Lonzo Ball came into the 2019-20 season with a number of question marks.
His shooting had been historically bad. Over his first two seasons, Ball became the only player in the three-point era to start more than 40 games and shoot less than 41 percent from the floor, 33 percent from distance, and 50 percent from the free throw line.
The expectations that he would bring “Showtime” back to Los Angeles gave way to LeBron James’ career timetable as Lonzo, Brandon Ingram, and Josh Hart were sent to New Orleans as part of the Anthony Davis trade.
Ball immediately became a beacon of hope for a franchise that had been searching for consistent point guard play since Chris Paul took off for L.A. a decade earlier.
After a slow start to the regular season, Ball ended up putting together the most successful campaign of his young career. Lonzo posted career-highs in 10 different statistical categories, including: games played; field goal percentage; three pointers made, attempted, and percentage; and points per game.
His numbers placed him in fairly elite company. James Harden was the only other player in the NBA to compile at least 10 points, six rebounds, and seven assists per game, while shooting better than 35 percent from distance.
From Dec. 18, 2019 until the season was suspended, Lonzo averaged nearly 35 minutes per game. As the Pelicans went 22-14, he posted a stat line of 13.7 points, 7.1 rebounds, 7.9 assists, and 1.6 steals each night. He also had 10 of his 12 double-doubles during that stretch.
During the 2019-20 campaign, Lonzo Ball answered a lot of the question marks that followed him to New Orleans. Pelicans fans certainly hope one of those is “Has Lonzo found a basketball home?” It seems that he has.
But before we look at what Ball’s future could be, we should look back at five games that, in my mind, defined his season.
GAME ONE: The Appetizer
Pelicans at Hawks
October 7, 2019
Visions of Lonzo and Zion in transition quickly turned into reality. Less than five minutes into their first game against another NBA team, the pair generated the first of what should be many highlights.
THINGS ARE HAPPENING pic.twitter.com/AofZxdQp3i— New Orleans Pelicans (@PelicansNBA) October 7, 2019
Ball, creating a turnover on the defensive end and starting the fast break. Then, finding Jrue Holiday on the wing to shift the Hawks. Holiday passing back to Zo, still filling his lane and attacking the rim. The defense collapses as Williamson streaks from out of view just as Ball drops off a pristine pass which Zion dunks with great fury.
Beautiful, ain’t it?
In 25 minutes of action, Lonzo displayed a complete floor game. He had seven assists, three to Williamson, and only one turnover. Ball grabbed five boards and hit a trio of three-pointers for good measure as the newly formed Pelicans impressed in their debut.
GAME TWO: The Absence
Regular season opener
Pelicans at Raptors
October 22, 2019
This game isn’t about the way Lonzo Ball performed. He was solid, if unspectacular, posting eight points, five rebounds, five assists, with just one turnover in 25 minutes of action.
The 2019-20 season opener will be remembered for three things: Zion Williamson was out after having knee surgery just days before; the Pelicans had a legitimate chance to beat the defending Eastern Conference champions on their home floor and blew it; and, Lonzo Ball sat on the bench for the final 18 minutes and 26 seconds of the second half.
Toronto overcame a four-point halftime deficit to force overtime, when Ball suddenly reappeared. In three minutes, he was out of sync with his teammates. In three and a half minutes, Lonzo had one rebound, one foul, and one very bad three-point attempt.
Head coach opening night handling of Ball became the first second-guess of the season for Pelicans fans. It started a debate that has raged ever since within the fan base.
GAME THREE: Rock Bottom
Pelicans at Mavericks
December 7, 2019
The New Orleans Pelicans were bad at this point. They went into Dallas having lost seven games in a row, and were on their way to a team-record, 13-game losing streak. Lonzo had been struggling as much as anyone on the roster, but he seemed to be on the upswing after scoring 20 points, with 11 assists and five rebounds, in a narrow loss to the Phoenix Suns two nights before.
In front of a national television audience the Pelicans were embarrassed as no team in franchise history had been before.
Though his team was bad from top to bottom, Lonzo’s performance stood out in its ineffectiveness.
In 27 minutes, Ball was a net -28. He was 1-for-9 from the field, and missed all seven of his three-point attempts. Worse still, Ball looked like he didn’t want to be on the court. The losing streak, the criticism, the inconsistent minutes...this was as bad as it got for Lonzo.
GAME FOUR: The Breakout
Pelicans vs Rockets
December 29, 2019
While still awaiting the return of Zion Williamson, the Pelicans had begun to turn things around. The losing streak had been snapped and the Pels were on a three-game win streak of their own when the hated Houston Rockets visited the Smoothie King Center for the last game of 2019.
Lonzo helped lead the Pelicans to a 127-112 win over the Rockets in spectacular fashion.
He scored a season-high 27 points (making a career-high seven three-pointers), along with 10 rebounds, 10 assists, and two steals. It was his first triple-double in a Pelicans uniform.
It was a complete performance for the team, at home, against a division rival. That had been something hard to come by up to that point.
After the game, in the Pelicans’ locker room, Ball made a statement that brightened many eyes.
“I’m just getting my legs back,” Ball said after the win. “I had been out pretty much nine months before I got here. I’m just trying to do what I can do to help my team out. The defense is picking up as well.”
The fear, the hesitation, the lack of trust in his body, was starting to disappear. It seemed that the Pelicans were about to see exactly what they had gotten from Los Angeles, and the excitement had begun to build.
GAME FIVE: The Reunion
Pelicans vs Spurs
January 22, 2020
After 45 games, New Orleans Pelicans fans finally got to see Zion Williamson and Lonzo Ball play together in a regular season game.
It was like no time had passed at all.
Though the Pelicans lost that night, there was Williamson’s magical stretch where he scored 17 straight points.
The fuel to Zion’s fire was Ball. Lonzo assisted on five of Williamson’s six baskets during that span, finding him for four three-pointers and his first alley-oop.
Ball collected another double-double, with 14 points, 12 assists, and eight boards. His +/- of 7 was the highest among the starters by far.
From there, Ball’s game continued to improve as the Pelicans starting lineup of Ball, Williamson, Jrue Holiday, Brandon Ingram, and Derrick Favors became the best in the league. In 230 minutes together, the quintet posted an obscene net rating of +26.3.
Over his final 20 games, Lonzo Ball averaged 13.1 points, 8.4 assists, 7.0 rebounds, 1.8 steals, and 0.9 blocks per contest while shooting better than 43 percent from beyond the arc, and over 66 percent from the free throw line, all far higher than his career averages and unmatched by any other player in the league during that time.
Only Derrick Favors had a higher net rating with Zion Williamson (+17.0) than did Lonzo (+15.2). Ball and Holiday, often pitted against each other by Pelicans’ fans, meshed to the tune of a 115.3 rating on offense and just topping 100 defensively.
Whether the 2019-20 season resumes or not, Lonzo Ball’s progress and impact are undeniable. If he can come close to recreating the angle of improvement he showed this season, New Orleans may soon have another All-Star on its hands.