There is no linear path to maximizing All-Star potential, especially without the comfort of a long-term home. In the case of Lonzo Ball, who will be a restricted free agent this offseason, the inability to extend his rookie contract last December looked like it could signal an end to his time in New Orleans. After months of trade rumors, he seemed destined for his third home in four years.
But the trade deadline has come and gone, and Ball remains on the roster in New Orleans. And in his first season in Stan Van Gundy’s system, Ball has seemed to get over some of the hurdles that have held him back. He’s on track for his highest career rating in FiveThirtyEight’s total RAPTOR metric, and though he’s dealing with another nagging injury, he’s already accumulated more RAPTOR wins above replacement than in any of his previous seasons.
After Ball reinvented his jumper, his confidence has only grown. Upon arriving in New Orleans in 2019, Ball forged a relationship with assistant coach Fred Vinson, whom he credits for improving the consistency of his follow-through over their first season together. At the end of that 2019-20 season, according to Second Spectrum, Ball ranked eighth among 119 qualified shooters in catch-and-shoot 3-point percentage (44.6), better than the likes of Duncan Robinson (10th), Buddy Hield (15th) and Danilo Gallinari (17th). During his two seasons as a Laker, Ball shot only 33 percent on such shot attempts.
|With Team||Catch-and-shoot||Contested||Wide-open*||Coming off pick|
This season started slowly for Ball. He struggled to find his rhythm in his first 13 appearances, averaging just 11.8 points and ranking ninth among all Pelicans in true shooting percentage (48.6) in that time span, per NBA Advanced Stats. But on Jan. 29, he broke out for a season-best 27 points against Milwaukee, including a third-quarter outburst for 14 points that tied the second-highest scoring period of his career.
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In his first three years in the league, low scoring outputs for Ball were common, as he scored in the double digits in only about half of his games. He was criticized as being too passive. But that tide is turning as he grows more comfortable hunting shots off the ball. He has scored in double figures in 23 of his past 25 games, including two double-doubles, and New Orleans’ pace is up by four possessions when he shares the court with Brandon Ingram and Zion Williamson, two All-Stars who appreciate ample spacing.
Though Ball’s confidence and shot efficacy have grown, it hasn’t translated to the rest of his team. Ball is second on New Orleans with his 38.5 percent shooting from deep — the highest of his career — but the Pelicans as a whole are ranked only 21st in 3-point percentage.1 Last year’s squad ranked seventh.
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“I just think we have a new team, so we have a different dynamic to our team,” Ball explained in January, alluding to the offseason additions of guard Eric Bledsoe and center Steven Adams. “Obviously guys are still trying to figure out their spots on the offensive [end of the] floor, and getting into rhythm. But for me, I think it’s just trying to get into transition more, do the things I could help the basketball team with doing, which is playing faster, probably getting to the ball more, trying to help rebound more and just get the pace up.”
New Orleans’ trusted lineup of Ball, Williamson, Ingram, Bledsoe and Adams leads the league in minutes among five-man units, having spent 525 minutes together, according to NBA.com. But of the 56 lineups to have played at least 100 minutes together, the Pelicans’ core ranked only 30th in true shooting percentage (59.5). When the shots aren’t falling, the Pelicans need to be resourceful in getting open looks. That’s where Ball can excel.
Despite being on pace for just 5.6 assists per game, the second-lowest average of his career, Ball leads New Orleans in touches per game (75.5) this season, per Second Spectrum. More importantly, he continues moving the ball with a team-best 60.5 passes each outing, providing the perfect vessel for unleashing Williamson, who has scored nearly 200 more points in the restricted area than anyone else this season.
Even with Williamson’s combo of strength, agility and IQ, easy scoring opportunities are difficult to come by without consistent driving lanes in half-court sets. Enter Ball’s penchant for both ball movement and incredible anticipation in transition: Since being drafted second overall in 2017, the oldest Ball brother ranks fifth among all players in assist opportunities created when passing ahead (387), trailing only James Harden, LeBron James, Damian Lillard and Kyle Lowry in that span. That’s been key to combating the team’s collective shooting limitations.
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On this connection below against Milwaukee on Feb. 25, Williamson received the feed from Ball with little room to operate, prompting a kickout pass to the top of the key. With the defense scrambling to impede Williamson, Ball swung it to Ingram, who found a mismatch in the corner against a Brook Lopez closeout.
And during a 20-point New Orleans victory over the Clippers on March 14, Ball showed off his abilities in transition, getting the ball to Williamson before Paul George and Serge Ibaka could react. The trio of Williamson, Ingram and Ball each contributed more than 20 points to the effort over their conference rival.
Per Spotrac, Bledsoe and Adams will combine for over $35 million in salary next season, though Bledsoe’s $19 million figure in 2022-23 isn’t guaranteed. With Ingram locked up long-term, and Williamson’s own extension inevitable, will New Orleans secure Ball’s services as well for the future?
“I was just hoping that I would get a chance to keep continue to play with him, of course,” Ingram said about his longtime teammate after the 2021 trade deadline had passed. “He’s been a guy who’s been by my side working out every single day that we step on the basketball floor … Even sometimes, in our pregame ritual, we’re out there together, so I was just hoping for all good things, and for him to be back here. We know how valuable he is as a point guard.”
Whether Ball uses his marked improvement to kickstart an All-Star-caliber career remains to be seen, but he’s provided ample evidence that his most promising years are probably ahead of him. Though his future won’t be known until he hits free agency this summer, he seems to have found a home in New Orleans for the time being.
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