At some point during New Orleans voluntary workouts last month, Lonzo Ball caught an inbound pass in the backcourt, turned and immediately fired a baseball-style alley oop pass to Zion Williamson – covering roughly 60 feet – for a slam. At that moment, Williamson realized that his new teammate was a different kind of point guard. Ball’s vision and ambitious dishing mean Pelicans players must always be on alert – a pass could be coming your way, even if he’s standing on the other half of the court.
“The way he can throw a fullcourt pass like it’s a five-foot pass is crazy,” said Williamson, an explosive leaper and dunker. “He won’t even have to take a dribble. Someone will inbound the ball and he just throws it up the court right on the money. I don’t think I’ve seen him throw a bad pass yet.”
Indeed, Ball may be the only NBA player to produce enough lengthy feeds to fill a three-minute YouTube video someone created, entitled “Lonzo Ball Full Court Assist Highlights 2018-19.”
Now in his third NBA season, Ball has many of the traits of a modern-day pro basketball player – celebrity status, a reality TV show, legions of followers on social media – but his style of play is more from the old school. The league currently has numerous point guards who look for their own shot first, but Ball’s approach harkens back to the 1970s and 1980s, when PGs were expected to make sure everyone else in an offense was fed.
“He’s always putting the ball in the right position for a guy to score, always creating for others,” Pelicans forward Brandon Ingram said. “He gives people confidence on the wings. It puts him above the bar when it comes to all of the other point guards.”
“He’s very smart. He’s a pass-first guy who knows where everyone wants the ball,” guard Josh Hart said.
The Pelicans believe Ball’s approach will be an ideal fit in Alvin Gentry’s system. In recent years, distributing point guards from Rajon Rondo to Elfrid Payton to Ish Smith have performed well under Gentry in New Orleans.
“AG lets guys go out and have freedom,” Hart said of the fifth-year Pelicans head coach’s effect on players. “When you do that, guys are more confident and bought in, more successful. For example, if you have a player who knows he might touch the ball every six or seven minutes, the pressure’s on and he’s saying, ‘I’ve got to make this shot!’ But if you have another player who’s touching the ball non-stop and getting shots up and he knows the ball will come right back to him the next time, it makes you better and the team better. It makes point guards who are pass-first look even better, because that’s the style that fits (Ball).”
Ball – who has a career average of 6.4 assists, including 7.2 as a rookie when he had the ball in his hands much more than last season – says his understanding of the game comes from playing so much basketball as a youngster.
“The way I got better was from playing,” Ball said. “I didn’t really do drills growing up. It comes from being out on the floor and trying new things on the fly.”
“You can tell even from when he was younger, he’s the type of guy who loves to play all the time,” said starting backcourt partner Jrue Holiday, a fellow Southern California native and UCLA product. “He probably could play all day long.”
Ball’s savvy and experience also have benefited him on the defensive end, where he’s considered a quality one-on-one defender and also uses his smarts and instincts to read offenses and pick up steals at a high rate.
“When he steps on the floor, he’s a step ahead of everyone already,” Ingram said. “He anticipates passes on defense and has good hands, gets a lot of deflections and steals.”
“I played on a lot of teams growing up with less talent, where it was younger guys against older guys,” explained Ball, . “We pressed a lot, so I had to read a lot of passes.”
Like Williamson, Holiday was familiar with Ball from watching him perform for UCLA and the Lakers, but gained additional appreciation for his uniqueness during the late-summer voluntary workouts. Through three preseason games, Ball has handed out 18 assists (against only five turnovers) in 68 minutes.
“A lot of guys in the summertime like to score,” Holiday said. “I feel like Lonzo likes to score, but he likes to pass even more. That’s kind of a lost art. But it’s an advantage for us, and something you should cherish.”