With a new shot and a new aggression, Lonzo Ball is quietly becoming the player he was always supposed to be

If you haven't heard, No. 1 overall pick Zion Williamson is set to make his NBA regular-season debut for the New Orleans Pelicans Wednesday night against the Spurs. ESPN flipped its national TV schedule to make sure everyone can see the game. New Orleans coach Alvin Gentry is already prepared for a "circus" scene, and indeed, all NBA eyes are going to be on perhaps the most hyped rookie since -- you can't make this stuff up -- New Orleans took Anthony Davis No. 1 overall in 2012. 

The stories are going to write themselves. 

Every camera is going to be pointed at Zion. 

And all of this is great news for Lonzo Ball

Ball, of course, is no stranger to the spotlight. He lived inside it from the moment he was selected No. 2 overall by the Lakers in 2017. He was supposed to be the next franchise player. His dad's loud mouth made him a nightly target. He didn't live up to the expectations, which were unfair on their own, let alone when you factor in the circumstances of having to figure out how to play alongside LeBron James before he'd really even figured out his own game. 

In New Orleans, Ball is free to play, and grow, as the player he is most suited to be within a system tailored to his strengths. And he can do it without all the attention. Zion is the new buzz. Brandon Ingram has supplanted Ball as the rising superstar. Ball now plays free of outsized expectations, and after a so-so start with the Pelicans, he is quietly becoming the player he was supposed to be all along. 

Entering play on Tuesday, Ball is averaging 12.1 points, 6.3 assists, 5.8 rebounds and 1.3 steals per game. Modest numbers, if all-around helpful. But Ball has never been a player most accurately measured by numbers. His whole career, he's been lauded for his willingness to get everyone involved, the way he pushes ahead with the pass instead of demanding control of the ball, the way he'll defer to scorers in the half-court. 

A lot of players will pass if it leads to an assist. Ball makes passes because it puts the offense in a better position to score. His stats don't always reflect that. It's what you call a "winning" player. And yet, for Ball to begin making truly good on his potential, he clearly needed to produce in more tangible and consistent ways. He was the classically frustrating "if only he could shoot" player. 

Well, now he can shoot. And not just in a respectable way. Ball has become legitimately dangerous from behind the arc. Over his last 12 games, Ball is averaging 16 points, 8.4 assists, 7.4 rebounds and 1.3 steals per game on 39-percent shooting from beyond the arc. For the season, he's shooting a career-high 36 percent from 3-point range, per Cleaning the Glass, which filters out garbage time and end-of-quarter heaves. 

Ball has completely revamped his form, bringing his once extreme-left release point more in line with his forehead. It's a quicker, more consistent release with repeatable and less-constricting mechanics. And you can see he's trusting it more and more every game. Check out the statistical jumps he's made from last season to this season as a shooter, per Synergy. 

LONZO BALL SHOOTING

2018-19

2019-20

Catch and Shoot

0.78 PPP (13th percentile)

1.12 PPP (64th percentile)

Spot-up

0.79 PPP (18th percentile)

0.98 PPP (52nd percentile)

Overall Jump Shots

0.88 PPP (34th percentile)

0.95 PPP (50th percentile)

"Lonzo's speed, court vision, athleticism, defensive potential, and basketball IQ have never been questioned," a league exec told CBS Sports via text. "The questions have been [about] his shot. Where his initial load position was, I literally had never seen before. So for Lonzo to change that form was a necessity, and he got it done.

"Now since people have been discussing it, positive comments from many different directions will continually reinforce how he's shooting, so if he continues to work hard on it, his level of confidence will continue to grow and I believe he'll see another fairly significant jump in his 3-point percentage next year."

In looking at the table above breaking down the particular situations in which Lonzo is shooting, what jumps out is these are off-ball scenarios. Even if the numbers didn't always reflect it, Ball was always a more visibly comfortable shooter off the dribble, when he could generate his own rhythm and manipulate angles to allow for his cockeyed release. 

Spotting up, catch and shoots, these were never his strengths. That's why playing alongside LeBron, who controls the ball, was such an awkward fit for Ball, who has a tendency to stand around when he wasn't initiating the offense. Now look at him:

You love to see those last three shots from the 3-point corners, the most efficient shot in basketball outside of a dunk. Per Cleaning the Glass, Lonzo is taking 13 percent of his 3-pointers from the corners, which is an almost 50 percent jump from last season and ranks in the 81st percentile league-wide. You'll see him switching places with shooters to get to the corner as possessions take on different shapes. He runs the baseline when appropriate. He's grown particularly fond of one-hard-dribble pull-ups. 

No matter where he happens to be on the court, Ball is hunting shots these days, firing out of aggression rather than obligation, and it's changing the way you have to respect him as a defender. That opens up his passing and driving lanes. His assists rate ranks in the 83rd percentile, and he's finishing at a career-high 60-percent clip at the rim -- though his aggression as an attacker can be spotty. Where Ball struggles, mightily, is between the rim and the 3-point line. Per Synergy, he ranks in the 31st percentile in runners. 

The number gets worse when you factor in short jumpers -- classified as all non-post-up shots around the basket, in which he ranks in the 20th percentile, per Synergy. Remember that elbow jumper he hit over Patrick Beverley and then gestured that Beverley was too small to guard him? Per Synergy, that is literally the only jumper he's made all season from 17 feet or closer (1 for 21). You can see below he's just not comfortable in this range:

So there's still a lot of room for Ball to grow, and if the confidence and work ethic he's shown in developing his range shooting is any indication, he'll get there. Ball is a good player, and he still has great-player potential. Since being reinserted into the starting lineup, he's posted three triple-doubles and the Pelicans have won 10 of their last 14 games. The playoffs are still in sight. If Zion can give this New Orleans team a jolt, things could get very exciting very quickly. And Lonzo will be right in the middle of it all, even if these days a lot fewer cameras are pointed at him. 

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