January 3, 2020, 4:38 pm
It’s amazing how diverse opinions are on Lonzo Ball. Fans who have followed him since he played for the Lakers might (and have) argued that he’s a surefire superstar in the future. Pelicans fans who watched the team fall apart before Derrick Favors’ recent return might argue that he’ll never be a decent NBA player, much less a great one. The truth, not uncommonly, probably lies somewhere in the middle.
Ball just had what was undoubtedly the best game of his time with the Pelicans, a game in which he connected on 7 3 pointers against a Rockets team missing many of its key pieces. It was, however, the other parts of Lonzo’s game that were particularly encouraging. Lonzo was a huge part of the 3rd and 4th quarter explosions in which the Pelicans separated from the Rockets. Lonzo was pushing the ball up the floor to get early shots and no one benefited from his dirty work more than E’Twaun Moore, who connected on several 3 pointers that put the Rockets to bed. Lonzo also had a big steal on Isaiah Hartenstein late.
Lonzo Ball is 22 years old. Coming into the year, it was questionable whether he would ever develop a reasonably good jumper, at least one that posed enough danger for a defense to respect it. So far, in what still isn’t a sufficient sample size to over-conclude, Lonzo is shooting 36.1% from deep. This number will undoubtedly fluctuate as the year progresses, but at the moment, an eye-test confirms that his shot is improving. The key is to differentiate between how Lonzo shoots when he is set and when he is moving. The former appears to be what the numbers suggest: a decent 3 point shooter on high volume. The latter appears to suggest that Lonzo is very far away from being able to accurately place shots on the move, if that is even a possibility moving forward. If Lonzo can be a good defender, a good spot-up shooter, and an excellent secondary facilitator, that is a solid NBA player, and that appears to be the easiest pathway for him moving forward. As such, his scoring output should not be over-weighted in reference to what he is capable of becoming.
Zion is Returning
The biggest storyline outside of the recent string of wins is that Zion Williamson is nearing a return. The Pelicans are only a few games out of 8th place and do have a reasonable shot at making the playoffs, as Jason Calmes outlines in this article. Zion’s return should only help that push, assuming that he is even 70% of the explosive scorer that the Pelicans saw in the preseason. Zion is one of only two Pelicans players that can get to the free throw line more than 3 or 4 times a game. Brandon Ingram, at the moment, is the only Pelican player who can consistently generate free throws, and the Pelicans’ offense can be downright ugly when their deep shots aren’t falling. Getting to the line and getting more shots at the rim (which Zion will undoubtedly do) may stabilize the offense some. If history and common sense are any indicators, Zion will likely receive a limited amount of playing time and probably rest on back-to-backs until the team is confident that he is ready to be a full go. Realistically, that will be during the 2020-21 season.
For now, this return will eliminate some minutes from the other players. The Pelicans have had a shallow frontcourt all season, so his return, whenever it is, will be a huge relief. He will likely immediately shift into the starting lineup, leaving Jrue, Favors, and Ingram to round out 3 of the 4 remaining positions. Whether Lonzo Ball or JJ Redick remains in the starting lineup for the final spot is to be seen. Redick is clearly the superior shooter and complementary offensive piece, but this is not a contending team and the Pelicans would be justified if they wanted to see how Lonzo fits with Ingram and Zion moving forward. It would also be far less of a story if Redick moved to the bench, as Lonzo news tends to attract a lot of media attention, though the return of Zion would dwarf the national media noise just about any other story.
The Pelicans face off tonight against the Los Angeles Lakers and former player Anthony Davis, but they get a bit of a schedule break over the next few games. The Kings are beatable on the road, the Jazz and Bulls are home games, and the Knicks are very bad. Of these next 5 games, the Pelicans can feasibly win 3, though they are most likely to win 2 of them. As long as they can stay within striking distance of the 8th seed until their schedule becomes extraordinarily easy (seriously, go check out March and April), it is possible that they make a playoff push.