With the NBA trade deadline less than a month away, Lonzo Ball is one of the most interesting names to watch. The New Orleans Pelicans didn't sign him to a rookie extension this past offseason, choosing to gather more intel before he becomes a restricted free agent this summer. Does he make sense as an increasingly off-ball player next to Zion Williamson and Brandon Ingram? Was last season's 3-point-shooting surge a fluke?
Through the first five weeks of this season, Ball didn't look good. He was shooting 30 percent from 3 and 39 percent overall. The wind seemed to be blowing in the direction of the Pelicans cutting ties with him sooner rather than later. His name came up in a few trade rumors. It was reported that New Orleans previously gauged Golden State's interest in Ball.
Oh, how times have changed. As of Tuesday, March 2, there are 10 players in the league shooting at least 39 percent from 3 on at least 7.5 attempts per game.
Gary Trent Jr.
Tim Hardaway Jr.
Remember, those numbers include Ball's dreadful start to the season. Since the start of February, he has been throwing flames: 45.9 percent from 3 on 8.1 attempts per game. That is the highest percentage in the league at that volume over that span. If you lower the attempts baseline to 6.5 per game, the list of guys over 45 percent expands to Jamal Murray, George, LaVine and Joe Harris. These are some of the best shooters in the world. Ball hasn't just improved his 3-point shooting; he's become an actual marksman.
As such, the long-term equation has potentially changed for the Pelicans, who are outscoring opponents by 12.2 points per 100 possessions when Ball, who ranks 12th overall in ESPN's Real Plus-Minus, is on the floor. That's the best mark on the team. As for whether he can give the proper shooting support to Williamson and Ingram, the Pelicans are scoring 120.6 points per 100 possessions when those three share the floor, which would rank as the best offensive rating in the league and in the 94th percentile among all three-player combinations who've played at least 15 possessions together, per Cleaning the Glass.
Ball still isn't a threat to score, really, from anywhere inside the arc with any sort of efficiency or volume, but he's shooting 86 percent from the free-throw line since Feb. 1, up from 58 percent through the first five weeks. He barely gets to the line, but the dramatic uptick in percentage is a strong indicator that his shooting improvements are sustainable overall.
Improvement has been a theme of Lonzo's career. In each of his first four seasons, he's raised his true-shooting, effective, 3-point and free-throw percentages, and the 113.6 points per shot attempt he's registering are another career high.
It's not yet translating to wins at the rate New Orleans hoped. After beating the league-best Utah Jazz on Monday night (Ball went for 23 points, eight assists, seven rebounds and two blocks), the Pelicans reside in the Western Conference's No. 11 spot at 15-19. If the playoffs began today, they wouldn't even make a play-in series.
The Pelicans have a lot to figure out. They have the second-worst defense in the league, per CTG. Despite having a top-seven offense, their spacing isn't anywhere near optimal with Steven Adams and Eric Bledsoe in the starting lineup. Stan Van Gundy is tinkering in his first season as their head coach. Having Zion operate as an offensive initiator balances that spacing issue as it's one less non-shooter off the ball, and if Lonzo is going to support the cause with this kind of shooting and secondary playmaking, that feels like the foundation of what could be a pretty nasty, if unconventional, offense.
The question is: Has Ball's play over the past month convinced New Orleans that he's a long-term fit, or has it merely upped his trade value? There would presumably be some pretty good offers for Ball's services at the deadline. The Pelicans can take a few more weeks to mull it over before the March 25 deadline, but if they decide to keep Ball for the rest of the season, they could end up having to pay him in the neighborhood of $80 million this summer to avoid losing him for nothing.
Are they ready to make that kind of commitment? If Ball continues to play like this, with a history of consistent improvement that suggests even more two-way production in store, that might not be a question for much longer.