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Lonzo Ball at career crossroads as his brother generates a buzz

The Pelicans guard and former No. 2 overall pick has improved, but is still trying to make a lasting mark in the league.

The future of Lonzo Ball in New Orleans remains very much up in the air.

Three years later, the NBA chatter is still abuzz about a player with a most appropriate last name, who is raising hopes in his city and also the volume on social media. And, speaking of elevation, he’s also being placed on the level of franchise savior — as premature as that might be.

Except in this case, it’s not orbiting around Lonzo Ball anymore. It’s now the younger sibling, LaMelo, who has singlehandedly made the Charlotte Hornets must-watch TV and who is swiftly collecting respect and Kia Rookie of the Year attention with every no-look pass.

The ongoing LaMelo-fication is a neat development and a welcome one to spice up an NBA regular season, and it’s enough to make folks forget how all this Ball business started. That other development in the family is intriguing, too. Because it’s not just about where Lonzo Ball’s been and where he’s at, but also where he’s headed. Nobody’s totally sure how to classify or quantify any of it.

In three seasons after Magic Johnson, of all people, predicted Lonzo’s jersey would someday hang in the rafters with the Lakers’ greats, Lonzo was traded and the hysteria he initially caused was downgraded. He’s the starting point guard for the New Orleans Pelicans, which is a vote of confidence, but the team didn’t offer him a rich rookie contract extension, which isn’t. His teammates and coaches speak fondly of him … all while the trade rumor pipeline is also shouting his name once or twice.

While LaMelo is generating the interest that was once reserved for him, what do we make of Lonzo here in the first pivotal intersection of a young career that’s taken a quieter turn?

Lonzo Ball had one of his best games of 2020-21 vs. Milwaukee

He’s obviously an NBA talent, but after 181 career games nobody’s quite sure if he’s on the path to being special or just good enough. He’s one of the main components of a rebuilding New Orleans team, yet clearly, the foundation belongs to Zion Williamson and Brandon Ingram.

It’s possible that Lonzo’s best fit is elsewhere. That would mean another relocation, especially if the Pelicans are unwilling to meet the asking price for an extension and would rather cut ties now and get something for him. That initial contract stalemate last December gives some juice to the trade possibilities floated lately.

About those trade trial balloons, Lonzo said: “I just stay the course. I’ve been playing basketball for a long time. I put a lot of work in and just try to play my game. That’s how I play. I just try to stay away from all the noise and just go out there and try to help my team win games.”

Lonzo and LaMelo Ball have realized their dream of playing in the NBA.

Curiously, he’s having the best stretch of his career, dropping hints that he’s finally turning the corner as a player and shedding some of the flaws that slowed his growth. As the Pelicans prepare for a Tuesday game with the Rockets, Ball is making more of an impact in games and also moments that ultimately decide games.

While this season, so far, has been somewhat of a disappointment for the 10-12 Pelicans, Ball is averaging 16.8 ppg, 5.8 rpg, 4.8 apg and 1.3 spg in wins (and 10.4 ppg, 3.0 rpg, 4.5 apg and 1.4 spg in losses). His best outing this season was 27 points, eight assists and only two turnovers in a win against the Milwaukee Bucks (and former teammate Jrue Holiday), and 20 points and nine rebounds against Malcolm Brogdon and the Indiana Pacers. Over the last seven games he’s shooting 49.1% on 3-pointers — evidence that his quirky, once-unreliable jumper has been reworked and improved.

Ball is taking 7.3 3-pointers per game, easily a career high and a necessary jump as well. Scouting reports have long urged defenders to give him as much space as possible.

Pelicans coach Stan Van Gundy said: “I push the need for him to take every open shot and to continue to work at being aggressive in attacking the basket and making plays. We need him to do both of those things in addition to organizing our team.”

It’s that gradual progression of Ball that has the Pelicans feeling confident with him. Shooting was his most glaring weakness and there’s more consistency and confidence now than in his three previous seasons (he’s shooting a career-best 50.6% on 2-pointers). His court vision remains sharp, although the Pelicans do run some of their offense through Ingram and Williamson.

Lonzo Ball is shooting 36.7% on 3-pointers this season.

“I don’t want to put a ceiling on him,” said Van Gundy. “I don’t want to say at 23 he’s anywhere near to what he can be. I think he’ll continue to get better. He’s just been consistently good, more solid, not taking chances.”

But the question remains: How solid and sold is New Orleans on him?

The Pelicans used their No. 1 pick, the 13th overall, on point guard Kira Lewis Jr. He’s not ready to take the reins now, but perhaps later. And while Ball’s shooting is on the uptick, it’s probably not good enough yet for him to play off the ball, at least not the majority of the time. Ball’s recent surge could be good news not necessarily for the Pelicans, but for the price he’ll fetch on the trade market. In that sense, he could be more valuable to them on another team.

The player drafted before Ball in 2017, Markelle Fultz of the Orlando Magic, had his contract extended (though not at a max rate). So did the player taken right after, Boston Celtics All-Star forward Jayson Tatum. So, too, did Sacramento Kings guard De’Aaron Fox — taken three spots later — whom Ball was once compared to. Players who aren’t immediately extended don’t always get tossed aside. Ingram wasn’t once he became eligible, but the Pelicans rewarded him last offseason. Still, it at least raises the possibility of a parting of the ways between Ball and New Orleans.

Would the Clippers, who have a non-playmaking starter in Pat Beverley, have enough goods (or the desire) to bring Ball back to L.A.? Suppose the Golden State Warriors want to add backcourt depth? What about the rebuilding Detroit Pistons, who just traded Derrick Rose? Here’s the catch: Any team trading for Ball would most likely want to sign him long-term, or else the trade makes little sense.

Speaking on local radio recently, Pelicans GM David Griffin said: “In his situation, it’s a good thing that people bring up your name because it means you’re coveted by other teams.”

Of course, the Pelicans can also sit tight, negotiate in the summer, or let Ball see what he can get as a restricted free agent. In these situations, everything’s on the table and all options are explored.

In the meantime, the hope is Ball will keep helping himself and the Pelicans. That happens with elevated performances, a firmer grasp of leading the club and continued upswing with his shot-making. In that scenario, everyone wins.

The goal for Lonzo, then, is to create as much chatter as LaMelo is getting, if possible. Amazingly, that family bar already has been raised.

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Shaun Powell has covered the NBA for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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