Lonzo Ball’s Ascension to Stardom with the New Orleans Pelicans

Lonzo Ball is blossoming into a real hooper, thanks to an opportunity to thrive in an organization committed to his development, and he deserves significantly more recognition. Although Zo’s career is in its infancy, he looks poised to lead a team on both ends of the floor. The defense he plays could warm any coach’s heart, and his offense is so full of surprises that you can’t look away when he’s in action.

He’s a rhythmic shooter, so if there’s something in the air that night, he can cash out from deep – he dropped seven threes on consecutive nights in the first week of March. Ball befriended Zion Williamson and the two of them quickly formed a “quarterback and receiver” connection on the court, which produces videogame-esque highlights. If Zion is the closest thing to Thanos on the basketball court, then Zo is an infinity stone in the gauntlet that makes Thanos so strong. Fair?

Seriously, Ball is throwing lobs that sail over defenses into the hands of Zion from over fifty feet away. Not only is Zo threading needles and dropping dimes, but he’s also dribbling and hitting spots like a seasoned veteran.

Zo resembles a true pass-first point guard of yesteryear, with the addition of extended shooting range and multi-positional defense. 

Commitment To Offensive Growth 

Zo expanded his game massively by diligently working on improving his jump shot with Pelicans Assistant Coach Fred Vinson. Through slight “tweaks” and an emphasis on consistency, Ball diversified his half-court game monumentally in one season.

Jump Shooting by Season:

’17: 122-of-392 (31.1% FG)

’18: 97-of-300 (32.3% FG)

’19: 168-of-467 (36.0% FG)

In 2019 Ball attempted a career-high 6.5 three-pointers a game and dropped 139 of them. Zo was just 26 three-point makes shy of beating the total in his rookie and sophomore seasons combined (165). 

Shot Chart in 2018-19: 

Shot Chart in 2019-20: 

From deep this season, Zo posted a three-point percentage (38.3%) greater than that of Kemba Walker, Trae Young, and Donovan Mitchell – three All-Stars. Additionally, Ball sank more shots from beyond the arc than Devin Booker, or his teammate, Brandon Ingram, did. 

Over 40% of Zo’s points this season came by way of catch and shoot. When teams collapsed to play help defense or gave Zo enough space to get his shot off, he confidently pulled the trigger. 

To no surprise, Zo’s highest volume of catch and shoot three-point attempts came in January and February. Through the first three months of the season, he attempted 108 catch and shoot three balls. When Zion returned to the court in January, the opportunities for Zo were abundant. He attempted 112 catch and shoot threes in those two months. Some teams had no choice but to play help defense against Zion in the deep post, which kept Ball loaded and ready to fire on a kick out.

In his first two seasons, Zo struggled to maintain a catch and shoot three-point percentage of 33% or higher. Zo took almost 100 more catch and shoot threes this season than he did in his previous two, and was money on 40% of them. That equated to more catch and shoot points than Devonte’ Graham and Khris Middleton scored (former 3PT Contestants). 

There are still plenty of tools that Ball can add to his game, but his offensive improvement at such a young age is very encouraging.

Ball As A Facilitator 

Spreading the rock has always been a staple in Ball’s arsenal, but watching him facilitate is truly poetry in motion. Zo is one of, if not, the best outlet passers in the league, and his court vision is just unfair. He can patiently stall with the basketball until he finds a backdoor cutter, he swings the ball to a wing or corner like it’s a hot potato, and he can dump off with precision in a pick-and-roll.

New Orleans ran the pick-and-roll less frequently than 22 other NBA teams, but that can be a dangerous weapon if Zo can finish more efficiently at the rim and force his way to the free-throw line.

Zo shot less than 75 free throws in all three of his seasons – not many for a downhill attacking point guard. He’s slowly becoming a more skilled finisher around the rim, though, and his first option is seemingly always passing.

In 2018, three Lakers topped Ball in the pecking order for touches. This season, Zo touched the ball more than anyone on the Pelicans and as a result, set new career-highs in assists and assist points created. With the hiatus temporarily stopping play, he finished with the sixth-most passes made in the league and the 12th-most touches per game. 

Assist Points Created by Season:

’17: 883 points created on 4,203

’18: 593 points created on 3,030

’19: 1,012 points created on 4,566 touches

A player as unselfish and skilled as Zo does not always need to score to create offense. This makes him so integral for the Pelicans’ success. The modern game of basketball rewards pace and space, and Zo is largely helping New Orleans with both.

Ball’s Defensive Dependability 

This season, Ball defended “core players” for almost half of his defensive minutes played.

 

 

 

Monstrous defenders such as Rudy Gobert, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and Anthony Davis matched up against “core players” equally as frequently

% vs. Core Players in ’19-20:

Gobert: 45.1%

Antetokounmpo: 43.8%

Davis: 42.4%

Ball’s sophomore campaign concluded before All-Star weekend, yet he finished with the 7th highest percentage of minutes spent defending “core players.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

At 6’6″, Ball is a unique enough player to both facilitate and pester opposing guards. Though he most commonly defends primary creators, playing alongside Jrue Holiday benefitted Ball’s game immensely. 

Contrary to his two seasons in Los Angeles, Ball guarded opposing teams’ shooting guard more than any position this season. New Orleans’ defensive flexibility enabled Ball to occasionally guard forwards, defend on the wing, or play on-ball against primary playmakers. 

 

 

 

 

For example, New Orleans deployed a lineup featuring Holiday, J.J. Redick, and Ball for 146 minutes in 2019 – the 2nd most of any lineup combination. There, the scheduled matchup likely dictates what player Ball should defend. New Orleans also experimented with smaller lineups in February and March, which kept Ball’s defensive role fluid.

Underrated Defensive Contributions 

Much like Holiday, Ball plays defense with great balance and controls his body exceptionally well. He’s able to apply smothering ball pressure and dance with his opponent way beyond the perimeter while avoiding foul trouble. 

In the half-court, Ball uses his speed to stay in the pocket of his opponent and pounce when he reads passing lanes. For the third straight season, Ball deflected 120+ passes.  Plenty of his forced turnovers come on-ball, but he works tirelessly off-ball to maneuver around screens and disrupt offensive flows.

In an offensively oriented league predicated upon three-point shooting, Ball usually devotes all of his attention to ‘his’ assignment. He doesn’t have the luxury of cheating off of his assignment and anticipating as much as other positions (because most guards can shoot the rock) which makes his defense even more commendable. Off-ball, he can swipe on the weak side, lurk and intercept passes like a cornerback, and slap a grown man’s shot into the fourth row.  

In just 56 games this season, he blocked two fewer shots than the 6’10” Ben Simmons and totaled 80 steals. James Harden, DeAaron Fox, Kyle Lowry – to name a few – turned the ball over more times than they scored when defended by Ball.

A measure of Ball’s individual defense is how tough he makes it for opponents to earn their baskets in the half-court. 

Ball Defending Opponents’ Isolation (One-on-One)

’17: Opponents made 16-of-43 shots (37.2%)

’18: Opponents made 13-of-36 shots (36.1%)

’19:Opponents made 9-of-37 shots (24.3%)

Hundreds of players defended the isolation for at least 20 different possessions; Ball surrendered the 8th-lowest field goal percentage to opponents in 2019. 

Hypothesis 

Zo’s game has grown multi-dimensional, and yet he’s just scratching the surface of what he can accomplish. Most of what comes naturally for him, other players desire. Timing, pace, proficiency handling the basketball, and unselfishness are just a few of the things that make Zo so special at 22-years-old.

He demonstrated that he can consistently knock down shots from deep this season, similar to how he did at college. That was previously the main part of his game that did not translate well. Adding capable shooting to his game – which already includes facilitating expertise and defensive activeness – could be a lethal concoction.

If New Orleans retains its core for the foreseeable future, Zo will not have to carry a heavy scoring load – the task will be bigger. He will have to continue to elevate his teammates’ games by leading the bunch on both ends of the floor.

The most daunting thing about Lonzo Ball is that he is only just beginning.