What Is Lonzo Ball?

Published: October 30, 2019

Over the next year or two, the Pelicans have a few questions to answer. Most of them revolve around constructing a team that maximizes Zion Williamson. The organization will deny employing such a player centric approach to roster building, but the NBA is star driven league and at some point every organization is tasked with efficiently building around their star or stars. This idea maybe more in the background at this stage of the timeline, but I promise you, soon enough it will make its way to the forefront.

So given this expectation, and all teams’ inherent desire to create a contender, the Pelicans have one big question to answer regarding Lonzo Ball and his place on a Zion based contender.

Is Lonzo Ball A Point Guard?

Count me among the group hating traditional positional designations. The term point guard has less meaning to me than what a player actually does on the floor. But I would be remiss to say positions don’t matter to NBA players. Anthony Davis notoriously hates playing “center”. Jrue allegedly does not like being a “point guard”. With a position comes a certain set of expectations. Traditionally point guards have been lead ball handlers who orchestrate the offense from a pace and distribution standpoint. They read and react to defenses as they venture into the paint, keeping check of who is open and where a vulnerability lies. Nowadays many point guards are skilled enough to shoulder large scoring responsibilities as well, but that is not something that is a prerequisite for being a successful “point guard”.

So what am I really asking when I ask  is Lonzo Ball a point guard? The question is really two-fold. First, the Pelicans have to discover if Lonzo can develop into the role of a lead ball handler who can attack set defenses and create for others. Part of that process involves furnishing Lonzo with every opportunity both to grow and to fail in this role. The Pelicans will effectively have 2 years of direct experience with Lonzo before they have to make a contractual decision about him. They should utilize that time in developing him in ways they think will benefit the future of the organization in concert with the development of the other young pieces on this team. As time passes, the team will have a greater understanding of Lonzo as a player and his fit with the player Zion also grows into. 

Right now, Lonzo’s strengths are clear. He’s a heady playmaker in the open court, and this really cannot be understated. Always playing with his head up, Lonzo sees passing lanes materialize before opponents have even processed who their match up is. His size allows him to be an impactful rebounder and push off of missed shots. Defensively he creates havoc with his speed and size. But we know this about Lonzo. Just as we know his areas of improvement lie almost entirely on the offensive side. 

The initial reaction might be to say his shooting needs to improve. While shooting is probably the single most noticeable skill, I’m putting it in the “nice to have” category. I don’t believe that Lonzo needs to be a greatly improved shooter to become a successful “point guard” and apply pressure on defenses. 

What I do think the Pelicans would like to see from Lonzo is more aggression towards the paint and the rim. When the offense gets stale and teams slow the game down, Lonzo could greatly benefit the Pelicans offense by getting in the teeth of the defense and creating from the attention he draws. In order to do that, he needs to also be a credible threat to score at the rim. This means taking some attempts where he knows he won’t finish and taking some attempts where he knows he’ll be fouled.

The trend thus far in his career has not been promising. Lonzo has gone from averaging over 7 drives per game as a rookie to less than 4 with the Pelicans. The good news is, the sample for his career is still really small. His second year in the league shared the floor with LeBron James and that often causes players to adjust their game. The hope was Lonzo would return to something closer to his rookie play style after joining the Pelicans. While that hasn’t happened yet, Lonzo also hasn’t had a fully healthy roster to work with. His best pick and roll partner hasn’t played single game yet.

There also remains a possibility that Lonzo simply doesn’t develop into that player. With a fully healthy Pelicans roster, there are 3 players that supersede Lonzo in the half court creation hierarchy – Holiday, Ingram, and Williamson. In high leverage moments, the Pelicans will look to funnel the ball into the hands of their best players. This may reduce opportunities for Lonzo to show his mettle on the ball. 

This also doesn’t preclude the possibility that Lonzo is unable to become that player. It’s possible from both a skill ceiling perspective as well as a mentality perspective. Some players never develop the requisite footwork, handling, and strength to become high level on-ball creators. We don’t know if that is an issue with Lonzo yet, just as we don’t know if it’s a mental road block.

If Lonzo Isn’t A “Point Guard” Then What Is He?

If over the course of the next two years the Pelicans discover that Lonzo cannot assume the duties of a lead ball handler who can create in the half court, they will have to re-evaluate how the deploy him as a player. For starters, they will need another player to assume that role. More importantly, the will have to deploy Lonzo in manner that complements others.

The best way to do that is to let Lonzo be Lonzo. This means doubling down on his strengths. I put playmakers into two categories: creators and connectors. A creator functions more on the ball while a connector links teammates by getting to spots without the ball. Lonzo is one of the best connectors in the league. He has an innate sense of space and timing that allows him to quickly process decisions after he receives a pass. But by putting Lonzo off the ball, his role shifts more from a “point guard” to that of a “wing”. The Pelicans can get super creative in how they choose to utilize him offensively, even using him as a screener for the initiator and allowing him to playmake in the short roll. 

On the defensive end, Lonzo projects to be a high end disruptor. The Pelicans have already given him the freedom to push off of turnovers and rebounds. They can continue utilizing his versatility to defend a variety of opponents. Perhaps by distilling his role into a playmaking, defensive wing, the Pelicans can allow Lonzo to flourish by simply doing what he does best. Removing the title of “point guard” can reduce whatever preconceived expectations that come with it.

We’ve seen many players become valuable contributors by embracing a role that played to their strengths. Perhaps the best recent example, and a model that could be followed for Lonzo, is Andre Iguodala. Iguodala went from being a primary option in Philadelphia to transforming his career into one of the league’s best Swiss-Army knives. Golden State deployed Iguodala from the bench, tasking him to defend high profile players, disrupt opponents off the ball, and become a secondary creator for their stars. These are things Lonzo is already good at. They earned Iguodala a Finals MVP.

Looking Ahead

I cannot stress enough that the Pelicans have an abundance of time to figure out what to make of Lonzo Ball. Over the course of the next two years it will become clear one way or another how Ball fits with Williamson (and likely Ingram but that’s the next article) as a playmaker, Should he develop into a high level on ball creator, the Pelicans potentially have another star on their hands. If instead Ball is simply another version of Iguodala, the Pelicans still have a gem they can utilize for years to come. They just need to figure out who he is. Hopefully the league moves away from silly positional designations by then anyway. 

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