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Lonzo Ball and Zion Williamson fast building inseparable bond ahead of date with Minnesota Timberwolves

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They’ve played only 15 games together, but it’s already obvious that the Lonzo and Zion duo is a keeper.

New Orleans Pelicans v Cleveland Cavaliers Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images

Since adding Zion Williamson, the uninformed illustration of the New Orleans Pelicans as a contention-level team runs into a brick wall when staring opposite Milwaukee and Los Angeles.

Still, the Pelicans are excelling in a variety of ways, transforming their character from a bottom-feeder to a top-ten level offense and defense since December 18. In addition to possessing the league’s eighth-best net rating since that point, they’ve won 20 of their past 32 games.

New Orleans is evolving. The group holds a symmetry with Derrick Favors that gives the unit collective intelligence, evidenced by a 105.4 defensive rating (second) and a +8.4 net rating (second). Brandon Ingram’s numbers since adding Zion haven’t taken the dip many foresaw (21.6/5.0/4.3) and he’s continued his ascension as the league’s Most Improved Player.

Lonzo Ball

One of the group’s most impressive rooms of elevated play has been in their facilitation. This group is averaging a solid five additional helpers per game (30.3 overall) over the past 15 games, which would place them easily tops in the league (PHX, 27.1).

Leading the charge has been the backcourt pair of Lonzo Ball and Jrue Holiday, who have combined for 17.3 assists per game during that span as each of them sit in the top-ten (among qualified players) in the NBA.

Many will point to the 40 collective passes Lonzo makes to Ingram, Holiday and Zion nightly as a large impetus for the elevated numbers. But Lonzo has done more than that, breaking down defenses on his own right. Greater assertiveness has spread the floor for his teammates a little more, giving them clearer paths and opportunities.

Much of this improved play comes in transition, where the Pelicans have sped things up quite a bit in the past month (105.3 pace, third in last 15 games and up from 103.7). The Pelicans are four points better (83rd percentile) per 100 possessions than opponents with Lonzo on the floor, and it’s important to note that 17 percent (79th percentile) of their possessions occur in transition. Per result of this, his assists have risen from 7.0 to 8.3.

We must also mention that Ball’s rebounds have increased and his defense has been quite superb.

Zion + Lonzo

Having Zion Williamson around indescribably increases the Pelicans’ chances of winning, but no pair enjoys a stronger symbiotic relationship with him than Lonzo Ball.

When the two share the floor, the Pelicans carry a plus-minus of +7.3 (top-ten in NBA) per game in a 336 minute sample size. When Zion’s been off, Ball’s +/- sits a lowly -3.0 in 1337 minutes. Interestingly, when Lonzo hasn’t been on the court with him, Zion’s +/- is a surprising -4.1 in 97 minutes of action.

Having an individual playmaker with the size and agility to attack the basket at any moment makes his life easier, but Ball puts the ball into his comfort zone better than most. No one has shared the floor with him more (336 minutes) and the two combine to make the group 14.3 points better per 100 possessions (first on the team). Ball also feeds the big guy 14.5 times per game, far above that of any connection on the team.

As a result of this facilitation, Zion’s numbers have steadily increased (as has his playing time) to join some elite company. Per-36, only Giannis and Luka Doncic exceed his numbers in both scoring and rebounding. Much of his damage in done via post-ups where he is seventh in the NBA in frequency and was recently first in the NBA in points per play (1.4) before squaring off with the Lakers twice. And of course, 85 percent of his looks come at the rim where he converts at 64 percent rate.

Like Anthony Davis, Zion doesn’t bring the ball up the court or run sets from the top of the key. He relies on those around him to feed the ball in enviable positions as evidenced by the rate of his conversions that lead to assists (77 percent), making players like Ball and Holiday vital to his success — Zion takes seven shots more per-36 inside five feet when sharing the floor with Ball versus off.

The Pelicans have yet to truly unleash the pick-and-roll with Zion. He engages in it just twice per game but does so efficiently (65 percent). His solitary source of scoring without help has been on putbacks, where he’s fifth in the league.

A Must-Win Game against Minnesota

The Minnesota Timberwolves are a bad basketball team. They’ve lost 42 games this season, and 20 of their past 22.

Injuries have led to the setback and the front office made their intentions clear when they sent away Robert Covington in a deal with the Houston Rockets.

The Pelicans likely need to get to 40 or even 41 wins to reach the eighth and final playoff spot. To do that, they’ll need to beat all the sub .500 teams like the Wolves, especially at home.

Minnesota is 23rd in offense, 21st in defense and play the optimal pace suited for a New Orleans smackdown (fifth). This one should get ugly in a good way quickly; however, this professional basketball team knocked off the Miami Heat in a major upset just one week ago.

Newcomer D’Angelo Russell has been balling despite being the primary playmaker on a short-staffed squad. He’s been incredibly efficient, scoring 23.7 points, 7.7 assists and 4.7 rebounds on 44.2/38.2/86.7 splits.

Russell is most dynamic in the pick-and-roll where he’s sixth in the NBA in frequency. He’ll likely pair with Juancho Hernongomez in an attempt to expose Zion’s lack of recognition in the paint.

Also on the perimeter, Josh Okogie and Malik Beasley are underrated athletes with yet-to-be-realized potential. Beasley, specifically, is the type of 3-and-D wing everyone covets. Capable of guarding 1-3, he is one of the best from the mid-range and shot over 40 percent from three in 2018-19.

Off the bench, the Pelicans should recognize Jake Layman, who lit them up with over 20 points in the first half as a Blazers’ rookie. Jarrett Culver (sixth overall pick) will get plenty of run with the second unit and James Johnson will likely be tasked with guarding Zion to start the second and fourth when Williamson runs with second units.

The paint will be available to the Pelicans on the offensive end early and often. They should score plenty of points due to the Wolves’ shortcomings and fast pace. However, New Orleans must lock down this rag tag group on the defensive end of the floor from the tip and put this one away early in the fourth quarter.

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Where To Watch/Listen

What: New Orleans Pelicans (26-34) vs Minnesota Timberwolves (17-42)

Where: Smoothie King Center, New Orleans, LA

When: Tuesday, March 3, 2020, 7:00 PM

Watch: FSNO

Listen: ESPN Radio 100.3 FM