The Zion-Lonzo connection has the Pelicans — and the NBA — eager for more

ON THE SECOND day of the New Orleans Pelicans’ training camp in September, the media was permitted to observe only one play — and what a play it was.

Lonzo Ball stood on the sideline preparing to inbound with Zion Williamson at the elbow closest to him. Williamson quickly went into motion.

After faking a screen on Frank Jackson, Williamson instead darted toward the basket. Ball launched a pass at the rim, but it was slightly off, hitting the backboard as Williamson began his ascension.

It didn’t matter. Williamson grabbed the ball and dunked it.

“Yeah, that wasn’t the best pass,” Ball said at the time, “but you saw what he did with it. It’s really hard to throw him a bad lob.”

It was the beginning of a now-promising relationship — one that has been put on hold twice: first, by the knee injury that cost Williamson the first 44 games of this season, then by the coronavirus pandemic that forced the league to suspend operations last month.

The instant chemistry between Williamson, the franchise’s great hope, and Ball, a former No. 2 overall pick looking to make his mark on the league, has tantalized New Orleans and its fans and given a peek at what the team’s future could look like once play resumes.

“We think the fit is really, really good,” Pelicans executive vice president of basketball operations David Griffin said, before admitting, “I didn’t think it would look quite like this this quickly.”

BALL AND WILLIAMSON have shared the court for just 437 minutes in 19 games this season. But they’ve spent far more time together, forming a bond shortly after Ball arrived in a trade last summer from the Los Angeles Lakers. The two frequently posted on social media about joking around with each other before training camp got underway. That chemistry continued to grow as the two spent time together in the training room while rehabbing injuries in November.

Once they actually got on the court, they quickly proved to be one of the NBA’s most effective partnerships. Ball averages three assists to Williamson per game, and only two duos in the NBA connect more often on a per-game basis: Trae Young to John Collins (3.6) and LeBron James to Anthony Davis (3.2). Three of those four players are All-Stars.

When Williamson and Ball are on the court at the same time, the Pelicans have a 114.6 offensive rating and a 99.4 defensive rating. That plus-15.2 net rating ranks fifth in the West among duos who have played at least 400 minutes.

“Z is really a different type of talent,” Ball said on teammate JJ Redick’s podcast on April 13. “I never really played with a guy like him before. He complements my game tremendously. I’m just happy to be with him.”

Though the sample size is small, the production has been exactly what the Pelicans hoped for when they paired Williamson, a once-in-a-generation finisher, with Ball.

“Zo was a guy who was a great passer who isn’t overly ball-dominant,” Griffin said. “Because of the fit with [Brandon Ingram] and Zion, we knew there’d be some ball-dominance there. He was the perfect fit to exploit what those guys did well and to complement them.”

That fit was on full display on March 8, when the Pelicans were in Minnesota for what would turn out to be their last game before the NBA suspended its season. In the first quarter of an afternoon matinee, the Timberwolves’ D’Angelo Russell put up a layup to tie the score. Before the ball had even dropped through the basket, Williamson began streaking down the floor to wreak havoc.

Ball took an inbounds pass from Derrick Favors and quickly looked up court, where Williamson — more than 60 feet away — was already two steps ahead of Timberwolves center Naz Reid. So, from just outside the opposing 3-point line, Ball let it fly.

Williamson caught the pass on the other end, right where he needed to flush it home for a slam. Not even a minute and a half later, the duo did it again.

The two passes measured 64.7 feet and 51.5 feet, according to Second Spectrum data. It marked the first time since the company began collecting data on lob passes (2013-14) that one player assisted on two 50-foot lobs in one game and that one player finished two 50-foot lobs in the same game.

Add that to a 56.9-foot lob on Feb. 2 against Houston, and they are the first duo with three such connections since Second Spectrum started tracking.

“Honestly, sometimes I don’t even think he’s going to throw it, but then he just throws it,” Williamson said following the Timberwolves game. “I’m like, ‘All right, let me try and go get it.’ He does a great job even though they’re from so far away. He just puts it, like, in a spot like he’s throwing a lob from the close elbow. He puts it in the perfect spot, and I just go get it.”

As a spectator when the lobs go down, All-Star point guard Jrue Holiday said the chemistry between the two seems “effortless.”

“They just have this connection,” Holiday said. “It’s kind of like a quarterback and receiver. It’s like, where he throws it, I’m not saying Zion can’t jump out the gym, but he places in the right place, Zo does. I love to see it.”

The connections aren’t an accident. Ball said the duo first started practicing the full-court lobs when the entire team was scrimmaging just before training camp opened in September. But he didn’t exactly tell Williamson the passes were coming.

“I knew I could throw it,” Ball said, “I just wanted to see if he could catch it.”

How’s that worked out?

“I don’t think he’s missed one yet.”

WILLIAMSON MADE HIS NBA debut on Jan. 22. Since then, Ball has been playing some of the best basketball of his career, averaging 13.1 points, 8.4 assists, 7 rebounds, 1.8 steals and nearly a block per game. He shot 45.7% from the field and 43.2% from deep over that 20-game stretch.

It’s the most fun he has had in the NBA, perhaps in part because it’s the healthiest he’s been in his three NBA seasons.

“It’s the most freedom I’ve had,” Ball told ESPN last month. “Just trying to do what I can, I’m out there 35 to 40 minutes a night now.”

Ball struggled to start the season while nursing an ankle sprain that prevented him from having any summer workouts, and then missed six games in November due to a strained adductor. Griffin said that in mid-December, Ball started changing his routine in the weight room and started to lift more on game days. It made him feel more explosive, Griffin said. In his last five games before the league’s suspension, Ball took it to another level, averaging 20.8 points, 7.8 assists, 7.8 rebounds and 2.2 steals while pushing his shooting averages to 53.5% and 51.2% from 3-point range.

Griffin credited assistant coach Fred Vinson for Ball’s improved shooting.

“That’s made him an even better complement,” Griffin said. “I think we’d hoped [the fit] would be, but I think it’d be disingenuous for anybody to say they thought it’d look like that that fast.”

Playing with a lob and post-up threat such as Williamson has made Ball’s game “very easy,” Ball said.

“Whether it’s pick-and-roll or throwing lobs for him to go get it, he requires a lot of attention on the offensive end, so he frees up a lot of shots for the other guys, including myself,” Ball said. “It’s been a lot of fun playing with him on both sides of the ball.”

Ball is eligible for an extension this offseason — whenever that might be — but given the uncertainty with the future of the salary cap, he might end up deferring any contract decisions until the following summer, when he would become a restricted free agent. Ingram, a 2020 All-Star, will be a restricted free agent this summer, but the Pelicans have indicated they plan on bringing him back for the long term.

With those two, along with Williamson, the Pelicans believe they have a solid core moving forward — one that was ahead of schedule, as New Orleans was just three games out of the playoffs when the season was shut down.

“We look at them as just now scratching the surface of what they can do,” Griffin said. “The thing excites me the most about their future is that they are so excited about one another. They see the potential of something special between them.”

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