Lonzo Ball is a force multiplier who is more effective with more talent around him

The good news for the Lakers is they can copy what UCLA did with Lonzo while also giving him more help. The Bruins offense is similar to the one Luke Walton helped run in Golden State. According to the stats at NBA.com, the Warriors were first in the NBA in their percentage of field goal attempts from cuts (12.3 percent) and dead last shooting out of the pick-and-roll (10.9 percent). Like UCLA, Golden State pushed the pace, ran set plays featuring back screens and off-ball cuts, moved its point guard around the floor, and gave all five players on the floor the freedom to make decisions. That type of system requires intelligent players with a high basketball IQ. The Warriors and the Bruins had them, and after a flurry of moves this offseason, the Lakers do as well.

Brook Lopez is a bigger and better version of UCLA center Thomas Welsh. Lopez turned himself into one of the best-shooting 7-footers in the NBA last season. He shot 34.6 percent from 3 on 5.2 attempts per game, despite not playing with Jeremy Lin (the team’s best playmaker) for most of the year. Since Lonzo is not a big threat to drive hard off a screen, a pick-and-pop center is a better fit with his game than a rim-runner. Forcing the opposing center to guard on the perimeter creates more room to get into the lane, which is what a guard without elite foot speed like Lonzo needs. Welsh was a release valve for UCLA. Whenever a play broke down, Lonzo could draw his man and dump the ball off for an open 15-footer. Lopez would be great in that role, and the two should click in transition, with Lonzo pushing the ball up the floor and then finding Lopez for trailer 3s.

Lonzo also needs to play with wings who can attack the defense off the dribble and make plays for others. A point guard who is fourth on his team in field goal attempts, like he was at UCLA, is only effective when he’s giving the ball to guys who can pick up the slack. Lonzo is a better shooter than most pass-first point guards—guys like Ricky Rubio, Rajon Rondo, and T.J. McConnell—which makes him a better fit with star wings. His man can’t leave him open at the 3-point line, and defenders have to close out hard on him when the ball rotates. It’s hard to defend a team as interchangeable on the perimeter as the Bruins were last season. Their other perimeter players spotted up off Lonzo, and Lonzo spotted up off them. He’s the ultimate glue guy. He makes guys better just by being on the floor with them.

Lonzo could be the key to unlocking Brandon Ingram, the no. 2 pick in last year’s draft. The two showed chemistry in their one summer league game together, and a point guard who always looks to pass will give Ingram more opportunities. Lonzo will create easy shots for him in transition and open up the floor in the half court. Ingram’s struggles as a rookie shouldn’t have been a surprise. He was a rail-thin 19-year-old on one of the worst teams in the league. The potential he showed at Duke is still there. There aren’t many wings in the NBA with his scoring and passing ability, much less the length of a center (7-foot-3 wingspan). Ingram could thrive in a multiple-ball-handler offense where he could play on and off the ball and make quick decisions in space.

Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, whom the Lakers signed to a one-year, $17.7 million contract in the offseason, should also improve next to Lonzo. KCP struggled with sharing a backcourt with Reggie Jackson, a ball-dominant guard, in Detroit. Lonzo’s more democratic approach means his teammates get more shots and chances to touch the ball over the course of the game. Caldwell-Pope isn’t just a 3-and-D specialist. He averaged 2.5 assists per game and only 1.1 turnovers last season, and he was in the 70th percentile in the league in scoring out of the pick-and-roll. He was better with Ish Smith than he was with Jackson. He can be a secondary playmaker in an offense where the ball moves freely from side to side.

Lonzo is a force multiplier. A guy with his skill set can be more effective in the NBA than in the NCAA because there is more talent around him. Since every NBA team has numerous guys who can create their own shot, field goal attempts are a zero-sum game. The more shots one player takes, the fewer for everyone else, which means the ones who can improve an offense without taking a lot of shots are incredibly valuable. The problem is most NBA players with a low usage rate either can’t shoot, don’t make good decisions, or are unhappy with their role. No one in the league played the way Lonzo did at UCLA. He would have been the only player in the NBA last season who took fewer than 10 field goal attempts per game, shot better than 40 percent from 3, and had an assist-to-turnover ratio greater than 3-to-1.

LaVar Ball talked about that dynamic with our own Danny Chau the summer before Lonzo started at UCLA. “I’ve always told my boys: Whatever team you play for [in high school] is going to be the worst team you’ve ever played for. Lonzo has always been able to make other players better around him. We were ranked no. 1 in the nation and we had Lonzo as the only senior. You take him to UCLA, and everybody at UCLA was at least the man at their high school, that’s why they’re there. You give him that type of talent—it’s about to [be] very easy.”

Reading his thoughts a year and a half later is fascinating. The Bruins didn’t win a national title, but pretty much everything else LaVar said ended up happening: “Nobody understands what I’m saying, but it’s about to be very easy for him. You know how you say you can’t have one guy that changed your whole team? I got that guy. The passing is good, the shooting is good, but Zo’s no. 1 thing that makes him talented is his winning.”

UCLA forced defenses to guard nearly every inch of the court last season, which was one of the reasons the team was so effective. The Lakers could do the same, depending on how Walton sets up his rotation. Lonzo, Ingram, Lopez, and Caldwell-Pope can all shoot 3s. The question is who plays at power forward. Julius Randle is in a make-or-break year. He could be an excellent secondary playmaker at the 4, except he can’t shoot to save his life. Putting Jordan Clarkson or rookie Josh Hart (the no. 30 pick) in the lineup and sliding Ingram to the 4 could work in certain matchups, but that can’t be a permanent solution until Ingram gets stronger. Luol Deng can play as a small-ball 4, but the 32-year-old looked cooked last year. Larry Nance Jr. is the best defender of the bunch, but his lack of a 3-point shot means he’d be better off as a small-ball 5 off the bench. Kyle Kuzma, the no. 27 pick, might be the best option if he can maintain his hot 3-point shooting from Las Vegas (24-of-50).

UCLA’s weakness last season was on defense, where it ranked 156th in the country. Lonzo didn’t have the lateral quickness to stay in front of elite athletes on the perimeter, and none of their starters could cover for him. Now he will likely cross-switch with Caldwell-Pope, one of the better defensive guards in the league, and guard 2s. Lonzo is better coming from the help side than he is on the ball. While he may never be a stopper, he knows how to put himself in the right position, and he’s versatile enough to not be a liability. He has length, instincts, and quick hands, and he racked up 1.8 steals and 0.8 blocks per game in college. Nevertheless, like the rest of the young players in Los Angeles, defense will be a challenge for him early in his NBA career. The Lakers should score a lot of points, but they won’t make a playoff run if they don’t improve a defense that was rated 30th in the league last season.

It’s not really about this season for the Lakers, anyway. Not when they have the cap space to sign LeBron James and Paul George next summer. Guys like that don’t come in free agency unless there’s a foundation already in place. For Los Angeles, the next nine months are more about its young guys living up to their billing. Lonzo Ball is a unique talent who can make everyone around him better if he’s used correctly. He was the best fourth option in the NCAA last season. If everything goes according to plan, that’s who he will be in the NBA.