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Lonzo Ball in midst of taking next step, but Pelicans need to utilize his speed and wits more often

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Zo’s three-point stroke is all the rage, but could he drive the offense to greater heights when it’s winning time?

NBA: New Orleans Pelicans at Houston Rockets Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

The Pelicans haven’t tasted success yet this season, but they’ve already witnessed some positive growth by each of the former Los Angeles Lakers players dealt for Anthony Davis. Today, though, let’s specifically focus on Lonzo Ball.

The story from training camp until now has been the improvement in Ball’s shooting stroke — gone is the subversive left-shoulder hitch that limited clarity of both motion and vision. His shot and release looks markably cleaner with the Pelicans and that could mean that a tremendous leap forward could be in store for this third-year player.

While we both acknowledge and appreciate the improvements he continues to display on the court, Ball’s progress away from the court might be the more critical development. In case you’ve missed it, his maturation process is in full swing.

Since becoming a dad, Lonzo has appeared more assured, confident and has emerged out of his father’s shadow. This summer Lonzo came clean on some of the distractions that may have limited the former number two overall pick. From the stressors of ill-equipped footwear to tussles within the family business, Ball faced no shortage of complications that would steal one’s mind from the basketball court.

However, don’t mistaken this for Lonzo recklessly setting aside his father, LaVar. The two remain close, and as evidence, LaVar was seen court side during the Pelicans home opener against the Dallas Mavericks. After his father referred to his son as “damaged goods,” a just turned 22-year-old — Happy Belated Birthday, Zo! — may have chosen a different path. Lonzo didn’t, demonstrating the growth in his maturity level.

Transitioning back to basketball, this coming of age could have a positive effect on his game, but not on his shooting. While his form continues to evolve, Lonzo has never been shy about launching threes. Pelicans’ fans may think Lonzo’s night from three against the Rockets may have been the best yet of his career (4/9); however, it wouldn’t crack the top five in either volume or efficiency. Arguably, his best night came against the New York Knicks on January 6th (without LeBron) a game in which he shot 5/7 from three (71.4 percent).

Launching bombs isn’t something this facilitating-first point guard has ever shied away from. 5.7 attempts in his rookie season was followed by 4.9 in his sophomore year, proving Lonzo has always sought to make the three an integral part of his game.

And he continues to demonstrate improvement. After shooting 30.5 percent as a rookie, he improved his efficiency to 32.9 percent and his overall effective field goal percentage from 44.0 to 48.8 percent. Through three games Lonzo has shot 37.5 percent on eight attempts per game, which leads the team in volume ahead of Josh Hart (7.3, 40.9 percent), Brandon Ingram (6.3, 52.6 percent) and JJ Redick (6.3, 47.4 percent).

Lonzo’s stat line of 13.7 points, 6.7 assists, five rebounds and 1.7 steals on 51.4 effective goal percentage in three games fails to properly identify just how more important he could be to the team’s ultimate success. In fact, the Pelicans need to utilize him more often, and this is where that newfound maturation could play a key role.

Each of the Pelicans’ primary lineups with Lonzo are experiencing a negative plus-minus. Most disturbing, the team’s clutch rating is negative 54.9 through the first three games, with an appalling offensive rating of 65.6.

Some of this can be attributed to continuity, chemistry and establishing the overall hierarchy of tiered playmakers. Who should have the ball in their hands to close out the game and what offensive set best accentuates that player’s talent?

  • Will a pick-and-roll between Brandon Ingram and Derrick Favors create the best separation for an efficient shot?
  • Does Jrue Holiday need to break down his man and euro-step his way into collapsing the defense while finding a baseline attacker in the dunker’s spot or sniper in the corner?
  • Should the team’s primary handler (Lonzo) initiate the offense and facilitate the best possible shot regardless of who’s hands it finds?

Much of this is out of Lonzo’s control in the immediacy. One thing that should not be?

Pace.

The Pelicans are 17th in pace during fourth quarters.

The Pelicans have slowed to eighth (105.83) overall in the league after finishing third and first in the previous two seasons. Now, that number may be a bit misleading. The Pelicans pace has reached 105.83 possessions per game, up from 103.5 in 2018-19 and 100.5 in 2017-18. However, the rest of the NBA appears to have caught up.

As the fullcourt engineer of everything the Pelicans do, Lonzo can stomp his foot on the pedal, getting baskets like the one above. When he’s on the court, New Orleans offense hums along at a 109.11 pace. When he’s sat, they’re close to six possessions slower a game.

While Jrue pushed the pace in this one, we have two direct examples of just how scary the Pelicans’ offense can be in the following clips.

The Pelicans are fourth in the NBA in first quarter scoring compared to seventh, seventh and eighteenth in subsequent frames.

Why is that? Partially, it’s tempo and rhythm; the Pelicans take their foot off the gas. In the above clips, the Pelicans manage a shot within the first six seconds of the shot clock. In football, think of it as taking a shot deep down the field. A quick pass up the floor or lightning dribble puts the defense on their heels and forces them to make split-second decisions the moment after the possession changes.

These instances usually result in mismatches, which are extremely favorably to the Pelicans offense. We’ve seen Brandon Ingram take advantage of smaller players with his length as well as Nicolo Melli use his physicality to create positioning against smaller guards. Just wait until Zion Williamson is back on the court.

Taking the top off the defense does so much throughout other possessions. Have a look at quite possibly the most beautiful offensive sequence from the loss to the Rockets for the Pelicans. Notice who’s matched up on Derrick Favors? Clint Capela responds to Harden’s plea for help and Westbrook fails to rotate to Ingram resulting in this open shot.

But plays like this cannot happen without putting pressure on the defense over the course of an entire game and this should be Lonzo’s chief responsibility.

Ball has been more than effective with the Pelicans and will continue to improve. Part of that is due to his three-point shooting which has earned deserved praise. But for the Pelicans to start notching victories, the offense probably needs to run even faster, at least maintaining their burst from the opening twelve minutes, in an effort to generate those prized good looks late in games. Lonzo can, and should, help with that.

It’s true that the Pelicans failures defensively have little to do with Ball as an individual. A 27th-ranked unit demands attention from every player as well as the coaching staff especially when considering the diversity of talent this group boasts.

But Lonzo can help improve upon the Pelicans’ 18th-ranked fourth-quarter point totals. He can create a faster tempo, help execute in the clutch, and by taking pressure off of others like Jrue, his teammates would be in better position to flourish.

Lonzo has been better than advertised thus far, but the Pelicans could use even more — and I’ve got a feeling that this more mature 22-year-old is up for the task. Let's give him the keys much more often late and see if his speed and vision can provide that necessary spark during pesky fourth quarters.