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Lonzo Ball has made immense strides in 2019-20 season to point of becoming trusted on-court leader for the New Orleans Pelicans

Zion Williamson, Alvin Gentry, the entire team believes in their 22-year-old point guard

2020 NBA Restart - All Access Practice Photo by Bill Baptist/NBAE via Getty Images

The New Orleans Pelicans are keen to pick up from where they left off right when COVID-19 suddenly suspended the NBA season and standing at the front of that line should be Lonzo Ball.

“We thought we were trending in the right direction there from the standpoint of what we were doing offensively and defensively, as well as winning games,” Alvin Gentry said a few days ago to media. “Rather than make this a new venture altogether from the standpoint that we’re going to start from scratch, I think what we needed to do is start from where we left off. Our defense was trending in the right direction. Offensively, we were playing really good basketball.”

It’s been repeated ad nauseam: The New Orleans Pelicans were much improved after the horrendous 6-22 start. The offense and defense made remarkable turnarounds, cracking the the top 10 in both categories for the next three months and paving the way to a 22-14 record from December 18th onward.

Zion Williamson exploded onto the scene, Derrick Favors nullified the two weakest points (paint defense and rebounding), and Jrue Holiday was in the midst of his best stretch of the season. But none of these players were mentioned first by the head coach when talking about the need to reestablish the team’s rhythm quickly in Orlando.

No, it wasn’t Brandon Ingram either, who became a first-time All-Star at the tender age of 22 with averages of 24.3 points, 6.3 rebounds and 4.3 assists on stellar shooting percentages.

“I thought Lonzo Ball was playing as well as any guard in the league during that stage.”

Considering the wonderful depth at guard across the league — and many were playing well at the time like Damian Lillard, James Harden, Russell Westbrook, Donovan Mitchell and Bradley Beal just to name a few, Gentry’s lofty praise could easily be written off as simple coaching bias about his own player. But that would be wrong.

During his last five outings, Ball tallied a minimum of 16 points, five rebounds and six assists per game. The list of players who have compiled longer streaks on the season with that set of numbers is rather short and illustrious.

  • Luka Doncic
  • Russell Westbrook
  • LeBron James
  • Giannis Antetokounmpo
  • Ben Simmons
  • Kyle Lowry
  • Nikola Jokic

Lonzo was certainly on an impressive run when COVID-19 derailed it, but such small sample sizes are often meaningless blips in careers or even within a regular season. However, there exists a key difference in Ball’s case: those five professional games came on the heels of real growth and progression, which I outlined back in late February.

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!!!

The advances witnessed in Ball’s game from the start of the 2019-20 season to when play was suspended is worth singling out and recognizing as much as possible, and I’m not alone in that assessment. When I asked Alvin Gentry yesterday if he’s ever witnessed a player improve within a single season as much as Ball, he didn’t believe so. And remember, that’s 30+ years of NBA coaching experience talking.

“I don’t think I have. I think he’s made great improvements. The one thing I think that really helped him is that he didn’t have any major injuries. He just had a lot of nagging injuries that kind of slowed him down a little bit. I think the one thing is that he is completely healthy now.

“He feels good about the situation that he’s in. I think the guys believe in him. He makes players better. I think that’s a big thing with being a really good point guard you have to have the ability to make players better. He does that. Zion loves playing with him. I think he gets him three or four easy baskets a game, and then I think he’s in a good place, just mentally.

“I think he realizes that we totally believe in him, that he’s our leader on the floor. He’s really done a great job of accepting that and understanding that. He’s really flourishing at that position right now. We’re happy to have him.”

That Zion loves playing with him is sweet music, but one has to believe the rest of the Pelicans would say they similarly relish their minutes alongside Ball, too.

Net Rating w/ Zo Minutes with Zo Net Rating w/o Zo Minutes w/o Zo
Zion Williamson +15.2 437 -7.2 128
Jrue Holiday +13.1 600 +0.4 382
Brandon Ingram +6.8 861 -0.1 249
Derrick Favors +11.7 701 +3.2 144
Josh Hart +2.1 661 -3.5 311
JJ Redick +4.9 456 +6.0 214
Nicolo Melli +2.7 324 -9.5 205

Since the Pelicans turnaround in mid-December, Ball has made a significant positive impact in the team’s net rating with each regular rotation player outside of JJ Redick — but New Orleans was still quite productive when the two guards shared time together on the floor.

You may be asking, how did this happen since we’re not that far removed from some woeful performances by Zo?

As Gentry mentioned, Ball is as healthy as he’s ever been and in a great situation here in New Orleans. He is surrounded by well-fitting pieces in the lineup and he’s discovered a newfound level of confidence from enjoying the greatest amount of personal and team NBA success of his young career. All of these improvements have shown up positively in advanced stats too, creating for some unique comparisons that merit attention.

According to the Bball Index, Ball sits in the top 20th percentile of playmaking, perimeter shooting and defensive rebounding on the season. Only Karl-Anthony Towns, Kawhi Leonard, Khris Middleton, Tobias Harris and Kevin Love share the same attributes among players who have appeared in 1000+ minutes. Last year, Paul George, Blake Griffin, Kevin Durant and Middleton were the four names comprising this list, and in prior years, LeBron James, Kyle Lowry, Nikola Jokic and Al Horford were exclusive members.

That’s special company. Really special company.

So, put aside for a moment that some facet of his game like drives into the paint still needs vast work or some point guard list fails to include him in their top 15. Ignore that noise because it currently shouldn’t be the biggest talking point regarding Ball. Rather, concentrate on the numerous winning contributions he already makes, and keep in the back of your mind that things may only get better from here.

“I think the one thing that he continues to work on, and he’s done it in our practices that we’ve had here, is that he wants to get better defensively,” Gentry said. “He wants to become an elite defender. I think he has the abilities to do that, and he continues to work in that direction.”

In today’s practice session, Gentry challenged Ball to get to the free throw line five times a game and knock down his attempts at an 80% clip.

How glorious would that be??

Lonzo Ball may never earn multiple All-Star appearances, let alone be selected to an All-NBA team, but I dare you to show me a consequential player who has made bigger strides in his game this season.

Think back to the first part of the 2019-20 schedule. Remember when he couldn’t shoot? When he lacked all sorts of confidence and would settle for difficult step-backs? When Alvin Gentry was forced to remove him from the starting lineup?

It all seems like a distant memory, especially now with the New Orleans Pelicans head coach anointing Lonzo Ball as the leader on the court of the most exciting, up-and-coming team in the league that’s planning to take direct aim at the eighth seed in the Western Conference very soon.

For more Pelicans talk, subscribe to The Bird Calls podcast feed on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or Google Podcasts. You can follow this author on Twitter at @OlehKosel.