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Zion Williamson is loaded with potential. He was likely destined for greatness, regardless of who his teammates were slated to be in his first few seasons of development. But the New Orleans Pelicans’ reported acquisition of Lonzo Ball may expedite the process.
Of course, Anthony Davis is the biggest piece of Saturday’s reported trade involving the Los Angeles Lakers, which saw three first-round picks, Brandon Ingram and Josh Hart head to New Orleans, per ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski. But the Pelicans also made out in the swap by getting a unique, team-first floor general in Ball.
There is certainly upside to everyone else on that end of the trade. Ingram is 6’9″ and has strong stretches as a point guard to his name. In 2017-18, from February 1 to the end of the season, Ingram averaged 17.7 points and 5.5 assists per game while shooting 51.6 percent from the three-point line.
Hart’s shooting numbers fell off a cliff in 2018-19, but he’s still around league average from three for his career (36.1%) and has shown positional versatility as a defender. And the draft picks, which include the No. 4 selection in Thursday’s draft, offer unquantifiable hope.
But Ball is the prospect who can move the needle for the Pelicans right away.
For his career, Ball has a 26.8 assist percentage, a 10.0 rebounding percentage, a 2.3 steal percentage and a 1.6 block percentage. No one in NBA history played at least 2,000 minutes and hit all four of those marks. If you drop block percentage from the equation, the entire list reads: Ball, Magic Johnson, Jason Kidd and Russell Westbrook.
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And all four of those numbers were slightly depressed in Ball’s second year, as he accepted a smaller role while playing alongside LeBron James.
During his rookie season, when he was the primary playmaker, it was easier to see the potential that made him the No. 2 pick of the 2017 draft.
“Lonzo Ball, for sure, presents some of the talents that Magic [Johnson] had,” Lakers legend James Worthy said midway through 2017-18, per ESPN.com’s Ohm Youngmisuk. “Not as tall, but he is 6’6″ and has the IQ, has a vision like no other.”
Ball seems to have eyes on the entire floor, whether he has the ball or not. And he rarely pounds the rock into the hardwood before he gets an assist. On the contrary, his touches seem to move on to the most open player almost immediately after he catches the ball.
His outlet passing is particularly impressive—praise generally reserved for bigs, since most guards seem intent on dribbling up the floor.
“As soon as players get used to the way he passes and they get some really good shooters around him, I think people will really appreciate him,” Worthy continued. “And they already have appreciated what he brings to the table, a very unselfish player.”
That unselfishness will do wonders for Zion, who figures to be one of the league’s most dangerous transition weapons from day one. If the big man is willing to run the floor, and his time at Duke certainly indicated he is, Ball will find him.
“Lonzo throwing lobs to Zion is everything the NBA needs!” ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne tweeted.
On top of the fit with those two, Ball and Jrue Holiday figure to help each other as well. Sure, there’s some skill and role overlap, as there was with LeBron in L.A., but The Athletic’s Sam Vecenie pointed out an interesting separation of powers:
New Orleans has a chance to deploy two point guards whose strengths may help offset the other’s weaknesses. And, as Vecenie notes, defense is where the combination might be most dangerous.
Holiday and Ball can both defend positions 1 through 3. Switching all over the perimeter will be a cinch. Passing lanes will be synonymous with danger zones against this team. And when either one does get an interception, Zion will be off to the races. Good luck getting back on defense after all the turnovers New Orleans will force in 2019-20.
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Now, while there’s plenty to be excited about for New Orleans, it’s not all roses. Ball has a glaring weakness that seriously limits his short-term ceiling.
Among the 621 players who attempted at least as many career threes, Ball is 549th in three-point percentage. He’s also 562nd in effective field-goal percentage.
Unless or until he can develop into at least an average threat from deep, defenses will be able to go under screens on Lonzo-led pick-and-rolls and cheat down to the paint when he’s off the ball. That will make life tougher on his teammates, at least in half-court settings.
There’s no reason he can’t remedy that, though. Lonzo shot 41.2 percent from three in college. And his unusual mechanics don’t have to prevent effectiveness. After all, Kevin Martin shot 38.4 percent from three during his career with a similar corkscrew release.
If that three starts falling for Lonzo, pick-and-rolls with Zion will be a nightmare to defend.
The other obvious drawback to this trade is that the Pelicans didn’t just jettison the best player in the deal, they sent a top-three to top-five NBA player to the Lakers.
Making up for that may never happen.
But AD and his agent, Rich Paul, had the organization’s feet to the fire. They made Davis’ preferred destination publicly known, telling Sports Illustrated‘s S.L. Price that Davis would hit free agency in 2020 regardless, which understandably quelled interest around the league.
Davis and Paul got what they wanted out of this. But, given the circumstances, new team executive David Griffin and the Pelicans made out about as well as could be expected. And they might still get more.
“Teams are already expressing significant interest in the No. 4 overall pick belonging now to the Pelicans, league sources tell ESPN,” Wojnarowski tweeted. “Talks are expected to continue over the next few days. This deal could get even bigger for the Pelicans.”
Even if it doesn’t, a team that just spent months dealing with the drama of Davis’ trade demand now has plenty of hope. And the Lonzo-Zion pairing might be the embodiment of that hope.