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Lonzo Ball is a divisive player in the NBA, though that divisiveness has worn away as his career has gone on. Much of it was centered around the fact that the No. 2 pick was not putting up the counting stats you’d expect a franchise player to do.
In reality, those stats will never come as Ball is not simply that type of player. Many pro-Ball supporters would point out how he can impact a game in many ways that don’t show up in the stat sheet. While it’s a convenient excuse, it’s also the truth.
But in lieu of just furthering that point without evidence, let’s dive into Friday’s blowout win over the Cavaliers and showcase some of those subtle plays Ball makes that don’t show up in boxscores and some plays that do.
Ball’s defense has been very good this season, and it’ll be highlighted a couple more times. But this play has less to do with defensive skill and more to do with instincts and awareness.
He positions himself on the 2-on-1 fastbreak to eliminate the pass and force Collin Sexton to the rim on his weaker left hand. Then, just before Sexton would shoot, he springs at him and swipes the ball away to save the bucket.
One of Ball’s specialties involves him helping rebound. He’s already a great rebounding guard who excels at getting in advantageous positions and not just cherry-picking long rebounds.
In this situation, for example, he gets in a good position for the board but rather than fight for the rebound, he tips it to Zion Williamson and allows him to take the ball moving forward with momentum, which eventually leads to a foul by Cleveland.
Ball’s terrific ball-hawking instincts allow him to read this play a split second before it happens. He realizes Sexton is in front of him, takes the risk and jumps the passing lane and eventually creates another possession and eventually a basket for New Orleans.
Ball has long had a reputation for playing fast and it’s often talked about how that compromises defenses. This, though, is an example of that. Ball pushes the basketball to the 3-point line, drawing the attention of all five defenders.
From there, he lays it off to Williamson, who makes an incredible series of moves to finish. Ball doesn’t get any credit for that, but that Jarrett Allen isn’t waiting on Williamson at the rim is a direct result of him having to step up and stop Ball from racing upcourt, giving Williamson just enough room for the tough and-one.
First, Brandon Ingram and Steven Adams both make terrific efforts on this play to keep the ball alive. If you slow it down and look, Ball’s eyes are already up before he catches the ball as he surveys the court, which allows him to immediately make a bullet pass to Williamson.
From there, again, Williamson does the hard part. His relentlessness ends in a layup eventually on his third try despite Allen defending all three attempts well.
Ball didn’t defend Sexton much on Friday despite Ball being the team’s best defender and Sexton being the Cavs’ best perimeter threat. The few occasions he did take him, he had success, including this sequence.
He cuts off Sexton multiple times on the first drive, stays on the ground on the shot fake and forces a pass. When Sexton gets the ball back, Ball cuts him off once more and then digs down to help force what should have been a turnover by Cleveland.
By not being on Sexton last night, Ball was able to play more of a free safety role off the ball, which may have been done by design. He starts off in the far corner, moves across the lane with his defender but keeps an eye on the ball and is ready to help on a potential cutter through the lane.
Then, he switches with Ingram, shoves him out toward Osman to let him know and then boxes out Allen for what should have been a rebound by the Pelicans.
On this sequence, it’s hard to fully explain what Ball does because it’s not on camera. Pelicans color commentator Antonio Daniels explains it well. Effectively, Ball noticed no Pelican was in the paint and with Allen likely to win this jump ball, it would have potentially created an easy bucket for Cleveland. Ball directs Adams to move to the other side to be better prepared defensively.
The last clip is another defensive one for Ball, this time on Damyean Dotson. With the shot clock running down, Ball does a great job of staying in front of Dotson without fouling before eventually cutting him off at the rim and forcing a bad, contested jumper that leads to a shot clock violation.
The best way to sum up Ball’s impact on the night is that, despite finishing the night shooting 1-of-7 from the field and 1-of-5 from the 3-point line, Ball finished with a team-high net rating of 60.5.
Single-game net ratings aren’t great barometers but it further shows the norm for Ball with the Pelicans this season. When Ball is on the court this season, the Pelicans have a net rating of 1.5, the highest net rating of any regular rotation player. When he’s off the court, their net rating plummets to minus-5.1, the lowest on the team by some margin.
Ball’s importance to the Pelicans is evident and only continues to show itself in advanced numbers and on the film, regardless if he’s scoring or not.