Talk to people around the NBA, and one name will consistently come up as one of the most polarizing players: Lonzo Ball. Some people think he was overrated from the start and has been — and will continue to be — exposed for his weaknesses. Others believe in the multi-layered skills and big-time potential of a player who has been unfairly criticized and largely suppressed by circumstance.
Perhaps the answer is in the middle. Or, perhaps there is an opportunity in New Orleans for the most optimistic Lonzo supporters to be validated. I consider myself a member of the latter. I was talking with a league scout a few weeks back when Lonzo came up, and I was asked, rather rhetorically after I’d spent five minutes making my case, “So you think Lonzo is going to pop with the Pelicans?”
It depends how you define “pop,” but yeah, I think he’s going to have a really good season and end up reminding a lot of people why he was taken No. 2 overall with so much hype coming out of UCLA. For starters, you have to hope he can stay healthy, but if he can, he’s going to be in a high-tempo offense with the ball in his hands and athletes and shooters around him.
This is clearly when Ball is at his best, seeing the floor and effecting ball movement with not just his open-court vision and feel but his sheer willingness to keep the ball hopping in the half court. With the Lakers, his willingness to make simple passes, to not own the ball, was often seen as passive, and it’s true, he can have a tendency to stand still off the ball. Lonzo, like every point guard in the league today, is at his best when he’s attacking to score, or at least to puncture the defense.
As Ball’s brief career has progressed, his feel for this dynamic, his understanding of when and where and how to distribute his own aggression, has clearly grown. When he does it, he’s really good. When he doesn’t, he can, and often does, fade from the action. It would, however, be inaccurate, or at least incomplete, to reduce Lonzo’s impact to the tangible. His presence is a connecting force, but those instincts can, and probably did, dull in the shadow of LeBron James, who rightfully controls so much of the game.
When Lonzo is in more control of not just the overall offense, but his place in it, we’ve seen the results at every level. He dominated high school. His impact, in a way you can’t teach, was exponential at UCLA, his selfless instincts bleeding into everyone around him. And before LeBron arrived in L.A. and began (again, rightfully) dominating the action and thus pushing Lonzo further away from the best version of himself, we were starting to see the development of a potentially pretty special player.
Consider: In his one and only pre-LeBron season, Lonzo, as a somewhat “disappointing” rookie in many people’s eyes, averaged 10.2 points, 7.2 assists, 6.9 rebounds and 1.7 steals. You know how many other rookies in NBA history have hit those collective marks? Two. Magic Johnson and Ben Simmons. That’s not to suggest Lonzo is in any way the equivalent of those players, but it does provide some necessary perspective as to his across-the-board offensive impact with still plenty of room to grow. Keep in mind, we haven’t even mentioned Lonzo’s defense yet. It’s really good, can be elite, and it’s a big part of his package.
For now, let’s stick to the offense, and consider that Lonzo’s traditional numbers all dropped next to LeBron, notably the assists, which fell from the 7.2 per game as a rookie to 5.4 last season. That’s a significant decline, and again, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out the main reason that happened. Last season, LeBron, per Cleaning the Glass, assisted on 37.4 percent of the Lakers’ buckets, which ranked eighth league-wide. He also isolated on 17.5 percent of his possessions, per NBA.com, just shy of the frequency of Russell Westbrook.
Do the math, and LeBron was either scoring on his own or dictating the scoring on a predominant amount of possessions. That leaves Lonzo as more a recipient than an initiator, and this is in direct conflict with his skill set. In essence, he’s supposed to be doing a lot of what LeBron was doing, though in different forms and with far less emphasis on scoring, but instead he was often reduced to an off-ball player who is a bad shooter.
That, in short, is a bad fit for Lonzo that too often puts the spotlight on what he can’t do — at least not yet — rather than what he can. It works the other way, too. LeBron is probably better off without Lonzo, as well. This is why LeBron has traditionally succeeded with shooters around him who can space the floor and not need the ball to be effective, unless they’re an elite isolation player in their own right who can take immediate pressure off James from a pure point-production standpoint, a la Kyrie Irving.
With a player like Lonzo, the impact is in the macro, rather than any single possession on which he’s scoring or even generating an assist. He has to have the ball all game, and at the end, the impact can add up to more than the numbers. In New Orleans, he’ll get that opportunity, and the fit is perfect. The best player on the team, Jrue Holiday, has thrived as an off-ball player in recent seasons rather than having to run the point. He tracks more miles run per game than just about anyone in the league. Lonzo being unleashed to feed the best player on his team, rather than having to be fed himself, could flip the whole script on his development.
Beyond Holiday, JJ Redick also moves like crazy and is an elite shooter who will keep the floor spaced for Lonzo. Zion Williamson is a freak athlete who slots as a running mate and high-screen roller for Ball. Rookie Jaxson Hayes is another crazy athlete who can take lobs from Lonzo. Brandon Ingram and Josh Hart have played with Ball for two years now.
You’ll notice the absence of stagnant players, and playing styles, on this New Orleans team. That’s what Lonzo needs, and what he’ll amplify. Ask him to stand around and shoot and you’ll get a 33 percent 3-point shooter with limited pull-up game. Ask him to pick his spots to attack and his dulled instincts can lead to hesitance. Just give him the damn ball and let him feel the court and game on his terms, and not only are you going to get the best Lonzo, his teammates will very likely reap the benefits as well.
And all of this is to say nothing of what Ball brings defensively, where he’s already really good and can be elite. He’s long, athletic, instinctive, stronger than you think. Per Cleaning the Glass, Ball was in the 74th percentile among point guards in block percentage last season, the 81st percentile in steal percentage, the 90th percentile in offensive rebounding (not including free throw misses) and the 85th percentile in defensive rebounding.
So now you’ve got a guy who is contributing as a passer, rebounder, defender and scorer. Also, the worst part of Ball’s game, his shooting, has shown signs of improvement, as opposed to another multi-layered player like Ben Simmons, who has yet to take a single step forward in covering the one hole in his game. Lonzo shot 30 percent from 3 in his rookie season, then raised that to 33 percent last year. He’s more comfortable off the dribble, as most players of his age, and frankly all ages in today’s game, tend to be.
Again, that’s a major change from L.A. to New Orleans. Off-movement shooting is a lost art in today’s game; there are really only a few guys who really do it well. In a perfect world, Lonzo could have developed that skill alongside LeBron, but that wasn’t realistic. There is too far to go in that area for Ball, and frankly, he’ll probably never be that player. Let Klay Thompson and Redick do that stuff. Let Lonzo do what he does. New Orleans’ system and supporting personnel is going to allow Lonzo to do that, and outside the shadow of LeBron and the pressure of the Lonzo-in-L.A. bubble, this season has all the makings of a breakout one for Ball.