball player. A very good one at that. An incredible passer with the ability to consistently get teammates open by anticipating the open spaces on the floor before they are actually open. Lonzo applies those same skills on the defensive end to wreak havoc on opponents; baiting bad passes and creating turnovers few have the basketball IQ to see ahead of time.

All those skills are both useful and valued at the NBA level. And in today’s NBA, positions are fluid and can change for a player from lineup to lineup or even from possession to possession. Basketball has changed, and yet how basketball broadcasts deliver the game to fans has failed to keep up.

Point Guard, Shooting Guard, Small Forward, Power Forward, Center. These are the traditional positions in basketball. You still set your starting lineup with them in 2K. Players are still listed by one of these monikers in the program and on Basketball Reference. They form a short hand for discussing players, comparing players, and building lineups. Positions, in this sense, are also relatively useless in describing how the game is played.

Pelicans head coach Stan Van Gundy, then television analyst sensation, sat down with Zach Lowe for The Lowe Post podcast in mid-July before the bubble restart. What happened next, in retrospect, was half analysis of the Pelicans team and half public interview to be the next head coach if the position became available. While what SVG said about Zion Williamson was the focus after he was hired, it was his discussion on Lonzo Ball that stuck most with me. This portion below begins roughly around the 41-minute mark.

“At 6’6”, with his ability to defend, he passes the ball and he’s making the three. I think sometimes we can get too focused on what guys can’t do. He’s got a nice package of skills. And as you (Zach Lowe) mentioned they’ve got other ball handling pieces. He doesn’t need to facilitate everything in the half court. If everything goes right and you can run your half court offense through Zion Williamson, Brandon Ingram, and Jrue Holiday with some catch and shoot and movement stuff for JJ Redick. In the half court, what’s the problem if Lonzo Ball becomes mainly just a standstill shooter?”

“That’s what you do as a coach. You look to people’s strengths and you put it together. We’ve been reading about with Philly, Ben Simmons playing more as a traditional four. I sort of think Ben Simmons as the point guard in transition. Let’s go ahead and outlet to him or he’s such a great rebounder, like Lonzo Ball is, take it off the glass and go ahead and be our point guard in transition. And then, in the half court, fine then we’ll use Ben Simmons as the screener in pick and roll. I think there’s going to be more and more guys in the league like that who are hybrid-type guys. That in transition they’re going to play one position and in the half court they’re going to have another role. And I think that’s where Lonzo Ball fits for these guys.”

Notice the one time Stan Van Gundy mentions positions, that Philly is playing Simmons more as a “traditional four” he immediately dissects this as faulty. Ben Simmons was still rebounding or getting outlets and pushing the pace in transition. It’s precisely the desire to shoehorn a unique player into an archaic position archetype that causes a problem.

What would you call the position Stan Van Gundy describes as a good fit for Lonzo Ball? Ball should attack the glass or get ample opportunities in transition to operate with the ball in his hands. When the game slows down in the half court its better if he’s used more as a spacer to maximize his strengths (Lonzo shot 38.9% behind the arc on 262 catch and shoot attempts last season) and minimize his weaknesses (33.9% on 359 drives with 47 assists against 46 turnovers).

So, what is Lonzo? Traditionally you would call a player who attacks in transition with the ball, but plays off the ball in the half court a point forward. Any number of players called “small forwards” or even “power forwards” played this way at some point in their career.

In today’s NBA, Lonzo Ball is a wing. A 3&D wing, given his improved shot on catch and shoot attempts. He brings more to the table than your standard issue 3&D wing. He’s a primary creator in transition with the ability to attack a defense that is not set for himself or (usually) for others. Additionally, he’s a plus rebounder and a savant defensively on the weakside. A player in today’s NBA with that skill set? Extremely valuable. The kind of player that meshes well when you have a long isolation destroyer in Brandon Ingram and a juggernaut like Zion Williamson as the foundation.

He’s just not a point guard.