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2019-20 Player Preview: Lonzo Ball, armed with confidence of fresh start and improved jump shot, looks to live up to hype with Pelicans

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Alvin Gentry offenses have thrived with prototypical point guards so odds are Ball’s career will take off in New Orleans.

Utah Jazz v New Orleans Pelicans Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

Prior to arriving in New Orleans, Alvin Gentry was able to work with some of the greatest point guards of all time in Steve Nash, Chris Paul, and Stephen Curry. Since then, there’s been a revolving door of players, and a formerly miscast Jrue Holiday, who have held down the position for the Pelicans.

The grab bag of Norris Cole, Toney Douglas, Tim Frazier, Ish Smith, Quinn Cook, Jarrett Jack, Larry Drew II, Mike James, Jameer Nelson, Rajon Rondo, Andrew Harrison, and Elfrid Payton all had their moments, but none were consistent enough to be considered a long-term solution. In today’s NBA, and especially in the Western Conference, you cannot afford to simply make due at point guard.

Enter Lonzo Ball.

Coming out of UCLA, Ball was viewed by most as the next great prototypical point guard. Unlike the scoring lead guards that dominate the league, like Curry, Damian Lillard, Russell Westbrook, Kyrie Irving, and Trae Young, Ball is a pass-first guard in the mode of Jason Kidd and to a lesser degree, Nash. He is also an excellent rebounder and defender at the position.

Overshadowed at times by his father, the circus that is the Lakers, and injuries that cut short each of his first two seasons, it has been easy to call Lonzo a bust, but the opinion of the average fan isn’t shared by most of the league.

ESPN ranked Ball as the 68th-best player in the league entering the 2019-20 season, ahead of Pelicans teammates JJ Redick (73) and Derrick Favors (96), both of whom have far more established records of success. Among point guards, he placed ahead of notables such as Gary Harris, Dejounte Murray, Spencer Dinwiddie, Patrick Beverley, Ricky Rubio, and Fred VanVleet.

The optimism surrounding Ball starts with his unteachable skills; his sense of timing and velocity with his passes, his reactions and instincts on defense, his high level basketball intelligence and court vision, chief among them. Those alone make him a natural fit for what the Pelicans are trying to accomplish on both ends of the floor.

Alvin Gentry wants a high pace and plenty of assists from his offense. While the Pelicans finished fifth in pace during the preseason (110.4), trailing the Minnesota Timberwolves (112.8), New Orleans likely starting quintet of Ball, Holiday, Brandon Ingram, Zion Williamson, and Favors all individually posted paces of 112.43 or higher.

Ball showed what the future could hold in his first game against the Atlanta Hawks.

You see all of the things in his game that make Ball’s talent so tantalizing. His passes are right on target whether he or one of teammates is on the move, allowing drivers like Williamson to maintain their momentum to the basket or for shooters to have open space from which they can let it fly.

He will also move the basketball without the dribble. Lonzo is one of the very best when it comes to picking up “hockey assists,” the pass that leads to the pass that leads to the score.

His instant chemistry with Zion Williamson was one of the most exciting things to watch develop during preseason. Their connection in the open court stirs memories of duos like Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp; Nash and Amar’e Stoudemire; and Chris Paul and Blake Griffin.

The Pelicans biggest challenge will be remembering to keep their hands up and ready for a pass that could come at any moment.

The question mark about Lonzo has been his shot. It’s no secret that his form and results have been subpar to start his career. However, Ball has been slowly been working on improving his shooting stroke.

After a summer spent recovering from the ankle injury that cost him nearly half of last season, he’s been a constant presence in the practice facility, making his motion shorter and his release point closer to the center rather than gathering from the left side of his body.

Even with his limited time to work on his shooting, Lonzo has been decidedly more aggressive this preseason in getting his shots up.

He’s averaged 8.2 field goal attempts in 22.7 minutes per game. His true shooting percentage of .503 still isn’t at the level he or the Pelicans would like, but it’s a definite improvement over his .463 career mark.

There has been little hesitation when Ball is open. He’s shooting the ball with confidence.

That confidence extends to the free throw line as well. A career 43 percent shooter from the stripe, Lonzo made 77 percent during the preseason on nearly three attempts per game.

Perhaps most telling though, the Pelicans sport a 112.1 offensive rating with him on the floor, ranking ninth overall among guards in preseason — ahead of such names as Mike Conley Jr., Russell Westbrook and D’Angelo Russell. New Orleans has so many weapons around him, it’s conceivable that Ball could end up leading the NBA in assists.

On the defensive end, Lonzo is on the path to becoming an All-NBA defender. The tandem of Ball and Holiday will give opposing perimeter players nightmares.

“It’s great,” said Lonzo of playing aside Holiday. “You can tell the game comes easy to him. I like to play defense; he does as well. We can switch off [on opposing guards] and try to lock people up.”

Their ability to apply pressure for 94 feet or in the half court will be the key in the Pelicans improving from the 22nd ranked defense in the NBA to what Gentry and defensive lieutenant Jeff Bzdelik hope becomes a top-10 unit.

Last season Ball had .112 defensive win shares with the Lakers, putting him on par with Paul (.139) and Westbrook (.120), and ahead of Ben Simmons (.099). He led the Lakers in that category as a rookie and finished second last season.

As excited as fans are about Zion, Ingram, and Nickeil Alexander-Walker, they should save plenty of enthusiasm for Lonzo Ball.

If he continues the progress we’ve seen in the short time he’s been in New Orleans, and if his injuries are in the past, Lonzo has the talent to be the Pelicans’ answer at point guard for years to come.

2019-20 Player Previews:

Jrue Holiday

Didi Louzada

E’Twaun Moore

Derrick Favors

Nickeil Alexander-Walker

Frank Jackson

Kenrich Williams

Brandon Ingram