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Lonzo Ball Makes His Teammates Better — And Zion Makes Lonzo Better

The New Orleans Pelicans were always bound to be one of this season’s most fascinating teams. The Pellies had already been preparing for a big change when they got lucky in the lottery and landed the No. 1 overall pick in the 2019 NBA draft. The fortuitous bounce of the pingpong balls allowed them to leverage one foundational superstar (Anthony Davis) to acquire assets that could be used to build a younger, deeper, better supporting cast around a new one (Zion Williamson).

In making a number of moves last summer, including Davis’s trade to the Lakers, David Griffin did exactly that. The team’s executive vice president for basketball operations turned Davis, Solomon Hill and a late second-round pick into a collection of assets that included the No. 4 selection in the 2019 draft, De’Andre Hunter, which he then swapped for Jaxson Hayes, Nickeil Alexander-Walker and Marcos Louzada Silva (the Nos. 8, 17 and 35 picks), as well as a future pick courtesy of the Cavaliers.1 He also secured outright or swap rights to not one, not two, but three of the Lakers’ future first-round selections — and that’s on top of the acquisition of three of the Lakers’ five most recent first-rounders: Brandon Ingram, Josh Hart and Lonzo Ball.

Williamson predictably lit up the preseason, only to suffer an injury that delayed his debut until January. In his absence, Ingram blossomed into exactly the kind of player the Lakers envisioned when they made him the No. 2 overall pick in 2016. Returning from a blood clot in his arm that forced him to miss the end of last season, Ingram played 39 of the 43 games Williamson missed prior to his debut, averaging 25.6 points, 6.7 rebounds and 4.4 assists per game with a 48-40-86 shooting line. Meanwhile, Hart solidified himself as a valuable role player, knocking down a respectable percentage of his catch-and-shoot treys and defending four positions.2

And then there’s Ball. Early on, he just didn’t seem to fit in. He was alternately starting and coming off the bench, and whether it was his role or his confidence or something else entirely, things just … weren’t clicking. After reworking his form in the offseason, Ball was more willing to shoot than he had been in the past, but he still wasn’t connecting very often. Through the team’s Christmas Day game against the Nuggets, he was shooting just 37.4 percent from the field and 33.3 percent from deep.

Beginning with a back-to-back against the Pacers and Rockets a few nights later, though, the light went on. Ball connected on 11 of 20 threes in those two games, which the Pellies won by a combined 37 points. He collected his first triple-double of the season (his first in over a year) in the win over the Rockets (who were missing James Harden and Russell Westbrook), and he would collect two more in the coming weeks, doubling his career total in the process.

During the 12 games beginning with that win over Indiana and ending with the final contest of Williamson’s injury-related absence, Ball found his rhythm, averaging 16.0 points, 7.4 rebounds and 8.4 assists a night while knocking down nearly 39 percent of his attempts from beyond the arc. Williamson debuted on Jan. 22, and while Ball’s usage rate (and, thus, scoring average) subsequently dipped, his efficiency spiked: In the 20 games following Zion’s return to the floor, Ball posted a 59.4 effective field-goal percentage — up from 51.4 in the preceding 12-game stretch and a wretched 46.9 through Christmas.

His assist rate jumped more than 2 percentage points upon Zion’s return as well. Ball and Williamson have spectacular chemistry — especially in the open floor, where each of them is at his best. Ball excels at throwing long-range passes, whether they be outlets or hit-aheads. According to STATS LLC data provided to FiveThirtyEight, the percentage of Ball’s passes that traveled at least 20 feet in the air was fifth-highest among 316 qualified players,3 behind only LeBron James, James Harden, New Orleans teammate Jrue Holiday and DeMar DeRozan. And among the 25 players who threw at least 1,000 such passes, Lonzo’s moved at the fourth-fastest average speed (27.71 mph).

Even more than speed or volume, though, the most impressive thing about Ball’s home-run passes is the accuracy. He seems to know instinctively where to place the ball so that only his intended target can reach it, and he gets it there with Drew Brees-like precision.

Once he returned to the fold, Williamson became the most frequent intended target of these long-distance lasers, and he and Ball began hunting lob opportunities on the regular. Prior to the season’s interruption, only 24 pairs of teammates connected on 15-plus lobs, according to Second Spectrum. Between Williamson’s Jan. 22 debut and the beginning of the hiatus, just four other pairs of teammates joined Lonzo and Zion in reaching that mark.

Lonzo is just as willing and insightful a passer within the flow of the offense. His genius-level floor vision and potential to be a transformative passer were his main selling points as a prospect, even going back to his days as a high-schooler. He’s always seeking out the opportunity to make the extra pass — to turn an open shot for himself into a wide-open one for somebody else.

That kind of unselfishness is infectious, and it carries over to the rest of the team: Prior to the hiatus, 67.1 percent of Pelican baskets were assisted with Ball on the floor, compared to only 58 percent when he was on the bench. New Orleans also threw an extra 14 passes per 100 possessions with Lonzo in the game over when he was out.

There are, however, times where he is arguably too unselfish. Overeager passing fuels his turnover habit, with the significant majority of his giveaways coming on bad passes. He also still struggles to convert his looks from anywhere other than the immediate area around the rim or beyond the arc: Among 174 players who attempted at least 125 shots outside the restricted area but inside the 3-point line prior to the hiatus, Ball ranked 170th in effective field-goal percentage, per Second Spectrum, underperforming expectations on those attempts by 9.51 percentage points.

Though he’s ironed out his form a bit thanks to extensive work with Pelicans assistant coach Fred Vinson, he still seems almost incapable of taking pull-up jumpers moving to his right (though he is at least willing to attempt them on occasion this year — a positive step in his development); the ones he takes moving left still occasionally look disjointed; he doesn’t have particularly good touch off the glass; and he is prone to forcing floater attempts that aren’t really there.

Despite those deficiencies, Ball has still been a positive on-court force for the Pelicans this season. New Orleans was 3.7 points better per 100 possessions with him in the game than on the sideline prior to the hiatus, the fourth-best mark among the team’s rotation players. The Pellies didn’t just pass more often and more efficiently with Ball in the game, they rebounded and defended better as well — with Ball himself contributing greatly to those advantages.

He’s a fantastic rebounder, among the very best in the league for a guard. Among the 142 guards who were on the floor for at least 1,000 missed shots prior to the hiatus, Ball’s total rebound rate was 14th-best, and he was 10th-best at converting his rebound chances into actual rebounds more often than expected, given his and his man’s positioning at the time of the shot and the location of the rebound itself.

His basketball IQ really shines through on defense, where he can showcase his instincts and knowledge of opposing teams’ sets. He’s rarely in the wrong position, he’s quick to make the correct rotation, and he’s among the league leaders in deflections.

It’s still too early to say that Ball is now fulfilling the entirety of the promise he showed as a prospect. He has struggled badly from the field during the restart, and in the Pelicans’ first two games, they struggled badly when he was on the floor. It’s probably not an accident that his most impactful game was their most recent one — when Williamson saw his most extended playing time. We need to see his improved play carry over through the restart and into next season before declaring that he’s really arrived. But he’s on his way, and if he can sustain this progress, he’ll help the team’s cornerstone player fulfill every inch of his potential as well. That’s a very valuable thing.

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  1. The pick is top-10 protected in 2020 and converts to two future second-round picks if it does not convey this year. Cleveland finished the season with the NBA’s second-worst record and thus can drop no lower than pick No. 6, which means the Pelicans will receive the Cavaliers’ 2021 and 2022 second-round selections.

  2. Per an analysis of Second Spectrum matchup data by Krishna Narsu, Hart is one of only four players in the whole league who has guarded each of point guards, shooting guards, small forwards and power forwards on at least 19 percent of his defensive possessions.

  3. Those who threw at least 500 passes before the league went on hiatus in March.

Jared Dubin is a New York writer and lawyer. He covers the NFL for CBS and the NBA elsewhere.