The clock is ticking for Lonzo Ball. The Pelicans guard is now in his fourth season, and it’s still unclear what role makes sense for him in the NBA. His defense and basketball IQ will keep him in the league for a long time, but his streaky jumper and inability to threaten defenses make it hard to fit him in to most starting lineups. He’s really struggling on offense this season, averaging 11.9 points and 4.4 assists per game on just 38.7 percent shooting. New Orleans will have to make a decision on Lonzo this offseason when he enters restricted free agency. This is a prove-it season for the 23-year-old. And he’s not proving much right now.
Lonzo has been dealing with injuries, including knee soreness that kept him out of the past three games before he returned on Tuesday for the Pelicans’ 118-102 loss to the Jazz, in which he scored seven points on just 3-of-10 shooting. The game was a good example of what has gone wrong for him this season. Ball has become a 3-point specialist (59.7 percent of his shots come from behind the arc) who isn’t making many 3s (28.2 percent on 7.1 attempts per game). Defenses don’t respect his shot, even after he rebuilt his jumper last season, and he doesn’t do much else on offense when his shot isn’t falling.
New Pelicans coach Stan Van Gundy has taken the ball away from Lonzo and given it to Brandon Ingram, who has taken another meaningful step forward this season. It’s a big adjustment for Ball, who has been a point guard his entire life, but one that he will have to get used to if he’s going to stay in New Orleans. Ingram is too good to play off the ball. Everyone else on the perimeter has to fit their games around him. Another big change under Van Gundy is that the Pelicans aren’t playing at a breakneck speed anymore. They have gone from the fourth-fastest pace in the NBA last season to the fifth slowest this season. No player has been more impacted by that than Lonzo, who always has been at his best in a more freewheeling transition game.
Ball has regressed from last season, when his revamped jumper helped him to the best season of his career. That version of Lonzo, who shot career highs in 3-point attempts (6.3 per game) and percentage (37.5), would be valuable in Van Gundy’s system. He could be an elite 3-and-D wing who also moves the ball, even when he’s not the hub of the offense. The problem isn’t that he’s mired in a shooting slump—that happens to everyone. It’s that defenses don’t guard him unless his jumper is falling. Being a bad shooter can be a self-fulfilling prophecy in the NBA. The Jazz left Lonzo open on the perimeter on Tuesday and stopped short on closeouts when they did bother to contest him. His inability to make them pay (he shot 0-for-6 from 3) suffocated the Pelicans offense and made life harder for everyone around him:
The limitations in the rest of his game suggest Ball will always be haunted by his streaky jumper. One of the oldest rules of thumb is that a player whose jumper is off should get to the rim or the free throw line just to see a shot go through the net.
But Lonzo doesn’t do either consistently. He has taken only 19 shots at the rim and 12 free throw attempts in 10 games this season. His free throw rate (.101) is no. 115 out of the 122 players who have started at least 10 games. There are way too many possessions when he dribbles the ball aimlessly at the 3-point line without putting any pressure on the defense:
The combination of poor 3-point shooting and lack of aggression makes him a difficult fit with the other starters in New Orleans. Lonzo starts next to three other non-shooters in Eric Bledsoe, Steven Adams, and Zion Williamson, making it hard for the Pelicans’ offense to function in the half court. They are no. 28 in the NBA in 3-point attempts (30.1 per game) and no. 29 in 3-point percentage (32.7). Ingram himself said “we need to shoot more 3s” after Tuesday’s loss, the Pelicans’ sixth defeat in seven games.
One possible fix for the Pelicans would be breaking up the starting backcourt of Ball and Bledsoe, whose games don’t complement each other. Both are elite defenders who struggle to space the floor and score in the half court. There are reasons to favor each for the starting position. Bledsoe is the better scorer and more disruptive on-ball defender, while Lonzo is significantly bigger and a more versatile defender who at least has the potential to become a floor spacer. Defenses may never respect Bledsoe from behind the 3-point line after all of his playoff flameouts with the Bucks.
Lonzo should probably get the nod over Bledsoe because of age. This season is more about player development than playoff contention for the Pelicans, who are no. 12 in the West with a 5-8 record. They likely expected to take a step back after trading Jrue Holiday to the Bucks this offseason for a king’s ransom of future draft picks. The goal this season is to figure out which players make sense long term around Ingram and Zion. They need to know what they have in Lonzo before his rookie deal is up. He signed with Klutch Sports in the offseason and is unlikely to come cheap.
But the cost of paying Lonzo might be less than the opportunity cost of playing him so many minutes. The Pelicans have talented young guards pushing for playing time. Nickeil Alexander-Walker, the no. 17 pick in last year’s draft, thrived in place of Lonzo when he was sidelined. He has the opposite problem in that he can be too aggressive on offense at times, but he’s a better 3-point shooter (35.6 percent from 3 on 4.1 attempts per game) who’s not afraid to attack the rim. Alexander-Walker even averages more drives per game (6.8) than Lonzo (5.6) despite playing far fewer minutes (20.1 per game compared to 32.4). The second-year guard had a career-high 37 points against the Clippers last week:
The other youngster to watch is rookie point guard Kira Lewis Jr., the no. 13 pick in this year’s draft. Lewis has shown flashes of potential in limited minutes. He’s one of the fastest guards in the NBA, and has an unusual combination of speed, shooting, and playmaking ability. He averaged 18.5 points and 5.2 assists per game on 45.9 percent shooting at Alabama last season while shooting 36.6 percent from 3 on 4.9 attempts.
It’s not that Alexander-Walker or Lewis are likely to turn around the Pelicans’ season. It’s that the franchise needs to figure out what those two can do if the team falls out of the playoff picture. Lonzo is on the other end of that process. He’s had time and opportunities to develop already. Being the no. 2 pick in the 2017 draft doesn’t mean much in 2021. At this point, stardom is out the window. Lonzo is on a different track than LaMelo, who’s thrived so far as a rookie. Now the goal for the eldest Ball brother is to find a role that allows him to contribute to a winning team. There’s still time for him to figure it out in New Orleans if he can become a consistent shooter. But he’s gone from promising youngster to streaky veteran trying to hold off other promising youngsters. It gets late early in the NBA. Lonzo might become a journeyman if he’s not careful.