DimeMag

Lonzo Ball Is Quietly Starting To Carve Out His Niche In New Orleans

There’s a certain stigma that comes with being rejected by LeBron James. Hell, even if you’re fortunate enough to be inside his circle of trust, there’s still an overwhelming level of scrutiny. Let’s just say it’s not easy being in LeBron’s orbit, not to mention his shadow.

Ask David Blatt, or Isaiah Thomas, or Kevin Love, or the young Lakers who came to Cleveland two years ago, or the other young Lakers who were shipped off to New Orleans last summer. The latter bunch, all deemed unworthy of playing alongside LeBron in a legitimate championship run, have had it particularly hard.

The current Lakers — No. 1 in the West at 33-8 — are thriving without them, and their new team in New Orleans was one of the worst in the league through the first half of the season until a recent hot streak. Despite those struggles, Brandon Ingram has been the standout player of the group. He dropped a career-high 49 points in a tough overtime win against the Jazz last Thursday and has established himself a fringe All-Star candidate.

The other centerpiece of that trade, Lonzo Ball, finished with just five points in that contest after a brutal 2-of-12 shooting night, but made his impact felt in other ways, dishing out 13 assists. It was his third rough shooting night in a row, after going 7-of-23 in a win over the Pistons and 4-of-12 in a loss to Boston. Still, those numbers belie just how good he’s been for the Pelicans the past few weeks as New Orleans has won 10 out of their last 14.

Ball is averaging 14.9 points, 7.7 assists, and 7.5 rebounds per contest, on 40.2 percent from the field and a respectable 37.9 percent from three-point territory over the last 14 games. That also included a run of four straight 20-point performances, the only such streak of his career thus far.

This recent run, even factoring in a bit of a shooting rollercoaster, has been some of the best ball he’s played as a pro, and moreover, it amplifies just how critical his individual success is to the Pelicans’ team success, particularly in a recent stretch without Jrue Holiday. The assists and rebounding numbers are hardly a surprise. Since his rookie season, he’s been one of the league’s best rebounding guards, and his uncanny court vision and ability to orchestrate an offense has drawn frequent and deserved comparisons to Jason Kidd. He can also be a pest on defense when he’s locked in, as he put on display in the first quarter against the Clippers on Saturday afternoon.

What’s most striking, though, is the volume, efficiency, and location of his shot selection. Ball is attempting a career-high 6.4 three-pointers per game this season, but on two occasions over the last 10 games, he’s hoisted up as many as 12 shots from behind the arc. The results have been mixed, naturally, but that willingness to take those open looks has been the key to his statistical uptick this season and has helped the Pelicans space the floor.

Much of this has to be credited to his rehabilitated shooting mechanics, which we knew going into the season was going to be a point of emphasis for the third-year guard. After so much scrutiny, Ball eventually caved last summer and adopted a more fluid, ergonomically-aligned technique. It’s hard to argue with the results, however modest, as he’s hitting 35.5 percent of his threes, a healthy improvement over last year’s 32.9 percent.

Fortunately, the Pelicans don’t need Ball to be an offensive powerhouse or a long-range sniper. With Ingram emerging as the number one scoring option, the goal for Ball is to keep being aggressive and knocking down open three-pointers when they present themselves and continue his primary role as the offensive initiator. The frustrating thing about Ball is that he can sometimes be too passive on offense instead of aggressively attacking his defenders and causing defensive breakdowns.

To be sure, Ball has benefited from the smaller spotlight in New Orleans this season amid Ingram’s star turn, and after some early-season sputtering, he’s starting to gain traction. The Pelicans are now just 3.5 games out of the eighth and final playoff spot, and a postseason berth is suddenly an attainable goal for a group that appeared destined for lottery limbo just a month ago.

New Orleans’ hot streak of late will also culminate in Zion Williamson’s NBA debut this week when the Pelicans host the Spurs at home on Wednesday. In the preseason, we were treated to a tantalizing preview of what could be, with a pick-and-roll and transition attack that combines Ball’s passing and Zion’s freakish athleticism.

There will be an adjustment period, to be sure, but Ball is starting to come into his own in New Orleans. The next step is finding that consistency.

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