The Pelicans are going to be one of the most athletic teams in the league this season, in large part because of Lonzo Ball and Zion Williamson, the latter of which is a “freak” by every conceivable definition. Ball isn’t the same kind of conventional, jump-out-of-the gym athlete, but he’s a lot more athletic than most people think. He’s fast in the open court. He can, and does, dunk with authority, even in traffic.
That said, Lonzo’s best asset — perhaps other than his defense — is his vision and passing. At 6-foot-6, he can see over most guys who are guarding him, which gives him clear vertical passing lanes. Combine that with Williamson’s utterly ludicrous 45-inch vertical leap, and this should have the makings of a dynamic rim-lob combo.
But it’s more than lobs. One of the best parts of Lonzo’s passing is his willingness to pass. A lot of guys like to pass as a means to an assist, but far fewer willingly pass simply for the sake of letting someone else make a play. Lonzo will do that. You can already see him passing ahead to Zion, with a full head of steam, in transition, and even in the half-court Williamson is capable with the ball in his hands. Lonzo recently spoke about this on Adrian Wojnarowski’s podcast.
“Pick and roll in the half-court is amazing with [Zion],” Ball told Wojnarowski. “On a short roll, you don’t have to wait for him to get all the way to the basket, and he’s much more than a dunker. He’s a playmaker. I can give him the ball, and he can take some dribbles and take off or find a man in the corner. And I’ve already thrown him some full-court lobs. You pretty much just have to put it anywhere where the backboard is and he’ll catch it.”
This is all true, and it’s a big reason why I think Lonzo is set up for a big year in New Orleans — he makes others around him better and he’s going to get the freedom to do that in a high-tempo offense. But these examples are the extreme ends of Lonzo’s options. Yes, he’ll pass ahead in transition and certainly he’ll toss a lot of lob dunks. And yes, he’ll give the ball up early and let other guys, Zion included, make the play on their own. These will both be integral parts of the New Orleans offense and Lonzo’s impact on it.
But can Lonzo operate effectively in the middle ground? In that gray area between lob dunks and open-floor basketball? It is in that middle ground, where a ball-handler has to dictate the offense — and the defense for that matter — as both a scorer and a playmaker on garden-variety possessions, that makes the best pick-and-roll players. And so far, Lonzo has not been one of those guys.
In his rookie season, Lonzo ranked in the 18th percentile, per Synergy, as a pick-and-roll scorer, and even when you include the impact he had as a passer, he only jumped to the 29th percentile. Last season, he ranked in the 22nd percentile as a pick-and-roll scorer and the 37th percentile when you include passes in the equation. Still, not good.
The reality behind the numbers is Lonzo can’t shoot, particularly from the mid-range, so the pull-up jumper is just not a threat that defenders have to honor. He also doesn’t attack the rim consistently off pick-and-rolls like, say, Russell Westbrook. The threat of a pull-up shooter or a guy who can explode to the rim with the ball is what creates the defensive indecision that fuels pick-and-rolls. Stay with the ball-handler because you have to respect him as a scorer/shooter, and the roller opens up; cover the roller, and the shooter makes you pay.
Lonzo does not yet present that predicament. You can still err on leaving him as a scorer, and he won’t kill you enough to make you switch your game plan. The first rule of dominating the pick-and-roll, in today’s game, is to attack as a scorer. That’s the only way defenders are going to be forced to leave their man and come stop you, because you’re going to get buckets if they don’t. When defenders know you’re looking to pass more than you are to score, they’ll sit on the pass, close up lanes, and create the indecision for the ball-handler than he is supposed to be creating for the defense.
So far, Lonzo has been on the wrong end of that pick-and-roll chess game. Perhaps with the help of Zion and the confidence to run his own show, outside the shadow of LeBron, Lonzo can develop this aspect of his game this season. It would be a major step forward.