Lonzo Ball displaying new shot, chemistry with Zion Williamson as Pelicans hype train hits full speed
With growing expectations, do we have to at least wonder if we're yet again setting Ball up for disappointment?
Taken at face value, Lonzo Ball's 2019 preseason numbers look, well, quite Lonzo Ball-ish: 9.5 points, 6.0 assists, 3.8 rebounds and 1.3 steals on 32.4 percent shooting, including 30.4 percent from 3-point range. Even if you throw out the counting stats -- because we know preseason numbers mean next to nothing -- and just look at the shooting clips, you'd still think this would be cause for concern, no less for a player drawing rave reviews for his "revamped" shot.
And yet, the Lonzo hype train is fully loaded once again. That he's about to break out with the Pelicans has become one of the most popular preseason themes. We've done this with Lonzo before, of course. Ignored negative evidence. Defiantly passed off his game as the kind that can't be encapsulated by numbers. He is, admittedly, an easy player to get carried away on. An undeniably beautiful player.
When the Lakers took Ball No. 2 overall out of UCLA back in 2017, Magic Johnson pointed to the lofty Laker rafters and said he expected Lonzo's jersey to be hanging there one day. Magic was clearly drinking the punch, but he wasn't alone. Lonzo was a perfect storm of hype. The local kid. The loudmouth dad. A lot of people were expecting quite a lot from him, and as Ball recently admitted, he didn't measure up.
"Nah, nah, that wasn't too much pressure," Ball told Shams Charania of The Athletic regarding the expectations placed on him from the get-go in Los Angeles. "That's what I was supposed to do. Number 2 pick, you're supposed to do a job -- you're supposed to turn the franchise around. And I don't think I did it to the best of my abilities. I didn't live up to that standard."
That's a harsh self assessment. Admirable, but harsh. Few players could've lived up to the myth that Lonzo's dad created -- no less in the circus environment that was, during most of Ball's tenure, the entire Lakers organization. Plus, the idea that Lonzo was bad in his time with the Lakers is wildly exaggerated, if not patently false. To the contrary, he was really good in a lot of ways. He was at the core of a young team that, pre-LeBron, was going in a good direction, and for all intents and purposes, his post-LeBron time in L.A. almost doesn't even count.
So here he is with the Pelicans. Armed with a new shot and new teammates and a brand-new opportunity. And, yes, through three preseason games, the optimism surrounding Lonzo is once again bubbling, and yes, it goes beyond the numbers. That said, let's at least paint an accurate statistical picture. Per 36 minutes, which is probably around the game time Lonzo will log this year as long as he's healthy, Ball is averaging 15.2 points, 9.6 assists, six rebounds and two steals this preseason.
Those numbers do reflect how aggressive Lonzo has been as both a playmaker and a scorer. He's not shooting great percentages, but he's not shying away from shots. He's hunting offense, playing downhill, creating space. He's in perfect control of his pace. He's active defensively. He has a nose for boards. He's constantly looking to push the ball ahead.
But let's remember: he did most of these things with the Lakers, too. He's been a good defender pretty much from Day One as an NBA player, and his pass-first, inclusive instincts have always been the bedrock of his galvanizing game.
The two things that stand out as different in New Orleans -- again, to whatever degree you want to weigh the preseason -- are Ball's jump shot (not so much the results, but the form) and his obvious early chemistry with Zion Williamson. Let's look at them one by one.
The New Shot
Much has been made about Ball's new shooting form, and for good reason. Gone, for the most part, is the extreme left release point, which, among other things, brings into play the ability to shoot jumpers going right. (He hasn't attempted one of these yet with New Orleans, but in theory the ability should now be there without having to bring the ball back into the trailing defender). More than just opening up half the court, Lonzo's new form, with the release point more middle-of-the-forehead, is more consistent and repeatable, and we're seeing the results in catch-and-shoot situations.
Last season, Ball shot 26.8 percent on catch and shoots, per Synergy. Worse, he shot 19 percent on unguarded catch and shoots. It's a small sample size, but so far this preseason Ball looks comfortable catching and shooting with his new release.
Lonzo is going to get this shot a lot this season. He made a good decision to not pull up initially off the dribble, but he knew Rudy Gobert was going to keep sagging off and was ready to fire when the return pass came. In this next clip there's even more to like, with Lonzo relocating all the way across the court and catching off movement for an open corner 3:
One knock on Lonzo's game in the past has been his tendency, at times, to stand around off the ball. A lot of this can probably be attributed to playing with LeBron and just not being entirely sure how to operate as a peripheral part. You can tell Lonzo feels back in control of his game. He hunted this shot. Saw the space opening and very fluidly made his way to it. And again, the form looks pure.
Here Lonzo feels Trae Young cutting under a screen and simply fades back to daylight:
We've also seen a few of Lonzo's patented step-backs leaning left, but those aren't so much of a revelation; they've been a staple of his game from the start. He's always been more comfortable shooting off the dribble, and even more than that, stepping back. It will remain a weapon:
You might notice on that last shot that the release was starting to creep back toward the left. That's OK. For starters, this is still new for Lonzo, who has been shooting with an extreme-left release point for most of his life. Especially off the dribble where he's firing on instinct, old habits will emerge. Maybe he'll get to a point where he has the same exact release point off the dribble and off the catch, but if he doesn't, it's fine. Kevin Martin, whose sidewinding shooting motion has often been compared to Ball's, used to have two different shots -- one off the dribble and one off the catch.
Perhaps the most encouraging sign when it comes to Lonzo's new shot has been at the free throw line, where he shot 41 percent last season after shooting 45 percent his rookie year. That is obviously terrible. With his new form -- which looks more full-body engaged, knees bent, release in line with target, rather than basically just a wrist flick from an off-line left position -- Lonzo is 9 for 11 from the line so far this preseason.
Again, small sample size, but it's not so much the results as the obvious comfort Lonzo is showing with the new shot. He's walking up to the line, full of rhythm, no hesitation, and just drilling them. Nothing but net. This is what great shooters do. Lonzo is not a great shooter by any stretch and might never be, but it appears he's starting to think like one. Confidence is everything, and the free throw line is one of the truest places to gauge that confidence.
Chemistry With Zion
Lonzo plays well with anyone, but in L.A he never had a true running mate. Zion Williamson, who has been a complete monster in his own right, is clearly a guy who can benefit from Lonzo's push-ahead passes and lobs, and it's clear the two have already developed a natural chemistry. How about a 60-foot lob pass?
A 2-on-1 give-and-go:
Here Lonzo runs ahead but knows all along Zion is trailing:
Lonzo with the steal and great pass ahead:
This one exemplifies something Lonzo has talked about, which is that he trusts Zion with the ball to make his own plays. So many passers wait too long to give the ball up, but Lonzo has always given it up early and in positions that allow playmakers to do their thing in space. That's what he does on this clip above. He doesn't push the ball himself; he gives it up early knowing Zion has a head of steam and an angle to the rim, and Zion does the rest.
Here again Lonzo gives it up to Zion early on a pick-and-roll:
Again, it would've been so easy for Lonzo to press the defender himself and give it to Zion late in the action. Instead, he gave it up early and Zion had space and momentum to take a strong gather dribble and go up through contact for the and-one.
"It's great because I know he's a great passer, so when I make cuts I already know that he sees me [and vice versa]," Williamson told ESPN. "We definitely just feed off of each other."
Lonzo and Zion are clearly made to play together -- one a instinctive, willing distributor, the other a great finisher, both athletes ready to run at all times. Throw in Lonzo's new-look shot, and yes, the optimism surrounding Ball and this Pelicans team, and particularly this duo, again feels warranted. We've done the over-hype thing before with Lonzo, but this feels different. The shot. The team. Just the whole environment in New Orleans.
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