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#pounditMonday, September 28, 2020

Lonzo Ball has blossomed in first season with Pelicans

Lonzo Ball

When the Los Angeles Lakers traded for Anthony Davis this past summer, they instantly vaulted themselves firmly into the championship discussion. For Lonzo Ball, Josh Hart, and Brandon Ingram, the trade to the Pelicans presented an opportunity for a fresh start. Playing for the Lakers, one of the NBA’s most storied franchises, comes with an added weight of expectations. Then when you factor in the arrival of LeBron James, arguably the most polarizing athlete of his generation, that weight gets so heavy it can feel like being submerged by Zion Williamson’s entire mass. During their lone season serving as loyal subjects to King James, all three young players experienced the highs and lows that come along with playing an 82-game season.

This season, Ingram has blossomed into an elite scorer and was selected to his first All-Star game. Hart has continued to flash the two-way ability he showed with the Lakers, playing reliable defense and knocking down open three-pointers. Ball, however, has arguably benefited the most from his move from the City of Angels to Bourbon Street.

For Ball, the trade to the Pelicans redefined his career trajectory in a lot of ways, but none were more important than getting out from the loud and often obnoxious shadow that his father LaVar Ball cast. LaVar recently found himself back in the headlines thanks to his claims that Lonzo and the Pelicans would defeat James and the Lakers in a potential first-round playoff matchup. Compared to the precedent he had set during Lonzo’s first two seasons, LaVar has remained relatively quiet this year.

For the first time in his young career, Lonzo’s play on the court has dictated the narrative in the media rather than LaVar’s big mouth.

No longer deferring touches to James, Ball has the Pelicans operating at his pace. Controlling the tempo of an NBA game is a skill that often takes point guards years to master, if they can at all. Ball has the Pelicans flying around offensively, playing at the fourth-fastest pace in the NBA. Ball’s specialty for speeding games up is his ability to deliver pinpoint long-range passes.

This clip comes after a made basket, meaning theoretically, the defense should have time to set up. Ball gets the inbound pass and launches his signature three-quarter court pass to Jrue Holiday so quickly that Avery Bradley has no time to react. The pass is in the air before any Laker has made it past the three-point line. A pass that stays in the air this long is a risky endeavor against NBA defenses; opposing players are often able to deflect long passes like this, or it can merely go awry, traveling too far or short for its intended target. Ball’s touch on passes like this one has inspired his teammates to hightail it down the court no matter the situation.

While Ball’s play has continued to improve all year, the addition of Zion Williamson to the Pelicans’ lineup has taken Ball’s performance to new levels. In just 18 games together, their chemistry resembles that of teammates who have been playing together for multiple seasons. Ball has displayed a sixth sense for finding Williamson at his spots on the floor, which generally means at the rim. Of Williamson’s 163 made field goal attempts, Ball has assisted on a staggering 54 of them.

Ball and Williamson have all but perfected their alley-oop timing, both on the fast break and in the half-court. But their connection on the court goes deeper than just alley-oops. This clip showcases many of the ways that Ball has been able to feed Williamson with easy looks:

The clip begins with Ball lofting his patent three-quarters-court pass to Williamson, who has already used his immense frame to seal his defender on his back, thus ensuring the pass reaches him. Even though Williamson misses the first layup, his deep post position, paired with his elite second bounce ability, have him in ideal position to snatch the offensive rebound and go back up for the easy second-chance bucket. Although Ball isn’t credited with an assist for this play, his passing ingenuity is what makes the basket possible for Williamson.

Ball has always been a gifted passer, but his most important development this year has come as a shooter. During his first two seasons, Ball shot just 31.5 percent from three. After retooling his shooting form over the summer, so that the ball no longer starts on the left side of his head, Ball’s 3-point percentage has skyrocketed up to 38.0 percent. At 6.5 attempts per game, Ball is now a legitimate threat from deep, and looks truly confident in his shot.

Already a gifted defender, the last step in Ball’s development into a potential All-Star candidate rests in his decisiveness in attacking the basket. This season, Ball has set a career-low, with only 25 percent of his field-goal attempts coming at the rim (per Cleaning the Glass). Given his 6’6″ frame, and elite-level quickness and ball-handling abilities, Ball possesses the necessary prerequisites to be a high-level finisher. Still, only a 57.6 percent free throw shooter, Ball has a tendency to shy away from contact at the rim. As a result, Ball is only attempting 1.2 free throws per game. Like his three-point stroke Ball’s form at the line also looks much improved. To become a high-level finisher Ball will need to welcome contact around the rim, and learn to draw more fouls.

With the Lakers, Lonzo’s game was never able to reach the lofty heights many thought possible, and far below what LaVar loudly and repeatedly proclaimed to anyone who would listen. After two disappointing and injury-plagued seasons with the Lakers, the narrative that Ball was a bust began to circulate. Fifty-five games into his tenure with the Pelicans, those stories are antiquated.

Now out of his father’s shadow, Lonzo is doing it his way in New Orleans, quietly and with a chip on his shoulder. Through the silence, it’s clear that Lonzo may become what his father always claimed he could be.

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