Jrue Holiday, Lonzo Ball excited about the possibilities while teaming up in Pelicans backcourt

by Jim Eichenhofer
@Jim_Eichenhofer

Point guards who set up teammates for shots first, then look for their own buckets later, are gradually becoming dinosaurs in the NBA. Many of the league’s most explosive scorers now play the “one” position, a group headlined by the likes of Steph Curry, Kyrie Irving, Damian Lillard, Kemba Walker and Russell Westbrook. Every draft seems to add to the list of potent point guards poised to put up 30-plus points on any given night.

There is at least one NBA city, however, where the pass-first point guard remains highly coveted: New Orleans.

As 11th-year veteran and Pelicans shooting guard Jrue Holiday pointed out recently, Alvin Gentry’s offensive system requires the point guard to distribute the ball, an approach that’s led to New Orleans becoming an efficient, unselfish team that wants to play at a fast pace.

“I feel like that builds chemistry,” Holiday said of the impact of point guards who focus on assists and getting teammates involved. “Maybe that was why back in the day, the point guards were more players who set people up, made the right passes, because they were kind of the head of the snake. Their role was to quote-unquote make everybody happy, get everybody into a groove. I feel like nowadays it is more of a score-first mentality. But we’re not sleeping on the pass-first (guards) here.”

Lonzo Ball is the latest point guard with an old-school approach to take the reins in the Crescent City. In recent years, distributing PGs such as Rajon Rondo, Elfrid Payton and Ish Smith have all experienced extremely productive seasons or stellar stretches while running Gentry’s offense. Holiday is looking forward to teaming up with Ball in New Orleans’ backcourt, with the third-year pro using some of his unique abilities to benefit the Pelicans. Ball averaged 6.4 assists and 6.2 rebounds in his two seasons with the Los Angeles Lakers, often capable of grabbing a board off the glass and immediately launching a fast break. Those skills will come in handy on a team that finished second in tempo (103.89 possessions per 48 minutes) in ’18-19.

“When you play at this pace, everyone has to eat for it to work,” Ball said, using the popular slang for every player on the court getting to touch the ball and shoot. “If you have one guy taking all of the shots, you’re obviously not playing very fast, because you have to slow it down and wait for him to get to his spot in the offense. But when you just want the best shot possible, a lot of different people are going to get the ball.

“(Gentry’s system is) a lot of running, so I think I’m going to fit in perfectly. We don’t have a lot of plays; it’s a free-flowing offense, which is great because you don’t limit guys to a certain set every time, which I like. Honestly, he just tells me to push it every time. That’s how I’ve played my whole life.”

Holiday is eager to see how Ball’s passing and pace impact the Pelicans and a roster filled with athleticism and youth.

“This system complements guys who like to pass and make the right play,” Holiday said. “To have a faster pace, the ball always moves faster than a player, so being able to pass ahead goes with what we want to do. We’ve seen it the last three years (one season at UCLA, plus two Lakers seasons) with how Lonzo can pass, whether it’s fullcourt or pretty much from anywhere. His vision is awesome – it’s like he has eyes behind his head. I definitely think it will benefit him, especially with Zion (Williamson) running the floor, (Brandon Ingram) running, Jahlil (Okafor), Frankie Flash (Jackson) and me. Guys love to run when they know they’re going to get the ball.”

As optimistic as Holiday and Ball are in terms of their pairing’s potential on offense, they seem just as enthusiastic about the other end of the floor. The 6-foot-4 Holiday was a first-team NBA All-Defense selection in ’18, then earned a spot on the second team last season. Meanwhile, the 6-6 Ball gives New Orleans even more size in the backcourt, allowing for the possibility of defensive switching, as well as a player adept at anticipating passes and coming up with steals (Ball led the Lakers with 1.7 steals per 36 minutes in ’18-19). With so many talented scoring guards across the NBA now capable of doing damage, it’s arguably never been more important to have multiple, capable backcourt defenders.

“In this day and age, I feel like guards have kind of taken over,” Holiday said, referring to how virtually every NBA team has a feared offensive player at the position. “It’s one of the toughest positions to defend. Sometimes you have two guards on one team (who are dangerous scorers), so it’s to our benefit to have both Lonzo and I (on defense) – we’ll definitely be able to share the load. Defensively we’re going to hound people and make it very uncomfortable.”

Ball: “I’m looking forward to it. We should be one of the better defensive backcourts in the league. We can both guard at least positions 1 (point guards) through 3 (small forwards) every night. I can pick up 94 feet (defending a ballhandler), and I know Jrue can. We can definitely cause havoc for people. We can switch whenever – it’s not like we have to stay with our same matchups. We’re versatile. I think we’ll do very well as a backcourt.”

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