Lonzo Ball drives against Boston's Jaylen Brown and Kemba Walker

Lonzo Ball’s February improvement features more free throws, three-point accuracy

by Jim Eichenhofer

You can watch the game tape, or ask the player himself, but there may be no better piece of evidence to illustrate the difference in Lonzo Ball’s offensive approach lately than this eye-opening statistic: The guard has attempted 23 free throws over a dozen February games, after taking just three in 10 January contests.

That surge in assertiveness is one element of Ball’s dramatic turnaround in production this month, a stretch leading to across-the-board improvements by the fourth-year pro. It’s also resulted in his head coach praising the point guard for his role in New Orleans boasting the NBA’s No. 1 offense in February, scoring 122.7 points per 100 possessions.

“It’s fantastic the last 12 to 15 games since we got off that West Coast trip,” Stan Van Gundy said of Ball’s performance since mid-January, when the UCLA product missed three games due to a knee injury. “Part of it is he had been hurting. He got healthy. I think that was a big part of it. He’s shooting the ball really well. He’s playing more aggressively offensively, trying to get in the paint more, pushing the ball faster in transition. That’s all been good.”

Ball not only looks like a different player in terms of driving to the rim and drawing more whistles, but he’s also been infinitely more effective from the perimeter. He shot 36/112 (32.1 percent) from three-point range in December and January combined, but is 45/95 (47.4 percent) in February. Among all NBA players who’ve made at least 40 three-pointers this month, his percentage leads the league, just ahead of Zach LaVine (46.7) and Steph Curry (44.6).

“I’m definitely feeling better as far as my legs,” Ball said after Tuesday’s practice, while giving credit to the New Orleans training staff for helping him get right physically.

Ball pointed to the Pelicans playing with more tempo as another factor behind his recent strong play. He’s been a greater presence in the team’s transition attack lately, while also seeming to get more open threes on fast breaks and in halfcourt sets. Statistically, New Orleans has not increased its pace in February, but the Pelicans have been much more effective at generating fast-break points, ranking just 16th through Jan. 31 (11.9 percent of their points), but third over their last 12 games (12.8 percent).

“We started getting on the break more and playing with more pace,” Ball said, also referring to the activity and movement New Orleans has displayed in halfcourt offense. “Early on we were trying to find our identity, trying to get good shots. Lately we’ve been doing that.”

Perhaps just as importantly to the Pelicans, who’ve struggled on defense all season, Ball is coming off one of his best games at that end of the floor. Over the past two games, he has five steals and two blocks.

“In the last game against Boston, not only did he defend well on the ball, but he was the most active I’ve seen him off the ball,” Van Gundy said. “He helped us save a lot of points, a lot of shots.”

Ball has been drawing some of the toughest individual defensive assignments, trying to stay attached to Phoenix’s Devin Booker and other top backcourt opponents.

“I’m just trying to be there night in and night out for my team,” Ball said. “They look to me to kind of slow down the best player on the other team, between me and (Josh) Hart. I’m just taking that challenge, doing the best I can to make those guys have a tough time scoring. To make their life as hard as possible for that night.”

Ball has often served as a barometer for his team’s performance this season. When he plays well, the Pelicans tend to win games, as evidenced by their 10-0 record when he has a plus-minus of at least plus-7. New Orleans is 9-5 when he scores at least 15 points and 5-2 when he makes at least half of his shots, including victories over Milwaukee and Phoenix.

“He’s playing at a very high level,” Van Gundy said Tuesday, “and we need that.”

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