It was nothing revolutionary. In the third quarter against the Mavericks, Zion Williamson made a simple handoff to Lonzo Ball behind the arc, who let it fly the moment his feet were set. Bang, as Mike Breen would say. Or as Mark Jones, who was actually on the call Wednesday night, said, “LONZO BALL IS HOTTER THAN FISH GREASE!”
"Lonzo Ball is hotter than fish grease." -— Preston Ellis (@PrestonEllis) March 5, 2020
Lonzo has back-to-back 20 points games for first time in two months. pic.twitter.com/AOQilBOYA3
I haven’t heard that phrase said so emphatically on a call since the 2018 playoffs, when LeBron James hit six fadeaways in the fourth quarter of Game 2 against the Raptors. That was Mark Jones, too. This time, it felt more appropriate. The game was in Dallas, but Ball’s a Pelican now, and the entire saying, as any Southerner worth their heritage will tell you, is, “He’s hotter than fish grease on a Mississippi stove top.” Louisiana, but close enough.
The “fish grease” 3-pointer was Ball’s sixth of the night. He finished with seven, tying a career high that he’d also tied the day before against the Wolves. Though New Orleans would lose in overtime 127-123, Ball finished with 25 points, 11 rebounds, six assists, two steals, and a block. It was the first time he’s had back-to-back 25-point games in his career.
I imagine there will be many more scoring firsts for Ball. New Orleans has been good for him overall (excluding a particularly brutal stretch in December), and even better for Zion. There was always the chance that Ball would shrink further into himself next to someone so grand in size and expectation as Zion, as that’s essentially what happened when he was next to LeBron last season. The Lakers needed Ball to want to shoot, to be aggressive and borderline cocky—to be Kyle Kuzma, the one Baby Laker who wasn’t traded. Ball couldn’t be that for them. He was a spectacular passer and admirable defender, but his passivity doomed him.
Paired with Zion, Ball seems to be enjoying himself more. Statistically, the two get along: Since Zion’s debut on January 22, Ball’s production has jumped in almost every category. He’s averaging 2.1 more assists (8.4 per game), 1.2 more rebounds (7.0), and 0.5 more points (12.6) despite 1.5 fewer field goal attempts (10.2). His efficiency has skyrocketed: Ball was hitting 35.5 percent of his shots from deep and 39.0 percent overall before Zion came back to the court; since then those numbers are at 42.7 percent and 44.8 percent.
Coach Alvin Gentry has played Zion with Ball more than he has with any other teammate, maybe because he pays attention to advanced analytics (the Pelicans have a phenomenal net rating of plus-14 when the two share the floor) or maybe because the reasons that the two work are very simple. One is programmed to pass, and the other can score over—sometimes through—anyone. It’s also easier for Ball to run around the perimeter undetected while multiple defenders are gawking at Zion.
Even before Zion, Ball was shooting the best he ever had from 3 this season. In October, footage of his corrected shooting stroke hit the internet. This is my favorite genre of NBA video: in a practice gym, no defender, flames emoji. Sometimes the new form doesn’t carry over to the regular season. Ball’s did. His issue wasn’t even a traditional jerky hitch. It was more like he was possessed by a silky demon who pulled the ball to the left of his head before releasing. It was bizarre, especially for a righty. And for a no. 2 pick. And, pre-LeBron, for the player deemed the future of the Lakers.
The shots wouldn’t be falling if Ball hadn’t fixed his shooting form, and they really wouldn’t be falling if he were still hesitant to take them. There’s an immeasurable new confidence about Ball. I don’t know that he’ll ever be the kind of self-assured scorer that Damian Lillard or Russell Westbrook is, the type who blankly stares into the camera after ending a player’s career a second earlier. But this is the most commanding that I’ve ever seen Ball look:
He’s only 22, but Ball’s career has already had multiple iterations. The predraft stage, the LaVar stage, the Showtime-savior stage, the bust stage, the LeBron stage, the Pelicans stage, and now the Zion stage. He’s behind a superstar in Williamson and an All-Star in Brandon Ingram now, finally hitting his stride, finally being noticed for the right reasons. Earlier in the Mavericks game, before Mark Jones was celebrating Ball’s 3-pointer, he commented on a shot that didn’t go in. “A rare miss from deep for Ball,” he said, something that he surely never would have said only a year earlier. It was the best endorsement he could’ve given.