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Lonzo Ball offering glimpses of stardom as he turns a corner offensively

Utah Jazz v New Orleans Pelicans Photo by Layne Murdoch Jr./NBAE via Getty Images

From the moment the Pelicans acquired him from the Lakers, Lonzo Ball has been a major point of interest. It’s been that way for the entirety of his basketball career, thanks to the theatrics of his father and his family. As the Ball Family has lost its sheen, Lonzo Ball’s interest stems entirely from his on court product.

Before the season began, Ball tantalized fans with glimpses of a potentially revamped jump shot, his trademark left shoulder slingshot centered in hopes to produce more consistent shooting results. The second pick of the 2017 NBA draft has been maligned for his lack of a jump shot for all of his career, muting the rest of his undeniable talent.

As promised, Ball’s jumper is less of an eyesore in his third NBA season thanks to putting in countless of hours of work with Fred Vinson. Though his new form brought hope for progression for Ball, not much changed functionally regarding his play. Almost all of his basic stat profile—points, rebounds, assists, blocks, steals, efficiency—looked the same or worse as compared to his prior two seasons in Los Angeles. His impact metrics even took a dip from his stint with the Lakers, posting by far the worst Player Impact Plus Minus figure of his career this season (-1.50, down from +0.45 last season and 1.64 in his rookie season).

For the first quarter or so of his third NBA season, the Pelicans trotted out the same old Lonzo night in and night out: a savant on both ends, with a preternatural passing gene and help defensive acuity, who lacks any credible scoring threat. That is until his most recent stretch of play, where Lonzo Ball seems to have turned a corner offensively.

Over his last five games, Ball’s counting stats have taken a massive leap, up to 21.6 points, seven assists and six rebounds, shooting 57.1% on two-pointers and 46.7% on threes (on a massive nine attempts per game), with a spectacular 64.3 true shooting percentage. Much of Ball’s uptick in production can be explained by an unsustainable hot streak; Lonzo isn’t going to sustain his efficiency from two or three point range, bolstered by his still horrid 55.6% free-throw clip. However, Lonzo is making tangible strides on the court that suggest the early stages of true transformation.

At the moment, Lonzo Ball oozes confidence on the basketball court. He’s playing with a newfound swagger and aggression, a far cry from the often timid scorer he’s been throughout his career. During his first two seasons and even at the beginning of this season, Ball would regularly pass up wide open threes. Defenses weren’t worried about Ball punishing them from beyond the arc, so they’d sag off heavily. When Ball’s shot wasn’t falling, he’d freeze in all of this space, often turning the ball over:

Now, Lonzo is firing from deep with conviction. When the Lakers make the mistake of forgetting about the inbounder, Ball makes them pay with a quick trigger catch and shoot:

Lonzo Ball’s fatal flaw is his total inability to pressure defenses as a scorer. With a career true shooting percentage of 47.6, defenses have long ignored Lonzo when he attacked to great success. Poor touch around the rim, a weak handle and a broken jumper allowed defenses to load up on the other four players on the court, minimizing the value of Ball’s greatest strength, his passing.

As a pure passer, few NBA players match the vision, craft, anticipation and timing Ball possesses. He’s a pocket-passing Picasso, with some of the most aesthetically pleasing, accurate and on time pick-and-roll feeds in the league:

Passing value is inherently tethered to scoring creation, as the best functional passers have the gravity to bend defenses, forcing help and exploiting those windows with the pass. Lonzo Ball is far from functional as a passer due to his lack of gravity. Though his pure passing traits are comparable to someone like Trae Young, he is far less effective as a facilitator because he can’t force defenses to concentrate on him like they do on Young.

In the past, opponents neutralized Ball’s distributing by game-planning hard against his lack of self creation. Here, Lonzo’s circling around the screen capitulates D’Angelo Russell, who is trapped behind Mo Wagner. With the guard defender out of the play, the big defender would typically step up to contain the unchained ball handler. Since the Nets aren’t worried about Lonzo with the ball in his hands, Ed Davis simply backs away from Ball, closing off any passing lanes and inviting a shot:

Earlier this season, a similar scenario unfolded, with Dwight Powell stuck behind the Jaxson Hayes screen. Again, the Mavs aren’t bothered by Lonzo attacking downhill, so Kristaps Porzingis backs up, waiting for Ball to shoot and miss horrendously:

Recently, Lonzo has flashed new weapons in his offensive arsenal in order to punish defenses when they neglect him with the ball. Most notably is the pull-up jumper, which Ball is taking and making with more confidence and rhythm than ever before. Over the last five games, Ball has hit four of his five pull-up jumper attempts. The sample is small, but the efficiency is less important than the willingness to take this shot in the first place and shoot it with gall:

Historically, Lonzo’s rim finishing has been a major weakness and things haven’t changed on that front this season; Ball’s shooting a meager 50% at the rim in the half court, placing in the 26th percentile among all players. In order to compensate for this weakness, Ball has made a staggering improvement to his runner, which has also been a weakness throughout his career.

This season, Ball is shooting 41.7% (7-17) on runners, placing in the 44th percentile. While this is average efficiency in a vacuum, it represents a substantial jump for Ball. In his first two seasons, he shot 23.7% on a combined 54 runners, shooting a putrid 15% (3-20, 2nd percentile) last season. The sample is small, but the improvement so far this season is encouraging.

The floater is key for Ball’s driving game, as he has to be able to put pressure on the rim in some capacity in order to be viable on the ball. When defenses give him a runway to the rim, Ball can flutter the ball through the net over the outstretched arms of vaunted rim protectors:

Over these last five games, Ball has added an entirely new move to his toolbox: the post fadeaway. Based on my Synergy tracking, Ball has made two post fadeaways in his career, both coming in his last five games. This isn’t a shot you necessarily want Ball taking often, but it is a useful tool for a guard his size against smaller defenders and again, a positive sign for growing confidence:

All of this scoring goodness not only ups his potency putting the ball in the basket, it vastly improves the functionality of his passing. Even without defenses paying any mind to him, Ball’s passing was still dangerous in pick and rolls, transitions and advantage situations. When defenses start respecting his scoring ability, we will then get true glimpses into Lonzo Ball’s potential as an offensive player.

Compare the two earlier clips of failed pick and rolls to this next one from New Orleans’ recent trip to Los Angeles. Anthony Davis has to respect Ball’s pull-up, so he plays him high, committing all the way at the elbow. Maneuvering into the paint, Ball rises up for a jumper then audibles into a pocket pass, exploiting the massive window Davis has opened up for him:

This same phenomenon works in the inverse: defenses fear Ball’s passing, opening up easy scoring chances. The threat of Ball threading a pocket pass (watch his subtle glance towards the opening) forces JaVale McGee to retreat, allowing Ball to softly bank in a floater:

Offensively, Lonzo Ball’s most lethal weapon has always been his blazing speed. That horsepower combined with his passing vision has always made him effective in transition, where Ball can beat everyone down the floor and finish plays with a shot or a pass. His speed acts in place of a scoring threat in the open floor, pulling help defenders and opening up passing lanes:

In the half court, Ball’s indecision as an attacker made his drives easy to defend and counteracted the value his speed brings in creating advantages and drawing help. Too many of Ball’s pick and roll possessions looked like this: aimlessly probing around the pick, rendering the advantage the screen creates useless and netting a bad shot:

This season, Lonzo Ball is continuing to learn how to weaponize his speed as a penetrator. When he revs his engine and attacks with decisiveness, he’s becoming increasingly tough to defend. In a display of pick and roll mastery, Ball sets up like he’s going to drive middle before bursting the other way, sending Donovan Mitchell flying into the screen. With a head of steam, Ball feints middle with an in-and-out dribble, leaving Tony Bradley in the dust on his way to the tin:

When lapsing defenses leave gaps exposing the basket, Lonzo Ball is taking advantage and scoring easy points. Ball knifes into the hole like a running back, attacking space with velocity and ferocity when Anthony Davis leaves the lane open:

In monitoring Lonzo’s growth as a scorer, it seems like he is being more aggressive attacking the basket as opposed to settling for ill-advised jumpers. The tracking data backs this assertion up (7.6 drives per game over the last five, 5.9 on the season), if only slightly.

A year ago, this is probably a step-back triple from Lonzo, but he takes Kentavious Caldwell-Pope off of the dribble and creates separation with speed to power (though Ball likely got away with a pushoff here):

This drive to the rim is a great encapsulation of the player Lonzo is blossoming into. A rare occurrence from Ball, he sizes up a good on ball defender in Donovan Mitchell with multiple dribble moves, whizzes by him and feeds the corner when help rotates. This type of creation off of the dribble is uncharted territory for Lonzo Ball:

These last few games have pried open a window into what Lonzo Ball’s ceiling as an offensive player could look like. In time, his efficiency will regress back down to normal levels. Despite his recent stretch of play, Ball isn’t as good a scorer as he has shown to be. However, he doesn’t need to be a high-level self creator to be a valuable offensive piece. A simply viable scoring package for a lead guard is enough to increase the functionality of his passing tenfold. Not being abjectly horrible as a scorer means defenses can’t fully ignore him, which is a step in the right direction for Ball.

There’s a chance Lonzo Ball reverts to old habits and doesn’t keep building on his newfound aggression, confidence and versatility as a scorer. Progression isn’t linear. NBA players develop in a random, undulating manner far more often than in a predictable, linear way. It may take another season or two or three for Ball to realize his potential as a scorer and maybe he never does. But if this recent stretch is any indication, Lonzo Ball has a place in the NBA on the offensive end and that would mark a huge positive development for the New Orleans Pelicans.