Lonzo Ball rises for a dunk vs. Utah

Lonzo Ball displays diversified, aggressive game in win over NBA-best Jazz

by Jim Eichenhofer

Whether it was due to a knee injury that hampered him early in the season, or the difficult process of learning exactly how to fit into a new offense, Lonzo Ball began 2020-21 by taking nearly all of his shot attempts from the three-point arc. Contrast that with Monday’s 23-point performance in a win vs. Utah – the 6-foot-6 point guard opened the night by throwing down a fast-break dunk, then pulled up for a mid-range floater. Sure, Ball would later sink three three-point shots, but he also tacked on two transition layups and mid-range jumpers apiece. The fourth-year pro finished 9/16 from the field, with his 11 two- point shots being the most he’s taken all season.

“It just seems like his work is paying off,” said forward Brandon Ingram, Ball’s constant workout partner in New Orleans. “It seemed like he felt comfortable and confident in everything he did tonight. He kind of mixed it up – he got to the basket, mid-range, shot the ball well from three. Also on the other end, he’s locked in on his guy. So it was just a complete game for him.”

Ball helped set the tone for the Pelicans by swatting a Donovan Mitchell layup 46 seconds into the game, one of Ball’s two blocks vs. Utah. The UCLA product’s greater assertiveness has been evident at both ends of the floor lately, including his frequency at drawing fouls. He’s shooting 24/28 on free throws over 16 games in February and March, after he’d only taken 12 in his first 15 games of the season. Another stat: Among the first 17 shots he took from the field this season, 16 were threes.

“He’s playing great,” Pelicans head coach Stan Van Gundy said. “But the real story with his increased aggressiveness is his improvement at the free throw line. Because now he’s got the confidence to attack. You’ve seen this with guys who struggle at the line, they don’t want to attack. We saw that with Lonzo last year, and even (early) this year. But he’s worked so hard – like he did on his three-point shooting with Fred (Vinson) – that his free throw shooting has gotten so much better. Before he was reluctant to use (his driving ability).”

“It does a lot for us,” forward Zion Williamson said, when asked about Ball’s recent impact. “Even in y’all’s words, (when the media says) Lonzo’s not shooting well, he’s still out there playing great defense, applying pressure on the defensive end. Nights like tonight and previous nights, when he’s shooting well and applying pressure, Lonzo’s a great player. I just wish he would get the full respect he deserves regarding that.”

The nights when Ball has not shot well are few and far between of late. Since Feb. 1, among the 10 NBA players who’ve made at least 50 three-pointers, Ball has the best shooting percentage (46.5) from beyond the arc, just ahead of Zach LaVine and Davis Bertans. If you include players with at least 40 makes over that timeframe, Ball is still fourth, only trailing Joe Harris, Bryn Forbes and Jamal Murray.

“I definitely feel good,” Ball said of his confidence and level of play. “I felt good last year, before corona took over everything. For me it’s just getting into rhythm. I feel I’m in that pocket right now.”

Ball’s best stretch of 2019-20 came right before play was halted in March by the pandemic. He and the Pelicans overall were understandably the subject of considerable criticism for their performance during the Orlando bubble, as New Orleans struggled to a 2-6 record and Ball shot 9/32 (28 percent) from three-point range. He only had one double-digit scoring game in his seven restart appearances.

As Williamson put it after Monday’s 23-point, seven-rebound, eight-assist performance by Ball, however, the first-time All-Star would like people to focus more on Ball’s positive impact, instead of dwelling on subpar games.

“I think he’ll have one game where he may not shoot as well as he did tonight, and people are so quick to remember that bad night, and not remember the five or six games where he played well,” Williamson said. “It’s tough, but Lonzo is great (dealing) with it. He doesn’t pay too much attention to it. As his teammates, we’re always there giving him confidence. I think he’s found a great balance with handling that.”

“I just play my game,” Ball said, when asked if critiques of his play bother him. “I’ve said before, I just really want to win games. That’s all it comes down to.”

“This is the most confident I’ve seen him in consecutive games throughout a time period,” Williamson said. “I’ve seen him play well a few times last year, but this year he’s doing it consistently, and that’s great for this team.”

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