There are few players in the league that elicit as dramatic opinions about their play as does the newly acquired Lonzo Ball.
Hounded by expectations, injuries, and disappointments, Ball was unable to help return the Los Angeles Lakers to their “Showtime” glory during his first two NBA seasons. He will get a fresh start with the New Orleans Pelicans, and the keys to Alvin Gentry’s high octane offensive attack.
Over the past season, Gentry privately coveted the 6-5 point guard out of UCLA. He saw Ball’s unique skill set and could easily imagine he and Jrue Holiday becoming one of the top backcourt duos in the league. That may materialize, as Ball has displayed characteristics shared by some of the greatest point guards the league has ever seen.
Here we take a deeper look at Lonzo Ball, and what he could do for the Pelicans this season and beyond.
Let’s start with the most obvious strength of Lonzo’s offensive game. He is a more than willing passer, with exceptional vision and timing. In the open court he can move the ball ahead with a great lead pass or use the dribble to attack an opposing defense.
Since he first arrived on the scene as a high schooler, Ball’s passing has been his trademark. He does more than create assists, he makes passing infectious among his teammates.
“I think it just unifies a team,” Ball explained to James Worth and Chris McGee on Spectrum SportsNet in 2017. “Plus, it’s contagious. One person’s passing then everybody starts passing. Thirdly, it moves faster than a person. Obviously, you can pass the ball faster than someone can run down the court all day. It just makes sense to me, and that’s just how I play.”
That mentality fits right in with the basic principles of Gentry’s offensive system.
Though not elite, Lonzo also possesses surprising athleticism. Even after a knee surgery following his rookie season, Ball displayed explosion around the basket. His first step isn’t top tier but he makes up for that with craftiness.
Even with that tantalizing package, there is a pimple on the Mona Lisa. Lonzo’s shooting is, to be polite, a work in progress.
Pelicans fans no doubt remember Ball’s 2-for-15 (1-of-12 on 3PA) shooting performance in March of 2018 at the Smoothie King Center, and worry if more of the same is on the horizon.
The numbers can be hard to look at, much like his shooting form. Ball shot 36 percent from the floor as a rookie, but did improve to nearly 41 percent last season. He’s made 31.5 percent of his three-point attempts, including 33 percent during the 2018-19 season.
But at the free throw line, Ball has been atrocious. He neither gets to the line (1.2 FTA per game for his career), nor does he make them when he does (41.7 percent last season).
Increasing his aggression with the ball in his hands was something that his former coach, Luke Walton, really stressed with Lonzo.
“Being aggressive isn’t only shooting once you get down there (in the paint), but we want him collapsing the defense,” Walton stated back in January. “We need to penetrate other team’s defenses, and he’s one of the guys that has that ability, with his speed, size and strength, to get downhill and really get to the rim and put his body in and still see over people. So at that point if it’s a pass, then yeah, we want him to pass, but we constantly are encouraging him not to just get off the ball too early, or if he is in a pick and roll, even though some of those are good passes, we still want him taking an extra dribble or too to really flatten that defense even more.”
Since the 1998-99 season, 10 players have completed a total of 13 seasons where they shot less than 45 percent from the floor, 35 percent from three, and 50 percent from the charity stripe. Lonzo has two of them.
Injuries may have played a part in his inconsistency. Knee and ankle problems limited his time on the practice court and Ball shot better than 65 percent from the line during his one season at UCLA. In addition, it’s difficult to not discount last season due to the dysfunction within the Laker locker room. Kyle Kuzma shot 30.3 percent from deep after a 36.6 percent mark from that range in his rookie campaign. Brandon Ingram dropped from 39.0 percent in 2017-18 to 33.0 percent last season; Josh Hart experienced similar disappointment, watching his three-ball percentage drop from 39.6% to 33.6%.
One item to that favors improvement: Ball has worked to refine his shooting form. It will never be classic, but the hope is that he can develop a repeatable motion and improve his footwork.
Ball stated that shooting would be the primary focus of his offseason training season during his Lakers’ exit interview back in April.
“Well, we’re going to start off with free throws until my ankle gets to 100 percent,” Ball told reporters. “But just everything. Shooting the ball, catch-and-shoot, a lot of pick and roll work. Anything I can do.”
Fortunately for Ball and the Pelicans, he won’t be expected to be a primary scoring option. His offensive role will be to initiate the offense, and create for others, and in that capacity Ball has few peers, even at this early stage of his career.
Ball has been touted as one of the best young defensive players, regardless of position, in the NBA.
In terms of Defensive Real Plus Minus, Ball was eighth among point guards; finishing just behind All-Defense First Teamer Eric Bledsoe and slightly ahead of Jrue Holiday.
Over his first two seasons he’s compiled 4.2 defensive win shares, which also compares favorably to Holiday, who has 4.8 during the same time period.
No sequence illustrates his effort and ability better than this one from a November matchup with the Orlando Magic.
Ball rotates to cover every position on the floor before coming away with the steal that leads to a layup for LeBron James.
His impact on the Lakers’ defense was evident especially after he went down with an ankle injury in January. Los Angeles was ranked sixth in the NBA with a 106.3 defensive rating when Ball was shut down. Over their final 35 games, the Lakers fell to 22nd defensively.
Of course there were other contributing circumstances, but the loss of Ball was a significant blow.
“He allows us to switch a lot,” Luke Walton said to the LA Times in February. “If they want to run any pick and roll minus the center, the 1-5 pick and roll, we can just switch it. And we feel confident Lonzo can guard most of the other players there. We have Lonzo picking up full-court the other team’s point guard. He’s great at instincts, getting deflections. A lot of the schemes don’t change, but our aggression and a few of the switching schemes change without him out there.”
Ball led the Lakers in steals, steal percentage, and deflections prior to his injury. He has proven to be a high-level off-ball defender as well.
Shooting against Ball is no easy task. According to Synergy, over 149 possessions last season, Ball allowed a shooting percentage of 30.9 percent and just 109 points for 0.732 points per possession.
Skilled in using his body, He doesn’t get himself into foul trouble, averaging slightly more than two fouls per game.
Jrue Holiday has never had a backcourt mate who could do the things defensively that Lonzo Ball can. The two should become interchangeable on the defensive side of the floor; a pair of pit bulls harassing ball handlers, creating turnovers, and generally making the lives of opposing guards a living hell.
Ball probably has the highest upside of any of the players New Orleans received in the Anthony Davis trade. If he can stay on the court, and bring his shooting numbers more in line with what he displayed at UCLA, there is no limit to what Lonzo Ball can become.