Lonzo Ball shooting improvement helping Pelicans become one of NBA’s most prolific offenses

SACRAMENTO – New Orleans teammates and coaches have frequently praised Lonzo Ball as a major factor for how the Pelicans rescued their 2019-20 season and still have a chance to reach the postseason. But perhaps the ultimate compliment for how the 6-foot-6 point guard has evolved occurs prior to every game, when the opposition prepares to face New Orleans.

“He’s become a guy who on scouting reports (must be accounted for as) a catch-and-shoot player,” Minnesota second-year head coach Ryan Saunders said prior to Sunday’s game, a 120-107 Pelicans victory. “His vision and what he sees from defenses is impressive. In their wins and when they go on runs, he’s had the ball in his hands. He’s accurate with how he delivers the basketball. He really helps that group.”

While Ball has always been an excellent passer, Saunders’ assessment of Ball’s outside shooting is particularly noteworthy, based on the UCLA product’s initial experience in the pros. A below-average three-point shooter in his two seasons with the Lakers (31 percent), Ball is in the midst of a scorching stretch from the perimeter, going 21/36 over the past four games (58 percent) beyond the arc. For this season, the 22-year-old is connecting on 38 percent of his attempts, including 44 percent since Feb. 1. That’s one reason New Orleans leads the NBA in scoring (119.4 points per game) over the same timeframe, with Ball’s prolific shooting drawing attention and opening up the floor for teammates.

“It’s huge,” wing and three-year NBA teammate Josh Hart said of the impact of Ball’s improved three-point accuracy. “Teams used to sag off him and (stay in) the paint, clogging up lanes that (Brandon Ingram), Jrue (Holiday) or myself would usually like to take. With him being able to shoot the ball really well – not just the last few games, but the whole season – it opens the court and gives us those lanes to get into the teeth of the defense and finish at the rim.”

Ball’s three-point tear has led to him scoring at least 16 points in five consecutive games, a stretch that began with a 19-point night vs. the Lakers on March 1. He’s shooting 54 percent from the field over those handful of contests.

“Zo is definitely coming into his own,” rookie forward Zion Williamson said after Ball’s 18-point game at Minnesota. “He’s breaking into a new shell. He’s been on fire from three, facilitating the offense, and whenever we need a bucket, he gets it. (His improved shooting) opens up a lot, especially when he and I are in a pick-and-roll situation. When he’s shooting like that, they don’t go under (the screen defensively). It creates more room for him and more space for me to roll to the basket.”

Ball’s transformation as a shooter can be credited to the significant and consistent amount of extra time he’s devoted to improvement, in sessions before and after practice with close friend Ingram and Pelicans assistant coach Fred Vinson. The work helped Ball tweak his form, which features him holding and releasing the ball in a better, more easily repeatable position.

“The way I shoot is completely different from how I used to,” Ball said of his technique, in a description that could also apply to his shot’s effectiveness. “(I’m) trying to be more consistent and keep the ball on the right side (of the body). I’m trying to hold my follow-through more – I had a tendency to drop it. Those are the two biggest things I’ve tried to work on.”

“He’s playing really well right now,” Pelicans fifth-year head coach Alvin Gentry said of Ball, who is also averaging 7.9 assists since Feb. 1, some on SportsCenter-worthy long-distance lobs to Williamson. “He’s running our team, doing well with the pace of the game. (Defenses) are going under (screens) and he’s really spent a lot of time working on his shot. Fred Vinson has done a great job with both he and (Ingram), with their shots and them shooting with confidence.”

“He’s been working his butt off every day before practice and after practice, getting up extra shots at night,” Hart said. “It’s been really good to see it pay off.”