Lonzo Ball defends vs. Donovan Mitchell

Eric Bledsoe, Lonzo Ball looking forward to teaming up in Pelicans backcourt

by Jim Eichenhofer

One member of the duo is a 6-foot-1, 214-pound bulldog, built like an NFL running back and capable of harassing opposing ballhandlers all over the floor. The other is 6-6, 190, known for using his anticipation and long arms to pick off passes and unsettle offenses.

The New Orleans Pelicans may have traded one of the NBA’s premier backcourt defenders by dealing Jrue Holiday, but behind the duo of Eric Bledsoe and Lonzo Ball, they remain optimistic about their potential to improve upon a bottom-10 rating in defensive efficiency. Bledsoe is coming off a 2019-20 season in which he earned NBA All-Defense second-team honors, spearheading a Milwaukee squad that was the league’s stingiest, allowing just 102.5 points per 100 possessions. Two seasons ago, Bledsoe was NBA All-Defense first team for the Bucks, who also led the NBA in ’18-19 with a 104.9 rating.

“Eric is as good an on-ball defender as there is in the league,” new Pelicans head coach Stan Van Gundy said. “Certainly that’s where (success on defense as a team) starts.”

“As you saw last year with Lonzo, he’s such a disruptive defender,” guard JJ Redick said. “Eric was on the No. 1 defense in the league last season. So having those two guys at the point of attack will be huge.”

Bledsoe and Ball have only played against each other four times during Ball’s previous three NBA seasons, but Ball made a very positive first impression in just Ball’s second official game as a pro. On Oct. 20, 2017, Ball racked up 29 points in a win over Bledsoe’s Phoenix team, with Ball coming within one assist of a triple-double. That remains Ball’s career high in scoring, though he deposited 25-plus points three times last season between Dec. 29 and March 4.

“I’m excited,” Bledsoe said of pairing with Ball. “I think Lonzo is a great, talented player. He knows how to play on the ball or off the ball. He does whatever it takes to win. He doesn’t have to go out and score 30 points every night. He has to do what he does to make an impact on the game.”

“It’s probably going to be one of the fastest backcourts in the league,” Ball said. “That’s a plus. We’ll try to get into the ball (defensively) as much as possible and start the (fast) break.”

Last season, Ball and Holiday formed a strong backcourt duo, but it took time, partly because both players were sidelined by injury for separate stretches of six-plus games in November and January. That backcourt – and the New Orleans starting lineup overall – eventually became a major strength.

“Eric is a similar player to Jrue in many areas,” Pelicans Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations David Griffin said. “In terms of the way he approaches the game, there is a little bit of a difference. They are similar in their ability to create off the dribble and defend. So we anticipate that (Bledsoe and Ball) can work very similar together, to how Jrue and Lonzo did.”

Asked what makes Bledsoe a formidable defensive player, Ball noted that the Alabama native’s mentality is a major strength.

“His mindset is one thing,” Ball said. “And obviously his athletic ability – he can get into the ball, he’s very quick, very strong and his lateral movement is great as well. All of those things put together make a good defensive player.”

“Just his competitive nature, his athleticism at the guard spot,” Pelicans reserve wing Josh Hart said of Bledsoe’s defensive assets. “Obviously he’s explosive, he’s able to stay with guards, he has quick hands. He’s physical, so he’s able to take a bump on drives. It’s going to be really good for us to have him at the top. Everything kind of trickles down from him and being able to disrupt offenses, get turnovers and easy transition buckets.”

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