In somewhat questionable convenience, the New Orleans Pelicans won the 2019 NBA draft lottery just as they were on the precipice of dealing their 25-year-old franchise player. Seven years prior, the Pelicans won the 2012 lottery only eight months after dealing their previous one.
Listen, I’m not complaining. I’m just saying that’s some weird coincidence.
As rich of a reward as Zion Williamson became for a franchise in danger of bottoming out, the Los Angeles Lakers might have emerged as the second biggest winner after moving from 11th to fourth in the last draft. The Lakers became a more enviable trade partner overnight and soon packaged a pair of former number two overall picks (albeit with problematic injury concerns) and promising 2017 30th overall pick Josh Hart.
For as fair the deal appeared on paper last summer, the wondrous developments of Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram in the 2019-20 season surpassed even some of the more outlandish expectations. Fans were hoping to score a potential future star in return for AD but there was glimpses of two in their very first season in New Orleans.
In addition to being one of just five All-Stars 22 years or younger (Young, Tatum, Doncic, Adebayo), Ingram put up 24.3 points, 6.3 rebounds and 4.3 assists while approaching the nearly unattainable 50/40/90 shooting clip.
Brandon Ingram is too smooth. pic.twitter.com/AYSNsFy6zM— Preston Ellis (@PrestonEllis) January 18, 2020
Ball’s early returns proved disconcerting as offensive hesitance restricted his oncourt effect and ultimately led to a temporary removal from the starting lineup. Since Christmas though, Ball has appeared in 30 minutes or more in every contest, averaging 14 points, 8.2 assists, 7.2 rebounds and 1.5 steals while shooting 40.8 percent from three on 7.1 attempts. Only LeBron James and Luka Doncic eclipsed those numbers over that span of 33 games.
Lonzo and Zion were meant to be together. pic.twitter.com/YVTbgw3Se4— Preston Ellis (@PrestonEllis) February 2, 2020
We’ve already examined just how dominant Zion Williamson has been on the floor with Lonzo Ball. Ball shared the floor with Zion more than any other teammate (436 minutes) and the duo hysterically outplayed opponents by 14.5 points per 100 possessions.
As he improves his handle and navigates putting his generational frame to optimal use against opposing low-post defenders, Ball helps facilitate by manipulating and drawing defenders with his underrated three-point shot. As featured above, defenses have begun to collapse on Zion as he approaches the block. With Ball’s three-point shot falling at an elite level, picking a poison could soon become a nightmare for opponents.
How much does Lonzo Ball mean to Zion?— Preston Ellis (@PrestonEllis) March 3, 2020
Per-36, Zion's net-rating is 11.7 WITH Lonzo, negative 4.1 without him.
They have shared the floor 336 of Zion's 433 minutes, the most of anyone on the team.
Article coming tonight.... pic.twitter.com/3ncIo4Yybm
Best Young Trios in the NBA
Now, to the topic at hand.
The Ball-Ingram-Zion trio has outscored opponents by 16.2 points per 100 possessions (+17.0 net-rating) in 298 minutes, cementing their place atop 3-man groups who are all under the age of 25. Ingram has already earned his place among the NBA’s elite with his recent All-Star selection and Zion seems poised to follow suit in 2020-21 after averaging 23.6 points, 6.8 rebounds and 2.2 assists through the first 19 games of his career. If Ball can continue the progress that saw him emerge as one of the NBA’s best two-way backcourt playmakers, he may very well soon join them.
Can anyone else make a claim for possessing such a fantastic young trio across the league? Which other young cores (25 or under) are capable of such development and could wind up challenging the Pelicans for years to come?
We are not including the Dallas Mavericks. Jalen Brunson hardly qualifies as a third banana. The Orlando Magic’s trio of Jonathan Isaac, Mo Bamba and Markelle Fultz carry the draft pedigree of a contender but have failed to live up to billing thus far. Domantas Sabonis, Myles Turner and Aaron Holiday narrowly missed out.
Devin Booker - Deandre Ayton - Mikal Bridges
A +5.8 net rating in over 500 minutes is pretty damn impressive for a group barely into their second season together. Booker put up 26.2 points, 6.6 assists and 4.2 rebounds with some impressive shooting numbers. Ayton was one of just seven to collect 12 rebounds per game and was the only one to put up 19 and 12 not named Giannis. Mikal Bridges ranked in the 94th percentile in points per shot attempt and made the suns four points better per 100 possessions.
Ja Morant - Jaren Jackson Jr. - Brandon Clarke
Jackson, Clark and De’Anthony Melton actually carry the best net rating among these kids in the NBA with a +21.2 net-rating in 230 minutes, but for the sake of argument let’s opt to go with the likely recipient of the 2020 Rookie of the Year, Ja Morant.
Ja emerged as one of just eight rookies all-time to average 17+ points and 6.5+ assists. However, Morant shot better from the field than all but Magic Johnson, and from three, all but butter than Damon Stoudamire.
The fit long-term may come into question with Clarke and Jackson. Both grade as major net negatives at the center position and neither is capable of operating as a 3. However, if Clarke can evolve into a low-post enforcer on the defensive end, this group could be a force for years to come.
Karl-Anthony Towns - D’Angelo Russell - Jarrett Culver
Russell is one of the game’s best pick-and-roll operators and can put any defense on its heels when he occupies the floor. Culver’s season was downright disappointing, but his length and playmaking should help him improve in 2020-21.
Towns elevates this group and for good reason. His offensive skill set isn’t just generational, it’s downright historic. Only Larry Bird has averaged 25 points and 10 rebounds while shooting 50 percent from the field and 40 percent from three. For what it’s worth, Towns shot twice as many threes this season as Bird did in 1985.
Minnesota’s young trio could quickly ascend to one of the league’s best if they can put it together before Towns impatience begins to cast his gaze on larger markets.
Trae Young - John Collins - Cam Reddish
What else can be said about Trae Young? Young averaged 30 points and 10 assists over his last 30 games. Only Oscar Robertson did that in his first two seasons.
John Collins is monstrous athleticism personified while emerging as a bona-fide three-point ace. Collins produced 21.2 points and 10.2 rebounds while shooting over 40 percent. This dude will be an All-Star in due time.
Reddish quietly emerged into one of the most interesting rookies in his class late in the season. With averages of 13.3 points on over 44 and 39 percent shooting from the field and three since January 1st, Reddish could morph into one of the better two-way perimeter players if his defense improves.
This group put up a +2.8 net rating in nearly 450 minutes. They’re next.
Nikola Jokic - Michael Porter Jr. - Jamal Murray
Though Murray failed to take a step forward in 2019-20, he showed enough in the 2019 playoffs to suggest he can become one of the better scoring guards in the NBA in time.
Porter Jr. almost became the first rookie in NBA history with 50/40/90 shooting numbers. His blend of size, athleticism and playmaking may soon change the trajectory of the Nuggets’ franchise from contender to favorite.
The leader here is an MVP-worthy candidate, and inarguably the game’s best passing big of all-time. No one has matched or come close to matching his numbers this early in a center’s career. Only Wilt Chamberlain shelled out as many assists, but he had to wait until he was 30 to do so.
(And yes, Jokic is 25, but I already wrote this blurb so it is what it is.)
Jayson Tatum - Jaylen Brown - Carsen Edwards/Robert Williams/Romeo Langford/Grant Williams
Okay, we’re cheating again, but damnit Tatum and Brown are just that good. Apologies to Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis, the Celtics have enough young prospects to potentially hit on a third banana in time.
Over the past 15 games, Tatum put up 30 points and eight rebounds while shooting 46 percent from three on 8.9 attempts. That’s hilariously good. Tatum regressed alongside Kyrie Irving in 2018-19, but stepped back into the forefront of the game’s next best player argument with his astonishing string of performances in 2020.
On top of emerging into one of the NBA’s best perimeter defenders, Brown ranks in the 72nd percentile at the rim, 84th in mid-range and 81st in the corners (48 percent). He averaged over 20 points and six rebounds while shooting 49 percent from the field and 38.1 percent from three. Brown is already considered a fringe All-Star.
So, how did we do?
Drop a comment below on the group best conditioned to contest against the Pelicans young core for years to come.
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