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Lonzo Ball blossoming into one of game’s best young point guards and looks ideal fit alongside Zion Williamson and Brandon Ingram

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The Pelicans didn’t get just one star for Anthony Davis...they may have gotten two!

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

For the first time in his career, Lonzo Ball is flying under the radar.

Oh, there was plenty of reporting done early in the season on the mechanical change made to his shooting form, and we’ve gone on to read about several big individual statistical games, but not enough has been written on the fact that Ball is a different player than the one who emerged out of training camp. In fact, these last eight or so weeks have in my opinion solidified his future with the Pelicans; he should be regarded as an integral part of the core going forward with Zion Williamson and Brandon Ingram. The only question remaining is just how much his second NBA contract will cost New Orleans, but that’s for David Griffin and CAA to hammer out so let’s focus on the marked improvements in Ball’s game.

From the start of the season to December 23rd, Lonzo was averaging a rather pedestrian 10.1 points, 4.8 rebounds and 5.3 assists in 27.4 minutes a contest. His accuracy, though, was downright awful (37.8 FG%, 33.8 3PT%, 50.0 FT%) and eerily too similar to his couple of seasons with the Los Angeles Lakers (two-year average of 38.0 FG%, 31.5 3PT%, 43.7 FT%).

The struggles were so real in the first few months of 2019-20 — Zo sported a team-worst -5.5 plus/minus — that it wasn’t a surprise to see head coach Alvin Gentry remove Ball from the starting lineup on December 9th. Lonzo would go on to come off the bench in five of New Orleans next six games, too. But then on December 23rd, he reclaimed the role of the team’s starting point guard against the Trail Blazers, and in the next game he registered over 36 minutes against the Nuggets. He’s eclipsed 30 minutes in every contest since then and there’s damn good reason for it.

Ball is averaging 13.6 points, 7.3 rebounds, 8.2 assists and he is shooting 41.6% from the field, 38.7% from 3-point range and 64.0% from the free throw line since Christmas Day. He has racked up three triple-doubles during that span, with a 27-point, 10-rebound, 10-assist, 7-three-point effort against the Rockets serving as probably his greatest achievement to date of his young career.

Only Zion Williamson, Jrue Holiday and Derrick Favors have posted stronger plus/minus figures and no one is averaging more minutes (36.4) than Ball during a stretch in which New Orleans has won 15 of their last 24 games. In short, Lonzo deserves a lot of credit for helping turn the Pelicans fortunes around since that franchise-worst 13-game losing streak.

The biggest reason for the upswing in numbers is remarkably simple: Ball’s been feeling good physically for a long period of time. After that 127-112 win against the Rockets, Lonzo talked to media about finally having the feeling of his legs back.

“I’m just getting my legs back,” said Ball, who wasn’t cleared until September from an ankle injury that ended his 2018-19 season with the Lakers. “I’ve been out for pretty much nine months before I got here, so I’m just trying to do what I can do to help my team out, and the defense is picking up as well.”

Fast forward nearly six weeks, Ball was gushing about never feeling healthier in his professional career following a 124-117 victory over the Pacers in Indiana — a game without Zion or Ingram in the lineup.

A sample size of 24 games isn’t definitive, but it is indicative. If Lonzo can find a way to consistently avoid future injury, this could very well be the new normal for Ball we’re talking about, and if that’s the case, it’ll soon be time to consider him one of the league’s most dynamic stat-stuffing point guards.

According to Basketball Reference, only six players have averaged 13/7/8 or better over the course of a whole season since the turn of the millennium: Luka Doncic, Ben Simmons, LeBron James, Russell Westbrook, James Harden and Jason Kidd.

What’s most fun about this list isn’t the names — although the company he could potentially keep one day is exciting to ponder — it’s that the deadliest three-point percentage from among these six players, which includes 18 superb seasons, is 36.7% by LeBron. As mentioned earlier, Ball is knocking down 38.7% of his threes since the Pelicans big win over the Nuggets on Christmas Day.

A true modern day point guard who can fulfill his role beautifully by helping guide an explosive team to numerous easy baskets, grab rebounds as consistently as an average big and knock down the three-point shot with the proficiency of a Buddy Hield or Kemba Walker this season? That’s a keeper!!!

It’s worth pointing out that Ball doesn’t project to be a dominant scorer like Doncic or Harden so he’s not likely a seamless fit on every team. However, Ball is suddenly on track to be more useful than Simmons on the court and I feel hope remains that he could carve out a career similar enough to Kidd’s if things break right. Remember, Lonzo is only 22 years of age. Only Simmons and Doncic have managed 13/7/8+ seasons under the age of 25 since the 2000-01 season.

At this point, you’re probably wondering why all the optimism? Why put this much faith in such a small sample size when Ball has been a disappointment the vast majority of time as a pro? While the confidence he’s displayed on the court has looked genuine these last few months, the short answer is because what sits under the hood is eye-opening improvement.

Drives

One of the most common complaints about Lonzo Ball has been a reluctance to take opponents off the dribble and drive into the lane in order to score or create for another.

After averaging just 5.0 drives on the Lakers last season, which led to points 26.1% of the time (on a lowly 34.5 FG%) and assists 16.7% of the time, Ball’s stats this season look incredibly similar (6.0 drives, a 34.0 FG%, 28.2 Point%, 14.1 AST%). However, have a look at the data from a monthly perspective and notice the trend.

Drives FGA FG% AST% TOV% PTS%
Oct/Nov 4.3 1.6 27.8% 21.3% 12.8% 29.8%
Dec 6.9 2.1 29.0% 13.6% 13.6% 23.3%
Jan 7.1 2.5 36.8% 11.3% 13.2% 30.2%
Feb 4.7 1.2 57.1% 14.3% 10.7% 35.7%

By and large, Ball’s number of drives and point production off those forays have steadily increased. Don’t be dismayed by February’s numbers because it still feels the confidence is there. Ball was averaging 7.8 drives for the month of January before Zion’s debut. Since Williamson’s become a fixture in lineups, Ball’s drives are down to 5.1 per game; however, note the increases in FG% and PTS% plus the positive trend in assists vs turnovers.

Lonzo’s drop in quantity of drives looks to be a direct product of Zion showing up on the scene, changing the focus of New Orleans offense and shifting player roles. However, taking the ball more often into the lane remains in Ball’s growing bag of tricks when prompted. In a recent big road win against the Indiana Pacers, Lonzo registered 10 drives while Zion sat out due to injury, and no one should forget this gem anytime soon:

Catch and shoot 3’s

An all-around positive lurch forward in the numbers for Lonzo once Zion joined the lineup, on the other hand, is catch-and-shoot three-pointers. No one on the Pelicans is scoring more points per game (6.8) in C&S situations than Ball and he’s knocked them down at a 44.6% clip. For the sake of comparison, that’s the type of production Bojan Bogdanovic has given the Utah Jazz to date on the season.

PTS 3PTA 3PT% eFG%
Oct/Nov 4.8 4.2 37.0% 54.1%
Dec 5.0 4.1 40.3% 59.5%
Jan 5.2 4.9 35.6% 50.6%
Feb 7.0 5.0 46.7% 70.0%

Assists/Potential assists

Here’s where things really start to get interesting, signaling the New Orleans Pelicans can go ahead and pencil in the point guard slot when considering future starting lineups.

During his first 23 games, Lonzo was averaging 49.5 passes, 5.3 assists, 9.9 potential assists and 13.7 assist points created. In 24 games starting on Christmas Day, those numbers have rocketed up to 77.7 passes, 8.2 assists, 15.0 potential assists, 21.6 assist points created. (Zion Williamson hasn’t had a negative effect: 14.3 potential assists/22 assist points created before vs. 15.9 potential assists/21.1 assist points created after.)

Passes Made Assists Potential Assists Assist Points Created
Oct/Nov 46.0 5.7 9.3 14.1
Dec 55.0 4.9 10.9 14.2
Jan 77.5 9.1 15.1 23.8
Feb 84.8 7.3 16.0 18.0

The playing time has jumped up from 27.4 minutes to 36.4 minutes, but Jrue Holiday was previously the team’s biggest initiator and oftentimes Brandon Ingram was second. Now Ball has clearly jumped in front of them both and few have been more impactful in the league. Only LeBron James, Trae Young, and Luka Doncic have created more assist points during Lonzo’s two-month torrid stretch.

And for those wondering, assist points created is an important stat because of the rise in three-pointers. Actual point values matter much more than traditional assists as today’s style of game tells not all assists are created equal. It is vital to hunt open three-point shooters just as much as hitting players in good position near the rim.

Defense

When Lonzo Ball came to New Orleans, one of the expectations from the get-go was that he was going to slot in as an above average defender. Well, according to the numbers, opponents chewed him up early in the season, but look at how the tide has swung!

Defended FGA Defended Opponent FG% Typical Opponent FG% DIFF% Opponent Rim FG% Defended FGA w/in 5 feet
Oct/Nov 10.3 51.3% 44.9% +6.5% 69.2% 3.5
Dec 10.1 43.4% 44.1% -0.7% 62.2% 2.5
Jan 13.3 42.5% 45.3% -2.8% 64.1% 4.3
Feb 15.3 40.2% 45.6% -5.4% 56.7% 5.0

Having returned to full health, we’ve witnessed Ball play passing lanes aggressively, often come up with valuable steals, and his quick feet have helped him stay in front of some of the best penetrating guards in the league. However, it’s his defensive versatility that has piqued my curiosity the most as he’s truly resembled Jrue Holiday in numerous instances.

In New Orleans last game against OKC, Danilo Gallinari torched the Pelicans for 29 points and was the primary reason for the Thunder pulling out the victory. However, don’t fault Ball though, as he stymied Gallo into three of his six misses (Danilo made an astounding 12 of 18 shots).

Makes you wish that Ball had defended Gallinari on more than just four shot attempts on that fateful night!

The bottom line is that these numbers are great and they point to something special potentially brewing, but there’s further reason why we should be optimistic about a great career ahead for Ball.

  • The confidence is growing and growing, reaching heights of uncharted territory. (For instance, did you know he’s made eight of his last nine free throw attempts?)
  • Lonzo has an uncanny ability to think and see the game. He’s often able to put himself in the right spots, which is beginning to translate more and more.
  • Ball displays dogged effort on the court, refusing to back down to anyone.

Remember when noted pest Patrick Beverley gave Ball a lot of grief in his professional debut? Wow, times have changed greatly as witnessed when Zo returned the favor and bullied Pat Bev last month.

One coaching idiom from my high school playing days that still lives with me to this day: Never quit on any singular play. They say quitters quit, winners don’t. Lonzo Ball, I feel, is well versed in this ideology as it was fully evidenced on the following rundown block against the Boston Celtics.

Open-court chase-down blocks are all about possessing a special mindset. A player needs to exert great energy on just one play whereby you’ve got to catch your prey, time the rejection well and avoid making bodily contact — and Lonzo pulled it off perfectly.

On the following play — easily one of my favorites of the season — notice how Ball reads the long pass by Caleb Swanigan, gives fantastic effort in coming up with the turnover, produces a great tip to Josh Hart while still in the midst of diving onto the floor, and then doesn’t take it for granted that the Pelicans are going to score, showing even more resolve and fight.

That second effort by Ball here is incredibly rare to see. He not only didn’t give up on the play, which would have been easy to do as he was lying on the floor, he quickly got back up and sprinted into good position to get a hand on the ball and keep it alive. End result: Three points via JJ Redick.

This video clip is winning basketball at its finest and it screams a star’s mentality. And I think it embodies who Ball is as a player to a tee. While it’s been immensely pleasurable to watch the strides he’s made in his first season on the New Orleans Pelicans, it’s even more fun to think about what lies ahead.

Yes, he still needs to reduce a lot of careless turnovers, place further trust in his shot by getting to the free throw line more often and become a greater vocal leader, but Lonzo Ball feels like he’s well on his way to being that perfect complementary star on this future Brandon Ingram- and Zion Williamson-led squad.